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Comics & Games Retailer

The Evolution of E3

By Oliver Chin

Although Marvel's reputation has suffered in the realm of comics retailers for its hostile attitude and shortsighted publishing policies, ironically it has been lionized by the business press. Wall Street analysts have praised its licensing strategy to squeeze out every penny from its stable of superheroes, and its stock price has responded accordingly. Living up to its predictions a few years ago, the "House of Ideas" is no longer is a comics publisher. In its latest press releases, Marvel markets itself a "leading global character-based entertainment company that has developed and owns a library of more than 4,700 characters which have entertained generations around the world for over 60 years."

Though this pitch may seem distasteful to some, it is a sign of the times. This is never more evident than in the digital domain, such as at the annual E3 show held in May 2003 at the Los Angeles Convention Center. As video games now sport bigger production budgets that feature films, the medium is quickly subsuming comics as the arena where fans to identify and interact with their favorite characters.

But business has not been easy, even for the big boys. In a lull between chip upgrade cycles, the biggest news was lower prices. Sony and Microsoft both matched price cuts for their consoles $179.99 in the US, $249.99 in Canada, following similar action in Europe. Not the most exciting topic, it was a necessary move to prop up sales of aging hardware. In particular, the X-box is hurting Bill Gates' pocketbook. Xbox revenue dropped by half to $493 million, compared to its launch a year before. The flagging Microsoft's Home entertainment division, which covers the Xbox, PC games, consumer hardware and Microsoft TV, suffered a loss of $190 million for its third quarter (ended March 31), almost double of that from a year earlier. Adding insult to injury, Electronic Arts announced that its ten new online sports games were only for Sony's PlayStation 2.

Movie, Movie

But more interesting to consumers was the overwhelming spate of new tie-ins. Now it seems par for the course for a new video game to have, in marketing jargon, "a synchronized release with cross merchandised mass media properties." Here's a recap of some comics related properties that debuted at the show (many available simultaneously on multiple platforms, PC, PS2, Xbox, and GameCube), though many of these products prize name recognition over compelling game-play.

At E3, individual comic creators got in on the act, such as Jim Lee promoting his work for Ubi Soft's upcoming Batman's Sin Tzu, or Todd McFarlane pushing Konami's Evil Prophecy (November 2003), based on his Monsters toy line of classic creatures such as Dracula, Mummy, Werewolf, and Frankenstein. However the biggest spotlights were focused on the current crop of cinematic extravaganzas, originating from comics and which have cycled around to become games themselves.

The Incredible Hulk

It seems like the Hulk's gamma radiation has infected all branches of consumer licensing. It is disconcerting see the jolly green giant transformed into lollipops on Safeway checkout counters or kids wondering what to do with pair of oversize plastic fists called "Hulk Hands" at Toys R Us. Nevertheless, the media really knows how to play Monopoly. Vivendi has synched Universal Picture's movie debut with that of the game ($49.99, PC $29.99, www.vugames.com) produced by its own subsidiary Vivendi Universal Games.

Poor Bill Bixby - he missed having Jennifer Connelly has his main squeeze Betty Ross. But at least his alter ego was recognizable. Aided by the Industrial Light and Magic, Ang Lee has created The Hulk as a CGI poster boy for steroid abuse who makes Lou Ferrigno look like Gilligan. That's of course a perfect model for a video game. Follows the plot of film, the gamer can play scientist Bruce Banner to decode logical brain-twisters, or his behemoth who goes nuts in "mindless smash up everything in sight" scenarios. Once again the Leader is the arch villain, stealing the Hulk's "essence" in a diabolical plot to spawn an army of mutants. Bashing through San Francisco, Alcatraz, and military posts to reclaim his mojo, Big Green may want to watch Austin Powers for a break instead when these tasks get too repetitive.

Matrix

The largest interactive games publisher in Europe, Infogrames had gotten financial indigestion from failing to translate a string of acquisitions into the desired profit. Therefore it bought Atari, assumed its name, and put all its eggs into a basket called the Matrix. Spending over $20 million dollar to produce the title, and armed with a marketing budget reputedly four times that, Atari had to sell 4 million copies ($49.99, www.enterthematrixgame.com) just to break even.

However, the second installment of the Wachowski Brothers' film trilogy, The Matrix Reloaded raked in over $200 million in two weeks. In less than a month after the title's simultaneous release on all four platforms, Atari announced it had sold over 1 million units of the 4 million shipped worldwide. Touting how it was part of "the largest multi-genre entertainment premiere ever," the game was actually directed by and written by the Wachowski Brothers, with an hour of custom footage using the movie's actors and environments. But given the mixed reviews of the movie, the game may not have too long of a shelf life by the time Matrix Revolutions hits the big screen this holiday season.

X-men, X-2

Following up on its success with Spiderman franchise, Activision touted Wolvie's own adventures in Wolverine's Revenge ($49.99). Plotted by Larry Hama, and featuring Mark Hamill and "Professor-X" Patrick Stewart voiceovers, our favorite berserker must search for an antidote to the virus inside him. Racing against the clock, he travels to Canada to investigate the Department H lab where he was made into Weapon X. Dicing up Magneto Juggernaut, Wendigo, and Sabertooth is fun initially, but even Logan will get carpal tunnel syndrome clawing his way out of these scenarios.

Yu-Gi-Oh! and those Toitles

Konami again puts its money where consumers' minds are with fall releases of this hybrid collectible card game (CCG) and real-time strategy game (RTS). Loyal to the Nintendo license, the GameCube and Game Boy Advance titles pertain to broadening one's addiction by gaining experience points, fighting foes with dueling monsters and squirreling away "exclusive" trading cards. In the PC game, one can bone up with an online tutorial before facing off against Yugi himself.

Konami places another wager on the resurrection in popularity of another old franchise, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (created in 1984 by Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman). Back in the day, Konami developed the TMNT games for the 1980s Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Now it will render the reptiles in 3D for the Game Boy Advance, Game Cube, PS2, and Xbox. Play as your favorite turtle trawling through the bowels of the Big Apple, karate chopping with Casey Jones and Splinter in search of Shredder and his foot ninjas. Unsurprisingly, this is timed with the TURTLES new Saturday morning show on the FOX TV. Just as its original TMNT series was the #1 children's television show in the late 80's, these and other companies hope to have lightening strike twice, wherever the consumer may be.

Magazines

Comics Buyer's Guide is the USA's longest running magazine about comic books. Every month it features new comic reviews, nostalgic retroviews, interviews and a price guide. Oliver Chin reviews anime, manga, movies, videos, graphic novels, comics, and books.

Comics & Games Retailer provides news to comic and games retailers about practical how-to tips on selling comics and keeping up with industry and market trends. Monthly issues include Oliver Chin's column "Going Global" and other articles that give a national overview of the market.