Video-game makers are gearing up for hardware battles to win over players

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If there's a teen-ager in the house, video game makers want control of your television.

The high-speed graphics, movie-quality sound and realistic video clips in computer games have raised players' expectations. And at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles recently, giants such as Sega, Nintendo and Sony rose to meet the challenge.

After selling the same basic video-game hardware for five years, major manufacturers have developed a much-improved generation of game consoles offering about 100 times the computing power of the earlier machines.

The new machines cost as much as $400 -- twice as much as older hardware -- and require new games on CD-ROM or cartridges to work. All this comes in time to challenge shoppers this Christmas: If they don't choose a successful video game console, the best games will be made for other machines, leaving them on the sidelines.

The best-promoted new machines are from industry stalwarts Sega and Nintendo as well as video-game newcomer Sony Corp. In addition, a half-dozen other companies, such as 3DO and Atari, offer game units that either have not sold well or have little chance of making it big, experts say.

In this $6 billion industry, the battle for consumers is intense. Those watching call it the Platform Wars.

"While we know there's a staggering amount of activity coming in this field, no one knows what the landscape will look like in five years," says Doug Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association. "Nor can we even guess which players will be left standing."

Since the late 1980s, video games have been based on 16-bit processors, meaning that designers have limited color and graphics capability. Consequently, backgrounds often are cartoons with little detail and characters are roughly drawn and have jerky motions.

But players are demanding the high complexity, digital sound effects, sharp graphics and seamless backgrounds they see on TV and in movies. Manufacturers responded with faster processors, creating games that have the same quality speed and graphics as a PC with a Pentium processor.

Sega and Sony call theirs 32-bit processors; Nintendo will offer one of the same quality but calls it a 64-bit processor.

Sega calls its machine Saturn, Nintendo's is the Ultra 64, and Sony has its PlayStation. The Saturn and PlayStation use special CD-ROMs, while the Ultra 64 will continue to use cartridges.

The new machines come at a critical time for the video game industry. Sales are flat, with multimedia computers stealing some older users. And, despite a lot of discussion of broadening the market, most players are teen-age boys who crave better graphics and special effects than the current machines offer.

Industry experts are counting on the new platforms to spark new growth and push annual video-game-related sales to $8 billion within three years.

The battle among the three big manufacturers is shaping up to be much bloodier than the games they offer. At the convention two weeks ago, Sega struck first by unexpectedly moving up its release date from Sept. 2.

Although only 10 game titles are available, Sega expects 50 titles to be released by Christmas and to sell 600,000 units by then.

Sony, committed to its release date of Sept. 9, cut the suggested retail price of the PlayStation to under $350, less than the Saturn.

Meanwhile, Nintendo fought hard to convince retailers it wasn't ZTC dead in the water, despite postponing the release of the $250 Ultra 64 until April 1996.

"We've got 16 million game players out there with our SNES [the 16-bit Super Nintendo Entertainment System]. We're not about to abandon them, and they're not ready to give up their systems just yet," says Peter Main, vice president of marketing.

In fact, Nintendo is still making games for its older game systems, so players will have lots of choices. But the loss of the Christmas sales this year for the new Ultra 64 machines didn't sit well with some merchants.

"You blew it when Sega came into the market, and you're blowing it now," a store owner from Chicago yelled at a Nintendo executive on the trade show floor. He refused to give his name. Sega was the first to introduce a 16-bit machine and has consistently led that market.

If the contest turns on the games and not the technology, then all the players are ready on that front, too.

Nintendo is going back to the well once again with a sequel to Donkey Kong Country. This time, the game features the baby gorilla from the first game.

For those intent on blood, Nintendo has the hand-to-hand fighting game Killer Instinct.

Sony and Sega are eager to show off the capabilities of their new machines. Both will have fighting games with more realistic carnage, Mortal Kombat 3 for the PlayStation, Virtua Fighter for Saturn.

But the more impressive titles are game console versions of arcade and PC titles. The nonviolent Myst will be out for Saturn, and arcade favorite Ridge Racer is ready for PlayStation.

"The games are there, the hardware is there and the interest is out there -- believe it," says Sega's chief executive, Tom Kalinske. "Now it's time to see who wins the battle."

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