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The future of reality gaming?

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Analysis There are perhaps 200 million home games platforms currently being used on the planet and perhaps around 90m current-generation devices.

Sounds impressive, but in global terms it's not a large number. Compare it with more than 1bn PCs, 1.3bn phone lines and over 1bn TV households on the planet. What's more, numbers of DVDs have overtaken games platforms already - in just 4 years. So, how will the games companies make gaming a pervasive activity, to allow people to indulge in game play anywhere and at any time, on any device?

First off, why should they? We have said time and time again that boredom is the biggest driver of all forms of entertainment. There is little boredom in the home, but only because of the reach and effectiveness of television and music players in combating it.

More and more in western civilisation we are talking about the number of TVs per home, rather than numbers of homes with TVs. One of the key reasons for this is that the young people no longer want to share the domestic TV experience of their parents or peers. They have individual tastes. If they didn't, then the PlayStation and Xbox and Gamecube would not thrive.

Sophisticated distractions

But it's not just at home that boredom can strike. On trains, planes, cars or in the playground, the young are looking for increasingly sophisticated distractions.

The mobile phone provides some of that, and during the last three to four years European children have become the emerging market for mobile phones. It is this youthful, affluent culture - bored and seeking distraction - that has led to the rise and rise of SMS messaging.

As phones become capable of the type of graphics that we see on televisions, then the gaming potential of these devices increases which in turn leads to the sort of sophisticated gaming which currently explains why the average gaming time in the modern home is over 12 hours a week.

Product placement

We saw this underlined by a deal that was cut last week by Sony Ericsson and video game developer Ubisoft to execute product placement of two of the Sony products into the Ubisoft's "Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow" game. The Sony Ericsson's new P900 smart phone and T637 camera phone will figure in the plot of the video game.

At the same time, a separate deal has been cut that will see a wireless version of the game playable on the camera phone as well. It takes a moment to take this in and there are two messages here. The phone now has good enough graphics to show a game that was previously the domain of home entertainment systems and the two cultures are seen to be overlapping enough to cross market between, so we are not the only ones that see drivers in place to link phone games to the home gaming platforms.

Obviously the fact that Sony plans to bring the PlayStation Portable (PSP) out in 2005 and also plans to bring the PSX to Europe and the US shortly, also makes this connection. Soon the exact same games will be playable in two new places, on the move with the PSP and on a 72-inch flat TV screen in the main living room of the house, with an in-built PlayStation or similar.

And with companies like Scientific Atlanta, a company that has almost 30 per cent of the US TV set-top market, announcing plans this month to turns its set-tops into a games platform, games will soon be commonly attached to the living room TV set which is already a $10bn market. If Motorola was to follow, then in a short, three year window every home in the US could have a games platform built into its set-top, doubling the size of the console market.

Games on demand

According to our friends a Parks Associates, the US home networks research house, the number of US broadband households subscribing to games-on-demand services will grow to more than two million by the end of 2007. This market today is just 100,000 subscribers - and that's just US broadband game playing.

The launch of the Nokia N-Gage and its failure to build up a loyal gaming stream has, by now, been established. Nokia has done just a few things wrong. First off it brought games from many existing environments to the N-Gage, and also it has failed completely to capitalise on the unique strengths of the N-Gage to play games interactively, through bluetooth, with nearline players. Perhaps bluetooth, requiring players to be within 10 meters of each other was the wrong radio technology to pick.

From the player's point of view he or she has been asked to buy a new brand, which means deserting an old trusted one like the Game Boy Advance, learn new controls, and pay for a new devices, all to experience the exact same games experiences that he or she already had enjoyed in the past.

Perhaps what we are looking for here should have been a brand new experience utilising either the phone connection or the bluetooth connection, and that meant not only writing an entirely new cluster of games but focusing on the unique aspects of the device.

But at least it has been established that the graphics are in place to play Playstation-class games on a phone, as anyone will tell you that has bought an N-Gage or watched a TV program on a phone.

Continuous immersive absorption

In the same way, games writers now need to move on a generation to what we shall call "continuous immersive absorption" into a game. That means that the play should continue, and remain absorbing and have elements that are played on a big home based screen, have elements of play that are ideal for a mobile gaming platform or phone so that it is portable on trains and cars and even the playground, and it should have communication elements that see players interact. This interaction needs to be optimised both for the broadband world of the home, and the short message system on the current generation of mobile phones and the multimedia message systems of future mobile phones.

Gameplay should be continuous and segmental, in the sense that at home online you might play the bigger stages of the game that need the strong rendering, but on the train to work or in the playground you might talk about those stages, gather information about them or play another, subordinate, but essential part of the game there. The key is that throughout the day players are always playing. Once a game is set up, play should be able to proceed on the home platform, and on mobile platforms, and on your PC at work or school. In effect whenever a puzzle or problem is solved or when a player has an idea of what he or she should next, or if they want to look up cheats, then it should all be available to them wherever they are.

In this way games elements need to merge, as they have with online massively multiplayer online role playing games. At the moment the games elements for MMO RPGs are all best viewed on your PC at home or on your home gaming platform. A big and clear detailed screen is needed, and responsive controls.

They are a combination of chess and shoot-'em-ups. We see several new levels of complexity coming to this type of game. Let's look at some potential improvements.

Graphical environments

These might be called character creation, games editing, visualisation, iterative play, team play and video viewing sessions of the game so far. Now, many PlayStation and Xbox games let you choose a player. Some let you choose its weapons. But few give you the tools to actually build a character. People will want an increasingly sophisticated visual representation of their character as graphical environments improve.

They might want to start with an image of themselves and jazz it up a bit, or better still, start with one of their real-life heroes or a combination. It should end up being someone that they recognize whenever they see a screen, as uniquely their character. And they should be portable form game to game. Similarly, the game should be editable. Once players have played a particular game they often can be heard saying, "wouldn't it be good if we could do that scene at the beginning and combine it with this or that fight sequence". Well, let them. Agreed it will take a huge change in the structure that most games are built to, but it would lead to games that have far longer lifetimes and higher prices.

In fact, a games system where there IS not a game, but just a games framework that has an easy editing system will really eat boredom hours. The kids themselves will become "creative hackers", in an attempt to become potentially legendary among their peers for creating a particular game style or sequence.

Photorealistic rendering

If these new games sequences are viewable with photorealistic rendering then you have the potential to build a game, play it, adding the dialog and instructions yourself, and viewing and reviewing it as if it was a TV program. Centrally stored games could be viewed or re-played or downloaded to make edits to.

That's what we mean by iterative. A completed game that you see as imperfect, due one fight scene early on where you screwed up, should be editable. You should be able to go back, play that scene again, or even edit the character designs or the scenes, so as to make the game more and more watchable as a piece of classic gameplay.

And naturally this should not be the work of a single person, but of virtual teams from all over the planet that come together through common game genre interest and create their characters and games steps, and the entire edited highlights of a visual representation of the completed game. Completed games should almost be downloadable films that show you what can be done with this particular games framework. Sequences would build up into films, characters into legends and gameplay into classic puzzles.

Full motion video

But right now the games makers would have to get out of the rut they are in of creating games as merchandising for hit films. This often consists of lame FMV (full motion video) of the film's characters. We would need games frameworks to move beyond that, and operate over at least living room devices, the home PC, the games platform and multiple mobile platforms.

We see this type of innovation not coming from the highly commercialised PlayStation franchises, but from new sources derived from the big Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs such as Everquest and The Blood Pledge from Korea because they are server based and already have a sophisticated following.

Global village

We see global villages of youths creating games franchises of their own, sharing the workload and creating new intellectual property, which will in its own right become blockbuster movies as legions of players watch replays of their accumulated games efforts and new gaming stars are born. Reality TV could potentially give way to reality gaming where very little is provided by the games companies other than the tools to build common shared games.

Potentially this type of step up for the gaming industry could come from a new advertising commitment disillusioned with the televisual world in the same way that Sony-Ericsson is supporting that Ubisoft game. How much would it cost for Ford or BMW to create the "best" driving game in the world, with total end-to-end vehicle branding and genuine virtual driving experiences that relate to their current generation of available vehicles?

Certainly the cost would be far less than their current advertising budget and yet the impact might be huge on their branding. But would modern games continue to want the games platforms made for them by others. Perhaps with truly continuous immersive absorption, the players would end up creating the games.

Certainly the company that chooses to give them the tools to do this could end up with a sustainable global games franchise that would dwarf the current games generation.

Next generation

And just how would this be achieved? Games that we've been describing would need to be able to communicate and be server based, but Sony has proved that this is not too big a challenge, with Everquest playing on both a server version and on DVD. Shortly this format will be used on mobile devices and on big living room PSXs. So it can be done.

Could other games platforms manage the same? Well with the growing interest in web services coming out of the enterprise technology space where they talk about "pervasive computing", resting on XML tagging, SOAP and UDDI, couldn't that unpin a number of technologies that allow games presentation layers to persist on all the platforms we have talked about? Perhaps. Certainly that's one way and funnily enough it is a way forward that might appeal to, of all people, Microsoft.

The timeframe could be "out there" and reality gaming may not be with us until the next generation of platforms is at least three years old in 2008, but we feel it is "eventually" inevitable.

© Copyright 2004 Faultline

Faultline is published by Rethink Research, a London-based publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter is an assessment of the impact of events that have happened each week in the world of digital media. Faultline is where media meets technology. Subscription details here.

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