30/03/2007

NEW RULES OF THE GAME

This feature of mine appeared in the Herald's Time Out gaming special yesterday but didn't appear on the website, so I've republished it here...

NEW RULES OF THE GAME...

If video gamers have stereotypically been seen as geeky, solitary figures, more engaged in virtual fantasies than the real world, the time for an image overhaul has arrived.

New forms of gaming, incorporating social networking, user-generated content and with the internet at their core are arriving on the scene as the video game titans push their next generation gaming machines.

The new PS3, the Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii are all custom built for internet gaming but do much more than that – video conferencing, instant messaging, e-commerce and networking that could bring casual gamers online in numbers for the first time.

In the case of Sony, which launched its $1200 PS3 console here last week, adapting hit tittles like Buzz, Guitar Hero and SingStar for online gaming will be a priority.

You might compete in online quizzes using the Buzz consoles that come with the popular general knowledge quiz game. Or compete online in SingStar Idol against wannabe pop stars all over the world.

“It could be better than American Idol,” suggests Sony’s local Playstation boss, Warwick Light.

“Our online community is going to evolve pretty rapidly.”

If beaming liver versions of karaoke favourites around the world isn’t your idea of good gaming, don’t worry. User generated content, by necessity, is infiltrating all styles and genres of games, encompassing casual gamers through to the hardcore.

That’s because building high definition games with cutting edge graphics, complicated animation and game physics, is an expensive business – the big titles can cost $20 million or more to produce and selling at $100 a pop, the risk of losing your studio going under if your big game isn’t a hit, is very real. That’s why venture capitalists salivate when developers pitch game concepts described as the “Youtube of gaming” – it means they’re cheap to make.

THE USER GENERATION

Video games have increasingly given users opportunities to create their own content in games, whether that be personalizing a players face and body in the best-selling soccer franchise FIFA, or editing a video of your performance in the classic Playstation game Gran Turismo.

But game developers, inspired by the explosion in “web 2.0” services like Myspace, Flickr and Youtube, and driven by the ambitions of owners that straddle media and technology, are upping their game when it comes to user generated content.

The new Sony “Home” PS3 online network will act as a sort of 3D Myspace, consisting of public and private rooms where users can share content, download games, navigating the environment as characters that can interact with others.

SOCIALLY AWARE

You need only visit the world of Second Life to see where social networking has collided with gaming. All you require to join in is an internet connection, a small piece of software and your own Second Life avatar, or online personality. Four million people have already registered as Second Lifers and some of them are making a living trading virtual property for Linden dollars, which can be exchanged for real cash.

The Second Life community has exploded in size in just a few months, with real businesses setting up premises online and bands holding virtual concerts. There was even a virtual riot when the right-wing National Front set up an office in a Second Life neighbourhood. A teen version of Second Life designed to have more parental oversight has also been developed.

Just as ambitious in scale is Spore, the upcoming Electronic Arts title from Will Wright, the gaming guru who brought up Sim City and The Sims. Wright’s new creation simulates evolution from the existence of a single cell through to numerous interacting communities of creatures. A long time in development, Spore will ultimately be based on computer servers around the world, where members of this massive virtual world will meet to trade, colonise the universe and wage war on each other.

MULTIPLAY

While these open form social networking games are gathering momentum, large online communities of gamers are nothing new. World of Warcraft is the most successful multiplayer game in the world with 8.5 million members participating in a massive fantasy landscape. It’s the best example of what’s known in gaming circles as a MMORPG (massive multiplayer online role-playing game). Others include Everquest and Ultima Online.

The quirky sci-fi role-player Half Life, took on a second life itself when developers adapted it for the online community, releasing it as Counterstrike. It still has a huge following among PC gamers, who have traditionally been kept separate from the communities of gamers using video game consoles to enter multiplayer tournaments.

That changes this month with Microsoft’s move to open Xbox Live to PC gamers running Microsoft’s new Windows Vista operating system. PC gamers can take up Xbox Live subscriptions and join in on games previously reserved for Xbox owners. It promises to be a clash of gaming cultures – the hardcore PC gamers meeting the more mainstream but equally passionate video gamers.

VIRTUALLY REAL

Both of those communities, which are typically made up of males aged 18 – 34, are still the prime target of the games industry which makes the bulk of its revenue from mass market blockbusters like current best sellers, Gears of War (Xbox 360) and Resistance: Fall of Man (PS3). The real-time graphics rendering power of the processors built into the Xbox 360 and PS3 allows for ever more lifelike game play. The fancy video cutaways that used to prop up less than impressive titles now resembles the standard game play everyone is used to on next generation titles.

While the developers crunch mathematical algorithms to make games more lifelike, there’s also been a revival in arcade gaming, driven by the move to online game communities. The major games makers such as EA and Microsoft sell arcade games over the internet and through the Xbox Live Marketplace, while the Playstation Network features arcade games that can be downloaded for as little as $3. Tetris and Pac Man, which kicked off gaming culture over twenty years ago, are inspiring a new wave of simple, fun games that can be delivered directly to gamers via the internet.

A WII BIT LESS

You didn’t see teenagers test driving Nintendo’s Wii game console in electronics stores in the run up to Christmas. That’s because the Wii controller, which is so integral to how new Nintendo games are played, can be a dangerous weapon in the hands of overzealous novices. There have been many reports out of the US of Wii players accidentally throwing the controller at their TV screens or other players as they simulate a tennis stroke in Wii Sports or a sword swipe in Zelda: Twilight Princess.

Still, the Wii-mote, as it has been dubbed, has proven to be a hit for Nintendo which chose not to compete head to head with Sony and Microsoft with its next-gen console, but play a different game with a cheaper device. The Wii $(499) doesn’t aspire to be a multimedia hub for the lounge, focused squarely on gaming. It too is internet ready and Nintendo plans to tap into the same type of online communities its two rivals are developing. Nintendo flourished through the nineties with titles like Super Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog and has produced some surprise hits on its handheld Nintendo DS console, which can communicate wirelessly with the Wii.

The approach has so far been successful for Nintendo. The Wii sold well in the Christmas sales season. If anything, the tiny console symbolise the changing face of gaming, where development no longer has to follow Moore’s Law of bigger, better, faster, just to be successful.

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