Computer Gaming Taking Center Stage

With last week’s release of the Sony PSP in the U.S. market stealing the spotlight from the (“old-news”) Apple iPod and details of the XBox likely to emerge at the upcoming E3 gaming conference, it is time to take a real look at how gaming is driving the future of PC technology and entertainment.

Performance as a driver in the general business PC market evaporated several years ago as people increasingly questioned the need to buy high performance laptops and desktops to run applications that used only a fraction of the available power. With games, however, the performance of a system directly relates to the user experience, and leading titles like “Doom 3” and “Half Life 2” can easily use every ounce of performance available in even the fastest systems.

Where Power Still Rules

One of the most interesting battles being waged is between Dell and boutique high-margin PC companies like AlienWare and Falcon. These vendors have owned the performance gaming space for several years now, but recently Dell started attacking that segment with the XPS line. Initial products were good values but really didn’t capture the imaginations of buyers as well as the offerings from the smaller firms did.

This month, though, Dell released the new XPS notebook computer, and it is stunning. With solid performance, an Apple-like lit cover, and, for once, a mobile processor, this thing now sets the bar in what has become an incredibly lucrative segment.

It should be noted that Dell has almost always been a follower but, in this case, they were the first of the large branded vendors to really go after the gaming space. This latest XPS notebook is expected to be followed by an even more impressive desktop version at a future date. When Dell starts to lead the market in design, it is time for the other vendors to be afraid, be very afraid.

MMOGs: The Fight for your Brain

MMOGs, or Massive Multi-Player Online Games, have been growing by leaps and bounds over the last several months. This category of games has progressed dramatically over the last two years and reached impressive levels of near-reality. Still, this is just the beginning, as I have already seen demonstrations of future games that are much more photo-realistic.

The goal of this class of product is to create an artificial reality where gamers from all over the world can congregate and play with — or more often, against — each other and play for hours, if not weeks, on end.

Currently there are two MMOGs fighting for dominance. They are Blizzard’s “World of Warcraft” (WOW), and Cryptic Studios and NCsoft’s “City of Heroes” (COH). “World of Warcraft” is a “Lord of the Rings” type of game where you play as a character in a mythical world and fight computer-generated characters or other players. In “City of Heroes” you play a superhero and either fight solo or team with others to defeat computer-generated villains.

COH is about to undergo an enhancement that will allow players to fight each other in an arena either individually or in groups. If you want to get a sense of the visuals available in these games you can go to the COH Web site to check them out (you’ll need Apple’s free QuickTime player).

Beware of Addiction

Both games are incredibly addictive: I’ve been playing COH myself since before Christmas and WOW for the last week. There have been times where I’ve actually played for over eight hours straight and wondered where the time, and the feeling in my legs, has gone. You can find yourself playing with folks all over the world, some of whom actually play all night.

There is oversight provided and filters to limit language unacceptable to children, though I should add that some children have quickly discovered how to get around the filters and so, a certain amount of adult oversight may be required for the younger players. In general, with some exceptions, both environments appear to be a lot safer than some of the things I did as a child.

Future generations of these games will have, along with more realistic graphics, destructible environments. (Currently, even if you are tossing around nuclear bombs, the structures remain standing and pristine. That will change in the next 12 months.) In addition, voice is creeping into the games, which has both positive and negative aspects.

When you create a character in these games, you can pick its sex. A lot of guys choose to play as women and some women choose to play as men. Using a tool called “Team Speak” you may be jarred to find out what sex characters’ creators actually are. I was stunned to discover the mother I thought I had been playing with was, in fact, a father. However, you can form stronger relationships and the overall experience is vastly better when voice is enabled. This was a feature pioneered by the Xbox folks at Microsoft and it is actually done much better with PCs. By the way, expect the new Xbox voice features to be vastly improved as well.

WOW is the newer game, and long-term players of COH have been migrating to it both because it is newer and because the COH folks have apparently been doing their level best to upset their long-term players. It often feels like social engineering by a group of folks that probably never took a single psych class, but that, too, will probably change over time.

Frankly, I still enjoy COH more than WOW, but I have to admit that WOW has some compelling features. For one, virtually everyone I know at Microsoft and in my family who plays games like this is now playing WOW.

Trouble in Paradise

Just as these games sort of mimic real life, or perhaps mimic the way some of us would like real life to be, real life can intrude on the games’ virtual worlds as well. For example, for COH, reality came in the form of a lawsuit from Marvel Comics, who charged that the game was infringing on Marvel’s intellectual property. It seems that some of the players could, with the character creation tools, come very close to the look of a Marvel-owned character.

I’m trying to understand how suing the creators of COH because kids could mimic their favorite superheroes is any different then suing Singer Sewing Machines because someone’s grandmother made them a knockoff superhero costume that looked like something one of their characters had worn. My grandmother made one for me when I was around eight — it remains among my fondest memories of her.

Recently the court tossed out much of Marvel’s complaint, partially because the evidence that Marvel presented was actually created by Marvel employees. You would think that kids getting excited about Marvel properties would be a good thing — and that actively working with the COH folks to allow that to happen and perhaps share the marketing expense and the additional revenue such a partnership could create would be vastly smarter than alienating customers.

But given the comic book industry has been working to go out of business for some time I’m guessing that such a path was seen as counter-strategic.

Games, Movies, the New Convergence

Certainly we have seen games made from movies and movies made from games, however, we are getting very close to a time when it will be possible to create a movie directly from a game or a game directly from a movie.

Imagine actually being able to play a character in a subplot you created yourself in a blockbuster movie, or seeing a game sequence that you created show up on the big screen. The follow-on to reality TV could be virtual TV, and you could end up being the star.

We are at the front end of a brave new world, and that world may be forming in the mind of an eight-year-old in your home or neighborhood. Now there’s a scary thought.

Rob Enderle, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is the Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.

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