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H’w’d software hot

Movie-themed games lead charge at E3 confab

ATLANTA — Bigger, faster games attached to brand names from Hollywood — that’s the message from this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo.

E3 may have abandoned its Los Angeles location, but Hollywood’s influence is greater than ever. From Bruce Willis to Robin Williams and “Blade Runner” to “Anastasia,” this fall’s computer and videogame shelves will be filled with Hollywood-connected software.

Throughout the crowded hall — which hosted reps from more than 400 companies, in what has grown to a $4 billion per-year industry — the talk among traditional game publishers and the interactive divisions of film studios focused on “properties.”

First International Day

And in recognition of international markets, E3 on Friday held its first International Day Conference Program, co-hosted by Variety, with speakers from the U.K., Germany, France and Japan. The program sessions gave an overview of the global marketplace.

“Our goal is to encourage the growth of the interactive entertainment software business globally, while exploring issues with worldwide ramifications for the business,” said Doug Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Assn., the sponsor of E3.

Among the interactive properties with a Hollywood connection, Westwood Studios, known for its success with the “Command and Conquer” series, is readying a dramatic, dark “Blade Runner” game for a fall release. Disney Interactive is launching a challenge to longtime publishers of educational software with a line of reading and math titles fronted by its Winnie the Pooh and Aladdin characters, and the ink just dried on Broderbund’s five-year licensing agreement for “Rugrats.”

“Sabrina, the Teenage Witch,” “Clueless,” “Hercules,” “Men in Black,” “The Lost World,” “The X-Files,” “Anastasia” and “The Simpsons” are also the basis for new game titles.

Now is the time

“The time is now,” said Donny Blank, senior producer of the “Blade Runner” game from Westwood Studios. “You’ll see more and more titles from studio libraries” joining pioneers such as “Star Trek” and “Star Wars,” which have enjoyed enormous and sustained success in the electronic entertainment market.

Over at Fox Interactive, “now” has arrived. President Jon Richmond launched three titles based on “The Simpsons,” “X-Files” and its upcoming animated movie, “Anastasia.” A fourth game features a new animated character called CROC, which will make its television debut in 1999.

“We had a lot of success in the past year with the ‘Die Hard’ trilogy and our ‘Independence Day’ game,” said Richmond. This success, he noted, encouraged the Fox Interactive division to persist and helped Fox find its feet in the medium.

“Our focus is on great games,” Roth said. “We use the properties to inspire us and to market.”

Fox Interactive is producing games for the PC, Playstation and Saturn. Disney Interactive came to the show with three computer-based educational products, math and reading titles for pre-schoolers fronted by Winnie the Pooh and his friends and “Aladdin’s Math Quest” for kids aged 6-9.

‘Educational coming out’

“E3 is our educational coming out,” said Carolyn O’Keefe, vice president of marketing at Disney Interactive’s Edutainment division. The division has two additional titles in the works for next year. They’ve pulled out all the stops for their debut, snagging Robin Williams to reprise his genie role in the Aladdin title.

Disney is also preparing games and storybooks around its “Hercules” pic and its new television character, Nightmare Ned.

Activision brought Willis to town for a show-and-tell to promote its Playstation action game “Apocalypse” — an action-shooter set in a dark, violent future. As part of the deal, Willis received an equity interest in the company and profit participation. Willis said he agreed to the role because the game involves cutting-edge technology that didn’t exist a year ago. Based on early response, he and Activision are already talking sequels, he said, and maybe even a movie.

DreamWorks Interactive, whose “Goosebumps” title far outsold its other two offerings last year, also got the message about brands, said division chief Glenn Entis. The company’s PC and videogames have “The Lost World” themes as well as another title under the “Goosebumps” umbrella. Entis says future DreamWorks offerings will spin off from the parent studios’ animated movies such as “The Prince of Egypt.”

Console games win

At this year’s show, the console games seemed to win the now-traditional duel with PC rivals. The console market, boosted by the popularity of the Nintendo 64 and the Playstation, attracted enormous crowds.

“The PC has not yet delivered such simple features as ‘plug and play,’ and ‘instant on,’ ” said Ron Frankel, executive vice president of MGM Interactive. “Consoles deliver the more fulfilling game play experience for a range of genres.” Price and ease of use also favor the videogame market, he said.

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