The Evolution of Online Games and the Next iPod

Last week was a busy week. It started with the Intel Developer Forum and ended with an American Press Institute roundtable on the future of media. We’ll cover the second event another week because there were two things I saw while at the Intel event that I believe are potentially market breakers.

The first is the end of games — particularly massive multiplayer online games (MMOGs) — as we know them, and the second has to do with a vision of an iPod-like device that could potentially make smart phones, handheld computers and iPods obsolete.

The Death and Rebirth of MMOGs

Massive multiplayer online games have come a long way over the last five years. The level of reality, largely due to improvements in the graphics capability and processing power of current generation systems, has improved to a degree that some, like Warcraft, are destinations where people spend more time exploring the virtual landscape than they do actually playing the game.

With this reality has come a level of addiction and behavior that is almost impossible to believe for a non-gamer. People will buy “Everquest” (another popular MMOG) real estate for thousands of dollars, or pay others to create and train characters for them, or literally live in the game for days, leaving only to sleep or eat.

What has differentiated these games is the level of reality they offer players. This is about to change in a very dramatic fashion. What has been limiting for games of this type, and all complex graphically intensive games, has been a lack of reality.

Even if buildings can be destroyed, rivers crossed, monsters killed, all of these things happen in a prescribed way that has little to do with how real things behave. This becomes boring very quickly.

Because there isn’t enough processing power, if you destroy something with your fist or a bomb it will probably blow up the same way; if you walk through water it won’t seem to react as if you are really in water; and saplings are as indestructible as castles. This takes away a lot of the fun of the role-playing.

Making It Real

But what if could introduce real physics into a game? What if objects could realistically interact with other objects? What if water acted like water? What if we could achieve a much more realistic virtual reality?

A company called AGEIA has created a product called PHYSX that, much as graphics cards did a decade ago, promises to transform the gaming experience into something that approaches the kind of reality seen only in the Star Trek Holodeck.

Implemented in much the same way as a graphics card, this add-on, which is expected to be designed into a number of leading games shortly, may forever change the look and feel of the high-end games we’ve come to know and love.

This product has a secondary benefit as well. Currently, whatever reality modeling that is done is done by the processor. PHYSX will free up the processor to do other things such as creating more intelligent game characters.

I’ve been addicted to “City of Heroes” for some time now, and I can easily see how a dramatic improvement in the reality of the game would improve my own experience — and more deeply lock me in. I should probably be upset about that when they formally announce this thing on Tuesday, but I’ve been playing “City of Heroes” for hours now and can’t seem to find the energy to get upset.

Dual-Core Processors and Gaming

Meanwhile, Intel showcased its dual-core product at the Intel Developer Forum, and, while it is initially positioned against the multimedia market that Apple owns, it too will have a dramatic impact on gaming. Dual-core processors are basically single processors that can do two completely different things at the same time. Both AMD and Intel are racing to bring this technology to market, but only Intel is positioning it as a consumer product in the near term.

Dual-core potentially brings the ability to do more things at the same time. This can make groups of gaming characters seem more realistic, help solve the current problems associated with playing games while using security products such as virus checkers, and make using voice communications more practical and of higher quality.

When we combine the impact of dual-core processors with the PHYSX engine we get what will undoubtedly become the foundation for the single most significant increase in gaming quality this decade. But we aren’t done, so hold on to your wallets.

Adding Sound to the Mix

Intel and Sonic Focus showcased the next generation of sound on Intel motherboards. We have evidently reached a performance level where a PC can replace custom audio equipment costing tens of thousands of dollars and reproduce sounds at a granular level. Providing Dolby and THX quality has been possible for some time, but now the systems can extend far beyond this.

While we still haven’t figured out how to produce smells to correlate with the right titles and speakers, you can now close your eyes and imagine being inside the virtual world created by a game or movie.

When this finally comes together with the more advanced graphics products from ATI and nVidia in the next 12 to 18 months, the improvement should justify a chair upgrade because I — and I imagine, many of you — will be spending a lot more time playing increasingly engaging games.

Intel’s Next iPod

Intel showcased two forward-looking portable PCs at its Developer Forum. The first was a traditional-looking laptop with enhanced fingerprint recognition security, a built-in video camera and array microphone for video conferencing, and hardware virtualization that provides both hither security and the opportunity for a generic software image that could cross all types of PC hardware. While impressive for business, particularly large enterprises, it was more of an evolutionary offering.

The other product was a handheld, full-featured computer sporting a touch screen and running Media Center software. This product was designed to replace the iPod, the Personal Media Center, your portable radio and portable DVD player, and your PDA. It was like looking at an OQO ultra-portable PC on steroids. It sported an Apple/Sony-level industrial design, a small, high-resolution screen and built-in speakers that you might actually enjoy listening to.

I’ve been a backer for some time of this class of computer. A small, portable device that is only compromised by its size seems to me to be a natural for providing a variety of entertainment (and, yes, work-related) functions to the user who wants to carry it all in his or her pocket.

All in all it was a good week, but this week is the Game Developer’s Conference, and that means the other shoe, with regard to gaming, is about to drop. If it does, we’ll talk about that next week. Until then, look for me on “City of Heroes.”

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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