Cyberspace Invaders

Top gamemakers are offering Internet connections faster than you can

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David Bowie may look like a rocker out of the past, but he sounds like the future. The pop icon has just produced a soundtrack for a new interactive video game, "Omikron," because, he says, "Interactivity is the future of the entire entertainment industry."

Former film producer John Platten designs video games today. In 1993, he reckoned that "within five to 10 years, the video[-game] industry would be as big or bigger than TV or film." He was right: This year video games will earn an estimated $7 billion, passing the $6.8 billion of the film industry.

Mr. Bowie and Mr. Platten are part of a video-game industry that has been under intense scrutiny recently for its violent content. But they also represent what many say is the front line of a technological revolution that will affect the way we live and play well into the next century.

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The key word: convergence. Soon we will get music, television, film, video games, and all sorts of other information streaming into our homes on request. Just how they will arrive and who will provide these services isn't clear quite yet. Will the point industry be film or TV, telephone companies, computer giants - or just maybe video games?

"I think it will be the video-game industry," says analyst Don Tapscott. "The entertainment industry is on the threshold of a fundamental change," he says. "As technologies are converging, they are creating new [entertainment] mediums. It's a struggle for the leadership mantle."

This is true in part because game-playing started the first big technological shift in entertainment, he says. "Entertainment used to be done to you," says the chairman of the Alliance for Converging Technologies. The video-game industry began the switch to interactive technology as an entertainment tool. "This industry was the first to push that graphic user interface, hardware and control devices, all interactive, all run by the user," he explains.

Today, the Internet is providing a vast, complex interactivity. Tapscott dubs this emerging world - NIM or Networked Interactive Multimedia - as the infrastructure for a new economy. "It will change the way we play, learn, create commerce, and maintain our development as a society," he says.

While some observers say that total convergence is years away, the hottest announcements at the video-game industry's recent trade show in Los Angeles, E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo), suggest the top manufacturers are heading that way faster than a Pentium III chip. Vast online communities already have sprung up around some of the top games created for personal computers. Now, two of the latest machines from the three fiercely competitive top consolemakers - Sony, Nintendo, and Sega - have announced Internet connectivity. All have technologies such as DVD-ROM players and mind-bogglingly powerful computer chips. Some particulars:

*Sony's PlayStation 2, to be ready by late 2000, will have a modem connection and run on a computer chip three times more powerful than a Pentium III chip.

*Nintendo's Dolphin, a DVD-player powered by the IBM Power PC technology, will be available by mid-2000. (Decisions about Internet connectivity are pending.)

*The most widely anticipated machine of the show, Sega's new 128-bit Dreamcast, to be launched in the United States Sept. 9 (but already available in Japan), ships with a modem, the fastest available through a regular home phone line.

Linking to the Internet is the key to Sega's goal to reclaim some of the 60 percent market share held by Sony and the roughly 30 percent held by Nintendo. Sega has less than 10 percent. Billed as a "true plug and play" game, players will insert a disc, click online, and enter the Sega Dreamcast Network, an Internet Service Provider much like America Online. Through this gateway, users can play against multiple partners, download software, read e-mail, shop, and enter chat rooms to share game tips and ideas.

While industry observers give thumbs up to the great graphics in the Dreamcast games, analyst Clive Thompson says he doesn't think the network concept will work. "They can't anticipate all the needs of a family," he says. For example, while a teenager might need a fast connection for games, a parent might not be willing to pay for it just to receive e-mail.

However, he adds, without question online communities in the broadest sense are growing. "This means not just people playing against each other, but talking and trading hints," he says. "It used to get very boring playing against the computer, so the Internet has resocialized video games."

"Anyone doing any form of entertainment these days ignores the Net at their peril," agrees Chris Turner, who writes about the video industry for Shift magazine. He says the online community appeals to serious players. "People love playing certain kinds of games against other people, like 'Quake' and 'Doom,' " but he adds, "the thing that is missing is the fact that playing video games is also a social occasion. You like to have friends over and talk, that's half the fun."

Turner is also cautious about predictions of technology convergence. "It won't be one big blinding flash of light," he says. It will be more gradual. "There will be a lot of little convergences, like video games will integrate with Internet technology, and the Net will probably merge with TV," he says.

After a single, ear-shredding trip through the E3 showrooms, it's easy to see that while the technologies may be slower in merging, film and music industry techniques - including emotionally compelling stories - are changing the way video games look and sound.

"We are the new creators" of stories and characters, says game designer John Platten. Actors such as Bruce Willis (who stars in a video game called "Apocalypse") are seeing that while their theater and video-store shelf-life may be only a few months, through video games a role he creates "can live for a few years."

Adds Mr. Platten: "We aren't the evil stepkids we were a few years ago. We're the player now."

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