LOS ANGELES — While our minds have been occupied with the very sober state of world affairs recently, a few bright spots have emerged in the world of video games, two of which mark important new developments in that burgeoning universe.
Neither will change international relations, but each in its own way could have a genuine impact on the economy, if for no other reason than the $31 billion video game industry is not in a recession and beat out the film industry by a billion dollars or so in 2002.
First, the latest version of the most popular PC video game of all time, The Sims, went online in December. This may seem small, but for many, it marks an important change: taking mainstream game playing into a whole new realm - cyberspace.
The Sims is the first online game to deal with life and actual relationships between people - how they live, work, and play - as opposed to the dragons and duels that populate the many fantasy or fight games already online.
"We have a very mainstream audience," says Gordon Walton, executive producer of the Sims Online.
Like the desktop game, the online Sims is played mostly by girls and women. Since its debut, 82,000 players have opted to pay a monthly fee to play virtual, real-time games with other "Sim-ulators" around the world.
But that's nothing near the level of overall Sims afficionados, and Walton says one of the biggest obstacles is the monthly fee.
"The idea that the Internet is supposed to be completely free will hold this medium back," he says, even though online play has extremely high entertainment value. "If you're only spending four to five hours a week, and most people spend closer to 10, that's 25 hours a month for 10 bucks," he says. "Tell me, where else you can get that amount of value?"
If you haven't made the online leap yet, here's how it works. You buy the software in a box, just like any other computer game. You must have Internet access. You load the software, which will walk you through the registration process, including credit-card information, which will kick in after a free trial period.
You can create up to three Sim characters and then you're off on your virtual life adventure. Only this time, instead of interacting with the software's artificial intelligence, you interact with real people via their online characters helped along by text messaging.
Walton says this is the key to the appeal of the online Sims game. "The mechanism of the game is really just an excuse for people to socialize with people from all over," he says. And the game is only going to improve, he adds. The early adopters are almost all Sims loyalists, and they have been extremely vocal about the pluses and minuses of the online version.
"We're adding new things all the time," he says. For instance, in just a few weeks, "the ever-popular love [hot] tub is going in to the game, just in time for Valentine's Day." (Sims Online is rated T for teens).
The other watershed game is Sony's newly released, "The Getaway," a violent, M-rated hostage-thriller game for the PS2 console.
Given its adult themes and aggressive hostility among all the characters, this is not a family game.
It's important because it showcases new possibilities - an unprecedented level of visual sophistication and the merging of film and video-game technologies.
Every character in the game is based on a real actor, whose voice and body characteristics have been scanned into the game, as have 42 miles of London streets.
The scripted scenarios for the ongoing story play rival a Dickens serial. This is as close to improvising your own movie as console games have gotten.
"The Getaway" is the game to play for anyone who wants to see where this multibillion-dollar industry is headed.
Panzer Dragoon Orta: (Xbox, from Sega): This game shows off the splendid graphic abilities of the biggest game console out there. It's a standard shooting game that is easy to learn, but if you aren't in the mood to strafe the elegant countryside or blow the other guys out of the sky, just coasting through the delicately rendered skies on your beautiful dragon, high above minutely detailed countrysides may be entertainment enough. Rated T, for teens.
War of the Monsters (PS2, from Sony): This is a sort of goofy sendup of the old monster genres, in which the big guys duke it out in the middle of city landscapes, smashing through building after building. Ten Massively Destructive Monsters!!! 13 Fully Destructible Environments!!! Unlimited Weapons!!! King Kong never had it so good, and neither did the fighting teen movie fan. Rated T, for teens.
NCAA 2k3, College Basketball (PS2, from Sega, also with online play available): Widely considered the best college console game out there, this has an impressive array of playing choices. The game includes a good range of the major college teams (Yale, Purdue, Virginia Tech, Michigan State, or Syracuse) and even offers Army and Navy teams. The game actually gives a pretty good rendition of each teams strengths and weaknesses, so if college ball is your thing, this is your game. And now, you can find your perfect foe somewhere out there in cyberspace. Just when you thought you'd beat the software, the unlimited possibilities of real time play offer endlessly new competition. Rated E for everyone.
Dirt to Daytona (Gamecube, from Infogrames): For the racer who wants to do the dangerous driving without the consequences, this Nascar game offers 31 total tracks, including a dirt track, dozens of parts to upgrade your car, and realistic damage that won't cost you a cent. This game is getting good reviews from aficionados of the racing genre. Rated E, for everyone.
Monopoly Party (Gamecube, Xbox, PS2, from Infogrames): This speaks for itself. The board game classic is taken to the next level with zippy console play. It's always your turn as you play up to a four-person game or play against the console. Everyone rolls and moves at the same time, the old board game is definitely sped up for the 21st century. Bonus features: four alternative theme game boards: fantasy, sci-fi, ancient monuments, and prehistoric and tokens to fit each environment. Rated E, for everyone.
Catz 5 and Dogz 5 (PC, from Ubi Soft): These little guyz are the cutest petz you may never have to really care for. I put a gaggle of the goofy muttz on my desktop and discovered that while this relatively simple game of adopting, caring for, and breeding really cute, bug-eyed catz and dogz may be geared to kidz, it's got adult amusement written all over it. I can't seem to stop chasing these guyz around my desktop. Rated E, definitely for everyone.