Video games go mainstream

Harry Potter software expected to drive up demand

Bragging rights for who has the most bits and bytes are becoming a thing of the past when it comes to video games.

For most of its young life, this industry has ushered in each new stage of its development with hype about the power of its latest hardware. But those days are gone, primarily because the audience for video games has expanded beyond technoids who live and die by technical specs.

"The demographic for [video] gaming has broadened dramatically beyond the traditional teenage-boy audience," says Doug Lowenstein, president of Interactive Digital Software Association. "Today, video games are mainstream entertainment. They're played by people of all ages; they're played by people of all tastes; and they've become as important a part of our culture as TV and movies."

The major players - Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft - are jockeying to get their latest-generation game machines (GameCube, Playstation2, and X-Box, respectively) into homes for the holidays. But the reality is that most consumers don't choose by hardware - they choose by entertainment value.

"Pretty graphics and other cosmetics are now just the ante to get into this business," says Peter Main, executive vice-president of Nintendo. "[Computing] horsepower is what makes us all the same, but today's video-game players are focused on what makes [each manufacturer] different." Translation: Who has the coolest games?

Today, software developers are rushing to produce games for the broadest possible market. Not surprisingly, Harry Potter video games on four different platforms will appear as the film hits movie screens this November.

"There are Playstations in 70 million homes now," says Danny Billson, an Electronic Arts (EA) developer working on Harry Potter games. "Wait till the games come out. People will be buying the hardware just to play the Harry Potter games."

Efforts to mainstream video games are everywhere. According to Jupiter Media Metrix, as of August, some 5 million American singles use the Internet for online dating. So Sony is launching The Station (www.station.com), bringing "The Dating Game Online."

Legacy Interactive is developing a new interactive game based on the TV drama "Law & Order." The first few cases featured in the game were penned by writers of the popular crime series.

For personal computers, the enormously powerful and successful Sims games series is continuing to produce new variations, including theme-park and enhanced disco-party versions. The evolution of these games into the mainstream parallels the broadening of the video-game industry as a whole.

"When I first got there, the [Sims] games were targeted at swinging singles," says Mr. Billson, who worked on the Sims games. "They didn't want to [market to] kids. But this whole swinging singles thing isn't appealing to a mass audience."

The developers finally relented, he adds. "So, we put kids in the game and put careers in the game, and we actually wrote scenarios and missions. They were more like [real-life] situations," he says.

Other software developers have rushed to tap this "god game" market: games that allow players to create communities and personal relationships between the characters. "Cultures" by Xicat, for example, allows players to create ancient Viking communities from the ground up.

Meanwhile, the man who calls himself "Mr. Internet," Ken Leebow, has picked five websites that every family who loves online games should check out:

www.elibs.com - the old Mad Libs online

www.3dgroove.com - cool graphics for pool, snowboarding, and general fun.

www.agameaday.com - a new word, game, quiz, or puzzle every day.

www.mamamedia.com - designed to improve skills through fun and games.

www.realarcade.com - a community for matching players and sharing game tips.

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