NEWS - Tuesday, March 25, 2003

War games see sales spike

"Operation Iraqi Freedom" brings on surge of interest in military titles. NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - PC and video games may generally serve as nice breaks from reality, but the U.S. war on Iraq has sparked gamer interest in current events. Military-themed games, which were already experiencing a sales surge well before the war, are becoming even more popular. Titles such as "Medal of Honor: Allied Assault" (letting gamers recreate the storming of Normandy) and "Battlefield 1942" (a fictional version of World War II, letting players choose any of five nationalities) have been fixtures in the Top 10 selling games list for months now, but with last week's military action by the U.S., retailers say consumer demand has increased. While it's obviously too early to even consider a game based on the current conflict, the 1991 Gulf War has not gone unnoticed by the gaming world. "Conflict Desert Storm", published by Take Two Interactive, is a squad-based action game that puts you in the boots of a British SAS or U.S. Delta Force squad. The game dabbles in a bit of wish fulfillment, though, as your team penetrates as deep as Baghdad on various rescue and assassination missions. The game received generally poor reviews, but still sold pretty well, moving roughly 300,000 copies for the PlayStation 2 and another 150,000-200,000 for the Xbox. Still, under normal circumstances, "Conflict Desert Storm" likely would have seen a price cut by this point. A sweep of software stores in the New York area, however, showed the game was still carrying a price of about $50. Several locations were sold out. That interest will help Take Two's bottom line somewhat, but it probably won't affect the stock price. "It's been a successful title for them, but I'm not sure that I'd see this as meaningfully changing the earnings picture," said Stewart Halpern, managing director and analyst for RBC Capital Markets. While "Conflict Desert Storm" is seeing a slight surge, that's nothing compared to the interest in "Desert Combat," a free "mod" for Electronic Arts' hit "Battlefield 1942". "Mods" (short for modifications) are user-made add-ons to a game, created using tools released by the developer. The most famous example of these is the "Half-Life" mod called "Counter Strike", which has become the world's most popular multiplayer action game. "Desert Combat" is still a work in progress, but more than 250,000 people have already downloaded it. And traffic to the game's official site has increased by roughly 15,000 page views per day since the beginning of the war. While it currently focuses exclusively on the 1991 Gulf War, team leader Frank DeLise said the game will eventually include missions from Somalia, Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Players can choose to fight for either the U.S. led coalition or the Iraqi side. (Ironically, players from Germany, which opposes the U.S. action, often tend to play as Iraqi soldiers.) A new version of "Desert Combat" will be released next week and will include new weapons for both sides (including scud missiles and A-10 attack planes) and a mission to find and destroy (or, if you're the Iraqis, defend) a chemical weapons plant. "Desert Combat", which was overwhelmingly voted last year's most popular mod, is a free download for now, though that might change with future versions. "We've been approached by multiple publishers to try and sell it," said DeLise, "so it's probably not going to be a mod for long. It'll be more of an expansion pack." Of course, it has been well publicized that the U.S. Army has its own video game, as well. But don't download a copy of "America's Army: Operations" and expect to be able to reproduce the ongoing battle. "You're never going to see anything specific like an attack on Iraq," said spokesperson Lori Mezoff. "Missions are more like amalgamations." The closest the Army's game will come to acknowledging the war is by introducing new missions centering on combat medics and special forces squads. Both of those will be shown at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in May.


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