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Flaunting Convention

The multimedia industry may be growing up a bit -- Six observations made at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3)

There comes a time for every teenage boy to move beyond the noisy trappings of adolescence — horror movies, gangsta rap, guts-spewing videogames — and consider getting a life. Likewise, the first annual Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), held during the second week of May at the Los Angeles Convention Center, showcased a sophisticated high-tech lineup from an industry that is beginning to figure out that there's a universe beyond high school. Not that there was a shortage of hormonal overactivity: Most new games still have names like Battle Beast, and if we had a nickel for every time a publicist used the word cyberpunk, we wouldn't need to write for a living. Was it mere coincidence that the expo included a heavily attended panel called ''Portrayal of Women in Video Games'' while ghettoizing the porn CD-ROM publishers in the faraway reaches of the exhibition space? Okay, John Wayne Bobbitt did show up for a promo stunt, but after a less-than-thrilling Christmas season, the pockmarked multimedia industry may be on the verge of moving out of Mom and Dad's house and finally getting its own apartment.

Here's what we learned at the show:

CD-ROMs are getting classier.
For every 10 futuristic thrillers featuring bad acting there was one truly elegant multimedia experience — a definite improvement in the ratio over last year. The first two titles in British book publisher Dorling Kindersley's virtual museum series, Cat and Bird, are smartly crafted worlds of information and imagery. And Magnet Interactive's Chop Suey, an inventive story world for girls of all ages, displayed influences as diverse as folk artist Howard Finster and old Clutch Cargo cartoons.

The star power is rising.
Hollywood, like the rest of the country, is discovering that it's cool to be wired. George Lucas, Bo Jackson, William Shatner, Erika Eleniak, and Dom DeLuise were at E3 pushing product. Michael Jackson and could be found at the parties. Others, including Geena Davis and Steven Spielberg, simply wandered the convention floor, taking in the high-tech sights.

Get ready for the Great Videogame War.
No, it's not some hot new action title, but rather the looming battles to establish the standard for the next generation of game systems. This is supposedly the year when 16-bit Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo machines get mothballed to make room for high-powered 32- and 64-bit platforms, most of which made their official debuts at E3. And considering what's at stake — dominance in the $5 billion-a-year videogame market — it's no wonder that the four main players (Sega, Nintendo, Sony, and 3DO) spent most of the show sniping at one another.

The taunting began the day before the opening of the convention, when a Sony banner that read, ''Eats Nintendo for lunch — then throws up'' was hung in the convention center. (The banner mysteriously disappeared prior to the start of the show.) Sony was rubbing salt into a fresh wound: Nintendo had just announced that its Ultra 64 system, originally scheduled to hit shelves this year, would be delayed until April. Then, in a stunning move, archrival Sega shipped 30,000 of its 32-bit Saturn systems to select retailers on the eve of E3 — four months ahead of the scheduled September release. Sony, stuck with its September launch date, parried with its own surprise: a $299 list price for its 32-bit PlayStation, significantly less than Saturn's $399 price tag. And these are just the opening salvos.

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