27 November 2009

Let The New (Online) Games Begin

Wall Street Journal

Online gaming is heading in some tantalizing new directions.

Spurred by the spread of social networking, faster Internet connections and powerful mobile devices, game makers are experimenting with a host of innovations that drastically improve online play.

A new crop of games lets friends cooperate or compete on social-networking sites, or team up online using their gaming consoles. New hand-held devices let you pull down games directly from the Internet, instead of having to plug in a cartridge or a disk. And cloud computing, which lets people tap into computing resources over the Web, makes it possible to have feature-rich gaming regardless of where you play or what kind of machine you use.

The upshot is that consumers can play online games wherever they want—whether on their personal computers, mobile phones or consoles—and have access to the widest possible array of game titles.

Here's a look at some of the new games, trends and devices that companies are hoping will reshape online play.

Social Games

Facebook Inc. and other networking sites have made social gaming a popular new category. Users play with others in their network, often cooperating to achieve a goal. One of the best-known offerings was an unauthorized version of Scrabble that ran on Facebook and boasted about two million registered users before legal threats shut it down. Now a host of new social games are cropping up. Playfish is one of the most successful developers, with 10 games in its lineup. Its success was recently highlighted by Electronic Arts Inc., which acquired the company last week for $400 million.

One of Playfish's most popular games, Restaurant City, which has 15 million monthly active users, allows gamers to join with their friends to manage a virtual restaurant. Users pick food ingredients, furniture, decorative items and fancy additions like a jukebox or an arcade machine; they can also hire friends as waiters or cooks, as well as trade ingredients with them. The object of the game is to increase your friend network—thereby bolstering the status of your virtual restaurant.

Free Multiplayer Games

One of the most popular varieties of online games is getting a lot more affordable. In September, a Korean game publisher, Nexon Corp., introduced its Dungeon Fighter game to the North American market. Popular in Asia, the game differs from dozens of other massive multiplayer online games, which require users to pay monthly subscription fees to play. Nexon allows gamers to play free—but makes money by selling in-game items and tools, such as magical weapons, that help players advance to higher levels of the game.

Since it was introduced in Asia in 2005, the game has been a wild success, with more than 10 million South Koreans playing the game since its launch. It also inspired dozens of other online-game publishers to use the same no-subscription strategy.

Still, Nexon executives are unsure if the model will succeed in North America as it has in Asia; parents of North American teens may not want to use their credit cards to buy $3 blue hairdos for their kids' in-game characters. To hedge its bet, the company has augmented the model to include prepaid cards. Gamers can go to Target or 7-Eleven to purchase cards, which can later be used to purchase virtual items.
Cooperative Console Games

In 2002, Microsoft Corp. introduced an Internet service called Xbox Live for its Xbox game console, making it possible for fans to battle each other inside, say, its popular Halo game.

With the latest version of Xbox Live, introduced last fall, Microsoft wants to expand the reach of its consoles by offering more games that are aimed at the casual player and foster cooperation. While plenty of attention will still be paid to hard-core gamers and their shoot-'em-up games, there will be a growing focus on cultivating cooperation between players interested in less violent fare.

For example, in June, Microsoft launched 1 vs. 100, a live quiz show for the gaming community. Every Friday and Saturday, gamers can sign on and play as a single contestant called "The One," or as one of 100 players called "The Mob" and collaborate on answers. A live studio host tosses out trivia questions and players try to accumulate Microsoft Points, which can be used to buy certain items. About three million gamers have downloaded the game, and according to an Xbox Live spokesman, as many as 100,000 people have signed on to play a single session of the game.

Games in the Cloud

Typically, consumers who wanted to play graphically rich games needed to buy high-end personal computers or dedicated gaming consoles. But new technology promises to make a top-notch gaming experience available to users on less powerful PCs or inexpensive set-top boxes that are connected to their televisions. OnLive Inc., Palo Alto, Calif., is developing technology that runs games on powerful servers that players can access through their Internet connections. The service, which plans to launch this winter, has signed such top-tier game publishers as Electronic Arts and Take-Two Interactive Software Inc. to open their libraries for the games. Pricing hasn't been determined.

Downloading Fun

Most hand-held gaming devices require users to buy videogame cartridges or disks. Last month, Sony Corp. introduced the PSP Go, a portable device that plays only games that can be downloaded from Sony's online marketplace. Users can download the games via built-in Wi-Fi, or download them onto a computer and transfer them to the device with a USB cable. Gamers can choose among 225 titles, including top names such as Sony's racing game Gran Turismo and Electronic Arts' John Madden football game. They can also buy PSP Minis—simple games that run about $10.

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