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volume 1, issue 21

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2001: A Gaming Odyssey


By Jon "G-Man" Mars



ell itís that time of year again, Santa has packed his gear away and added another notch to his belt, millennial naysayers and Armageddon prophets are collectively sighing their relief, and every journalist worth his paycheck can be found recapping the exploits of the past year and predicting the highlights of the next. So why should the gaming industry be any different? A number of gaming magazines and web sites have just issued their "Predictions of 1999" but I say leave that to the wusses and wannabe svengalis. 1999 is old news... already here upon us. Hell, half of the major releases of '99 were supposed to be released in 1998.

So that is why I bring to you dear readers, the gaming predictions of 2001. Drum roll please. Yes, 2001, that trippy year when all our fantasies come true. I foresee 2001 to be a milestone in terms of Internet gaming for a number of reasons, namely bandwidth, processing power, and e-commerce.

Financial transactions over the Internet have for too long been an unwieldy and at times (financially) dangerous process. But by 2001 we shall see a solid basis emerging for businesses to operate solely via the Internet. Already some banks conduct a large portion of their business through websites and bbs services, and with the proliferation of services like Ebay, Amazon.com, BuyComp and others, it is only a matter of time before some standards are reached regarding what form digital money shall take. (And I guarantee you Microsoft will be behind it... ever see Microsoft Wallet? They want it BAD).

In a sense digital money exists today. Of the $4 trillion circulating in the US money supply, only one-tenth of it is in actual bills and coins. "People today do not put $5 billion in a truck and drive it from one bank to another... that's irrational," says Kawika Daguio of the American Bankers Association. Ļ But thatís today, by 2001 perhaps as much as half of that 10% will have been eliminated. Regardless, once online transactions are as instant and painless as credit card or ATM transactions are now, online retailing will flourish.

And perhaps more than any other industry, online gaming will attach itself to the online only sales model. Recently on sites such as PlanetCrap and loonygames, game developers and fans alike have speculated on the possibility of developers being able to market their product directly to their consumer base without the intervention of the distribution houses and retailers. Well, by 2001 that possibility will likely have become a reality resulting in an enormous increase in the number of startup development houses. The result is an onslaught of titles available to the consumer, as well as increased developer support for titles after initial release, in the form of downloadable supplements or expansions.

It will also allow developers to earn a much deserved larger portion of the profits generated by their work, since while publishers will still exist they will be acting more as managers. Publishers will help negotiate deals, take care of business matters and provide legal services, but little else, since their expertise and contacts with the retailers and advertising agencies will be of little use. And seeing as with an online only business model production costs become virtually nil, it stands to reason that gamers will see a rather large drop in the price point at which games are marketed.

So how does the online only sales model work? Itís basically a number game. Say that if you were to sell game X via the normal retailers which would mean youíd have to give up (usually) 85% or more of the profits to publishing houses and the like, you might sell 1 million copies (an enormous feat). Assuming that the unit cost for production of manuals, boxes and media is under 2 dollars, the copies would be likely sold to the resellers for $10 to $15 per unit. Game X that youíve spent the last one to two years working on has just earned about 2 million dollars to be distributed among your team, which will usually be around 10 or so people. Thatís around one to two hundred thousand dollars per member depending how democratic your group is, not bad for a start up development companyís first game.

But letís say you decide instead to forgo the publishing houses and rely solely upon word of mouth for advertising and promotion, and online sales to provide you with the necessary profits. Now that you donít need to produce the physical media, boxes, or manuals the unit cost has dropped to well under a dollar per unit (factoring in server costs for distribution as well as in house support personnel as opposed to publisher provided tech support). Because of the reduced advertising muscle you can expect sales to diminish since only folks who are already online and interested in gaming will be aware of your product. So you might only be able to sell 250,000 units, but since you will have effectively cut out the middleman you can sell game X directly to the consumer for around $10 to $15, resulting in a net profit of 3 million dollars. The downside is that if your game isnít a hit youíre responsible for all the debts youíve accrued as opposed to a publisher footing the bill for your failed vision.

While the online gaming community isnít currently large enough to support such figures (industry insiders speculate that there are only around 1 million hardcore Internet gamers), soon the business model Iíve described will be possible. The result is a resurgence in the shareware model of game development whereby a small group of people can make a living by selling their product exclusively through online channels, and as the number of gamers increases every year the incentive to do so will increase enormously. And gamers will rejoice over the price drops for the latest titles, leaving more room than ever for developers to compete for the consumerís dollar.

The other major factor in the advance of the gaming industry second only perhaps to bandwidth is processing power. Traditionally game developers have always been at the forefront of computer technology pressing the limits of the processor to satisfy the gamer's urge for ever greater graphics and sound, and this will not change by 2001. By 2001, microprocessors will be literally as cheap as dirt with prices dropping to as little as 10 cents per processor according to Ron Bernall president of MIPS technology and Tom George general manager of semiconductor products at Motorola.

At these prices the incentive for manufacturers to include processors in their products will be enormous. The walls themselves will be embedded with microchips designed to detect such things as heat differentials and time changes. Ever wanted to play Tetris on your refrigerator? And thanks to copper based chips, advanced photolithography, Intel's EPIC project and Moore's Law (which states that computer power will double roughly every 18 months) desktop computers will be well entrenched in the 1 gigahertz (.18 micron processor) range by 2001 allowing for unparalleled realism in gaming and real-time 3D rendering.

By 2001, Win2000 and Linux will be the two dominant operating systems supported by both game developers and end-users. Because both of these operating systems will support multiple processors, the average consumer will finally be able to harness the power of two or even four CPUs. So how does a dual or quad 1Ghz Merced system sound to you gamers? By 2001 it might actually be considered a relatively midrange system.

Recent events have suggested that Apple may have a future as a serious gaming platform, but because some of their core design and marketing philosophies conflict directly with the needs of the developers and desires of the gamers, that future may be limited indeed. Lately Apple has been focused on producing inexpensive, simple to use computers which required that they limit their power and upgradeability by discarding many of the tried and true standards such as PCI slots in favor of custom, potentially less complex solutions. Unless Apple decides to abandon this corporate strategy and the very juicy first-time computer buyer market that accompanies it, they will soon be unable to compete with the Wintel architecture as a gaming platform.

Additionally several other architectures will have become mainstream by then. DVD drives while still somewhat up in the air right now will be the de-facto standard for computers, and DVD-Ram drives which offer over 14 gigabytes in rewriteable storage will be easily as common as CD-R drives are today. This likely will not affect the gaming industry as much as it affects the hobbyist pirate :) We can however expect to see more clutter and extras on the discs that we purchase in the form of demos, trailers, developer diaries, unreleased utilities or alphas, extra documentation, and the once popular behind the scenes movies.

In reality the true benefit that DVD will provide to gamers is its integration of the technology collectively called NUON. NUON is a very hush-hush processor array in development by VM Labs. Basically it replaces the MPEG-2 decoder chips found in all DVD drives, but aside from its MPEG capabilities it can provide 3D acceleration including procedural textures, particle systems, polygonal rendering, and even some real-time raytracing. According to VM Labs the NUON chipset is capable of 1,500 MIPS (1.5 billion programmable instructions per second) and they claim that its speed will be equivalent to that of a Pentium II operating between 500 and 1000 MHz. By comparison, Sega reports that Dreamcast is capable of 360 MIPS and sports a 200 MHz RISC processor.

VM Labs has demonstrated that they were able to port Doom in just two days, which indicates that game developers should have little trouble porting their games to the NUON specifications. It should be noted however that some developers have expressed concerns over NUONís viability as a gaming platform since it doesnít include any standards regarding input devices, RAM, etc, which could mean that each flavor of the NUON enhanced player would require a different code implementation. Already Toshiba has announced a new DVD player code-named Blackbird that will include the NUON chipset, so expect to see the first NUON/DVD system launch by late 1999. Further complicating the issue Toshiba is also expected to be collaborating with Sony by producing two processors for their contender in the next generation console wars.


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Credits: Illustration © 1998 Mike Sanzone. 2001: A Gaming Odyssey is © 1998 Jon Mars. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, Dave.