HOME Technology Nov 2008
Putting fun back into games
Console wars continue
"Major console manufacturers Microsoft and Sony have both served up higher capacity machines and enhancements to their on-line networks that take interaction beyond the screen into more of a community environment."

The gaming industry continues to rival the movie industry for profits and innovation as developers deliver a stream of enticing titles to feed the global passion for interactive entertainment, which has taken a swing toward G-rating in the past two years.

Interactive Software Association of New Zealand (ISANZ) president Bob Glancy says there’s been a major shift in the marketplace that was once dominated by hard action, horror, war, shoot ‘em ups and car chase games.

"As long as you are 18 you can play some of those more violent titles, and it’s a huge market for a lot of people, but its noticeable how mainstream games have become in the last few years."

Glancy says its no longer just geeks in bedrooms who glued to the screen. "The family market has become huge. G-rated games and edutainment like Singstar, Guitar Hero or Jamie Oliver Cook are now massive. Microsoft and Sony are really pandering for that with karaoke or LittleBigPlanet. The whole area is changing."

Gaming now mainstream

Apparently New Zealanders spent over $145 million on computer games in the year to May 2008, up 17 percent on the previous tally reported by ISANZ. Glancy says games creation has become a mainstream industry, growing year on year, and appears to be defying the recession.

The spend on console games, hardware and peripherals is evidence the games industry is a major player in not only entertaining Kiwis but employing them in the games creation process, he says.

Overall sales of hardware and software increased from $121,312,445, in the period from June 06 and May 07, to $145,662,181 from June 07 to May 08. In the latest period Kiwis spent $69.7 million on software and $76 million on hardware including dedicated gaming PCs, consoles and peripherals.

Major console manufacturers Microsoft and Sony have both served up higher capacity machines and enhancements to their on-line networks that take interaction beyond the screen into more of a community environment.

The LittleBigPlanet for the PlayStation 3 (PS3) for example is a family or community-focussed game with 50 levels where players create their own characters and scenarios in a virtual universe of castles and mountains. Rewards are to be had for working out puzzles or navigating obstacles. Once players have created their own environment they can share this online with others across the Sony PlayStation network.

And Microsoft is also expanding its capabilities into social networking. From mid-November the Xbox 360 Xbox Experience offers a major upgrade to its operating system through Xbox Live network.

This enhances the Xbox 360 interface, delivers customisable avatars for multiplayer gaming and positions the machine as a tool to engage beyond the games themselves. It’ll enable Xbox Live members to socialize, share photos, watch movies together and chat as well as challenging each other to the wide range of games that are available.

Through the XNA Game Studio 3.0 game development platform users will be bale to create and distribute games to the wider gaming community. This of course will help those interested in investing in the next best thing, to know where the upcoming game developers are.

and Currently Microsoft has more than 12 million members on the Xbox LIVE network and the Sony PlayStation Network has over 13 million account holders worldwide. Both have recently upgraded their consoles with Sony’s 80Gb PlayStation replacing the current 40Gb model for little or no increase in price (est $800) and Microsoft’s new 60Gb Xbox 360 selling at $549.

Sony is pushing the advantages of PlayStation 3 as the best selling Blu-ray movie format while Microsoft insists its still early days for the format to be included in the Xbox and will instead focus on the an explosive growth in online delivery of digital content.

New Zealand is a PlayStation stronghold with more than 500,000 units sold here to date; that’s around one in three households. It remains the most popular gaming console in the country.

Microsoft’s Xbox 360 had a year’s lead on the PlayStation 3 which launched in March 2007 although its predecessor the PS2 first launched in 2000 continued to dominate. Both Sony consoles made up more than 67 percent of overall sales over Christmas 2007-2008 with Sony claiming the PS3 outsold the Xbox 360.

This year Sony says its reached 50,000 units but it’s still tailing the Xbox 360 which has now sold more than 70,000 consoles since launch, with Microsoft predicting it’ll achieve 100,000 units in New Zealand homes by July 2009.

Internationally PS3 sales sit around 14.4 million battling against Nintendo with around 29.6 million Wii consoles sold. Locally however the Wii, despite its amazing kinetic feedback capabilities that add a new dimension to interactivity, failed to gain much ground.

There have always been hard core Nintendo fans here but the product never made it into the mainstream. It was beginning to make inroads with 16,000 units sold to July but the original distributor went into receivership and without a local office, delivery of software for the gaming machines slowed to a trickle.

Downloading on the up

Worldwide downloadable game-related content is expected to grow from $US493 million in 2007 to $US7.2 billion by 2011 driven by the huge sales of online consoles.

And there’s considerable activity at the portable end of the market however with PlayStation Portable (PSP) proving hugely popular with well over (140,000) 9000 units in use. Sony says it has sold about 41 million PSP machines globally; 10 million of them in Japan, compared to Nintendo’s DS handheld devices which sold 77.5 million, 23 million of which went to Japan.

In September, plans were announced for the PSP personal gaming console to take on network capabilities so multiple machines can play together by connecting through the PlayStation 3. There are no details of when those enhancements will be available locally.

Meanwhile there are fears in some quarters that the mobile gaming market in particular is headed for decline. Nokia, which has its own N-Gage mobile gaming platform, admits there’s a tough year ahead after the mobile gaming market went through a no-growth period in 2007 after years of double digit acceleration. It believes that pain is likely to continue into 2009.

Nokia’s big hope is for games pre-installed on phones where users are billed based on use through arrangements with carriers. New generation touch screen smart phones geared for games are also likely to provide significant growth.

PC gamers hold fast

And PC and even laptop gamers are not being left out of the equation with machines increasingly being geared specifically for high level graphics processing and quick response needed by most action games.

Microsoft research reveals the global PC gaming market is huge – of the 700 million people who own PCs, 200 million casually play games and 50 million play games on a serious level.

In an unusual move Toshiba’s has stepped into the gaming arena with the Toshiba Qosmio X300 gaming beast which comes in a flaming red case, a 1680 x 1050 HD 17 inch screen, NVIDIA GEForce 9800M GTX graphics with 1Gb memory, and 4GB system RAM. It has HDMI inputs for the big screen TV, high speed USB port for faster data transfer and a five speaker sound system.

Increasingly avid gamers are building up their own customised machines to deliver raw multi-core performance so they can play the latest desktop games the way there were intended.

Playtech for example specializes in custom building PCs to end-user specifications. General manager Paul Kao says there’s a loyal PC gaming community wanting ‘hi-def’ action and a strong catalogue of PC specific titles that demand a lot from the cpu and graphics cards. The favourite title he says continues to be World of Warcraft.

"PC gamers can upgrade and maintain their systems and have a lot more freedom in networking that those with consoles," he says.

Its AMD Game! Systems for example, have carefully matched and balanced components based on the latest HD graphics technology and true multi-core processing with an AMD Phenom processor and video acceleration with full support for 1080p HD video, and quality audio.

The cost of a dedicated machine might range from $1500-$8000 with the latest Crossfire-X card able to combine four high-end graphs cards together on an extreme platform.

The increasing sophistication of games, more realistic graphics and plausible storylines is evidence the industry is entering a new level of maturity. Rather than being solitary male youth orientated, titles are increasingly multiplayer focused and drawing in a wider audience than ever before across all platforms.


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