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Fast, Cheap, and Cool

According to tech research firm comScore, gamers are heading online more and more for fast free play.  The study finds that 87 million Americans played online games in May, an increase of 22 percent from last year. At the same time, videogame sales are getting hit by the recession.  NPD Group, another tech research firm, expects June sales to dip by 20 percent compared to last year. 

So what's the takeaway?   Gamers want to play for free?   Of course - but there's something else going on here too.  Online games are fast and easy.  You boot up, log in, and start playing.  It's a diversion that doesn't require you to struggle with unwrapping plastic and handling a flat round object.  Small, quick, downloadable games are ideally suited for a new generation of players.  Think about the music industry.   Does any kid really care about buying an entire album anymore?  The future is built on singles.  The game industry is now feeling the tremors of this seismic shift.   Online games are the "singles" of interactive entertainment.

Games Lost in the Web

The Internet isn’t a web.  It’s a vast ocean of information and we’re just skimming the surface.  That’s the big idea behind the Deep Web – the invisible data, from government files to video games, that even Google can’t find.  Michael Bergman, the computer scientist who coined the term, estimates that the Web as we know it represents less than 1% of what’s available online.  “The Deep Web is quite real and quite valuable,” says Jeff Jarvis, author of What Would Google Do?, “but highly challenging.”  The problem is that search engines are basically dumb bots.  They crawl between existing links but miss the rest.  This includes sites that haven’t been indexed or published and those that require passwords or fall into an unreachable format, like PowerPoint or Microsoft Word.  Given the empire Google built by organizing such a shallow pool, the race to plumb the depths is on.   The National Science Foundation and the University of Utah has, and Amazon chief Jeff Bezos invested in   “How deep is the Web?”  We may find out soon.

3D Games

Reuters has an interesting


on the rise of 3D games.  The most compelling development is the stereoscopic 3D glasses that will be used in the upcoming Avatar game, based on James Cameron’s next film. 

While 3-D films have been around for decades, innovations in digital projection technology are ushering in a new age of eye-popping action.  A Santa Monica, California start-up called Real D is leading the crush to cash in.   As Michael Lewis, co-founder and CEO of Real D told me, “Cinema is the tip of the sphere to get the consumer indoctrinated in new generation of 3-D.”

Real D’s business model is built around the licensing of its software and hardware.  Light is circularly polarized from the digital projectors onto a special silver screen, which helps capture the images.  Instead of donning clunky headsets or red and green lenses, viewers wear lightweight stereoscopic glasses that can be recycled or trashed after use.  Competitors, such as Dolby, have introduced 3-D systems requiring costly washable glasses.  Unlike Real, Dolby’s projection technology can be utilized using a theater’s existing white screens.  I doubt it will be long before 3D glasses occupy another shelf in the living room, right next the Rock Band drumsticks. 

Reading, Writing, and Resident Evil

When students return in September, one group of sixth graders won’t have to leave their Nintendos at home.  They’re the inaugural class of

Quest to Learn

, a new 6th to 12th grade public school in Manhattan built on a controversial idea:   using videogames to power education. The school’s hip young executive director and self-described “game geek,” Katie Salen, thinks it’s a necessary way to boost math skills, and reduce the city’s 48% dropout rate. “These are digital kids,” she says, “they’ve already transformed our society, why not education?”


The school – nicknamed Q2L – will be the first of its kind in the country, and a model for others to come.  It’s designed by the Institute of Play - a local non-profit that develops game education programs for government, academia, and industry – and New Visions for Public Schools, the largest education reform group in the city.  Teachers will use games as a learning tool and also instruct students in interactive design.  Videogames such as Civilization will be used to teach history, and literature courses will examine, say, the narrative arc of Halo 3.  Instead of standard courses in English or math, classes will be based on the game-like idea of missions, with specific quests students must complete over the term.  In a language course, for example, kids will be tasked with “teaching” Spanish to a group of aliens on a distant planet.  The work is done using Skype audio chat software and a special computer game designed by Q2L’s staff. 


While this is groundbreaking for a public grade school, game studies are becoming more engrained in higher education around the world.  Schools from Stanford to the University of London offer courses in game design and theory.   Nintendo sponsors the DigiPen game college in Seattle.  The emerging discipline of Ludology – the study of games – has its own conferences, academic journals, and professional organizations.   Salen is less focused on churning out game designers than in stimulating and motivating a new generation of students.  Q2L, which will be housed on 23rd street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, will feature an interactive media lab, Xbox development kits, and guest speakers from the game industry.



Last of the "Id"ependents

id Software, the Doom/Quake maker that epitomized the power and passion of independent game development, is indie no more.  The Texas-based developer sold to ZeniMax, the parent company of Bethesda Softworks, last week.  Though the company says that the createive process will remain the same, it marks the end of an era for one of the industry's most influential shops. 

In the 1990s, id pioneered self-publishing and shareware publishing - giving away portions of games such as Commander Keen, Wolfenstein 3-D, and Doom for free, then charging for the rest.  Eventually, the company worked with Activision to publish its products.  But as large publishers like Activision and Electronic Arts began buying up development shops, tensions have grown for third party developers.  id co-founder John Carmack tells Kotaku that he grew increasingly dismayed over Activision's reluctance to throw more weight behind id's games.

"There's a very real conflict there between whether they want to put resources behind something they own the IP for and derive all the profit for versus something where they don't own the IP," he said "and they might feel like any effort they're putting into it isn't going into their value but somebody else's. That problem has grown over the years as budgets have increased."

id gets itself sold

[via everywhere; have a link to Joystiq]id software, long a bastion of doing what they want, when they want, the world be hanged, have sold themselves to Bethesda parent ZeniMax. This is odd news. I never would have pictured this, but I've been out of FPS development for years now, so my finger has certainly slipped off the pulse there.

id has always been idiosyncratic, and not one to march happily to the tune of, say, their current publisher. But perhaps fighting the good fight has worn thin, and availing themselves of the resources of a larger parent company may sound cool and refreshing. id games have been shallow on content, and deep on tech, for years, so if this move means they can bolster the "game" side of things to equal the "engine" part, then they might catch up in the genre they created. We'll see.

Can Game Tech Slay the Bad Guys?

According to Edge, a new technology could be a boon for game developers - adding up to $6 billion in annual revenues to the industry.  A study conducted by the Entertainment Merchants Association focused on so-called "denial technology" that fights thieves "by shipping [discs] to stores in a disabled state and only activating them at the point of sale."

This could breathe life into the market for Blu-ray discs, DVDs, and games.  But for how long?  Digital downloads are a small but growing trend in the game industry.   As I blogged about recently, 17 percent of PC games last year were sold via digital downloaded.  But that number is expected to double annually.  Already, file-sharing sites are filled with hacked games.  In addition to providing new encyrption solutions for retail game sellers, the industry needs to rethink how and why games are pirated in the first place.  A shift to online games built on social networks and communities will help - along with microtransactions of game content.








Sony Plays the Motion Free Game

Microsoft stole the show at the E3 videogame convention with its Project Natal motion-sensing camera.  But now Kotaku is reporting new details on Sony's answer for the Playstation 3:   an enhanced version of the "Eye" camera.

Sony is taking a hybrid approach, using both a cam and up to four motion-sensing contollers, each with force feedback (vibrations in sync with on-screen action).  In addition to head and face tracking, there will be voice recognition too. 

Sony made the first big splash into the motion-sensing pool with the EyeToy camera in 2003.  The peripheral came bundled with a game called EyeToy:  Play, which was pretty cool and breakthrough at the time.   The games were pre-Wii casual and intuitive challenges - wiping bubbles, kicking balls, etc.  There were a few other games made later, including one from Harmonix - future makers of Guitar Hero and Rock Band - called Antigrav, and also a trading card game called the Eye of Judgment.   But despite showing early promise, the EyeToy basically seemed to fade away - a lost opportunity if ever there was one.  And now, after losing its lead to Nintendo and Microsoft, Sony won't have an easy time clawing back. 

My advice/hope:  get Media Molecule (makers of LittleBigPlanet, the best Sony title in eons) to make the flagship Eye game.


Natal Coming Soon? Or Not-At-All?

Lots of buzz and speculation online today over the release of Microsoft's Project Natal - the motion-sensing cam shown at the E3 videogame convention. 

Gamespot has a good piece that investigates the rumors of a possible 2010 launch.  Considering that the Microsoft exec tells Gamespot that "we are not even halfway through the current console generation life cycle," my guess is that 2010 may be premature.  But really that doesn't matter too much now does it?   Project Natal exists  as a working prototype - I played it - and that means we can already start thinking about what this means for next generaiton interface.

Also, it's worth noting that Microsoft isn't alone in this pursuit.   A company called Canesta is also showing 3-D vision cameras, and you can get a look at how this may change the battle over TV remotes here.

Tube Surfing 2.0

We already know that gamers love viral videos, but just wait.  According to a new study by technology research firm, In-Stat, gamers are ushering in the next wave of Tube surfing.  

Already 29% of players are using their Net-enable videogame consoles, the Microsoft Xbox 360 and Sony Playstation 3, to stream Netflix movies or watch online videos.  Within five years, a total 24 million homes will be watching Web videos on TV.  The tipping point is expected to come in 2011.   So the question is - what does this mean for entertainment and technology?   Network TV will continue to have to evolve to retain viewers' eyeballs.  We've seen attempts at this by shows such as Lost and Heroes, which have introduced online content that expands the mythology of the TV show worlds.  But what's next?  How about an online property that becomes a phenomenon, and later winds up on TV?   Is the Star Trek of the Internet on the verge of happening?   Attempts have been made with often lackluster results, though a few  - such as Dr. Horrible's Sing-Aong Blog by Joss Whedon - stand out.   With more viewers watching Web vids on the Tube, the innovation has surely just begun.





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

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