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DREAMCAST COMES TRUE; EXPECTATIONS FOR SEGA SYSTEM SKY HIGH.

Byline: David Bloom Staff Writer

In a few days, hundreds of thousands of people will line up for what is likely to be the biggest opening day in entertainment history, spending as much as $90 million to catch the next big thing in fun.

And the fans won't be queueing up and clamoring for a book, or a record, or even a movie, not even one of ``Titanic'' proportions. Instead, they'll be buying a new kind of videogame machine, Sega's Dreamcast.

The Dreamcast is the first of the so-called next-generation gaming machines expected to hit U.S. store shelves over the next 18 to 24 months.

The machine is a technological leap past the graphical and other limits of current all-in-one game boxes - such as Sony's aging but hugely popular PlayStation and Nintendo's N64 - that plug into a television and are simple enough for even a techo tyro to operate.

Both Sony and Nintendo are developing their own successor machines. But many observers believe those challengers to Dreamcast's technological superiority will be unlikely to arrive even by late next year, when the companies are promising to roll out their machines.

So for now, Sega has the coolest box in the business, the one gamers will be clamoring to have.

It's a box with the best graphics in consoles, by a long shot, even outstripping nearly all personal computers in its visual virtuosity.

It also brings Internet connectivity to console gaming, allowing head-to-head play and much else that previously had only been available to people with games made for far more expensive and complex personal computers.

And it blurs, more than ever, the edges between videogaming and older kinds of entertainment media, such as television and movies. More than ever, you'll be able to play engaging, absorbing games that look more real, more cinematic than ever before possible.

Finally, Sega, the one-time king of gaming, has a chance to recover its crown after a bad stumble with its Saturn machine, which ended up mostly ignored in the mid-'90s round of new console introductions.

Now, much of Sega's future rides on the Dreamcast's success. And for now, the prospects for success look very good indeed.

Already close to 300,000 people have put down deposits - usually a small percentage of the machine's $199 cost - with a retailer to reserve their own Dreamcast.

Throw in the cost of accessories and games, and most buyers will likely spend $300 or more apiece, said Christian Svensson, editor in chief and CEO of MCV, a videogaming trade publication.

And spend they will, Svensson predicts. Industry observers expect the hard-core gamers who have put money down to show up in droves on Day One.

``They're going to have roughly 300,000 units sold the first day,'' Svensson said. ``That could generate as much as $90 million in sales that day. I can't think of any product, movie, record that's generating that kind of dollars.''

By comparison, ``Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace'' grossed $28.5 million its first day, easily setting a record for the movie business. ``Phantom Menace'' set another record at the end of its unusually long five-day opening weekend, grossing just over $100 million.

Figures for other kinds of media aren't even close to ``Star Wars,'' much less what's expected for Dreamcast. Because so much is riding on Sega's success with the Dreamcast, the company is spending $100 million in U.S. marketing alone.

That's a ton of money by any standard. But the payoff could be big.

Look at what happened with Sony when its PlayStation took off five years ago, eventually selling 20 million units in the United States alone, and helping make videogaming a mass-market entertainment medium.

Now PlayStation generates more than a third of Sony's profits, and you can find that little gray box in one in five American households.

Add another 13 million N64 units for Nintendo and you can start to understand how gaming has become even bigger - an estimated $7 billion this year - than the movie business's domestic box-office gross.

Sega, left behind the past few years, has put together a machine designed to snatch back a big share of that boom. Have they succeeded?

So far, say gaming publication editors and gamers themselves, the answer is yes.

``I think the Dreamcast is an amazing machine,'' said Greg Rau, editor in chief of Incite Video Games, a new ``gaming lifestyle'' magazine. ``It's definitely the most impressive graphically and gameplay-wise out there. It's really hard to look at other games (on other platforms) the same way now.''

D.J. Panzer, a 9-year-old from Beverly Hills who was one of the first people to rent the Dreamcast and one of its premier titles, Sonic Adventure, this summer through Hollywood Video, generally gave the experience high marks.

``It was fun and the game moves very fast, but the graphics were not quite as good as I expected,'' Panzer said in an e-mail interview. ``Overall, I think the game is good.''

He found much to like, including game levels where players dodge avalanches and fly airplanes through vivid landscapes. And indeed, Sonic Adventure is very fast, almost blindingly so, with sharp, lush graphics that whip by at something closer to supersonic speeds.

Panzer played the Dreamcast without benefit of its $25 virtual memory unit, which stores progress and allows you to play mini-games separately. Even without it, though gaming can be fabulous on the Dreamcast, with some titles directly taken from arcade machines on a pixel-by-pixel ``port,'' or transfer.

But some titles - Ready2Rumble, Shenmue, Sega Bass Fishing, Soul Calibur, Armada, NFL 2000 and (despite D.J.'s mild disappointment) Sonic Adventure - are graphically so far ahead of the current crop of machines that there is little useful comparison.

Shenmue, which won't be released until later in the fall, represents what's possible with the machine: a much more cinematic experience that takes advantage of striking 3-D visual compositions and a ``camera'' that can watch action from many perspectives, or mimic the points of view common in, say, a televised football game.

The eye candy combines with the ability to create more kinds of opponents and smarter ones, place them in complex and compelling worlds, and even to play them over the Internet. Try that with your television.

It's all possible because of the machine's far more powerful innards, which have been fine-tuned to chomp through demanding graphic tasks with the ease of a T. rex gnawing a bronto burger.

To start with, a custom Hitachi processor running at four times the speed of an Intel Pentium II processor powers more complex environments and more challenging opponents.

Throw in a graphics acceleration chip from NEC, an audio chip from Yamaha, a whopping (for gaming consoles) 26 megabytes of memory and, for the first time in console gaming, a 56.6-kpbs modem and Internet connectivity, and you have a remarkable new kind of machine.

In fact, in Japan, where the machine has been available for 10 months, the Dreamcast has become as much an Internet appliance allowing cheap Web access as a gaming platform, said Svensson.

The modem and Sega's Web portal make it possible to play other people online, something previously possible only with expensive personal computers and a feature that could transform console gaming.

The only bad news here: Online play won't be available for a couple of months in the United States, though chat, hints, high-score listings and more will be, Sega officials said.

``You have a whole different market dynamic there with the online capabilities, and it's up to Sega to take advantage of it,'' said Svensson.

In the United States, Sega has cut an array of smart partnerships: with AT&T for Internet connectivity, Hollywood Video for game rentals, Iomega to create a compatible Zip storage drive, and with a major fall rock-music tour featuring Limp Bizkit and other chart-toppers.

The company also has mended its battered relationships with the game makers, allowing it to boast as many as 24 titles available on Sept. 9, easily a record for a new gaming machine.

Acclaim, the biggest console-game publisher outside the hardware makers themselves, is one of those supportive companies, though it also plans to develop titles for the new Sony and Nintendo machines when they arrive late next year.

``We expect they will sell between 600,000 and 800,000 (Dreamcast) units by Christmas,'' said Acclaim co-chairman and CEO Gregory Fishbach. ``And the overall software market for Dreamcast will be between 4 million and 5 million units sold in that time. I think that most of the software companies will enjoy a great deal of success with the launch of the hardware.''

Acclaim will release Dreamcast versions of four titles that are also available for some combination of the PC, PlayStation and Nintendo 64 platforms. On Dreamcast launch day, they'll release Trickstyle, a futuristic hoverboard racing game, Fishbach said.

When the PlayStation 2 and Nintendo's Dolphin come out, probably at the end of next year, they should represent yet another big jump in videogaming technology, Fishbach said. But for now, Dreamcast is the dream machine.

``It's another leap forward in terms of what hardware systems can do,'' Fishbach said. ``I think they'll be off to a great start in the first three, four, five months. Then they'll have strong competition at the end of next year.''

When it could be time for yet another big opening day.

CAPTION(S):

3 Photos

Photo: (1--Cover--Color) Pleasant Dreams

Sega's new videogame system promises the best graphics yet

(2) Players showed up en masse earlier this summer to try the new Sega Dreamcast machines at Hollywood Video in Westwood.

Gene Blevins/Special to the Daily News

(3) Armada, made by Metro 3D, is visually out of this world.
COPYRIGHT 1999 Daily News
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:L. A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 31, 1999
Words:1626
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