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The buzz: Console games gain edge over PCs

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LOS ANGELES - Americans love playing games. But the action has moved from the kitchen table to the television screen and computer monitor.

Cutting-edge technology is making console and computer games look better than ever, but the content of the more than 1,250 titles scheduled for release this year and next looks decidedly familiar: lots of shooting, crashing and smashing, and virtually nothing innovative aimed to appeal to girls or women.

No one inside the $6 billion-a-year gaming industry seemed to be complaining, though.

The biggest buzz among participants in last week's Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, the game industry's huge annual trade show, was whether console games might eventually kill the PC game market, which for years many thought would wipe out the console industry. Remember the Sega Genesis?

Over the past year, the four major game industry players, as well as some smaller hand-held console makers, have either introduced or announced plans for consoles with Internet access, as well as e-mailing and software downloading capabilities.

The appeal of multiplayer interactive gaming is huge and is only expected to increase, said Doug Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association, which promotes the electronic game industry.

A third of all U.S. homes already have consoles, according to the trade association. More than 23 million have Sony PlayStations, 13 million have Nintendo 64s, and millions more are expected to upgrade to the PlayStation 2 when it is released on Oct. 26.

Sega's Dreamcast console, featuring stunning graphics and a fast modem, was released last fall and has already sold more than 2 million units in the United States.

Sony's highly anticipated PlayStation 2, also to be equipped with high-speed Net access, will hit the market in time for the Christmas buying season.

Both Microsoft, a newcomer in the console industry, and Nintendo, creator of the multiconsole smash hit Pokimon, intend to introduce game machines sometime in 2001. Even small hand-held devices such as the NeoGeo and the Cybiko will soon access the Web.

While traditional game favorites such as Monopoly, Scrabble and Risk have gone electronic, it's the fighting, sports and racing games that now rule supreme. Even hunting and fishing titles that re-create the thrill of landing the big one without the blood or smell are big sellers. Considering the titles previewed at E3, consumers should expect no slowdown in such titles on store shelves.

The Star Wars movie series remains a favorite game theme, as do popular television shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Simpsons, Wheel of Fortune and Arthur. Many of the stars that originally appeared in movies and TV shows now receive small fortunes for appearing in games, many of which hit the marketplace soon after a film is released.

And then there's Nintendo's Pokimon, which has sold 17.3 million units since it was introduced in 1998 and had the top five selling titles last year for both the Game Boy and Game Boy Color. Pokimon is also the top syndicated kid's TV show, one of Hasbro's most popular toy lines, the best-selling trading card game and the subject of a second motion picture, to be released in July.

Nintendo hopes to continue cashing in on all the Pokimon hoopla, too. This fall, the Pokimon universe expands with the arrival of 100 more monsters to capture in two new Game Boy Color games: Pokimon Gold and Pokimon Silver.

At the same time, the company will launch Pokimon Pikachu 2, a virtual pet that kids can walk. New toys, trading cards and hundreds of other products are also on the drawing board.

Some, including the Interactive Digital Software Association's Mr. Lowenstein, say the electronic game industry has nowhere to go but up. He predicts that the industry will soon overtake movies and television as the most popular type of home entertainment.

"Given a choice between the passive experience of watching TV and playing video games with the family in the living room, increasingly people are choosing games," Mr. Lowenstein said.

In fact, a recent survey conducted for the software association by Peter D. Hart Research Associates Inc. found that 36 percent of the heads of U.S. households count video and computer games as their primary form of entertainment, double the 19 percent that picked television.

"Games are emerging as the dominant form of entertainment because they are personal and immersive," Mr. Lowenstein said.

The same survey also concluded that 145 million Americans - 60 percent of those ages 6 and older - take part in some form of interactive entertainment. On average, the typical gamer today is 28 years old, and 43 percent are female.

"When the [electronic] game industry started [28 years ago], the kids that played those games are now in their 30s and 40s," Mr. Lowenstein said.

One of this year's hit PC games is The Sims, in which the player micromanages the lives of a household - and sometimes several households. This summer, the families will be able to choose from more things to buy and different careers to pursue, as well as the possibility of romantic trysts in an add-on called The Sims Livin' Large.

The Sims idea will be taken to a grander scale next year with the release of Simsville, where the player rules over a small town.

To make it flourish, the player needs to have the townsfolk make friends with one another.
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