Guess I’ll watch TV instead

In South Korea, gaming is taken to a completely different level than it is in the United States. It’s a way of life. It’s considered a very social activity. Many people gather in internet gaming cafes, called “bangs.” Gaming can be a profession, and the best have attained star status, complete with their own fan clubs, paparazzi and press events. One of the most popular games in Korea is Starcraft, a real-time strategy game, with almost ten percent of the South Korean population being players at one point. Not bad for a country with a population just under 49 million.
Recently, a new law was passed that would require gaming companies to restrict the gaming of children to prevent addiction and ensure they get at least six hours of sleep per night. The “Shutdown Law” will prohibit teens’ online game play from the hours of 12-6 a.m. Originally, this law was written for PC games but is now being expanded to include consoles, affecting both Microsoft’s Xbox Live service and Sony’s PSN. Sony, which tracks the age of its PSN users, has a lead on its Microsoft counterpart, which never elected to collect this information from its South Korean users. Civic engagement group MoonHwaYunDae filed an appeal with the Korean Constitutional Court on behalf of Korean teens, stating that is a violation of their right to pursue happiness. And with professional gaming being an option for Korean students to pursue, this law may also be getting in the way of some well-needed practice for a future career.
Though this plan is facing some opposition in South Korea, what would happen if someone tried to make a similar law here in the U.S.? For starters, it would have to be very specific. The easiest way to go about it would be to ban internet access for all minors from 12-6 a.m. Of course, there would have to be concessions made for certain basic forms of information, weather reports, journalism. And who can say that a teen shouldn’t know the sports score of a game that goes past midnight? These are some of the questions that would have to be addressed in restricting internet access, but limiting online games is almost as complicated. Certain very strict guidelines would have to be set for what a “game” is. There’s also the issue of getting an accurate age out of anyone on the internet, something we’ve never taken seriously as a society. I can imagine a scenario in which, we needn’t pass a law at all. The major online gaming companies could form a neutral board (like the ESRB) to regulate late-night play and ensure that minors don’t have access to internet-based games after midnight or so. Of course, our culture views gaming in a completely different light and addiction seems nowhere near as prominent. So is a law of this nature even necessary here? I can think of several reasons: freedom of expression, time zones, sleep-disorders, emancipated minors and several other extenuating circumstances why this kind of action wouldn’t work in America.  Can you think of a good reason why this wouldn’t work in America or how someone would go about banning games for minors in America from 12-6 a.m.?

Toying with my emotions

Kids these days…oy. Back in my day we used to have toys. Star Wars toys, LEGO toys, Ninja Turtles toys, dolls. Wait, did I say dolls? I meant G.I. Joes! Kids these days have… well, they have videogames. Star Wars videogames, LEGO videogames, Ninja Turtles videogames. Something’s changed, but at the same time, something hasn’t…
Paul Reiche, a long-time videogame designer, has been tasked with remaking a classic game from the original Playstation era, Spyro the Dragon. What sets this game apart from others is the way it integrates special figurines called Skylanders. Sold in meatspace toy stores, the Skylanders figurines interface with a podium peripheral that comes with the Skylanders videogame. Depending on the figure being used, different actions or skills are made available to the player, therefore granting access to new in-game content. Reiche’s motivation is that kids are getting away from the use of toys as in the days of yore. He knows that videogames are taking the place that had previously been held by Monopoly and Operation, but he feels there is a way to integrate videogames and toys of the more traditional sense.
Since the rise of videogames, they have progressively been assuming the role previously held by toys. The Sims is like a dollhouse. Wrestling games replace action figures of Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Ultimate Warrior. Baseball video games replace trading cards. LEGO Universe, a free-to-play videogame based off of its namesake property built a name for itself starting in 2010. Based on the same basic principles of construction and morally simplistic combat, Minecraft, released later that same year, quickly became the favorite, reaching four million copies sold as of earlier this week, twice that of LEGO Universe. All this while Minecraft is still in beta. For those of you not so tech savvy, that means the game has yet to officially launch–an almost unheard-of feat. LEGO Universe is now scheduled to close its servers early in 2012. Just as videogames had been doing to established toy properties for decades, Minecraft bullied LEGO out of the multiplayer gaming space. It’s hard to blame Minecraft alone for this, but it’s plain to see that the two games occupy an overwhelmingly similar niche.
As time and technology progress, it’s no surprise that videogames have started phasing out more traditional toys. It’s refreshing to my inner child to see developers integrating conventional play with contemporary play. Minecraft shows that the videogame market is a very different world than what traditional toy companies are used to playing in. The question is: will the Skylanders toys be able to mount a formal invasion from the virtual into the physical?

The brave new world of freemium gaming

The past few years have seen a rise of a new type of game; dubbed “freemium,” these games basically advertise as being free to play, but if you choose to pay, additional options are unlocked. Depending on the game, the charges are based on a monthly subscription, usually around $15, or a one-time fee that might give you one item, like a hat or weapon.

You have probably played some of these games without even knowing it. Popular titles such as Angry Birds and Farmville are both examples of freemium games. With huge social media outlets like Facebook, Android and iOS hosting these games, they have reached a substantial user-base in a short amount of time. Even though most of these games are free, with revenues generated by in-game advertising or virtual-good purchases, the money being made is so substantial that the question for these companies isn’t whether to go public, but WHEN.

Facebook and mobile games are one example of freemium gaming and would fall under the category of “one-time fee.” Another category would be the subscription based. DC Universe, Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons and Dragons Online would all fall under the second category. These games offer huge amounts of content and provide hundreds of hours of game play…for free. The monthly subscription comes into play for the hard-core gamers who “need” that extra mission or weapon or character class.

If you feel that the gaming market is saturated, you’re right. There are a lot of games out there, and it can be very difficult for a game or developer to get noticed. Going, or starting out as a freemium title ensures that price won’t be an issue in attracting an audience. Going freemium can be used as a reward to the user base of a very successful product, as with Team Fortress 2. It can also be a response to a crowded market, as with DC Universe Online, going free to play in the crowded MMO market. Games can also be freemium by design, as with the famous Angry Birds. Once you have the user base in place and emotionally invested, you can charge them for that little extra something. They will end up shelling out for free games.

The fall of Xbox Live?

Digital distribution of video games is nothing new. It wasn’t really done right until it was done by Microsoft in 2004, when it launched a service for the Xbox dubbed Xbox Live Arcade. The service allowed consumers to buy digital copies of games and download them directly to the Xbox console. Most games range from $5-20 and offer games from major publishers like EA and smaller indie developers.
XBL was the clear front-runner in the rapid-growing video game digital distribution business. It set a standard that other companies were forced to follow or risk falling behind. Things like friends lists, leaderboards, achievements and downloadable bonus content helped foster a sense of community and show everyone what the online games market could be. This type of service was revolutionary at the time and quickly, others jumped on board. Valve released its version, Steam, for the PC platform, and Sony released PSN for the Playstation 3.
And then Microsoft lagged.
Lagged might be the wrong word. It was more like they did nothing else. Other companies expanded into this new niche of cyberspace by adding new features to the XBL formula; Microsoft perched on its laurels as the angry birds came home to roost. While Microsoft did…nothing, Valve aggressively expanded into the PC market, their penetration driven by having two of the all-time top-rated PC games at the time (having since added two more to the Metacritic all-time top 10). While Microsoft led with its hardware, Valve led with its software and innovation.  Console rival SONY got in on the metagame as well.  Releasing at a higher cost, but with superior hardware that included a larger hard drive, the Playstation 3 platform’s Playstation Network further split the market. Copying all of the popular XBL features along with subscription free service and integrating the Playstation 3 network with their wifi-enabled portable platform, the Playstation Portable, gave Playstation an arguable edge. Now consider that Nintendo has digital distribution services for its Wii, DSi, and 3DS consoles and the impending threat of mobile and tablet-based gaming, and the digital distribution looks really crowded all of a sudden. Microsoft will have to make some changes before it’s game over for the XBL.
A recent prescription for success that’s been getting some buzz of late comes from Ron Carmel, writer for the 2D Boy blog and former EA developer.  Ron provides a large body of relevant evidence to support his claim, citing the well-known frustration of his indie-developer colleagues.  Carmel’s advice boils down to this simple list, a practical 10 corrections:
  1. Create a fair contract for publishers/developers.
  2. Raise awareness for the product.
  3. Allow indie developers to self-publish without assigning a producer to oversee.
  4. A better system for updating instead of forcing TCRs(technical certification requirements)
  5. Get rid of the exclusivity requirements for the developers.
  6. Get rid of the greenlight process and open development to anyone.
  7. Give every console the ability to develop.
  8. Automate everything for the developers. They should be able to submit, set price and set a release date all from a web interface.
  9. Get rid of the current ESRB system and allow developers to set the rating on their own.
  10. Don’t force developers to make game-related avatar-items.
As I’m sure you can tell by reading this list, giving the developers more control will only help to provide better and more games, faster. Which we all want…at least I do.
Then again, who is Ron Carmel to be questioning Microsoft?

Tommy Milner’s basement

Tommy Milner is a professional race car driver.  Drivers are typically known for what we find in their garages, but what’s interesting about Milner is what’s in his basement.  The winning driver of this year’s LeMans, Milner’s basement features a gaming chair on top of a PVC frame, with a gaming wheel attached to it.  Milner used this custom gaming rig made out of cheap (to a winning race car driver) parts, to train for the LeMans.  Milner attributes much of his success to time spent on his custom simulator, but we know that unlimited access to simulation is not all it takes to dominate as a driver.  As one of my favorite television hosts, Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear demonstrates there is a limit to what can be learned through simulation alone. There are many more factors that need to be taken into account when not in a simulation. Driver fatigue, fitness level and experience… all can affect performance, even with all the know-how a top-level simulator can give you.

It isn’t news that professionals have been using games to hone their skills out of the office. Surgeons have been using them to increase dexterity in their hands, the military uses them to familiarize troops with different weaponry and squad tactics, and pilots use them to train for scenarios that are too dangerous to do with an actual aircraft. Can simulators help us sharpen our skills and prepare for the unexpected? Definitely. But it can only get us so far. In order to succeed, knowledge, hard work and talent are necessary.

Who is in control?

In the days of arcades on the beach, and Pong, game controllers had about as much complexity as Velcro shoes. Joysticks were one of the earliest controllers out there, their appeal being their versatility. They worked very well with a multitude of games. This was the case with the majority of early inputs. But there were some out there that had the insight to make use of game specific peripherals, like the light gun, steering wheel, and Power Pad.

As time progressed and the popularity of games increased, the precision and specialized inputs did as well. Games were moving from the arcade to the home. When the NES first launched, one of the premium packages included the Zapper, R.O.B., and a controller. By the time SNES and the Sega Genesis were launched, no peripheral controllers were offered in the packages. They were becoming more specialized, the Dreamcast Fishing Controller for example. As flight simulators gained popularity in the 1990s, so did the need for more extensive joysticks. Theold-school ones were no longer complex enough due to the rise in 3D gaming. By the turn of the century, the Dance Dance Revolution franchise became popular and brought with it the dance pad. Then came an explosion of peripherals with the release of the Wii and the hugely popular Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises.

The progression of the gaming peripherals brought things we would normally do outside, into our homes. Running track, fishing, hunting, driving a race car and flying a plane can now all be done from the comforts of your living room. Now, some interesting new simulations are being made that incorporate peripherals in new ways.

These two examples are bringing the game to a whole new level. For a man, being able to feel what it’s like to be pregnant is a brand-new and interesting experience that could help us be more understanding of our spouses. It could possibly deter young women from getting pregnant before they’re ready. And who doesn’t like the idea of a video game built into a urinal? It’s much better than just staring at a wall. Sorry ladies, nothing has been developed yet for stalls.

Cloudy days ahead

The term “cloud” is being thrown around the internet and gaming scene quite often these days. Simply put, cloud gaming is a game that’s being streamed directly to your computer from a server. A cloud-based service can be used for many different things. Services like email, Google word, Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube. Some major gaming platforms like Steam, XBL, and PSN use cloud integration.

The major difference between cloud gaming and other forms of cloud-based services and/or content is that the processing power required for gaming is more taxing than most other computer operations.  This means that, despite Google documents processing power in the cloud, it’s still just doing word processing or streaming audio and video in the case of Netflix, whereas cloud-based gaming relies on dynamic generation of audio and video in response to player-constructed inputs. (i.e. mouse and keyboard).

The advantages to using cloud-gaming are numerous. The necessity for big, expensive, hardware such as computers and consoles would be a thing of the past. The server supplying the game would handle all the processing. Theoretically, you could play on laptops, tablets, TVs or even smartphones. This could be offered as a subscription service (i.e., Netflix) rather than having to buy games individually.

Now here’s the real issue. Is cloud-based gaming a viable option for the future, or is it just a pipedream? With the demand for streaming audio, video and online gaming growing exponentially there are already concerns whether the bandwidth required is available. Even with the huge leaps forward that have been made in internet speeds in the past 10 years, cloud-based services have come  to represent a formidable portion of internet traffic. How much data can we shove down this pipe and not experience latency? Current cellphone plans are based on data usage. Cell phone companies already rely on ISPs  to help with their capacity issues. This could severely hamper or even make it impossible for cloud gaming to be successful.

As it stands now, cloud gaming only applies to single-player games. But recent games have been steadily incorporating multiplayer  options. To the point that single player often takes a back seat to multiplayer with popular franchises like Call of Duty and Counter Strike.  This could lead to some serious problems for companies like Gaikai, OTOY, and OnLive. Being able to support multiplayer games is a must for gaming companies. With the bandwidth concerns they are already facing,  a viable solution will need to be found to be able support anything more than single player.

Cloud-gaming could be the wave of the future. It could change when, where and how we game…if the internet speed, bandwidth issues and server capacity/processing power catch up enough to support it. That’s a few too many could’s, should’s and if’s for me though. Guess I’m stuck with my bulky Xbox for now. But so are all my friends.