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Getting into the (multiplayer) game

Mon, 05/31/2004 - 8:00pm
Jeff Baumgartner, Editor

Long Beach, Calif.–Connection lost. That's a message people like Adam Joffe dread to see. As the chief technology officer of Sony Online Entertainment, which develops and operates massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) such as EverQuest, Planetside and Star Wars Galaxies, he knows a thing or two about these things.

Adam Joffe
Joffe
Though Sony's EverQuest is the MMOG poster child in the U.S., the genre itself pales in comparison to what is happening in Asia, the category's bona fide growth engine. While EverQuest has managed to sell north of 2 million copies since launching in 1999 and has 150,000 subscribers online on any given night, a game like Ragnarok Online, which is big in Asia, has signed up tens of millions. Here, multiplayer gaming is part of life for a growing number of people. There, it is life for many.

Broadband, of course, will have a big, if not the biggest, impact on how online games will evolve. That was a key message delivered here at the first annual Game Networks conference.

"If you're a gamer, chances are that you already subscribe to a (high-speed data service)," observed Joshua Hong, co-founder and CEO of K2 Network, a company that is importing several popular South Korean MMOG titles to the U.S.

And the correlation between broadband adoption and online gaming goes deeper than that. "When broadband penetration reaches 25 percent, then you have the basic infrastructure to do online gaming successfully," he predicted, noting that penetration in South Korea, where online gaming is big business, has reached beyond 60 percent.

The U.S., he added, is expected to hit the 25 percent milestone sometime this year, meaning a domestic online gaming explosion is just around the corner.

Though games like EverQuest appeal mostly to core gamers, many multi- player titles targeted to more casual gamers are either here or on the way. While gamers who play the most advanced titles might be willing to stomach a few bugs or hiccups, casual gamers likely won't put up with it for long.

But making that a good experience for the end user requires more than just more capacity. "Bandwidth is important, but so is latency, loss and jitter. If you have a clean network, it's better than having a fat network," says Joffe, who keynoted the conference.

Ragnarok Online
Ragnarok Online, a big hit in Asia, has
subscribers in the tens of millions.
So, how does cable fit into this puzzle? In the case of Comcast Cable, the MSO has partnered with an aggregation partner, Real Networks, which operates the RealArcade service. Going a step beyond that, CableLabs specifications like PacketCable Multimedia (PCMM) could play a key role in how operators and MMOG makers can work together and offer a gaming tier that offers true QoS, rather than just best-effort.

Despite the growth in MMOG titles, the genre itself is "stagnant," argued Jennifer MacLean, director of sports, entertainment and games for Comcast Online Communications. "We're looking for the next-generation [console] platforms from Microsoft and Sony. To me, we're not seeing innovation in MMOGs but in casual gaming and EA Sports Nation, and seeing how they can bend the current model and get [casual gamers] online."

"We are in a transition," added Jason Rubinstein, general manager of Ubisoft's ubi.com, the company that makes top multiplayer titles such as Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six 3 for PCs and gaming consoles. Though consumers in the core gaming market will spend between $100 to $150 per year, that market hasn't grown much despite the additional choices in titles.

"Console networks have finally arrived. That's awesome news," he said, but noted that 60 percent to 75 percent of casual gamers are women 30 years or older. "The growth opportunity is there, but that audience has been neglected." Others in that deserted group are kids and seniors. "Seniors have no content," Rubinstein argued.

The market for high-level MMOGs, especially those that require 20 hours online just to "level-up," is completely saturated, agreed Ray Starbird, manager of product development for Cox Communications. "We have to broaden that market to include the casual gamer."

"Casual games will dominate and will be the primary vehicle for revenue generation in the next two to three years," said Tony Leamer, director of distribution for RealArcade.

Cox, Starbird explained, has funded its gaming strategy and plans to serve casual gamers and to take a closer look at how hardware platforms will play a role in that strategy. Cox, he said, hopes its strategy will appeal to all types of gamers, whether that means casual games ported to the set-top or supporting the hardcore, multiplayer gamers that use high-speed connections.

Operators that want to get into the game have several options. Among them are to partner with one of several content aggregators. RealArcade, for example, can enable an operator to add about 200 casual games to its high-speed portal. Others at the conference included K2 Network, G-cluster, Exent, Trymedia and cable technology vet ICTV Inc., which has already formed content partnerships with Disney Blast, Lifetime Television, MindsEye, Buzztime Entertain-ment, Sesame Workshop and gaming aggregators such as TvHead.

Cable's opportunities also extend beyond gaming partnerships. Cable broadband providers can also help game publishers create a new sales channel if they're willing to take that next step and feel adequately protected by current digital rights management technologies.

MacLean explained that cable operators have the ability to "uncap" cable modems to quicken the speed in which a game is downloaded and can move game servers closer to the customer to foster such a service.

Still, cable doesn't want to be the fly in the business model ointment for game publishers and developers. "Retail isn't going to be replaced; we don't want it to be," Starbird said.

Regardless, the online distribution trend is inevitable, said Gabe Zichermann, vice president of strategy and communications for Trymedia, who spoke on a panel about online gaming distribution. "Downloadable games...are going to be a very, very big piece of the [revenue] pie," he said.

With the right provisioning infrastructure, "you can make money by providing QoS for gaming," Zichermann added, noting that access providers should worry more about providing good connections than selling content. "Improve the QoS issues and provide premium value-added services to communities that are willing to pay for that," he said.

How much are people willing to pay? It depends on the game and the gamer. Many casual games that Comcast offers through RealArcade are free. A high-end MMOG like Star Wars Galaxies goes for $15 per month.

But that's nothing compared to what some players were willing to fork over in the early 1990s on the old GEnie service. Online gaming vet Jessica Mulligan recalled that the average GEnie MMOG player spent $156 per month in hourly fees, and some even paid more than $2,000 per month.

"I was shocked at how much people would pay," said Mulligan, who is currently an executive producer for Turbine Entertainment, tasked with the P&L for Asheron's Call.

Of course, very few will pay that today. Still, Mulligan agreed that MMOGs today aren't hitting the mass market successfully because the games are designed for hardcore players. Although that category of player doesn't care about the cost and time requirements for an intricate MMOG, "moderate" players are willing to spend the money, but don't have 20 hours a week to commit.

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