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Mon, May 27, 2002 - Page 19 News List

Demographics driving video-game industry

Two generations have now grown up with computing and interactivity. Playing video games is as natural as watching television and listening to the radio

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , LOS ANGELES

Virtual celebrity Lara Croft speaks to participants attending the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles.

PHOTO: REUTERS

As the industry gathers here for this year's Electronic Entertainment Exhibition, or E3, it appears to have created its own economy. Despite the recession, a prolonged technology slump and Sept. 11, sales of video-game hardware, software and accessories increased 43 percent last year, to a record US$9.4 billion, according to the market research firm NPD Group.

A number of industry executives and analysts believe that the current boom is rooted in both the cycle for new generations of video-game players and the demographic shifts that have taken game playing out of the realm of cult status and into the mainstream.

"Two generations have now grown up with computing and interactivity," said Doug Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association, the industry trade group that sponsors the conference. "Playing video games is as natural to these generations as watching television and listening to the radio was to earlier generations."

Sales of game software alone reached US$6.4 billion last year, putting the game industry in striking distance of Hollywood, which had box-office sales of US$8.35 billion last year. And video-game executives predict this year will be even stronger.

A key element of the boom is the realism that new technology has brought to the game world. "The video game industry has come of age," said Roger McNamee, a Silicon Valley technology investor. "The visual look of the games is astonishing."

The increasing move toward realism could be seen in the movie-like appearance of games like Sony Entertainment's Getaway, which is based on 50,000 digitized images of downtown London, as well as a remarkable crop of 2,003 football games from Electronic Arts, Sony's 989 Studios, Sega and Microsoft.

The games take advantage of a technology known as motion capture that is now widely used in the industry, which uses the digitized performance of real athletes. Their moves are stored in a database on the game disk and seamlessly woven together to give a remarkably lifelike feel.

The industry is also benefiting from an explosion of tie-ins between video games and Hollywood movies like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Spider-Man and even a three-movie deal for the video-game derivative Laura Croft.

Indeed, it was Croft, the digitized creature, not her flesh-and-blood doppelganger, Angelina Jolie, who made news here last week by signing with Creative Artists Agency in the first-ever Hollywood agent deal for a fictional character.

The new version of the program, scheduled to ship in November, will be titled Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness. In it, the digitized animation of Croft will be made up of 5,000 polygons -- the virtual wire frame that underlies an animated figure -- compared with 500 in earlier versions, making her much more lifelike. Doom III, which will be released next year, renders some characters with as many as 500,000 polygons. The current generation of computer hardware from all three video-game makers is specially designed to make it possible to render millions of polygons almost instantaneously.

As game software and hardware become more elaborate and the profit potential grows, the development budgets of hit software titles are swelling as well. Costs now routinely range from US$3 million to US$6 million, and US$10 million is no longer unusual. The development team for the latest Laura Croft game, which is being produced in England, has jumped to 50 from 15.

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