This year there has been an important event in the game industry but it hasn’t been paid attention to by all the people related to interactive entertainment. The analytic agency NPD Group announced that in the first half of 2010 Americans bought more online games than traditional ones recorded on disks. And the ratio of online games was 57.7% - you have to agree that it’s a high percentage. There are practically all the first-rate game producers including Electronic Arts, Blizzard, Activision and 2K Games on the list of the major online stuff sellers.
The above statistics as well as the increasing number of the analytics’ prognoses make us ponder – what will computer games be like in the nearest future? There is lot of authoring and ideas for various controllers, movement sensors and virtual reality helmets, but everyone is likely to find it more interesting to give some thought and look into general trend of the present day game industry. Will there still be disks with games for personal computers and consoles on sale in a few years? Will the PC remain the platform where we will play in the near future? You can get answers to these and other questions only after you observe carefully the online services, current trends of the game industry and listen attentively to the analytics’ prognoses. So, are you ready to look into the “tomorrow” of the game industry? Then we are setting off right away!
Two Future Options: Online Services and OnLive
Speaking of the future of video games you can spot at least one common thing in all the prognoses and opinions. It’s online that is going to “run the show” in the next few years. Though there are still places on the globe with no internet access, practically all the developers and publishers focus on those gamers who have constant and not the worst internet connection. Those areas that have no world wide web access may remain a rare exception to the rule – disks will be sold there even in 5 or 10 years. But this audience is not likely to become priority for the game developers who have turned their eyes to the immediate reaction of gamers and the rapid spreading of their projects.
Well, everything is more or less clear with the online part. There are two options here: online distribution services and online services based on cloud computing. These two terms are not identical, that is why in order to understand them better we are going to examine the essence of them.
But before describing the game services we should mention another scenario of the future of our favourite games. We again refer to the online sector but this time we suggest looking at it from a new perspective – games will continue to evolve even while players are away from them, like well-known MMORPG. The franchise called FIFA can be an illustrative example. Electronic Arts annually releases new versions of this football simulator. The list of changes traditionally remains short: there have been added a couple of feints, the soundtrack has been renewed and a new cover for the disk has been created … that’s all. And the head of the EA Sports department Peter Moore’s dream is that FIFA will become a wholly online game. Then the players could enjoy sport #1 all the 365 days of the year, could get regular updates and could forget the time when they used to look forward to September/October and the next FIFA disk. According to Moore Electronic Arts has taken some steps in this direction and the situation can change drastically within the next 5 years.
It goes without saying that creators of other games (not only sport simulators but other kinds as well) can catch the tendency. This option is not for action, shooter and RPG game developers though, since more often than not a new game contains another code and it’s impossible to just update an old version. But there are other games: managers, tycoons, life sims, strategies and races. Instead of rushing to the shop for a disk with new buildings, cars and pieces of furniture you can get all the content released in the form of paid update which will be purchased immediately by fans of a project.
However, who said that action games couldn’t evolve online? For instance, the head of Activision Bobby Kotick got enthusiastic about the idea of launching the Call of Duty online version long ago. If it happens one day, everything is going to be like in true MMORPG – paying a monthly user charge gamers will be enabled to play any number of matches, the arsenal will continually be replenished with new weapons and equipment, and it will be possible to gain further game credits by performing contracts (they will substitute usual quests in role-playing games). Even if developers ever want to change the online action engine, there won’t be many problems – players will be able to download a new game client.
Call Of Duty
Online Distribution Services
At the moment online distribution services are springing up all over - and not only abroad, here as well. Home-made Alawar.ru, Softline, GamePitStop, DirectCOD, yuPlay, TurboDom, enaza, hitv, Disel and Stream are only a drop in the bucket of the like services. And it’s not that important how the game marketing is performed – through HTTP or P2P – in any case it’s a very profitable business which regularly returns to both service owners and games developers together with their publishers.
In order to understand principles of operation and success of all the online distribution services it’s enough to examine at least one of them. In our case it is going to be Steam. Firstly, because it’s an absolute leader on the digital distribution market. Secondly, because it is one of the oldest players on the online distribution market, has an enormous audience and it is the most popular with gamers.
The success and popularity of Steam is due to the fact that it’s not just an online shop where they have more than 1,200 projects on sale. It’s a true organization that unites gamers and offer many other services to them. Gamers can freely communicate with each other on forums and join thousands of online communities. There is a demo-version of practically any Steam’s game as well as detailed description, screenshots and a manual. Besides, you shouldn’t leave out numerous functions and technologies supported by Steam. Matchmaking system enables players to create separate lobbies and join the game. Steam Cloud enables to save game data (keyboard and mouse settings, personal configurations), which will come in handy to those who play using different computers. The proficiency level shows each player’s progress and registers their achievements in a detailed way in all the games purchased by them.
Modern Warfare 2
It’s of no small importance that Steam service is extremely popular not only with players but with game developers as well. If the latter choose this service, they can both sell their games with large profit and create promising start-ups as well as get access to the most advanced technologies and equipment. For example, Steamworks equipment set enables the creators to introduce into their games many of Steam’s facilities including auto-update, voice chat in multi-user game modes, proficiency level and registration of achievements. In real-time mode developers can get sales information, information about errors in the project, hold an open beta-test f the game.
It’s no wonder that having such a wide functional and facilities Steam is gaining this amazing popularity. At this point Steam’s audience totals 30 million people – there are about 3 million users online, and about 6 million players pop along to Steam daily. This year the rise in game sales has made up 200%, and there has been an increase in the like indicator by more than 100% for 6 years on end. In order to cope with this increasing popularity of Steam, Valve Software Company, which owns the online service, has to enlarge the capacity of the servers and data channels. Lately the throughput has been increased up to 400 Gb per second. It has turned out that this is enough for downloading all the contents of the whole Oxford English Dictionary Volume Set 92.6 times a second. The other figures impress as well - for example, Steam Cloud has a data base of more than 100 million games, and more than 200 games support Steamworks technology.
Without Right to Error
The online console services are standing apart from different digital distribution services for personal computers. Their peculiarity is that they focus only on 1-platform users. Xbox 360 console has its own Xbox Live service, PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Portable have PlayStation Network, Wii and DS have WiiWare and DSiWare respectively. The piquancy of the situation is due to the fact that console owners don’t have such a wide choice of services for purchasing games as PC owners. Once having bought Xbox 360 you won’t be able to use PlayStation Network service any longer. In order to “get off the hook” you will have to get another platform and be ready for paying for another service on timely basis. However it has its pluses – console producers are always trying to enlarge the audience of their online services, improve them, publish handy updates and regularly organize different campaigns – either demo-version publications, lowering game prices or an exclusive access to the beta of a project.
The online Xbox Live that was officially launched in Russia on 10 November 2010 is Xbox 360 service integrated into an OS which opens up wide possibilities for a relatively small user charge. What do users get for their monthly payments to Microsoft? In simple phrase, they get their own dwelling in the huge game universe. Having clicked a mouse button a few times players can tune their avatar, view the page of their achievements in all the games, download the latest demo-versions, patches and gameplay demonstrations. Having enough Microsoft Points they can make purchases on the platform called Games of Demand – “digital shop customers are offered complete versions of all the new products, add-ins to games, avatars, themes, manuals, completion and even cheat codes for games”.
Xbox Live Russia
At the moment you can subscribe for Xbox Live in more than twenty countries – the annual Gold subscription costs $50 on average. Microsoft actively develops Xbox Live and expands the service – besides Russia, citizens of Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Brazil, Chili, Columbia and South Africa can become its users. Along with the paid subscription Gold there is a free version – formerly known as Silver. Now it is called Free, which corresponds to its status – you can use some of the Xbox Live facilities free of charge.
Xbox Live Gold Subscription Card
PlayStation Network service operates in the same way as Xbox Live. By the by, the latter’s audience is about 25 million users. This indicator is a bit inferior to the like one of Valve, but here we should remind that Steam is a completely free service. Unfortunately, Sony doesn’t inform of PlayStation Network’s audience size, but we can assume that the number of this service’s users is also close to 20 million. Like Microsoft, the Japanese company does it’s best to update its service. Recently PlayStation Network’s users were able to benefit from the agreement signed between Sony and Hulu video service, and back in the summer there started to operate the paid service PlayStation Network Plus, whose functional is really immense.
Cloud Computing Prospectives
Despite the fact that the first in history service based on the cloud computing technology was conceived as early as in 2002, the world got aware of it only in 2009. Only recently OnLive has become one of the main subjects discussed not only by gamers but by all those who are at least a bit interested in computing industry. Americans were honoured to be the first to take part in testing this service – OnLive was launched in the USA on 17 June 2010.
Like other great things, OnLive service that was announced at last year’s Game Developer Conference operates basing on a simple and easily understood concept. According to the cloud computing technology all the calculations and data processing are performed by a remote server. The users of the service should not necessarily have a high-performance computers or video cards – it’s quite enough to have a loading device (game pad or keyboard/ mouse), screening and sound output devices (monitor/TV-set and headphones/ speakers), a simple computer (even a low-performance net book will be enough) and a rather wide internet connection (of course, stable). Everything is easy further on – we get to OnLive service, seek the game we want and it is “broadcast” to us live - it goes without saying, with maximum settings and some other “candy-box beauty”. While sound and image are being transmitted through broadband internet connection to your PC or Mac, the remote server is getting information about what keys/ buttons of your game pad have been pressed.
For those who don’t have even the simplest computer OnLive offers to purchase a TV games attachment that is sold as a unit together with game pad and headset with a microphone. The device is connected to a TV-set through HDMI, Ethernet port is used for internet connection, and there are two USB ports and one Mini USB port for connecting headphones and game pads (there can be up to 4 items) to the gadget. There is only a question about internet connection left – how wide should an internet channel be? It has turned out that requirements are quite bearable – in order to transmit image of a normal quality a channel of 1,5 megabits a second in width is quite enough, and for displaying an HD image (720p) 5 Mbit/s is ok. Thus, only dial-up connection users are left behind as well as broadband internet users whose traffic is limited. The former have practically become extinct, and the number of the latter is gradually decreasing – more and more providers offer unlimited traffic for reasonable prices.
One of the biggest advantages of OnLive, that can become its business card, is game renting. How are regular online distribution services doing? We find the game we are interested in, view its gameplay demonstrations and screenshots and then decide whether to buy it or not. As a rule, there’s no intermediate option – either we buy the project to add it to our collection or we don’t and play its demo-version. With the lapse of time we can get bored with it or we can take an instant dislike to it after playing it once, but the money has been spent and you have to put up with the unfortunate choice. While our nationals face this problem only partly, it’s more acute abroad. The reason for this is the cost of games – here it’s possible to buy a long-awaited blockbuster for $10-20 and abroad the cost of AAA- projects is often more than $50. Now you can imagine how disappointed a fan of role-playing games can get if he followed his friends’ advice and bought Far Cry 2 for $60. The publisher gets his profit but a citizen of Germany may not like it, he can only appeal to himself in this case though. Naturally it pretty often happens to our gamers but here the sums are not so round. However money is money in any part of the world and this problem shouldn’t be left out.
OnLive is far more democratic and original in this respect. Most of the available games are optionally rentable. For instance action with role-playing elements Borderlands can be purchased for $30, or you can pay $9 for 5-day playing or $6 for 3 days. Batman has something similar – it’s Arkham Asylum. You can play it for 3 days paying $5 and 7 days goes for $7. The service owners and the publisher decide how to distribute each game. For instance, Ubisoft has taken the decision to make their projects unrentable and consequently you can play Assassin’s Creed 2 and Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction only after you get access to the game for $40. But you should admit that the trend itself is extremely interesting and attractive to gamers as well as to publishers and developers.
By the way, there has been a discussion about hiring out games by the major publishers for a long time, but things haven’t got forward an inch. There slipped out news not long ago that Valve together with its Steam service was thinking of game exchange. However there was a disclaimer – it’s out of the question for the time being. Meanwhile most gamers are ready for it and are sure to be happy about having such an opportunity. Instead of piling up completed games on a dusty shelf or trying to resell them at a flea market, gamers would gladly take advantage of the opportunity to exchange an old game for a new one – even if with a small additional payment.
The owners of OnLive service showed some caution about beta test – users were connected gradually after being registered on the fist days after launching the new product. In 5 days the service already switched to its constant duty – it operates smoothly 24/7 in 48 states of North America. Naturally, at the moment there are a lot more of those who are willing to take part in testing OnLive than the service creators expected initially. And most of them live in Europe where OnLive is not speeding to – Great Britain was the first to host the innovative service, but as per contract signed by British Telecommunications and OnLive owners the service will not be launched in the UK until the end of 2010. Approximately at this time it is going to be launched in Belgium.
However the popularization of OnLive all over the world is something for the future, it is much more interesting to look at the results of about half a year’s testing. As quite enough time has passed we can speak of the advantages and disadvantages of the service specifically. But before switching over to the “practical” part, we should look at its cost – because it’s what the success and popularity of OnLive are going to depend to a large extent on. At the moment the cost of a monthly subscription for OnLive is $15. You should agree that it is almost the same price as those for the subscription for the online services offered by the owners of regular consoles. It goes without saying that there are going to be different campaigns and bonuses – for example, the first 25 thousand users subscribed for OnLive will be able to use it for 3 months free of charge.
Along with the paid OnLive service there is a free OnLive Game Portal that enables users to try most of the service’s games without subscribing – on acquainting themselves with demo-versions they can decide whether it’s worth paying for the access to the service. And this is undoubtedly just a starter – there are sure to appear many various types of subscription all over the world after the official launching of OnLive – users that have subscribed for a year or two are certain to get attractive bonuses and discounts.
As far as the “practical” part of OnLive is concerned, everything’s fine according to numerous reviews by beta testers. In spite of the delay, which is inevitable while transmitting streaming video from the server to players, most of the games are handled fairly well. Curiously enough that delays don’t prevent from playing action games and RPG like Borderlands, Just Cause 2 and Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction. It’s unusual and less handy to play casual games and indie projects like World of Goo in OnLive because you need accurate cursor update. The unnoticeable ingressed lug often causes failures when pyramids and other figures are being dragged over. Not that lugs cause complete failures in projects like these but gamers’ sensation of the gameplay is different from that when playing a game on a computer with a regular game mode.
Actually if you have an ideal internet connection while playing in OnLive, then it is like viewing video on YouTube with the resolution of 1280x720 – and the gap between what you do and what you see on the screen is 14 milliseconds. What does it mean in practice? Talking turkey, it means the following. You can play only singles of most games comfortably in this mode – if you play MUGs you face more drawbacks. Although there has not been much research done, we can assume that if you happen to play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 or Battlefield: Bad Company 2 on the same server with players using their own machine-computers you won’t be successful in shooting off your enemies. Even a few milliseconds in multiplayer of most action games can play a decisive role – you will have to start with respawn if you were not able to turn to your enemy in time.
There is an Alternative
Despite its innovation, OnLive is not the terminus in the game industry. At the same time there are other new ideas that are actively being developed – and we hear of them daily. For instance, a few months before OnLive started to be tested we had heard of David Perry, a famous game designer. In his blog the game-designer posted a photo of iPad on which the well-known World of Warcraft was launched. And actually Blizzard has never made a special version of an online game for this platform.
World of Warcraft on Apple iPad
As it’s turned out, there is another online service that uses cloud computing technology and it’s Gaikai. A game was launched on its server and the image was transmitted to a tablet computer through Wi-Fi. And this is only the tip of the iceberg – no doubt OnLive will have plenty of other competitors while it’s working its way and getting bumps. The opening of Gaikai, which is similar to OnlIve both in structure and functionally, is fixed for the end of this year – as early as in December gamers will have to choose their future server. The owners of Gaikai are keeping an eye on OnLive’s progress and taking notice of its drawbacks. This is proved by the fact that the American service’s competitor is going to operate in a regular mode without tentative beta-testing from the very start.
Subscription for Gaikai will cost $15 according to the preliminary information. For the time being we can mention a short list of the companies that have registered for introducing the service into their games as Gaikai’s only shortcoming. So far Gaikai has managed to enlist Electronic Arts’ support while OnLive already cooperates with Canadian publishers as well as with Ubisoft, Take-Two Interactive, Eidos Interactive, THQ, Atari, Epic Games, Codemasters, Warner Bros and others. However no one doubts that support will come with time and Gaikai will add other cooperating companies to its list soon.
Along with the forthcoming competition among the online services based on the cloud computing technology there is also Epic Games that presents its projects from time to time. Its head Mark Rain is in favour of portable games – not those we are all familiar with though. The portable consoles of the present generation like PlayStation Portable, Nintendo DS and the forthcoming 3DS are too simple. A console that can fit in your shirt pocket but is as high-end as Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 is another story. Having played to your heart's content while waiting in a queue or going by public transport, you connect it to your TV-set or home theatre, take the gamepad in hands and play the most up-to-date projects.
Unreal Engine on Apple iPhone
Strange as it may seem, all the above is neither a dream nor a delirium of a nerdy gamer – this is what many studios including Epic Games are working on. The latter is already taking the first steps in this direction – the high-performance graphic game engine has already been ported to the Apple mobile platform. However the developers are facing another problem – it’s technically possible to make the present consoles in iPad format high-performance ones, but here we face the problem of power consumption – energy consumption is becoming enormously high. Nevertheless almost no one doubts that a way out is going to be found soon – as they say, history gives lessons.