Sex, Violence and Mutants at Los Angeles Gaming Convention

This year's E3 was long on the tried and true themes.
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Editor's note: TheStreet.com'sTroy Wolverton attended the Electronic Entertainment Expo last week. Following are his impressions of the sights, sounds and buzz at the video-game industry's giant confab.

LOS ANGELES -- The video-game industry may be nearing the end of its latest cycle, but attendees of the E3 conference last week would have a hard time believing the industry was doing anything but thriving.

The conference filled the giant Los Angeles Convention Center with some 400 exhibitors and 65,000 attendees, making it the best-attended show ever, according to organizers. Even with some 540,000 square feet of exhibit space, all those bodies meant the convention center was hot, noisy and crowded.

Lines snaked out the door on Wednesday, while inside the exhibit halls, enthusiasts, reporters and analysts lined up to get previews of such anticipated releases as

Sierra Entertainment's

Half-Life 2

and

Bungie's

Halo 2

.

Meanwhile, attendees crowded around to watch or play upcoming or just-released games such as

Electronic Arts'

(ERTS)

Madden NFL 2005

;

Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow

by

Ubisoft

; and

The Matrix Online

from

Sega

and

Time Warner's

(TWX)

Warner Brother's gaming division.

Consolation

The elephant in the room at the conference was the next generation of consoles. Neither

Microsoft

(MSFT) - Get Report

nor

Sony

(SNE) - Get Report

has committed to a release date for their upcoming game machines, but most analysts seem to expect the new consoles by 2006.

Analysts and investors have been anticipating the transition to the next generation with some trepidation. The last transition was a tough time for software makers, as the costs to develop games for the new platforms soared while sales of games for the new platforms took a while to take off. Game publishers have vowed to handle the transition better this time.

Meanwhile, they and the console makers are concentrating on other areas. Sony and Nintendo previewed their upcoming handheld game machines. Nintendo plans to release its dual screen DS machine by the end of the year, while Sony's PlayStation Portable won't reach North America until early next year.

Instead of a portable machine, Microsoft is focusing for the time being on releasing more games for its Xbox console and developing its online Xbox Live service.

Play Again

Among the games garnering a lot of buzz from developers and enthusiasts were a slew of sequels, including

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

from

Take Two Interactive's

(TTWO) - Get Report

Rockstar Games;

id Software's

Doom 3

;

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl

by

THQ

(THQI)

and

GSC Game World

, as well as the aforementioned

Halo 2

and

Half-Life 2

.

The latest iteration of the controversial and innovative gang-banger

Grand Theft Auto

franchise,

San Andreas

is due out in October. Take Two didn't have any demos on hand for the conference nor did it show a film preview of the game. But attendees were abuzz about the screen shots the company provided for

Game Informer

magazine.

Players will be able to travel to three different cities, explore the insides of virtual buildings and interact with scores of artificial characters. Analysts, including Wedbush Morgan Securities' Michael Pachter, expect the game to be a huge hit and maybe the best-selling game of the year.

Many of the other buzz games are "first-person shooters," of the type pioneered by the original

Doom

. Each offers its own unique scenario or features. In the new

Half-Life

, for instance, players can move their car by shooting it and throw boxes through windows. The makers of

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

used actual photos of Chernobyl to create a virtual world where players are sent to clean up mutants caused by radiation.

Quiet Giants

Despite having one of the most talked about games at the conference, Take-Two had only a modest presence at E3, and

San Andreas

was essentially the only game it touted.

Similarly,

Atari

(ATAR)

had just a small presence in one of the wings of the convention center and was promoting only two titles. But like

San Andreas

for Take Two, one of those could be a big hit for the company. Analysts expect

Driver 3

, similar in theme to Take Two's

Grand Theft Auto

series, to sell well this year.

Sword and Shield

As indicated above, most of the games on display had a violent theme or component. Players of the role-playing game

Fable

from

Microsoft

(MSFT) - Get Report

can shoot innocent bystanders with arrows. War games such as

Electronic Arts' Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault

involve killing enemy soldiers. And the point of THQ's

Destroy All Humans

isn't hard to deduce.

One of the more grotesquely violent games on display was

Capcom's

Shadow of Rome

. The action in the game centers on bloody gladiator fights that include the severing of limbs, beheadings and bludgeoning opponents.

But even games ostensibly marketed as family-oriented included violent themes. In

Activision's

(ATVI) - Get Report

new

Shrek 2

game, for instance, players beat up snails, turtles and other characters in order to gain points and progress to new levels.

Of course, violence in video games is nothing new. And much of it, such as that in

Shrek 2

, is cartoonish at worst.

But the video-game industry's continued growth depends in part on expanding its audience beyond its core demographic of 14- to 34-year-old males. Other demographics may have less tolerance for violent games. And in this age of real-life wars and beheadings, the public at large could be turned off.

Role Reversal

Violence may have been the name of the game for many titles, but several games let players take on new enemies.

In

Destroy All Humans

, gamers get to play aliens who are invading the earth. They can read minds, destroy buildings and move objects through telekinesis.

Players of Activision's

Vampire: The Masquerade -- Bloodlines

play creatures of the night who must feed on humans to survive. Meanwhile, in Electronic Art's

Lord of the Rings, The Battle for Middle-Earth

, players get the chance to not only play heroes, but demons working on the side of the evil Sauron.

Developers may be taking a chance with such games, particularly those where the targets are innocent humans, some analysts think. But as the success of titles such as LucasArts' venerable

X-Wing v. Tie-Fighter

suggest, many gamers like to take a walk on the "dark side."

Team Player

Besides violence, another recurring theme at the conference was multiplayer and online gaming. At Microsoft's demonstration of

Halo 2

, about 10 attendees all linked in to the same game and competed as teams in a game of capture the flag.

Meanwhile, at the kiosk of graphics-chip maker

ATI Technologies

(ATYT)

, gamers tested out and played against each other in multiplayer titles such as

The Matrix Online

and

Jump to Lightspeed

, the forthcoming expansion for

LucasArts'

Star Wars Galaxies

game.

Online gaming is a big push for Microsoft. During the conference, the company announced a deal with Electronic Arts that will allow Xbox Live subscribers to play games such as

Madden NFL

,

NBA Live 2005

and street racing game

Burnout 3

. Microsoft also is introducing a video chat feature for Xbox Live that will allow gamers to see their opponents while they play.

Unrated

Violence wasn't the only vice on display at E3.

Perhaps believing in the mantra "sex sells," publishers such as

Arush Entertianment

and Sierra are pushing titles such as

Playboy: The Mansion

and

Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude

, respectively. Meanwhile, dozens of games include sexually idealized women, such as those in

Square Enix's

Final Fantasy XI

or

Webzen's

Mu

.

And that's not to mention the scantily clad women who hand out tchotchkes or praise game players at booths. Present at the conference were Daisy Duke look-a-likes promoting a new game from Ubisoft based on the old

Dukes of Hazard

television show, a couple of women wearing miniskirt-length togas advertising

Shadow of Rome

, and two women in Playboy bunny outfits at the kiosk for

Playboy: The Mansion

.

But in a sign that the industry may be growing up, only a small minority of exhibitors seemed to be employing these women this year. And they were far outnumbered at the conference by professional women: game developers, marketing specialists and public relations specialists.