Vidgamers come out to play in L.A.

Electronic Entertainment Expo touts news, parties, buzz

The biggest entertainment business that’s not part of Hollywood makes its annual L.A. pilgrimage this week, as the $20 billion vidgame industry stuffs the Los Angeles Convention Center with 400 exhibitors, scores of scantily clad distractions, hundreds of games and tens of thousands of attendees.

The world’s biggest vidgame biz gathering, the Electronic Entertainment Expo draws a hefty share of Hollywood visitors seeking game properties that can become movies, or deals with game publishers who want to license films and TV shows. The show will attract perhaps 60,000 attendees — supposedly all over 18 and tied somehow to the vidgame industry — though the show’s pandemonium has some wondering whether it has grown too big, and too loud, for its own good.

Fetes start tonight

The show itself runs Wednesday through Friday, but the news conferences and parties begin tonight, as companies grab the spotlight before the chaos fully descends. Microsoft will talk up its Xbox vidgame console at the Olympic Grand Auditorium, while Atari parties at Raleigh Studios with Arnold Schwarzenegger ahead of this summer’s “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” vidgame.

The other two big console makers — Sony and Nintendo — hold big briefings for press and analysts Tuesday morning. Those massive gatherings traditionally have blended self-congratulation with prognostication, looking back on the year’s achievements and previewing upcoming titles, initiatives and hardware. The party circuit will dot downtown, Hollywood and points between the rest of the week.

Other likely highlights include the following:

  • Hardware price cuts. Cheaper game consoles would be good news for Hollywood, as big movie and TV franchises are just the clutter cutters that appeal to the mass-market millions buying those machines. A Nintendo GameCube for $99, for instance, would be hugely attractive to families and a boon to companies that make or license kid-friendly franchises.

    “Traditionally, we’ve done very well when the price drops make consoles truly mass-market devices,” said Graham Hopper, topper at Disney’s recently rechristened and revamped games unit, Buena Vista Games.

  • Online, again. Microsoft and Sony probably will tout improvements to online offerings, which were last year’s big news but aren’t yet generating big money. Microsoft already has announced a series of pricing tweaks to its Xbox Live service. Online eventually will be a major distribution medium for entertainment of all kinds. Games will lead the way.

  • The future, maybe. The big three could detail plans for their next generation of consoles, at least saying when they’ll debut the PlayStation 3, Xbox 2 and GameCube 2.

  • Hand-to-hand combat. Nintendo faces several threats to its cash cow, the handheld GameBoy Advance. Cell phone giant Nokia and startup Tapwave want a piece of the massively profitable market; Internet reports say Microsoft has been privately showing its own game and media player.

  • The games. At a time when retailers are stocking fewer titles, E3 becomes the best chance for companies to build buzz for upcoming games.

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