E-gaming--set to become serious business!

Online gaming is not child’s play: not for those who provide these games, nor the ones who spend time and money playing them. Revenue from online games is poised to escalate to $2.3 billion by 2005, according to IDC. But that is only a fraction of the videogame market that has taken its business online. With so much money to be made from playing online, a new generation of upstart entertainment moguls has appeared, ready to cash in.

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By  Vijaya George Published  January 2, 2002

I|~||~||~|Online gaming is not child’s play: not for those who provide these games, nor the ones who spend time and money playing them. Revenue from online games is poised to escalate to $2.3 billion by 2005, according to market research agency International Data Corporation (IDC). But that is only a fraction of the videogame market. With so much money to be made from playing online, a new generation of upstart entertainment moguls has appeared, ready to cash in.

Online games earlier referred, primarily, to free multi-player Java-based games such as board and card games, chess, word puzzles and so on. These games are still the most popular among casual players, who make up roughly 40 million of the 51 million players online, according to IDC senior analyst Scherrer Olhave.

Some of the leading casual games sites include Yahoo Games, which, according to Dr. Irfan Ahmad, director of Yahoo Middle East, South and Central Asia, has over 5.5 million unique users per month with an average game session lasting 30 minutes; and pogo.com, where each of the site’s four million members now spend an average of 399 minutes on the service per month. That means the average single visit to Pogo’s game service lasts for nearly 60 minutes.

These sites don’t just focus on attracting surfers to their web sites but work towards making them spend more time on the site as well-what the industry terms “sticky”—a feature that advertisers consider significant for advertising on a site. Simply put, the “stickier” the web site, the more attractive it is to online advertisers. And the more variety of free games on the web site, the more the number of people who come to play.

But gradually, this attitude is beginning to change. Online gaming doesn’t just mean registering at a web site and playing free games anymore. Rather, it has also come to include any game playable via a modem and/or remote network connection, including modem-to-modem and Internet network connections, but specifically excluding Local Area Network-only game sessions. That encompasses a huge retail market including most videogames that can now be played both on and offline.

||**||II|~||~||~|Take for instance, retail games such as Red Alert, Age of Empires or Half-Life. You can purchase these games, which on an average, cost between $30 and $50, and play them either offline or connect to a server on the Web and compete with opponents worldwide. Then again, there are other retail games that can only be played online like Ultima Online (www.uo.com), set up by Electronic Arts and Sony’s Everquest (www.everquest.com). A player has to first purchase the software for these games, install them on their PC, then log on to the respective web site to play. Since the above games are also very popular, these web sites charge players a monthly subscription fee of $10 as well to stay connected to the games. Ultima currently has over 250,000 plus players while Everquest commands over 100,000 more subscribers than the former. Both games bring their respective companies a continuing source of revenue after the original game purchase. Like most other entertainment web sites, Electronic Arts (www.ea.com) and Sony (www.station.com) also put up a host of free games alongside their subscription-based ones.

But this is only a speck within the larger framework of e-gaming. Suffice to say that the changing online gaming scenario has begun to embrace a fast evolving, complex amoeboid world populated by ordinary people who live not-so-ordinary roles through their games; donning the garbs of kings and queens, of soldiers, dwarfs and people from different civilisations and walks of life, and all creatures that have walked the minds of game developers.

These online games are not just making people live out their fantasies in a virtual world; in the course of it, “they are also creating a whole new social movement,” says Khaled Bichara, CEO of LinkdotNet, “where people are sharing their interests and creating a new community.” Bichara should know. Of MSN’s 2.2 million Middle East subscribers, 10 to 15 per cent visit its gaming zone regularly; most of them being from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. MSN's zone has more than 65,000 players logged on at any given point in time. One thing that continues to evade definition, however, is the profile of the online gamer. Researchers are not even sure of whether there are more male or female gamers, let alone less tangible factors. Of only one thing are they certain-that teenagers are only a tiny fraction of the gaming community.

||**||III|~||~||~|Perhaps Farhan Mahmood, senior manager, multimedia services, of Emirates Internet and Multimedia (EIM) explains it best: “The culture in the online gaming world is very organic; things keep on moving and changing like in real society. So our own answers about who comes to play online have been questioned time and again.”

Mahmood has witnessed groups ranging from teenagers and young adults to people over seventy at play at www.mplayer-arabia.com, EIM’s offering to the Middle East's gaming community and the first such initiative in the region.

Clearly, somebody that does not fit the bill of a fun-loving gamer is Ashok Daryanani, the general manager of Space Distribution. You would have to belong to his circle of friends to know that this 28-year-old businessman is an avid gamer, who spends an hour a day playing his favourite games. “Games and I have gone a long, long way together,” says Daryanani, who got hooked on to a video game at 10 and now has a DSL connection at his home to enhance his gaming experience. “Every Thursday night, I set up a server at home and I invite my cousins and nephews to join me from their homes. We play for about four to five hours,” he says. “Currently, we are playing Counter Strike, which is a first-person shooter and Myth, which is a real-time strategy game.”

While some like Daryanani set up their own servers, there are others who take their games to web sites like Mplayer-Arabia.com, which provide a multi-player interface for retail games such as Age of Empires and Baldur's Gate. Playing has always been more fun with people than without, and the Internet enables gamers to meet together, compete, trade cheats, chat, and form a community with people who understand their language. “What you get is a 24/7 friend, who will play with you and entertain you,” says Bichara of LinkdotNet. Mahmood, who has watched the number of players on Mplayer-Arabia grow since its launch in October 2001 from 4,000 to 16,000 within a span of two months agrees. “Our site has become a social support system for many of our players and has become a forum for building friendships. And as these people build friendships, they meet offline as well,” he explains.

And gamers need this circle of friends. As Daryanani rightly says, “gamers see the world differently. They speak a different language. They are always talking about characters, how to develop them, about how big a gun is and so on.” Although this seems like a lot of gibberish to non-gamers, within the community, there is a great deal of respect for the most skilled players. There are also many online communities and magazines such as ign.com, gaming-age.com and http://fargo.itp.tsoa.nyu.edu/~beltrami where gamers come together to discuss new games, share news, trade cheats and get updates on the latest games in the market.

||**||IV|~||~||~|Mplayer-Arabia.com also offers such a forum to bring together the local gaming community. Although the site has only a small collection of games and supports even fewer retail products. EIM claims that it is the only one currently using the Mplayer software-a user interface that was very popular among gamers worldwide-before it was bought over by gamespot.com and merged with the latter’s software. Loyal players worldwide, who had enjoyed using Mplayer prior to it being shut down, have flocked to Mplayer-Arabia to recreate the pleasant gaming experiences of the past.

Loyalty is an important factor in gaming. And web sites go to great lengths to lure audiences and make them return for more. MPlayer-Arabia is, for instance, inviting regional players by giving them the option to switch to an Arabic interface and chat in Arabic as well, while they play. Moreover, EIM hosts online and offline tournaments regularly and prizes are awarded to winners. It is currently working with the publishers of several games to provide multi-player support through its web site. Moreover, it is also considering hosting servers locally and better ways to support its 25 odd local leagues online. “Some of the largest of our leagues have about 800 members and at any time, we have about 600 active players, meaning that they log in at least once in three days,” says Naima Shaikh, Production Manager, Multimedia Services, EIM. Shaikh, who is responsible for integrating new services into the web site comments on the virtual stampede at these leagues to even apply to be a tournament administrator- clearly, a coveted position among gamers.

“These people have made our site a big part of their lives,” says Mahmood proudly. That is good news for EIM because although its marketing strategy is currently advertisement-driven, it may, in future, introduce value-added services that may be available only to paid subscribers. And people are willing to pay if the games are as good as Everquest.com, which has become a virtual hangout for players. By offering a mix of free and fee-based premium games, Sony has ensured that money pours in from both ends-the gamers, who pay monthly subscription fees to play its exclusive games and the advertisers who pay for visibility to the casual and paid gamers.

Meanwhile, so many different genres have evolved within gaming over the last decade; the most popular among them being role-playing games (RPG), real time strategy (RTS), first person shooter (FPS) and action games. A more recent phenomenon that has lured hundreds of thousands of gamers is the massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPG) such as Everquest, Asheron’s Call, Anarchy Online and EVE.

||**||V|~||~||~|Role playing games such as Baldur’s Gate and Ultima Online take you into a world of fantasy, where you get to pick the role that you want to play. You may, for instance, be a secretary from Egypt in real life. But in Ultima, you may be playing the role of Freefall, a seamstress whose goal is to build a shopping mall. Your job is, to put it very simplistically, to develop your new character in the game, and in the process you get to meet thousands of other characters, chat with them, seek their help to fend off villains and monsters and so on. It's a little like picking a role to play at your local theatre. Take a look at Ultima Online (www.uo.com/visitor/rpfl.html) to see the kind of transformation role-playing games afford players.

Operating on a different note are the real-time strategy games, where, for instance, a player develops whole armies-not just individual characters-and thinks of different tactics that he can employ to ensure the success of his army. www.strategy-gaming.com will take you through the ins and outs of strategic games such as Red Alert, Command and Conquer, Age of Empires as well as previews, reviews, cheats and much more to improve your skills and up your ranking. Then there are the first person shooter (FPS) games such as Half Life, Unreal Tournament, Quake 3 Arena and Alien vs. Predator II to name a few that have lured the young and old alike.

Clearly, the Internet has opened the floodgates to a new wave of players whose gaming experience was, so far, limited because their videogame consoles were not Internet-friendly or online play was not integrated into their retail games. As that is changing, more gamers are coming online. In the Middle East, online gaming has been a more recent phenomenon as it was not until recently that connectivity got cheaper and DSL connections more affordable. As a result, the number of online gamers in the Middle East and time spent playing online has shot up.

A few gamers like Daryanani and 21-year-old Derrick Pereira have learnt to limit their playtime to an hour a day. Periera, like Daryanani, started playing video games when he was ten-years-old. “I started off with the lowly Atari system,” says Pereira. Playing online has been a more recent phenomenon for him because “using a dialup connection from Etisalat was just not feasible to play games. But now, with DSL, it is simply great,” he says. Right now, he is hooked on to Tribes II, which can handle around 64 players on one server.

But there are others who are still discovering the pleasures of gaming and are, therefore, spending hours in front of their PCs. “My younger brother, who is just 16 and his friends spend at least five hours a day playing on the Internet,” explains Pereira, feigning mock exasperation.

But Pereira and Daryanani went beyond gaming to cash in on the fun. At 19, Pereira cajoled his family into investing in an idea of his-the Karama Entertainment Centre. Young gamers are said to have frequented the Centre to compete against one another in this LAN environment but the business was later sold as there were college exams to worry about. Daryanani, having played games for so many years, is today an authorised distributor for some of the games in the market and in that name, makes an annual pilgrimage to the Electronics Entertainment Expo, USA.

Has gaming taken a slice out of their real social life? Daryanani says it takes one of every serious gamer’s life, citing examples of how gaming often takes precedence over social engagements much to the exasperation of his wife. But 21-year-old Miti Agarwal, a computer programmer by profession disagrees. “I used to be a very shy person,” she says. “But playing games online gave me the confidence that I could also do things well and I made a lot of friends online.”

||**||VI|~||~||~|Meanwhile, games are now being designed to operate on different platforms and non-traditional online gaming devices are gradually becoming increasingly popular. Microsoft’s Xbox and Sony’s Playstation 2 already allow for broadband access now. Although the PC will remain the dominant device through which people obtain Internet access, next-generation videogame consoles, PDAs, cell phones and interactive TV (iTV) platforms will become viable online gaming platforms. Wireless gaming will shoot to new heights.

According to a report by Datamonitor, combined wireless gaming revenues from the US, Europe and Asia-Pacific markets will grow from an estimated $950 million in 2001 to $17.5 billion in 2006.

Currently, Asia-Pacific accounts for 87 per cent of the revenue with an estimated 60 million wireless gamers. By 2006, however, that is set to tilt in favour of the US and Europe. In Europe, 41 million currently play games on their mobile phones or PDAs compared to 22 million in the United States. By 2006, Europe will have more than 150 million wireless gamers with Germany, followed by Britain and Italy.
Meanwhile, Nokia estimates that mobile gaming will generate $6 billion revenue worldwide by 2005. It has been quietly testing the waters by hosting the Nokia game worldwide connecting people not just “by phone, but also by other media,” says Eddie Maalouf, marketing manager, Nokia Middle East. The Nokia game, the first such initiative in the region, was open to all mobile phone users. “Messages and clues were made available to the player through various modes of communication such as email, TV, radio, voicemail, SMS, magazines and newspapers.”

So, as the market churns out more number of games every year and makes it available on cross platforms, are they improving the gaming experience of players? “No really,” says Daryanani. “My yesteryears were the best. Now, games have intense sound tracks and are, graphically, very appealing. But sadly, most of them don't have any replay value. I only get replay value from Nintendo, meaning I can play it again and again and not get tired of it.”

But that does not stop Daryanani from playing all the latest games. He sheepishly confides that, on an average he spends at least $300 a month on games. “These things are very dear to me,” he says, defending his huge collection of games. “I have everything from the old Nintendo games to new ones and a variety of Playstations and I will pass them on to my children. I will make them big gamers,” he adds proudly.||**||

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