Videogaming manufacturers are about to enter Armageddon.

While marketing research points to a steady decline in the number of U.S. videogame players – as of December, there were an estimated 72.7 million gaming households in the U.S., down from 95.6 million just a year earlier – companies are nonetheless gearing up for a major push of a whole new wave of costlier, more technically proficient gaming systems. Sega of America launched the first salvo March 9, announcing that it would put its CD-based Saturn system on store shelves Sept. 2. Sources said Sony is expected to launch its PlayStation within a week of that date.

In fact, all of the major gaming hardware developers – including Sony, Nintendo and Sega – will be launching new systems in the U.S. at relatively the same time.

“In order to break through all the competition, each company is going to have to do significant spending,” said George Harrison, director of marketing and corporate communications for Nintendo.

Sega’s decision to announce its release date sent execs from all the other companies into daylong closed door meetings. While Harrison would not say when Nintendo will release its two new systems, Virtual Boy (a virtual reality-styled gaming system) and Ultra 64 (a cartridge-based 64-bit system), he did say the systems would be on store shelves by late summer and fall, respectively. A fourth company in the mix is 3DO, which launched a CD-based game system nearly a year ago and is planning to release a 64-bit upgrade by year’s end. “We’re not really worried about the fight between the three other companies because we’ve already got an advanced system on the market,” said 3DO’s Diane Hunt. “And our 64-bit upgrade blows everything else away,” she added.

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