Competition intensifies in video games

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The platform wars have begun . . . again. Hold on to your wallets.

The first-ever Electronic Entertainment Expo -- or E3, the loud and lively convention that helped kill the summer Consumer Electronics Show -- this month conveniently provided the battleground for the initial skirmishes in what would be another expensive test of wills among video-game companies.

New-kid-on-the-block Sony made the most noise by challenging top dogs Sega and Nintendo while virtually ignoring 3DO and the Atari Jaguar. With its impressive new CD-based PlayStation, Sony hopes to divide the loyalties of gamers and grab a large slice of the industry's $10 billion pie.

Striking first, Sega took the offensive by hitting the street a month early with its new 32-bit Saturn system. Priced between $399 and $449, Sega got a 3 1/2 -month head start on Sony and nearly a year's jump on Nintendo in introducing a new generation of arcade-quality hardware.

Initially available only at Toys R' Us, Electronics Boutique, Software Etcetera and Babbages chains, the CD-based system comes with Virtua Fighter and a video sampler of 20 other new games.

Sony's much-anticipated PlayStation won't become available in America until Sept. 9, but retailers here applauded the announcement that it would undercut Saturn by at least $100. It will launch with Ridge Racer, Mortal Kombat III and Tekken. It is Sony's first foray into the lucrative, if sluggish, video-game market. The company promises a $40 million marketing campaign, with cross-promotions in Sony theaters and Blockbuster stores.

Both Saturn and PlayStation already are available in Japan, where more than 1 million units have been sold in less than six months.

Nintendo will introduce its 64-bit Ultra system in the United States next April, after a December launch in Japan. Despite the delay, company executives appeared optimistic about the prospects for new 16-bit games Killer Instinct and Donkey Kong Country II: Diddy's Kong Quest -- both originally planned for Ultra 64 -- and its 3-D Virtual Boy handheld system, which features 32-bit technology.

Nintendo is betting that the 17 million people who already own Super NES will be willing to wait a few months for the $250 Ultra system while enjoying the enhanced technology in its new titles. As an arcade favorite, Killer Instinct has recorded about 500 million plays since its introduction; Donkey Kong Country, which premiered last year, helped lift the 16-bit market from its doldrums, selling 7.5 million units.

Even though their 32-bit games target adolescent boys, with such staple themes as martial arts, auto racing, target-shooting and sports, Sony and Sega appear to be counting on a maturing of the market for future success. It isn't likely that many pre-teens can afford the $300 to $400 outlay for a new system.

Nintendo says its audience will continue to be boys and girls 8 to 15 and, as such, it is offering more role-playing titles.

Not surprisingly, each company bragged about having the superior product.

But, while Saturn and PlayStation made noteworthy debuts, neither company landed a knockout punch. Nintendo, through its Silicon Graphics partner, offered only an enticing whisper of Ultra's range yet it was enough to leave retailers and gamers anxious to see more.

In their presentations to retailers and reporters, the chief executives of the Big 3 echoed similar themes, however.

They concurred that the new technology would provide an "immersive," arcade-like environment for gamers, thanks to advanced 3-D renderings, surround sound and 360-degree actions. Character movement has become noticeably faster and more fluid, with players positioned closer to "the street."

Despite sizable inroads into their turf, the CEOs downplayed the threat to their business from computer-based CD-ROM platforms. They argued that, because PCs aren't designed strictly for gaming, dedicated systems would continue to provide greater realism and speed than desk-top computers.

They also conceded that the battle for customers will be costly. Sega's Tom Kalinske said combined marketing costs for the major companies in 1995 could approach $250 million, with an additional $100 million being kicked in by retailers.

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