The Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) is the major event of the year for the video games industry. Digit takes a look at the major developments at this year's show.

The Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) is the world's largest computer and video game industry gathering, attracting tens of thousands of attendees and occupied by hundreds of vendors. It's an interesting place to look for trends in gaming. This year, "risk aversion" is the big buzzword, but there's a surprising amount of cool hardware on hand that people haven't taken much notice of yet. There were a few Mac items of note, too.

E3 2004 was a real disappointment for anyone looking for groundbreaking new A-list games. The market for the next year or two is going to be dominated by sequels that are only slightly different in gameplay than their predecessors. It's no wonder. It now costs anything between $5 to $25 million to bring a game to market. Companies - even huge ones like Electronic Arts, THQ and Activision - can't afford to publish too many games that don't guarantee a stack of money. The games business has been modelling itself on Hollywood for years, and it's certainly succeeding.

It's a shame, too, because video gaming historically has been a creative-driven market that's seen its most significant evolution when someone goes way out on a limb to create something entirely new - the "four guys in a garage" myth was reality a few short years ago. It helped that, back then, publishers didn't need to fork out big licensing fees and royalty payments to console manufacturers because PC game companies were leading the innovation. Nowadays, PC gaming is more of an afterthought - barely a third of the overall market, down a bit more each year. That makes it more imperative than ever that these new console titles succeed.

That's not to say that cool stuff isn't happening -- Sid Meier's Pirates looks like fun, as does Full Spectrum Warrior, Halo 2, Donkey Konga and a handful of other things - but just not as much cool stuff seems to be happening as in years before. New hardware was where the real buzz was at this year's show.

Game Boy competition

The market is holding its breath for the release of Sony's PSP handheld console - finally, a legitimate competitor to Nintendo's long-dominant GameBoy Advance system, which saw a new iteration this year in a touch-screen equipped "DS" (short for "Dual Screen") version.

PSP won't be out until 2005, but many game developers are already on board to create launch titles. Sony has unveiled the system and made more of its capabilities clear - it comes with a 16-x-9 aspect ratio colour screen, 802.11b wireless networking, built-in stereo speakers, and a new 1.8GB removable disc storage technology called UMD. The PSP's price is still unknown, but if you combine it with Sony's move into the online music download business, it's possible that somewhere down the road this device could be a compelling draw for consumers that might otherwise be interested in an iPod mini.

What's interesting is that, more than anything, more info about the PSP seemed to dampen some enthusiasm about the GameBoy DS, which some developers, buyers and distributors still seem to be scratching their heads about. Could the DS be a repeat of Nintendo's disastrous failure, Virtual Boy? Only time will tell.

Pippin redux

Apex Digital was showing off its ApeXtreme, a DVD/CD player with the soul of a PC. It's basically Apex's Windows-embedded variation on Apple's Pippin, a stillborn videogame console built on a Mac hardware and software core. With relatively little reengineering, according to Apex, PC game makers can vet their titles to run on the ApeXtreme, which will be available in a low and high-end configuration. As the saying goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating - if the gameplay experience on the Via-driven system sucks, it'll die.

Sign of the Zodiac

Tapwave's Zodiac is a handheld gaming console that could win a niche with people looking to combine their Palm PDA with a Game Boy Advance. The device runs on Palm OS and synchronizes data with a Mac or PC using USB or Bluetooth. But it comes complete with an analog thumbpad that vibrates, uses a fast Motorola processor and sports ATI 3D graphics and a beautiful screen too.

Sure, you can play many Palm games on the Zodiac and play them well, but where the Zodiac shines is in games designed to run specifically on it. You can buy online and download the 3D version of SpyHunter, for example, Duke Nukem 3D, and other games. Sync them through Mark/Space's Missing Sync for Tapwave offering for Mac OS X, which offers a high score conduit, and you've got a full-featured handheld computer that plays great games. You might be surprised how good movies look on it, too.

Zodiac's initial success since it was released in 2003 has been hampered by a lack of software and no retail presence. Tapwave is fixing both problems in 2004: The Zodiac hits CompUSA shelves next month, and about five or six dozen new games are expected in the US by the end of the year.

Mac stuff

Along with the Zodiac's ability to work with the Mac, there were a few other Mac-related items to report from this year's show: THQ, for example, will release two new games based on Disney/Pixar's upcoming movie The Incredibles. One's a straightforward port of a console action game, the other is a mini-game aimed at younger players.

And World of Warcraft is still thundering along - Blizzard didn't have much new to show that hasn't already been reported, but their massive multiplayer online RPG left no one in doubt that Blizzard will leave its mark on the genre once the game is finally ready.

The PistolMouse is an interesting looking contraption from MonsterGecko that combines 800dpi optical mouse tracking with a grip that looks like a gun. You hold it on the desktop like the mouse, but point it like you would a real gun, and it's equipped with dual fire buttons and a clickable scrollwheel. For Halo and other first-person shooter games, the PistolMouse provides a more immersive and often more comfortable experience than a conventional mouse. All it's missing is recoil force feedback.

Myst IV Revelation will be coming from THQ later this year. It's a new graphical adventure game based in the world of Myst, featuring the same lush 3D environments you'd expect with a lot more detail and realism, and real-time 3D exploration.