APB, Maple Story and the future of games
In Los Angeles and then at home this week, I've had a vision of the future of the games industry - and it's not great news for the console-makers. Everything about the industry is moving online - and while the likes of XBoxLive and Sony's PS3 online service are growing rapidly, a host of other players will be promising gamers that they can deliver a better or at least cheaper experience.
People like Dave Jones, who I met at the Los Angeles Convention Centre in a room packed with screens where his team were preparing to show off the fruits of years of work. Dave is a games industry legend, and I think I first met him in 1996, when I visited a small firm in Dundee which was then working on a new title called Grand Theft Auto.
After selling the business behind GTA, Dave set up a firm called Realtime Worlds which now has offices both in Dundee and in Boulder, Colorado, and has won significant amounts of venture capital backing from Silicon Valley. For the last five years, a team of 200 has been working on a project in line with a philosophy outlined on the company's website like this:
"As avid game players, we believe the future of video games lies in massively multiplayer on-line gaming. Constantly evolving worlds with real players and communities offer an unrivalled experience that many players have yet to enjoy."
The result is APB - All Points Bulletin - which appears to deliver a similar experience to Grand Theft Auto, but exclusively online.
APB is stored in data centres in Europe and the United States and Dave Jones says making that run smoothly has been the biggest issue:
"There's been a great technology challenge to make it possible to have a seamless experience. It allows thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of players to connect and play together in a dynamic world."
When the game launches in July, players will pay £34.99 to download it with 50 hours of online play, and can then choose to pay a monthly fee or buy extra time in one-off payments.
It sounds like the model successfully pioneered by World of Warcraft, which has proved hugely profitable for its owners Activision. Realtime Worlds says it has got a twist, enabling gamers to earn extra hours by playing skilfully and by creating virtual goods that other players want.
There seems no reason why the 18-rated game should not win plenty of customers amongst the GTA and Call of Duty crowd, but younger gamers with less money to spend are also finding plenty to entertain them online.
I got home to find an 11-year-old asking me for help in spending £10 of his pocket money in an online world called Maple Story. This is a MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role playing game) created in South Korea seven years ago, which has attracted millions of players around the world who battle monsters and complete quests. It has now apparently become a craze amongst British 11-year-olds, who are abandoning their Wiis to play this and other simple but compelling online games.
Maple Story is free but its makers are generating revenue through a virtual shop where players use real money to buy items for their characters. Anyone who remembers how keen they were at 11 to buy cards, stickers and all sorts of other ephemeral goodies will understand how powerful this kind of craze can be. Nexon, the Korean firm behind Maple Story and other free casual online games, earned revenues of nearly £400m last year.
So two examples of online games which are finding new ways of getting users to spend their money. But gamers do not have unlimited cash, and every pound that goes to APB or Maple Story is money that won't be spent on games for the Wii, the Xbox 360, or the PS3.