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Games on DVD - 99 will be a good Christmas

Christmas 1999 will be the best yet for DVD. ZDNet predicts a whole raft of new film titles and at last, serious interest from the games creators.

By Christmas high-street retailers' shelves should be bulging with DVD-blessed PCs ready to take on the new games and film titles promised for the fledgling format. This, according to DVD industry experts, will finally help kick-start the sluggish uptake of Digital Versatile Disc entertainment in Europe.

The benefits of DVD are obvious. A "bigger bit bucket" gives games makers in particular more space to lavish on high quality graphics and sound. There are roughly 3000 DVD movies in the US and under 500 in Europe. Games titles tot up to a paltry dozen, with even less in Europe. So what's the problem?

Currently there aren't enough DVD drives being shipped with PCs so games developers have been reluctant to write for this relatively small market. Second, DVD is a new and expensive business model for the industry. Tim frost head of the DVD Forum which publishes the leading DVD equipment trade magazine One to One said: "You have to start from scratch to take advantage of what DVD has to offer. The games market is holding back on spending millions."

Bryan Welsh, managing director of UK online DVD distributor DVD Plus, likens the shift to next generation video/audio format to the migration from Floppy's to CDs. "The [games] industry has not worked out how to use the spare capacity yet. DVD's hold 5GBs plus so all of a sudden there is the possibility of a ten-fold increase on CDs." He added: "Also, the DVD film market started up 18 months before games."

Politics also plays a part. The global DVD film market is split into regions: North America, Europe and the rest of the world. The studios ensure there's no inter-region compatibility and anyone attempting to flog a US region discs in Europe, will face the wrath of the Federation Against Software Theft (FAST). "The studios want to control the movie titles. So regional incompatibility is designed that way. They want to stage titles in geographies so to maximise profits," said Welsh.

Games companies are hunting for that killer DVD application, according to Frost. "Eidos and Electronic Arts are sitting on the fence until the installed hardware base beds down. They're not stupid," he said. In the meantime, DVD games are emerging but most waste the benefits the new format offers according to Frost. Star Ship Titanic, created by Douglas Adams of Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy fame, is available on DVD. But, bemoans Frost, it merely packs three CDs worth of content onto one DVD.

By Christmas, things may have changed. One of the most exciting developments comes from games maker Psygnosis. 'Lamder', previewing at E3 in Los Angeles last week and due out by Christmas, is the world's first interactive game with Dolby Digital technology throughout, according to John Couling, application engineer at the UK's Dolby Labs. "Dolby Digital has six audio channels instead of the four in Dolby Surround, giving you gun shots from in front, behind or wherever the whole way through," said Couling.

The recent ratification of DVD audio standard and the prospect of DVD Web linking may also help drive the industry forward. "The idea that a DVD game or film playing on a TV or PC can link to a Web sites that sells is attracting huge interest," said Frost.

And Welsh claims DVD PCs are already becoming the norm. "Take Quantex, it's shipping 50 percent of its machines with DVD drives -- that's 20,000 a month," said Welsh.

Changing the way mighty studios and games firms do their business will not happen overnight, but the DVD camp is confident. "We're in red ink today, but firmly believe the investment is worth it. It's the thin end of the wedge," said Welsh.

Take me to the DVD Basement.