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Tuesday, December 16, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Holiday Computer-Game Hits Have A Familiar Ring -- Software Makers Relying On Sequels

Contra Costa Times

WALNUT CREEK, Calif. - Video and computer game makers are showing that Hollywood isn't the only dream factory that knows how to crank out sequels.

Tomb Raider 2. Riven. Civ 2: Fantastic Worlds. Diddy Kong Racing. Crash Bandicoot 2. Final Fantasy 7. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Quake 2. Duke Nukem Forever. Streets of SimCity.

If some of the names sound familiar, they should. These and other games that have crowded store shelves during the holiday season are all sequels or extensions of previous computer or video games.

"Hollywood loves sequels, and we definitely have taken a page out of Tinseltown's book," said Eric Winkler, spokesman for Novato, Calif.-based Broderbund, which publishes the Cyan-developed Riven, the enigmatic computer game of puzzles and mysteries that is the sequel to the equally enigmatic Myst.

Riven sold about 480,000 copies in the three weeks after its Oct. 31 debut, Winkler said. "This year will blow away previous years."

Consumers who want games for their Sony Playstation, Nintendo 64, or personal computer have grabbed the sequel-oriented game software almost as fast as the packages arrive on the loading docks.

"I would be surprised if most publishers aren't getting something in the neighborhood of about 70 or 75 percent of their revenues from sequels," said John Taylor, principal analyst with Arcadia Development, a Portland-based investment firm.

For computer games, Riven has become the top-selling title; Myst is No. 5, according to PC Data, a market researcher. Among titles for video-game consoles, analysts say the hottest seller is Tomb Raider 2.

"We want to utilize a successful game, make it a sequel, and thereby create a franchise to put out a product each year that relates to that," said Gary Keith, spokesman for Tomb Raider publisher Eidos Interactive. "And Tomb Raider is our franchise." Tomb Raider features Lara Croft, a pistol-packing, puzzle-solving, female Indiana Jones. Some analysts have estimated it will sell more than 100,000 copies between its Nov. 24 release and Christmas.

Redmond-based Nintendo of America last month projected it would sell 1.5 million Diddy Kong Racing games in the five weeks between its Nov. 24 debut and Christmas. It already sold 800,000 copies in the week and a half after Thanksgiving, said Peter Main, executive vice president for sales and marketing.

Companies also are releasing sequels that are not strictly sequels, but extensions of an existing concept. Maxis, a Walnut Creek-based unit of Electronic Arts, has launched Streets of SimCity, which is based on the SimCity concept created by Maxis years ago.

Alameda, Calif.-based Microprose is betting computer games of strategy also can turn into hits. The company hopes to follow the success of Civilization II, which sold 1 million copies, with Civ II: Fantastic Worlds.

Yet game software companies may have little choice but to depend on sequels. Fierce competition and nervous retailers have forced software developers to be sure of success.

"Software games are a hit-driven business, just like the movie business," said Andrea Williams, analyst with investment firm Volpe Brown Whelan in San Francisco.

Games have become more expensive to produce. Development costs for computer and video games these days can easily run about $2 million.

"Every company is producing fewer titles and concentrating their resources on titles they think are more likely to be successful," Williams said.

What's more, software companies are finding it tougher to find shelf space at stores, even though a growing number of mass-market retailers such as Costco, Price Club, Wal-Mart and Sears sell games.

"Big retailers are more risk-adverse than specialty software stores," Broderbund's Winkler said. "They like to see a track record before they jump in."

Some companies aim to parlay established, familiar concepts into hot titles.

Novato-based Mindscape's Lego Island uses the concept of the popular building-blocks as the focus of the computer game.

Lego Island is one of the top five computer-game sellers, PC Data reported.

Of course, there are also franchises waiting or hoping to be born. Psygnosis of Foster City, Calif., has released two games, G Police and Colony Wars, that feature aerial and outer-space combat in futuristic, otherworldly settings. Analysts say the games are examples of titles that push the envelope of graphics technology.

The stakes are high for these companies, especially in an era of consolidation.

"It's a make-or-break season for the game software companies," Williams said.

Information from Bloomberg News is included in this report.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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