7Online play takes gaming to the next level
publiziert: Mittwoch, 4. Apr 2001 / 08:57 Uhr

San Francisco - From his high-rise office in San Francisco's multimedia heartland, Charles Bellfield can't resist a wry smile as he surveys the dot-com carnage in the surrounding office buildings.

"I'm looking down at the 'For Rent' signs with a sense of glee and satisfaction," says Bellfield, communications director for Sega of America, reflecting on how just a few months ago people were writing off the now-resurgent gaming giant. Though its new Dreamcast gaming console was being hailed by reviewers and hard core-gamers, it was failing to penetrate the mass market, where potential buyers preferred to wait for a slew of much- hyped new products like Sony's Playstation II, Microsoft's X-Box and Nintendo's Game cube.

Dragged down by Dreamcast's low sales, a huge "Game Over" sign loomed large over Sega's future. Then, in a decision that took the gaming world by storm, Sega decided to abandon production of the Dreamcast to focus on producing games all console platforms. Sega is not the only company to bet that online gaming is likely to develop into a huge killer application that will drive the adoption of broadband Internet access and inexorably change the nature of entertainment. PC online games like Everquest and Ultima Online are growing at 50 per cent per year. Some 235,000 Ultima players pay a 10-dollar monthly subscription to stay connected to the game, while Everquest boasts 350,000 monthly subscribers. The success of the genre has created a breed of semi-professional players who build up game characters and then sell them for hundreds of dollars on eBay. Other companies such as Real Networks and Atom Shockwave are busy building portals for online gaming.

Microsoft's X-Box will try to cash in on the growing trend, and Sony and Nintendo are also expected to add online capablitites to their latest consoles. Cellphones could become another important gaming platform. According to analysts, these options are set to snowball. They picture a scenario where tens of millions of people have broadband access and powerful computers that allow them to tap into a gaming experience that will be akin to acting and directing their own interactive movie. The digital images will be almost indistinguishable from live- action shots. When this happens, analysts say, games will evolve into the dominant entertainment form of the digital world. Eidos Interactive, maker of the Lara Croft game, is keenly aware of these possibilities. The curvaceous adventuress will soon make her big screen debut. A few months later a new game, tentatively titled "Tomb Raider: Next Generation", will hit the stores. The main chapters of the game will still be sold in stores, but so-called sidestory adventures that focus on characters other than Lara will be consistently available by download.

"New technologies such as broadband Internet access and mobile telecommunications have the potential to add a new dimension to gaming and allow developers to build a truly compelling multi-player experience," says Simon Protheroe, technical director for Eidos. These innovations should help the game sector expand from its core audience of young men. As this happens, game industry revenues could rocket from the 15 billion dollars a year (more than US film box office receipts) to more than double that within five years. Then why are so many gaming companies currently in the financial doldrums? Mark MacDonald, executive editor of Electronic Gaming Monthly explains that the game industry is in a traditional cycle. "It's a transition period. People are holding onto their money for the new consoles and games," McDonald says. "Online gaming is the next big step. Everyone's talking about it. Everyone sees it as the future." That development may scare parents who fear their children will grow up as video zombies, but McDonald says those fears are unfounded. "(Online gaming) is social - you have an unlimited number of virtual friends for you to go questing with," says McDonald. "It can be intellectually stimulating. It builds hand-eye coordination, problem-solving ability and spatial skills. For young people, it's absolutely essential to play games."


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