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What's next for these characters?

A new generation of games and game consoles promises to add new realism and "mind-blowing" capabilities.

By ROBB GUIDO and DAVE GUSSOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 5, 1999


Once video game character Lara Croft gets to know you, she might not like you. Or, play the Tomb Raider game well, and she might start to flirt with you.

Video games are about to become still more interactive, even downright personal, with make-believe characters able to "learn and react" to someone's game-playing style.

Sony calls this ability to give game characters human personalities "emotion synthesis," and promises that it will not only change the way a game looks but also "how the characters and objects in a game think, act and behave."

It is one of the innovations coming in the next generation of consoles that will raise video games into an even higher-tech world. It also will raise the stakes for companies such as Sony, Sega and Nintendo involved in the $6.2-billion market.

Among other coming attractions are more realistic and detailed graphics, and devices that allow players to share or save games. Some devices that are already in stores allow video games to be played on computers, though the companies that make the games and the specialized machines to play them on don't like the idea (for obvious reasons). Experts don't see it as likely that video games will routinely be purchased and loaded into a PC. "The actual experience of play in front of a TV with a joy pad versus in front of a PC with a keyboard and joystick and a mouse is so disparate," said Chris Charla, editor in chief of Next Generation magazine. "Each way lends itself to such different titles that the two markets will remain separate for a long time."

But technology from movies, TV and computers is converging, providing a glimpse of how various forms of entertainment may one day merge in the home.

Sony promotes its new technology as "a new form of entertainment beyond games."

The next shot in this game battle will be fired by Sega, which will introduce its long-promised Dreamcast game console in September. It is Sega's attempt to regain ground lost to Sony's PlayStation, No. 1 in the market, and to No. 2 Nintendo.

Sony, which has sold more than 50-million PlayStations worldwide since 1994, will release its PlayStation II next year in the United States. Nintendo, which has sold 20-million consoles worldwide, also is developing a new machine but has not announced a release date.

Sega and Sony ramped up the power for their new systems with processors they say are several times more powerful than a Pentium III computer. Sega's will include connections for game-playing over the Internet, though Sony seems to be shying away from that capability. Sony's specifications wowed an industry audience recently in Tokyo.

"It is mind-blowing," said Ian Livingstone, president of Eidos Interactive, developer of the Tomb Raider games. "Sony was between three and five years ahead of the then-PC technology when they launched the PlayStation. This machine is at least as far ahead now."

Despite enthusiastic presentations by Sega officials at a recent conference of game developers in San Jose, Calif., reaction to Dreamcast there was muted, mainly because Sega's last two attempts at video consoles flopped in the United States.

"Sega is going to take back market share from Sony and Nintendo with Dreamcast," Sega of America president Bernard Stolar said recently. "Dreamcast is a platform that will change more than a few minds. Like they say in the movies, "Hold on folks, you ain't seen nothing yet.' We're dreaming big, and we're delivering big."

While the hardware is being promoted, the focus remains most of all on games, particularly so that plenty of titles will be available when the new systems roll out.

"What's most important, frankly, is the quality of the games that we launch and how well those games push the technology in the hardware systems," said Perrin Kaplan, director of corporate affairs for Nintendo of America Inc.

Sega says it has a large group of developers working on games for Dreamcast, and its earlier release is giving it a head start on Sony. But Sony's lead in the market gives it an edge in winning over game developers.

Lane Kiriyama, chief financial officer of game developer Saffire Corp., said his company and others stopped developing projects for Dreamcast after hearing about PlayStation II. He told the San Francisco Chronicle the attitude was, "Put it on hold, we want to do the PlayStation."

To beef up Sony's games, Animation Science Corp.'s technology will be used by game developers to give greater detail to characters and scenes. The payoff will come in facial animation and race car driving "that looks like race cars in the movies" to special effects that allow more realistic crowd scenes and better explosions, smoke and rain, according to Randy Broweleit, vice president of business development for the Sunnyvale, Calif., company.

The characters' ability to learn about and react to a player gives the game a unique emotional experience, similar to watching or taking part in a film, according to Phil Harrison, a vice president of Sony Computer Entertainment America.

With consumers expected to hold off some game purchases until at least Dreamcast's September debut, the video game market is expected to grow only slightly this year, to $6.3-billion from $6.2-billion. (By comparison, movie box office receipts totaled about $6.95-billion in 1998.)

Consumers could see the current price of $129.99 for the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 drop as low as $99.99 by the time Dreamcast hits the market. And, to entice consumers to continue buying games, Sony says current PlayStation games can be played on the new system.

Prices for the new systems have not been announced but are expected to be in the $200-$250 range, still a good deal for gamers, says Sega's Karraker.

"Your best PC still costs around $2,000," he said.


-- Information from Times wires was used in this report.

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