Games and the Internet go well together
"GAMES have been on a 20-year detour," says Ed Fries, Microsoft’s vice-president of games publishing. Games, he points out, used to be mostly about socialising. People don’t play bridge for the cards, but for the other people. Then computers turned gaming into a solitary activity. But now that the Internet has linked everybody’s computers together, "Online is bringing back the social dimension into gaming," says Mr Fries.
Games are the stepchild of the entertainment industry. Until 25 years ago, they were hardly a business at all. Computer games created an industry, but the mainstream of the entertainment business still dismisses them as being for kids, geeks and other undesirables. They have no stars, so lack the glitter of celebrity. Few have intellectual pretensions. And they are part of the despised computer software industry. Hollywood has paid little attention to the games business.
But games have slowly been creeping up on the movie business. The industry got its big break when Sony’s Playstation was launched in Japan in 1994 and in America and Europe in 1995. Sony pushed the Playstation in clubs and at concerts, and turned games into something adult and hip by dint of what Peter Molyneux, Britain’s best-known games designer, calls "a miracle of modern marketing". The average age of a Playstation owner is 22; nearly a third are over 30.
In the past five years, from a standing start, Sony has wrested the market from Nintendo and Sega, selling 73m Playstations and 600m games. Now around half of all Japanese households, a third of American ones and a fifth of British ones have a console of one make or another.
Over the past five years, the games industry has been growing faster than any other part of the entertainment business. In terms of revenues, it is now running neck-and-neck with movie box office. Movies still make much more money once television sales, videos and licensing deals are included, but $20 billion a year worldwide shows how far the underdog games business has come.
It still has a long way to go. It remains skewed towards the young, and its customers are almost exclusively male (except in Japan). If women could be persuaded to play, it might really take off.
Technology has driven the growth so far, and will drive it much further. Games are now at the cutting edge of several different technologies. Until recently, it was computer-aided manufacturing and design that were leading advances in graphical interfaces; now it is games.
Unlike movies, which do not change much, games are getting better every year. Remember Space Invaders, the little beasts you used to burn up in the bar? Forget them, and try one of the current crop of games. The experience is entirely different. First, 3-D imagery made the pictures better; now the application of physics is making movement more realistic; and artificial intelligence is getting players emotionally involved. The result is that, according to Peter Molyneux, games are acquiring some of the sophistication of movies. "I want you to laugh, I want you to cry, I want you to do everything the film industry wants you to do." Only, unlike films, games are naturally interactive: the player, not the director, is always in control of the story.
Now games are taking the next big leap, on to the Internet. People in the games industry are much more positive about the Internet than those in other areas of the entertainment business. They are convinced that it will be the making of them. John Riccitiello, president of Electronic Arts, says that probably two or three times as many people are playing games online as offline. "It’s like a big party out there. Lots of people are wandering around, looking for something to do, and they are knocking on the door of the games business." Most of them are playing very simple stuff. The most popular is Tetris, a dull affair requiring players to stick pegs in holes. It is said to appeal to people who enjoy tidying up.
At the other end of the scale are the "massively multi-player games" (MMPGs), such as Ultima Online and EverQuest. These are role-playing games that grew out of Dungeons and Dragons, an old text-based cult game that started in the 1960s. Before computers were linked, people played by themselves. The next step was “multi-user dungeons”; then they went 2-D, and later 3-D; and now there are wild worlds where people can build alternative lives, go off on chivalrous quests, and team up with other players to fight dragons—or each other.
Players get hooked on the MMPGs. EverQuest, owned by Sony and currently the hottest, is nicknamed "Evercrack", because people find it so hard to get off it. On average, players spend 20 hours a week on it—not much less than the average viewer spends watching television. At its peak, there have been 60,000 people playing the game at once. It is, in part, the size and complexity of these worlds that keeps people in thrall: EverQuest, for example, features four continents and 25 countries.
But EverQuest has its limits. It may be one of the few entertainments on the Internet for which people are willing to pay—over 300,000 of them cough up $119 a year—but this is a pocket of obsessive, hardcore gamers, not the mainstream. Yair Landau, president of Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment, explains that the games business is polarised. "At one end we have EverQuest, at the other we have Wheel of Fortune." Wheel of Fortune is a hugely popular game show, with an interactive version which the very few Americans with interactive television (through, for instance, WebTV) can play. But what Mr Landau really needs is something that combines the power of EverQuest (and its ability to remove money from people’s wallets) with the broad appeal of Wheel of Fortune—which is why Sony has bought an exclusive licence from George Lucas to create a Star Wars game, and has handed it over to the division that built EverQuest.
Like the movie business, the games business is limited by the bandwidth-constraint online, but it has more flexibility to get around the problem. For some games, such as EverQuest, most of the information needed to play the game—the world that appears on screen—is delivered by post, on a CD-Rom. The only information that has to travel down the wires is about the current state of play. Occasional updates, such as a seasonal winter scene, can be downloaded.
"My strategy for Electronic Arts", says John Riccitiello, "is to push ahead around the limitations." That is the idea behind Majestic, a game due to be released later this year that will try to immerse players in an experience without using much bandwidth. Once people have signed up for the game, and revealed their and their families’ e-mail addresses and fax numbers, they will start receiving mysterious communications, sending them to peculiar websites and entwining them in what should feel like a real-life mystery.
Now the consoles are going online. Playstation 2, due to be released in America and Europe this autumn, has a plug-in hard disk and broadband connection, as well as a DVD player. And Microsoft is getting into the business too. Its X-box, with a graphical interface supposedly superior to Sony’s, will also have a hard disk and Internet connection.
"The console is a Trojan horse" says Peter Molyneux. The idea is that games consoles are so powerful (the Playstation 2 has more computing power than a Pentium III) and have such sophisticated graphical interfaces that they can take over the job of the PC, the DVD and the television as well. Whether or not that happens, it looks as though Hollywood will have to start showing the once-despised games industry a little more respect.