Follow The Leader

E3, or the Electronic Entertainment Expo, is the world’s largest trade event exclusively dedicated to showcasing interactive entertainment software. This year around 400 exhibiting companies representing 70 countries showed up, hoping to debut the game that will become the next big thing within this ever-growing industry. Last year computer- and video-game software sales grew eight percent to 6.35-billion dollars and are expected to show strong growth for years to come. Action games is still the largest category, currently accounting for 28 percent of video-game sales. But with sports/driving games making up the second highest at seventeen percent, it’s no wonder that some of the top pro skaters in the world were on hand to show why games based in their sport continue to make an impact in gaming sales.

According to the Interactive Digital Software Association (ISDA), 60 percent of all Americans age six and older, or about 145-million people, play computer and video games. On top of that, in 2001 over 225-million computer and video games were sold, or almost two games for every household in America. Skateboarding-based games are consistently sitting near the top, being represented by the largest independent franchise in all of gaming, Activision’s Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series.

If you had an Atari as a kid and played games like Pitfall and Kaboom!, the name Activision isn’t new to you. These days Activision is a leading worldwide developer, publisher, and distributor of interactive entertainment and leisure products. Founded in 1979, Activision posted revenues of 620-million dollars in 2001 and is the market leader with a 63-percent share of the fast-growing action-sport genre. Last year Activision established Activision 02 as its brand dedicated to action sports and relied on Tony Hawk to carry the load. As usual, Hawk stepped up and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 was recognized as the best console sports game of last year by the Academy Of Interactive Arts And Sciences. The Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater franchise continues to dominate and is one of the few games ever to continually outsell each of its previous versions. With this in mind, it was no surprise that Activision debuted Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4 at this year’s E3.

Conveniently slotted for release during the holiday shopping season, THPS4 relies on the realistic gameplay that made this franchise so successful, while also continuing to improve an already awesome game. By turning off the clock and giving the player an unlimited amount of time, the updated career mode makes THPS4 feel even more real. The expanded memory of today’s consoles allowed the game makers to give each character the player comes across a story that relates to goals. Talking to one person might alert you that the cops are on their way to a tennis court across town. Your goal is then to get there first and warn the skaters in the court that the cops are on their way. Since there isn’t a clock or an order you must complete the game in, the replayability factor is very high. Also embedded in THPS4 are mini games for when you get tired of skating around. After warning your friends at the tennis court, why not challenge them to a game of tennis? Although the graphics and gameplay of the mini games are a little weak, hats off to the designers for giving us something never seen before in a Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater game and for putting together something that will entertain both skating and nonskating players.

Last year Konami tried its hand at a skateboarding game with ESPN X-Games Skateboarding. Although somewhat entertaining in its own right, it failed to make a dent in the armor of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. This year Konami has ditched the ESPN license and developed what they call Evolution Skateboarding. A representative from Konami told me that this game is different from any skateboarding game out there because it’s based in a fantasy/arcade type of environment. By skating against what Konami calls “boss” characters, like a giant tarantula, and gathering up coins along the way, your skater can advance to the next level. Even with the game featuring eight pro skaters to choose from and a new “create-a-trick” mode, I kept looking for one of the Mario Brothers as I gobbled up the coins. Another strike against this game is that it must compete with arguably the biggest name recognition in skateboarding–Tony Hawk. Konami decided not to name the game after a player, but felt it necessary to involve pro skaters in the development of the game and include them as characters. A representative from Konami said their focus groups showed that many players couldn’t recognize most of the pro skaters out there, but overwhelmingly they wanted the option to play as a pro in a gaming environment. With an unusual story line and limited name recognition, I wouldn’t hold my breath for a second version of this game. Evolution Skateboarding will only be available for PlayStation 2 and the Nintendo GameCube, leaving Microsoft’s Xbox out in the cold.

Since THPS4 will be available in six different formats, including Xbox, I don?t think Microsoft will miss Evolution Skateboarding. But it does raise the question of which console is the best out there. Leading analysts forecast that new consoles will achieve 70-percent household penetration in the U.S. by 2005, with computer- and video-game software sales projected to surpass ten-billion dollars. Kaz Hirai, president and chief operating officer of Sony Computer Entertainment America (SCEA), kicked off Sony’s E3 press conference by declaring the PlayStation 2 the winner in the “console wars.” He claimed that PlayStation 2’s 30-million-units-installed base would be impossible for Xbox, at 3.5-million, and GameCube, at four-million, to overcome. PS2 currently has 250 titles available, and Sony expects that number to reach 400 by the end of this year. Shortly after his statement, Xbox, which is price fixed, lowered its retail price, making it the most inexpensive of the three. We’ll have to wait and see what impact this has in the long run.

The dominance of the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series continued to show at this year’s E3, and it looks like it will lead the way for at least another year. THPS’ dominance also showed with games like Acclaim’s Aggressive In Line–an in-line-skating game due out in September that looks strikingly similar to THPS–that other game makers are taking notice of. Finally, Evolution Skateboarding showed that developers will continue to look at skateboarding games differently, pushing the competition to develop games that help expand the popularity of the sport to skaters and nonskaters around the world.