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Good News from Down Under

The economic news may be grim these days, but there's a dose of goodness coming from Australia.

The game industry down under is reporting 47% growth last year - and a 112% increase since 2006. The numbers still pale relative to the US, but in all the country had roughly A$2 billion in revenues.

The head of the Interactive Entertainment Association of Australia association told Gamespot that the biggest boom is in family games ranging from karaoke to music titles such as Guitar Hero and Rock Band.

The Legos Universe Cometh

Brick-heads are clamoring to get into the beta of Lego Universe, a massively multiplayer world that debuts in Q2 2009. Imagine hundreds of Lego nuts logging in to collaborate on the construction of Frank Lloyd Wrightâ''s infamous design for a mile-high skyscraper. Itâ''s a virtual sandbox where you can build your own gravity-defying rocket ships and dinosaur eggs. For a paid subscription, you can get your online creations made real through orders to the Lego Factory (and then shipped to your doorstep). Lego is leading the toy industry from plastic to pixels.

But this doesn't come without challenges. Here's one hassle: how do you keep out the Butthead who attaches a giant square schlong to your rocket shipâ''s bow? â''Objectionable content is number one concern,â'' says Mark Hansen, director of Lego business development, and the focus of our story, â''how do keep people from doing that? Weâ''re not going to claim we can keep everything out [but] we intend to keep 99.999% of that content out of the game, and remove it as soon as possible.â''

The Lego world underscores one of the key challenges for the future of digital toys: taming the unruly online worlds so theyâ''re considered â''safeâ'' for kids. Lego is hatching a YouTube style self-policing community, as well as a mission control of employees who monitor the content â'' and respond accordingly. Bottom line is: When a toy company goes virtual, they donâ''t just launch a world - they run it. Suddenly toy companies look less like plastic makers than Sony Online. â''Itâ''s a huge undertaking to be able to man this in the right way,â'' Hansen says wearily.

Lego is based in Denmark, but theyâ''ve contracted a Denver-based start-up called Net Devil to design its virtual world. This is really interesting â'' and funny, I think â'' because Net Devil is the antithesis of Lego. Theyâ''re a scrappy game developer known for making first person shooters and auto combat online games. Itâ''s the manifestation of this culture clash between the old and new story of toys. Stay tuned.

The Billion Dollar Videogame

One of the biggest pieces of news to come out of this year's Consumer Electronics Shows: Guitar Hero III is now the best-selling videogame of all time, racking up more than $1 billion - yes, billion - in sales. And that's just in the game's first year.

Why the success? Because the developers of Guitar Hero didn't just create a videogame, they developed a new way to experience and receive music. About a year ago, I met with the two MIT media lab grads who created the franchise - really interesting guys who set out not just to make a game, but to reinvent how music is distributed and consumed in the digital age. They've since split off to do the Rock Band franchise, and are working on the first ever Beatles videogame - due later this year.

Cruising the Google Earth - Wii Style

Okay, this is just too cool and really speaks for itself. A video of Google geeks at CES showing how they rigged the Wii balance board to surf Google Earth.

Yes, they call it "Earth Surfer."

Just don't tell Nintendo.

And for all you wannabe earth hackers, sit tight - the Google crew is going to put the open source code up online next week on the Google Mac Developer Playground. But seriously, how many other applications are out there for the balance board? How about one you can sit on to surf through TV channels - the ultimate remote control for couch potatoes.

Good News For Gaming in the UK

Games continue to sell despite the bad economy. In the UK, news comes of a blockbuster year for 2008.

According to the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association, "Total videogames software sales reached an all-time high in 2008 with 82.8 million units sold all-told in the UK. The total gross generated from the sale of all videogames including hardware and accessories rose 23 per cent to £4.034 billion." This represents twice as much as just five years ago.

Hardware is booming too. "The total revenue for the UKâ''s console hardware sales in 2008 was £1.422 billion - an increase of 14 per cent compared to £1.252 billion in 2007. The total value of console gaming peripherals increased by 82 per cent, with total sales reaching £549 million compared to £301 million in 2007."

Sony's Hardware Costs for the PS3

According to a story in Business Week, Sony's Playstation 3 "device now costs significantly less to build than it did when it was first released in 2006."

Hardly surprising, but here's the kicker: it's still losing money. BW estimates that it costs $448.73 to build a PS3 that sells for $399.

PS3's "Home" for the Holidays

Yes, the virtual world "Home" is out in time for the holidays, but there are already two compelling problems.

Yes, it has been hacked.

And word is out that the voice chat feature is at least temporarily disabled. Some players online are crying foul - saying that Sony doesn't know how to deal with the rampant cursing that comes when you had a gamer a live microphone. There are calls for the company to foster more of the self-policing community solutions employed by companies like YouTube.

"Real-Life Treasure Hunts" Come to the DS

Aspyr, a small game development company in Austin, Texas, has come up with a novel way to get players moving. Its upcoming game for the Nintendo DS handheld, Treasure Trove, scans wireless networks to generate virtual objects that a player must hunt for in-game. You might see, say, a chalice on screen, but to get it you have to walk down the street to a specified location. The developer describes it to Gamasutra as a "real-life treasure hunt, and the DS and this software is acting as your treasure map, your trophy case, and your audiovisual canvas."

Videogame developers have tried to incorporate the real world into game experiences for years, with little success. The most intriguing prospects come from creators of so-called "alternate reality games," scavenger hunts the unfold across the Web and in real locations. But Treasure Trove is unique because it uses the built-in WiFi access of the handheld to essentially break down the walls of the game on-screen.

Home is Coming Indeed

Yes, it's true.

As I blogged the other day, Sony's virtual Playstation 3 world Home is coming tomorrow.

This will be interesting to see how gamers react. My prediction: the masses will be underwhelmed. From what I've seen, Home feels like it's trying to hard to be "cool," and looks mainly like a Second Life knock-off - not a freshly conceived world like Nintendo's Miis. But I haven't seen the final product yet, so I'm prepared to be wowed.



IEEE Spectrum’s gaming blog was retired in 2010, but it is preserved here for archival reference.

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