Video games have started offering “sandbox” or “open world” experiences where players can choose any number of entry and exit points in a game and wander to their heart’s content.

It is an advance on the traditional linear, well-plotted format, where gamers work their way from one level to the next until they reach the ultimate stage, complete their tasks and win.

Silicon Valley-based Electronic Arts, the world’s biggest publisher, has worked on three open world games recently – “The Godfather”, “Superman Returns” and “Medal of Honor” – where players can choose to parachute themselves into combat anywhere in the world.

All three games have been behind schedule, reflecting the problems of adding this complexity.

Taking it to the next level might be an appropriate headline for the industry as a whole right now, except there are stronger parallels of entering a daunting open world where new directions are being taken by the games and the platforms that power them.

Finding my way around this month’s E3 – a labyrinthine Los Angeles trade show of Hollywood-style sets, banks of consoles, big screens and booming rock music – was a similar journey of discovery.

The presentations of the three major console manufacturers – Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo – revealed divergent paths for the next-generation machines.

In the current cycle, the PlayStation2, Xbox and GameCube have been gaming consoles pure and simple, although the first two also allow users to play DVDs and the Xbox introduced an online gaming service.

Of their successors – PlayStation3, Xbox 360 and Wii, which will be competing with one another by the end of this year – only the Wii can be described as totally focused on the gaming experience.

The Wii’s big selling point is its motion-sensing controller with built-in “force-feedback” and sound, a stroke of genius, according to Bobby Kotick, chief executive of games publisher Activision.

He was hooked when he tried a fishing game. Casting a line by waving the controller, you experience it hitting the water, then bobbing, feel the fish nibbling, and sense the pull as you reel it in.

The longest lines at E3 were gamers waiting to try out the Wii controller. “I think the Wii is one of the most well differentiated products I’ve ever seen,” Mr Kotick told me.

Nintendo’s differentiation strategy may be a case of necessity being the mother of invention, however, with Nintendo unable to compete with Sony and Microsoft in the “arms race” of next-generation high-definition graphics and blazing processing power. Sony may have won that race with the PS3’s nine-core processor and Blu-ray DVD drive, but it will be the most expensive console. Sony’s strategy seems a long-term one of winning the battle for the best digital product in the home, leveraging the console to outsell its rival Toshiba’s HD-DVD machines and matching the performance of the PS3 to that of its high-definition TVs.

For Microsoft’s 360, the power is in the network. Its Xbox Live service now has a marketplace for merchandise and game add-ons, an arcade for playing casual games and, with Live Anywhere announced at the show, console gamers will be able to play friends on PCs and mobile phones.

Indeed, the PC is becoming a fourth console. Xbox 360 controllers plug into PCs and work the same way and, with the demanding graphics standards being built into Windows Vista, next year’s new operating system, the gaming experience is likely to be similar if not superior.

This breaking out of consoles into new areas and their expanding capabilities present challenges for publishers designing games for them, but the fact that they are each very different machines in this generation should help in growing the market and demographic of game players.

In this cycle of fragmentation, publishers also have the added complexity of how to address other gaming opportunities that hardly existed at the start of the last cycle.

The handheld segment has expanded with the addition of the PlayStation Portable and Nintendo DS – the dual-screen portable that offers much different functionality than its Game Boy consoles.

Mobile phones are also becoming a platform for games – initially of the casual variety, but now becoming more sophisticated.

The overarching online opportunity is intriguing. Advertising and social networks are being created as players meet, share and play over the internet.

With Xbox Live expected to have 6m users in a year’s time and the World of Warcraft online role-playing game already passing 5m subscribers worldwide, there are brave new virtual worlds out there for the industry to explore.

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