Guts 'N' Gore In 3 D!

Just a few blocks from O.J. Simpson's Los Angeles courtroom, another--albeit smaller--media circus will erupt on May 11. There, three titans of the video-games industry plan to use a multimedia trade show, E3 Electronic Entertainment Expo, to butt heads over the next generation of mind candy: three-dimensional game machines that represent a quantum leap beyond today's playthings.

Sega of America Inc. will herald the U.S. arrival in early September of Sega Saturn, its 3-D machine that leaves the graphics of the top-selling 16-bit Sega Genesis machine in the dust. Nintendo of America Inc., vying for market leadership with Sega, will unveil marketing plans for its Nintendo Ultra 64. And Sony Computer Entertainment of America will be showing off PlayStation, its first foray into the U.S. video-game market. The machine already has made a big splash in Japan. There's more. Tiny 3DO Co. demonstrated its latest 3-D technology, M2, on May 2.

They all are counting on 3-D graphics to inject new life into the slowing games market. The new players use state-of-the-art silicon and graphics engines to produce realistic-looking 3-D images. In a Saturn hockey game, for example, players can view action on the fly, from the perspective of the goalie, a defense man, er an overhead "camera."

JOYSTICKER SHOCK. The new technology is supposed to appeal to the MTV crowd, which has grown bored with the slower speed and graphics quality of 16-bit game players. Researchers believe this new generation of machines will recapture the buzz: Forrester Research projects 13.8 million consoles will be installed in homes by 1997, up from 1.8 million this year. Game makers hope the hardware sales also will lead to a surge in interest in their wares. According to Forrester, sales of video games for the new systems--at $40 to $60 a pop--should reach $1.6 billion by 1997, from about $400 million this year.

Still, the prognosticators may be wrong: Video-game loyalists may not step up to the plate, given the high cost of the new systems. "It's one thing to spend $99 to buy a Sega Genesis or Super Nintendo," says Robert A. Kotick, the CEO of Activision Inc., a producer of video-game and PC software. "It's another thing to buy a $250 or $300 device."

Nintendo, Sega and Sony are hoping the flashy machines will pull in an older, well-heeled audience--the typical games maven today is an 8-to-14-year-old boy. To lure adults, Sega plans to spend $50 million marketing Saturn, the most the company has ever spent on a single product. Sony will spend about $40 million to spread the PlayStation gospel, and 3DO around $10 million.

It's difficult to predict which player might win the ultimate battle. The graphics quality of all three is superb, according to early viewers. Nintendo's Ultra 64 is the only new machine to run games on cartridges rather than compact disks, which should hold down the cost to consumers by eliminating the need for an expensive CD-ROM component. But the system may be the last one in stores: Ultra 64 had been slated to appear this fall, but may not make it in time for Christmas. Nintendo will not comment on the product's timing.

The choice most likely will boil down to the system that runs the most riveting games. Sony thinks it has the edge because it will offer the first 3-D version of the wildly popular Mortal Kombat III. But in a world where megastars with names like Sonic the Hedgehog and Donkey Kong reign, no one can forecast with certainty what fickle video fiends will favor in the future.

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