We discuss the latest trends in the CD-ROM industry picked up at the Atlanta convention

It was a sight at once stirring and pathetic. On the floor of the 102,000-square-foot indoor arena known as the Georgia Dome was an ice rink the size of a pool table, and on that rink, launching double axels for random passersby and promoting the CD-ROM Kristi Yamaguchi’s Fantasy Ice Skating was the Olympic champ herself. The image exemplified the 1997 Electronic Entertainment Expo, held in Atlanta from June 19 to 21: What multimedia games do, they do very well — but the stage remains frustratingly small given the vast number of seats to be filled.

A veritable Roman orgy of overamped sound, high-tech fury, and bikinied ”booth bunnies,” the third annual E3 drew nearly 40,000 industryites to gawk at the latest videogames and shiny gizmos. It was an early look at what joystick junkies and office procrastinators will be clamoring for this fall and Christmas — or early warning, given the blissful brutality of such games as Postal (as in ”going”). Despite lip service to a new wave of ”girl games,” bloodbaths modeled on Doom prevailed, and a new hand control courted the usual target demo under the hubba-hubba company name ThrustMaster. Still, a few intriguing developments cut through the testosterone. Here’s what we learned at the fair:

THE AUTEUR THEORY MAY YET APPLY TO MULTIMEDIA GAMES. SkullMonkeys, produced by DreamWorks Interactive for the Sony PlayStation platform, further proves Neverhood wunderkind Doug TenNapel’s gift for creating loopy claymation universes. Said DreamWorks honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg, ”We’re cheerleaders for Doug, in the way that [DW partner] Steven Spielberg was supported in the movie business by people who gave him the opportunity, the tools, and the right environment.” That’s revolutionary talk in an industry built on the backs of faceless code monkeys.

ONLINE GAMING IS THE FUTURE — IF EVERYBODY DOESN’T GO BROKE FIRST. Why fly solo when you can dogfight players from around the world? With scores of exhibitors and an entire slate of conferences devoted to it, Internet gameplay was the buzzword of E3. But the Net is still too slow for twitch games, and too many companies are vying for a small pool of hardcore players. Online game networks may become a billion-dollar business by 2001, but not without blood on the floor. ”One or more companies might be needed to be willing to lose hundreds of millions of dollars [primarily in network- maintenance costs] before seeing a return on investment,” says David Cole of the San Diego-based research firm DFC Intelligence.

GAMES FOR GIRLS — BIG AND LITTLE — ARE A GOOD WAY TO GET PUBLICITY. One of the highest-profile companies at the convention was Purple Moon, with two playfully earnest CD-ROMs aimed at girls 8 to 12 — and no distributor until after the show. The problem may have been that the company doesn’t yet have an established brand name. Last year’s Barbie Fashion Designer, by contrast, was the fastest-selling CD-ROM ever, so there should be a market for Mattel’s pretty creepy follow-up, Talk With Me Barbie, whose necklace hides an infrared receiver that allows kids to download and personalize the doll’s chatter. For grown-up girls, there was the Cosmopolitan Makeover CD-ROM, which lets users try different hair and makeup styles (yes, one of us tested it out, and, yes, Eddie Murphy would keep on driving). And for nasty grown-up girls, there was Space Bunnies Must Die, in which the truck-stop waitress Allison serves up flaming death to mutant alien lepuses.