E3: Old console, new demo-gamecos go for the six and under set

Forget the dragons and `droids-it was a real-life battle at this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo between suits and Doc Martins as business folk jostled aggressively with hard-core gamers for a spot at one of the PlayStation 2 consoles, following its North...
June 1, 2000

Forget the dragons and `droids-it was a real-life battle at this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo between suits and Doc Martins as business folk jostled aggressively with hard-core gamers for a spot at one of the PlayStation 2 consoles, following its North American launch on opening day. With Microsoft’s X-Box launch still more than a year away and the announcement of SegaNet and the128-bit Internet-ready Sega Dreamcast a done deal in April, the main console spotlight shone on Sony.

But E3 2000 saw more than consoles and peripherals: it marked the maturation of the gaming industry, as evidenced by a push towards a broader gaming audience. With the big boys trying to score with PSX2, where does that leave the original PlayStation console? In the hands of younger brothers and sisters, of course. As hard-core game developers rushed to create games for PSX2 and Dreamcast, family-targeting developers saw the opportunity for a broader scope of titles to fill the gap.

Humongous Entertainment unveiled the Humongous Sports CD-ROM series on PlayStation and Game Boy Color. The Backyard Football 2001 title for PlayStation, will debut this fall featuring child-like versions of major league players. Baseball and football versions will be available for Game Boy Color. The shift from PC to console is a natural evolution in a developing industry. ‘When a console system first comes out, it is usually for early adopters, for high-tech hard-core gamers,’ explains Humongous Entertainment’s director of communications Brandon Smith. ‘As the price drops and it gets a broader penetration into the marketplace, it offers children’s entertainment companies a better avenue to reach that audience.’ Smith adds that, in the case of PSX2, Sony is keeping the door open for Humongous titles.

Although Sony espouses the creation of a family entertainment system, rather than appealing solely to a niche crowd with PSX2, titles available at this time are aimed at hard-core gamers.

Playing musical chairs with consoles has allowed other companies to jostle for a position, such as Nickelodeon, which teamed up with Mattel Interactive to bring its Blue’s Clues franchise to PlayStation, as well as with THQ to release Rugrats: The Movie on the Nintendo 64, PlayStation and Game Boy Color platforms. All titles are due to hit shelves this fall. Stephen Youngwood, VP of interactive products at Nickelodeon, suggests that sticking with the older consoles amidst the rush to PSX2 gives Nickelodeon an advantage: ‘We’re particularly excited about the Nintendo 64 titles as it gives us an opportunity to shine even more.’

Publishers of the MTV and WWF action sports titles, THQ has become a kinder, gentler company-at least in one corner of their booth. In addition to the Rugrats titles, THQ’s work with Cartoon Network’s Scooby Doo franchise also indicates the gameco taking a step towards family audiences. Based on the first three episodes of the original series, the new Classic Creep Capers game is aimed at the six and up crowd, but expects a higher age appeal because of the nostalgia factor. It will be available for PSX, CGB and N64 later in 2000. Expect cross-promotions with the Scooby-Doo and Alien Invaders direct-to-video and a soundtrack from Kid Rhino records.

Also breaking away from a traditional hard-core gaming audience, Konami of America sought a broader audience through its partnership with Universal Interactive Studios last December. The alliance gave Konami license to develop games based on Universal’s film and television properties. Steering away from the warm and fuzzy sentiments of many family titles, The Grinch game, to be launched in tandem with the Universal movie, encourages kids to ‘steal Christmas’ by destroying presents and lobbing rotten eggs. The enemy? The Who people, who threaten to hug. Aimed at five- to 12-year-olds, the game will roll out this October on PlayStation, Dreamcast, PC and CGB. Also due in October is Universal/Konami’s game The Mummy on PlayStation, Dreamcast, PC and CGB and Woody Woodpecker Racing on PlayStation, CGB and PC in November.

The word was expansion all around. So while companies with a history of older-skewing titles were aiming for a family audience, this year’s show witnessed a reverse business plan for Nintendo of America. The company that enjoyed huge success in 1998/1999 with their kiddie-aimed Pokémon and Mario titles is now targeting an older crowd with the N64 platform title Perfect Dark TM (Joanna Dark, private eye), developed by U.K.-based design company Rare. Nintendo has no plans to jettison its core audience: this year also witnessed the launch of the ambitious Rare-designed Dinosaur Planet for ages 10 and up on N64.

New franchises this year included the Simon & Shuster Interactive launch of M&Ms: The Lost Formulas for ages five to 10. On the shelves in September 2000, the titles won’t melt in your mouth or your hand.

Scholastic expanded its lineup for four- to six-year-olds with Mac/PC versions of Clifford The Big Red Dog, the first CD-ROMs based on the book series. The launch of the two titles, Clifford Thinking Series and Clifford Reading, coincides with the television series airing on PBS Kids this fall.

Jim Henson Interactive surfaced with the first-ever Muppets console games. Muppet Race Mania for PlayStation is aimed at all ages, with a fixed-steering stock car-racing mode for the very young, and Muppet Monster Adventure for ages six to 12. The move towards console indicates JHI’s direction towards a comprehensive approach to interactivity: ‘You create it once and express it many different ways in many different places,’ says Craig Allen, GM of Jim Henson Interactive. ‘We’re positioning our interactive group not as an ancillary `we’ll get to it after the movie’ kind of thing, but more as a group that comes into play wherever there is an intersection between the consumer and technology.’ Allen adds, ‘The license gives you a point of view. It probably gets you on a retail shelf…but in interactive media, it doesn’t get you sales, because at the end of the day, if it doesn’t play well, it ends up in a landfill.’

Demoing at E3 was the Muppet Performance Studio, a marriage of 3-D digital imagery with traditional animatronics. With tools that produce puppet-like expressions in the digital domain, the technology enables JHI to produce 3-D graphic shows at a much faster rate than traditional methods and could potentially spawn a new industry of Kermit Karaoke. Expect a consumer version by the fall of 2001.

More proof that new technologies were not limited to an older gaming crowd included Leap Frog’s innovative Turbo Twist, aimed at kids who don’t want to sit chained to a computer. Launched at this year’s Toy Fair, Turbo Twist is a flashlight-type of handheld device that teaches kids the three Rs with programmable cartridges. After teaching the basic curriculum for ages six and up, determined through a series of questions that hone in on the child’s learning level, the cartridges can be updated by plugging them into the computer to download a higher learning curve from the Web site. The gadget will be available this fall for an SRP of US$39.99.

Throw away the sequencers and the hard disk recorders. For US$29.99, Codemasters wants to unleash the Chemical Brothers in you. The PSX version of the MTV Music Generator, launched at the end of 1999, will look like peanuts compared to the PC software that’s due out in June 2000. The PC version allows kids to sample any sound and export their mix to an MP3 file.

Intel Play has teamed up with Mattel Interactive to offer the Computer Sound Morpher on Windows 95/98. A sampler that enables kids ages six and up to record and edit voices and add goofy sound effects (including flatulence), it’s scheduled for a fall release with an SRP of under US$50.

Getting interactive with kids’ feet is Disney’s Jungle Book Rhythm and Groove aimed at the five and up crowd. With an interactive Twister-type pad from Guillemot and software developed by Ubi Soft, kids are able to make their favorite Jungle Book characters dance on screen by shuffling their feet. The dance gear is due to hit shelves in November 2000.

Encouraging movie moguls to start early, Steven Spielberg teamed up with LEGO Systems to launch LEGO Studios, which includes the LEGO Studios Steven Spielberg MovieMaker Set. Utilizing a PC digital video camera and a simplified version of the Pinnacle editing software, kids ages eight and up can produce stop-frame digital animation movies from the LEGO ‘movie set’ provided. It will hit U.S. shelves in November with an SRP of US$179.99.

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