Let the games begin

Nov 4, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Angelina Jolie, the untamed 27-year-old actress, is now filming a follow-up to her 2001 smash film “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.” The casting has always seemed ironic-Croft’s video game character is incredibly lifelike while Jolie’s wild escapades in Hollywood seem more like the stuff of fiction. But Paramount’s decision to do a “Croft” sequel is another sign that the video game industry has become one of the most powerful forces in entertainment.
“[`Tomb Raider’] is the most profitable movie we’ve made in the past few years,” says Stephen Taylor, Paramount’s senior VP of finance.
Hollywood has released several movies based on games, from “Croft” to “Final Fantasy” to “Resident Evil.” And nearly 20 million American homes now have a TV-based game console from Sony (PlayStation), Microsoft (XBox) or Nintendo (GameCube).
But the game is far from over. Sony and Microsoft are planning to turn the consoles into high-speed entertainment machines, delivering everything from video-on-demand to downloadable music to digital video recording. And, yes, you’ll still be able to play games.
“With a high-speed connection, a gamer will be able to download movies, music, you name it. The possibilities are endless,” says Monica Wyk, a spokeswoman for Sony, which has already sold 11 million PlayStation consoles.
Of course, the electronics industry has a poor record for predicting the future. But all indications are that this forecast will come true, starting next year. Both Sony and Microsoft have already taken their games to the next level.
Hearing voices?
On Nov. 15, Microsoft is scheduled to launch XBox Live, a broadband version of its video game console. XBox players will be able to play online with anyone in the world. The service, which will require a $49.95 start-up kit, includes a headset for voice communications. In fact, in case you want to disguise your identity, you’ll be able to choose from six different voices while playing. (The game must have been inspired by the movie “Sybil.”)
Microsoft’s action follows Sony’s introduction last August of a PlayStation2 network adapter, which permit gamers to compete with either dial-up or high-speed Internet service. The Los Angeles Times reported recently that stores are selling the Sony adapter as fast as they can get it.
“I must say we are a little bit overwhelmed by consumer interest,” Andrew House, a Sony executive VP, told the Times.
Microsoft and Sony believe that online gaming could be the elusive Holy Grail of broadband, the single force that persuades millions of people to upgrade their home Internet service. And, the theory goes, once consumers have broadband, they will be more interested in adding new high-speed TV entertainment services from companies such as … Sony and Microsoft.
Sony and Microsoft plan to start adding non-gaming services in 2003. Sony has announced that it will download a TiVo-like DVR feature to the PlayStation2, and Microsoft will probably do the same with the XBox. Sony is also a partner in an online video-on-demand service called Movielink; next year, Sony might download films to PS2 owners who have a high-speed connection. (Sony could download a “Lara Croft” film to someone who’s playing a Lara Croft game!)
Industry observers have dubbed the Sony-Microsoft game strategy a modern-day Trojan horse. Like the invading army of ancient Greece, the two companies believe that once they get in the door, anything can happen.
“Done right, we can make gaming the next TV, the next Internet,” Microsoft XBox general manager J. Allard said in a speech last summer to the Ziff Davis Gaming Summit.
Of course, the video game audience is being targeted for a reason. The game industry seems indestructible, immune to normal curbs such as economic recessions and high unemployment. No matter how destitute, people will find the cash to buy the new Tony Hawk game or “Madden NFL 2003.” And the growing realism of the games seems to be attracting adults as well as teens.
The research firm DFC Intelligence forecasts that 60 million video game systems will be sold in the U.S. by 2005. Jeetil Patel, an analyst for investment firm Deutsche Banc Alex Brown, says the industry will generate $9 billion in sales in 2004. That’s nearly double the sales figures in 2000.
Even pop trend-watcher Faith Popcorn has predicted that sales of video game consoles will skyrocket, due to her belief that Americans are spending more time at home after the 2001 terrorist attack.
Cable and satellite TV operators are now fighting for control of the American living room. But if the video game forecasts are right, Sony and Microsoft may wind up as the most powerful gatekeepers in the industry.
Phillip Swann is president and publisher of TVPredictions.com. He can be reached at swann@tvpredictions.com.