LOS ANGELES - In a battle that's likely to shape how nations play video games and access online entertainment, the superpowers of the electronic gaming world are facing off in the biggest showdown since Atari's Pong met Midway's Pac Man.
The War of the Game Titans brought 85,000 gamers, developers, journalists, engineers, flacks and executives from around the globe came to Electronic Entertainment Expo here last week to catch a glimpse of Microsoft's Xbox, Nintendo's GameCube and the latest hardware for Sony's powerhouse, the PlayStation 2.
It's the first time that three next-generation game console systems have hit the market simultaneously with so much horsepower and corporate muscle behind them.
Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft are each spending well over $300 million to promote their systems, capitalizing on technologies ranging from DVD video to High Definition Television to high-speed Internet access for the home.
Their target: a dominant share of the $10 billion Americans are expected to spend on video games this year- more than they spend going to the movies.
"This is the year when this industry moves past the movie box office, becoming a permanent part of our culture, appealing to people of all tastes and ages," said Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association, the host of E3 expo.
Once geared primarily toward children, video games are now attracting every age group and players from all walks of life. Several publications have recently reported spotting New York Sen. Hillary Clinton toting a Nintendo GameBoy, and Sony's booth at the show showcases written testimonials from pop singers and movie stars such as Britney Spears, Matthew Perry and Sandra Bullock, all of whom say they're addicted players.
Figures from the IDSA indicate that the average age of America's 145 million video game players is now 28, four years older than last year's average. About 42 percent are over age 35. A quarter of the nation's video game fans say they play with their parents - or that their parents simply play the games alone.
While the business has always been competitive, what makes the 2001 video game console wars different is the emergence of Microsoft. The company's Xbox is creating a buzz throughout the gaming world, and with good reason - the $300 console packs the horsepower of a Pentium class PC and produces animated graphics that can only be described as stunning. The Xbox and Nintendo's GameCube ($150 to $200) will hit the market in early November.
The Xbox processor is the equivalent of an 800-MHz personal computer, and it comes packed with 64 megabytes of memory (compared to 2 to 4 MB in Sony's popular PlayStation 2). The Xbox runs under the Windows CE operating system and features an 8 gigabyte hard drive, the first time a game console has ever had its own storage space.
It also has an Ethernet port for online gaming and will be bundled with an Internet Web browser.
"Our platform has more headroom to grow into," says Robert J. Bach, senior vice president of Microsoft's games division. "Xbox is about gaming, but even gaming won't be valuable if we don't look to the future. The key question today is not who's going to be No. 1 this year or next, but who's going to be No. 1 five and six years down the road."
Microsoft's aim is clearly to make the Xbox more than just a gaming unit. It's designed as a digital entertainment center that will play music and DVD movies or allow you to sit back on your sofa and surf the Web on your TV. Several Xbox games in the works are being optimized for performance on High Definition Television.
Sony, which has struggled to produce enough PlayStation 2 units to meet demand since the console's launch in October, unveiled a few "wow" items of its own before the E3 mob. Kazuo Hirai, president and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment, told a downtown movie studio crammed with reporters, Web site masters, and game developers that the company plans to stay No. 1 in the game market.
"The question is who will be No. 2," Hirai said. "We're in the driver's seat, and we intend to stay there."
The PlayStation 2, the first system to offer DVD playback capability, has been a hit in the United States and Japan. While Sony has sold 3 million PS2s since October, production problems have hit the company and many customers are on six-month waiting lists.
Nearly seven months after launch, it's still difficult to find the PlayStation 2 in stores, and many fans are now grumbling that they'll wait for the Xbox and GameCube. Hirai and other Sony executives downplayed such problems and said another 7 million PlayStation 2s are making their way to the U.S., enough to saturate the market.