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Christmas and New Year Thursday, 24 December, 1998, 08:40 GMT
Santa's sack of software
Elexis from Sin, Link from Zelda, an X-Wing and Lara Croft
Coming to your frontroom this Christmas...
By Richard Ayers

"I want Lara/Zelda/FIFA 99 for Christmas" - the cry of children across the world who want computer games for Christmas has even more resonance for cash strapped parents this year.

Videogames, for PC or for a console, are the prime present this Christmas. But they cost a pretty penny and retail figures show that despite a pre-Christmas spree, the coffers are running low.

We ask why everyone wants a computer game for Christmas?

While parents get to grip with gaming Father Christmas loads up his sled not with models and dolls but with N64s and Playstations, Half Life and Sin.

The world's economies may have cooled down, but the videogame industry is booming. It is now the fastest growing part of the entertainment industry.

Lara croft
Lara has been chosen to front the UK's technology drive
The editor of Arcade magazine, Neil West, put it in perspective: "In the UK this year over 1bn of software sales will have been clocked up by December 31st. This is one of the only markets that shows absolutely no signs of slowing down." And remember, that does not include the cost of the machines themselves.

Since her release in November, Lara Croft, the gravity-defying heroine of Tomb Raider 3, will have reached two million homes worldwide.

But even she faces tough yuletide competition from Link, the diminutive character of The Legend of Zelda - Ocarina of Time. In the two weeks of release in the UK, Zelda has even outsold the much trumpeted soft and cuddly Furby.

Bigger than pop, bigger than films

Before long game playing will be the bigger than pop music and bigger than films.

Uber-producer George Lucas has strengthened his stake in the videogame industry - his Star Wars franchise has a Christmas offering in Rogue Squadron and LucasArts is also is expected to do well with Grim Fandango - a 'mexican noir' story with clear cinematic production values.

When top games cost between 1.5m and 3m to produce, with films upwards of 20m, videogames are a safe bet.

Staring into a box on Boxing Day

Boxing Day will see millions of people staring into a tv or monitor to control a character on a screen - of course that is after parents have tangled with the wires that, eventually, make up the family computer/console.

Some may say this solitary pursuit will have significant social effects. What is certain is that it will have significant financial ones.

The choice is between personal computers, PCs, and consoles: the Sony Playstation and the Nintendo 64. The brand new Sega Dreamcast is a big hit, but is only available in Japan as yet.

Firstly, if you are buying a machine for games then the statistics say you are either a parent buying for offspring, or a 20 to 35-year-old male buying for himself.

PCs and 'investment'

PCs have always been a good family buy. At Christmas in 1985 my parents said our Commodore 64 would be "educational". Little did they suspect my sisters would never touch it and I would spend all my time loading the classic games Elite and Impossible Mission.

Link - character from The Legend of Zelda - Ocarina of time
Zelda's Link may be the new star, but the Ocarina of time is the fifth version of the game
Drastic reductions in price and the standard inclusion of better quality graphics cards have improve the PC position. Higher resolution graphics and the ability to go online are advantages. But a decent game playing machine in the UK will cost around 1,000.

However PCs and consoles are not in direct competition. They aim at and attract different markets - consoles dedicate themselves to games and cost around 100.

Console craze

The growth in gaming means more than one in 10 UK households with a TV now also have a Playstation and since its launch in late 1995 more than 40m have been shipped worldwide.

Unlike the PC market, with consoles the hardware battle is led by the available software.

One of the reasons Playstation currently leads the field is that, as well as having Lara Croft to front their advertising campaigns, there are also over 400 titles available.

Nintendo has 115 and climbing, but the brand new Dreamcast has only four.

New games cost around 40, but come down in price after six months and can be rented for the same price as a video.

It is the quality of game that counts - and that relies on the skill of its creators and the hardware capability.

Nintendo worked with Rare software to produce the groundbreaking and award winning Goldeneye 007 which has been the hit of 1997.

Making full use of the film franchise for plot development, the game combines shoot-em-up experience with great graphics to reduce the level of suspended disbelief that the player needs for that escapist half-hour. Or hour. Or two.

But this is another key point: most games require up to 20 hours of concentrated gaming for a hard-core gamer to finish them. So if you start playing on Boxing day you won't surface till the new year.

Just kids stuff?

So what has changed to instigate such growth?

"Videogames have never been bigger than they are today," says Arcade's Neil West, "Games are looking more and more realistic. We can now show people instead of just blocks and fuzzy shapes.

"More and more people are finding them interesting. Essentially games haven't changed - it's just that more people are starting to take notice and not dismiss them off the base as 'kids stuff'."

The Playstation has dominated the last four Christmases with Lara Croft leading the way in 1996, 97 and 98. Inevitably the archeologist heroine will be a big seller this year with a great look, feel and design to the game.

Following hot on the heels of Goldeneye 007, the N64's Zelda also makes use of its gaming pedigree. Gaming magazine Next Generation has called it "the best game ever designed".

As well as outselling the Furby, this most recent incarnation is expected to sell 335,000 copies in the UK, and 5 million copies worldwide by the end of January.

Sports fans also take their gaming very seriously indeed on both PC and console.

The motor racing game Grand Turismo was one of Europe's best sellers and footballs' FIFA 98 was huge. FIFA 99 is expected to do at least as well in the coming year.

So there is plenty to choose from and the competition for your cash will only intesify.

The videogame generation is already growing up, and you had better be prepared to pay for it, because next year Santa's sleigh will be packed with even more gaming goodies.

See also:

02 Dec 98 | Science/Nature
17 Dec 98 | The Economy
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