High Definition Comes To Videogames at E3

This year's E3 blast in Los Angeles in mid-May offered conclusive proof of why the videogame industry can claim its revenues of about $12 billion are "bigger than Hollywood."

Imagine the simultaneous sounds of a jackhammer and chainsaws. And a chorus of dental drills. Plus a rocket launch and a supersonic fighter jet flyover, accompanied by the squealing giggles of a gaggle 12-year-old girls. Add the blare of every heavy metal band ever recorded.

Put them all together, and you're still nowhere near the din at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, better known as E3, the videogame extravaganza where sounds sometimes overwhelm the spectacular sights and interactivity of the thriving videogame industry.

This year's E3 blast in Los Angeles in mid-May offered conclusive proof of why the videogame industry can claim its revenues of about $12 billion are "bigger than Hollywood." The sheer frenzy about new consoles, PC and networked games--especially MMOGs (massive multiplayer online games) --plus the growing trill of mobile entertainment services adds up to an entertainment bonanza.

At the most fundamental levels, the TV industry is confronting the burgeoning videogame industryin several ways. Contention for eyeball time is severe, especially when those 40 or 50 million consoles (Xbox, PlayStation, GameCube and earlier models) are attached to TV monitors that are not being used for conventional program viewing. The TV sets themselves--especially new digital monitors--are an essential ingredient in the newest immersive, graphics-rich titles.

Not surprisingly, Hollywood is still trying hard to find the formula to leverage its story-telling skills onto the vitality of the new videogame platforms. As competitive publishers point out, the big studios have made expensive blunders in past efforts to join the game parade. But that didn't stop NBC-Universal, Warner Bros. and others from launching their latest assaults during E3. Not to mention Sony (owner of several movie studios and TV production houses), whose new PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Portable, (which can also play mini-sized DVDs) were among E3's highlights.

Indeed, E3's loudest buzz was about the arrival of three next-generation game platforms, which are triggering a frenzy of content development.

Microsoft Xbox 360 will be the first on shelves, probably by early autumn. It will handle dual-layer DVDs and include a WiFi networking as well as a built-in Ethernet connection.

PlayStation 3 is due out next spring, and Sony offered limited glimpses of the product, which will run Blu-ray high-capacity DVDs and also include WiFi and Ethernet connections as well as Bluetooth wireless links for up to seven controllers.

Nintendo Revolution, a sleeker device than the company's previous GameCube, will use a new IBM processor code-named "Broadway," which has at least double the power of previous models. The company has not indicated when Revolution will hit the market. Nor were prices listed for any of the new consoles, although analysts agreed that the upgraded units will probably sell for about the same initial prices as their predecessors, i.e. less than $300.


Although you often couldn't hear what the booth sales personnel were pitching, you could easily see the rapture with which fans--especially the vast youth component of E3's 70,000 attendees--absorbed the games' sounds and sights.

Among the attractions, albeit somewhat limited, was high-definition video, which will be part of Xbox 360 and Sony PS3. Both devices will also generate widescreen displays if they are attached to widescreen monitor, a feature that some analysts predict will spur the sales of such monitors.

Reinforcing that expectation are retail deals such as the one Microsoft and Samsung unveiled--a cross-promotion in which Xbox 360 games will be displayed on Samsung HDTV monitors in 25,000 stores worldwide.

While big-screen presence fits the ever more lifelike graphics and video of the newest games, there is also a push for small-screen gaming--fueled by PSP's success. Games that can be played on mobile phones and other portable devices are a growing part of the equation--with some publishers promising their products can be ported onto whatever platform the player wants to use. For now, there are graphics limitations on the smallest portable devices, but the enthusiasm of the market suggests that audiences will find a way to play if their devices are ready for it.

In some of E3's quieter venues, industry executives reflected on directions for the maturing games market.

Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Entertainment Software Association, which runs E3, urged developers "to shatter negative stereotypes" and "to resist the temptation to narrowly target the growing 'mature' segment of the gaming audience." Lowenstein also urged producers to create better story lines and more socially conscious plots.

At Digital Media Wire's conference in suburban Washington, D.C., about a month after E3, several panelists reflected on the fallout from the loud Los Angeles tradeshow.

Michael Vorhaus, managing director of Frank N. Magid Associates, a New York, N.Y.-based media research firm, showed new data that underscored the growing diversity of the videogame audience. It is no longer just the stereotyped adolescent males market. Vorhaus's data pointed to spikes in use among males in their 30s and also in young women--especially those in their late 20s and 30s.

Indeed, the games audience is as diverse as the games themselves, with some demographics (such as young mothers) leaning toward casual usage of quizzes and non-competitive games, while young (and some older) males still favor the intensity of graphics-rich programs. The diversity--or more accurately, divisions--of the industry also stem from the various platforms. MMOGs (the multiplayer online games) are less likely to include HD graphics in the immediate future, according to a consensus of the Digital Media Wire games panel. But that won't hinder the avalanche of intense visuals from the Xbox 360, PS3 and other CD or DVD-based games.

Story telling factors also play a major role in the next generation of games.

"As you're able to create more cinematic experience, it will lead to more interactive entertainment," said Ralph Rivera, vice president and general manager of America Online Games. He cited the emerging creation of story lines "that make you laugh and cry"--not just blast and speed--as a factor in which "Hollywood has an advantage."

But Rivera warned that Hollywood's presence may "just drive up the costs" of games. Other panelists acknowledged that, as game development costs climb toward $25 million per title, payback becomes more challenging.

Despite such hurdles, videogames developers are finding even more reasons to diversify their offerings and seek a greater--and more visible role (if that's possible)--on the entertainment landscape.

And that's a reason for the videogames industry to make plenty of noise.