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Video Games and You

By Oliver Chin     -

Reprinted with permission by the author



Racking up $6 billion in US software sales in 2000 and promoting a new console cycle, the video game industry is running on all cylinders. The size of its main annual show, the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), reflects how consumer interest in the "interactive entertainment industry" is at an all time high. Held at the Los Angeles Convention Center from May 17-19, 2001, E3 showcased new hardware launches from Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo that continue to drive everyone forward to the nirvana of evergreen brand names and licensed merchandise.



Though comic retailers don't concentrate on selling video games, more products than ever are being influenced by them. Whether it's fan enthusiasm for a X-men or Gundam Playstation2 (PS2) title, the toys from Street Fighter or Resident Evil, or the anime adaptation of Tekken, retailers have to pay attention to two developments. First, publishers will sell or license their content increasingly from video game properties to benefit from higher consumer recognition. Second, consumers (the profile of video gamers and comics readers are similar) will want to buy the ever increasing range of items spawned from their favorite games, and if you don't provide the licensed merchandise, they will search for them elsewhere. So, in that spirit, this column centers on the macro trends you may be able to benefit from.



Keep on the Platform



With 60,000 attendees from over 450 companies, everything at E3 still boiled down to the moves of the dominant platform makers. There are still three kahunas. But in the past year Sega dropped from the pack to be quickly replaced by the deep-pocketed Microsoft. The new gorilla on the block, Microsoft has pledged $500 million in marketing support to make its "Xbox" launch on November 8, 2001 a blockbuster (the Japan launch will follow, with the European debut in Q1 2002). With 27 game developers (including Sega) in its stable, Microsoft is well on its way to extending its software dominance from PCs and the Internet, to now home gaming consoles.



However, Nintendo will beat Microsoft to the punch by launching its Gamecube system on a November 5, 2001 for $199 (September 14 in Japan). Nintendo plans to boost the sales of the Gamecube with its new Game Boy Advance, the 32-bit version of the Game Boy. Launching on June 11 in the US (June 22 in Europe), the Advance unit itself can be used as Gamecube controller. Priced at $99.99 with 50% more screen size and 500% more on-screen colors, the Advance supports four-player gameplay and backward compatibility with the software for the 110 million Game Boy systems sold since 1989.



Having launched the PS2 last year, Sony is holding its ranks against the fresh onslaught by rivals. Aiming to manufacture 20 million PS2 consoles (plus 10 million PS Ones) during this fiscal year (ending March 2002), Sony announced that Cisco will develop an internet protocol for PS2's to access the web. Timing also for a November 2001 US release, Sony will sell a $39.95 network adapter that combines a digital Ethernet connection with an analog V90 modem, and permits web access with simultaneous connection to multiple home devices. Partnering with America Online, Sony will also sell a hard disc drive that is configured to startup AOL features like instant messaging, e-mail and chat. By networking computer entertainment with web browsing through a Netscape browser, Sony hopes to keep pace with the growth of online gaming.



So get ready for a frantic Christmas selling season, as all three console companies launch a slew of product to whip the market into an interactive frenzy. By opening their hardware platforms to access the web, Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony are jockeying to keep their customers endlessly entertained online. This makes video games a bigger threat than ever to traditional entertainment for consumers' time and walletshare. Therefore comics retailers need to provide fans more complementary products for these obsessive interests.



Going to the Big Screen



Though Marvel's treatment of retailers has been wanting, retailers will gladly admit that last year's X-men feature generated much need excitement, as will the upcoming Spiderman film. Just as Star Wars spawned LucasArts, other video game developers have labored the other direction to pitch movie scripts. By the time you read this, the highly-promoted Tomb Raider motion picture will have debuted on June 15, 2001. To the delight of teenage boys everywhere, Oscar winning actress and Billy Bob Thornton-lovin' Angelina Jolie "embodies" the digital vixen Lara Croft. Her arrival is just in the nick of time for the company that created her, Eidos, which sorely needs a shot in the arm. So remember, just as Lara/Angelina swigs her Pepsi for that extra boost, Eidos is getting the same kick from your movie stub.



In marked contrast, is "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" which opens July 11, 2001. Originating from the video game series by Squaresoft that has sold over 30 million units worldwide, this entire film is composed of computer generated animation (CG). Unlike last summer's previous features like Disney's Dinosaurs which transposed CG on live backgrounds, or the underwhelming Titan AE, which melded CG with conventional animation, Final Fantasy heralds the nascent era of completely digital actors born from video games. Its director is Hironobu Sakaguchi, President of Square USA and Executive Producer of the game series that has gone through numerous iterations and licensed its own anime (Urban Vision) and toys (Palisades).



The movie is coincidentally distributed by Columbia Pictures, part of the Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group, which is a Sony Pictures Entertainment company. Chris Lee, who made the original deal with Square when he was President of Production at Columbia, has since founded his own production company to help develop the project. At E3, Lee stated that Square took the unusual step of self-financing the movie to retain complete creative control. Of course, selling 60 million units of software titles gave Square not only a unique luxury of establishing their own film studio in Hawaii, but also a stronger motivation to create a world that rings true to their repeat customers.



The story is as follows: in 2065, a meteor collides into Earth and unleashes aliens that destroy human civilization. Terminally infected by an alien, Dr. Aki Ross (voice by Ming Na who played Disney's Mulan) tries to learn their weakness, as militarists plan to use weapon that may destroy the planet in the process. Exploring the Earth and her dreams to collect the necessary "spiritual" elements, Aki chases her "Final Fantasy". The CG may outshine the plot, but the voice acting should hold water since it is directed by Jack Fletcher, whose credits include Kiki's Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke, and Black Mask.



The increasingly sophisticated CG cinematics from the cut scenes of Final Fantasy VIII and IX whetted the appetite of thousands, anime-lovers or not. The trailer on www.finalfantasy.com promises non-stop action. Now Square tempts viewers with Aki, whose attractive wireframe recently was named one of Maxim magazine's Hot 100 women. In a no lose product placement, Square has given fans what they wanted - their favorite video game on the biggest screen in town - while upping the ante for its competitors technologically, creatively and commercially.

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