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The Tipping Point

2007 will be seen as the year that online gaming reached the mass market.

The word "legacy" is one which was given a thorough airing last year, thanks to Britain's former prime minister's desperate attempts to be remembered for something other than the Iraq war. Perhaps as a result, I'm left wondering what the legacy of 2007 is for our own little corner of culture and industry. What, in years to come, will 2007 be remembered for?

In my last column before the holiday festivities kicked off, I mentioned one very obvious legacy of 2007 - success, both commercial and critical, for a wide range of games. Once again, the games market has grown despite fears over the wider economy, and once again the maturing console cycle has brought with it a stunning selection of entertainment to captivate consumers.

At a time when the world economy is facing serious difficulties from many angles, property and oil being only the two most prominent, and when an abject failure to evolve their services and offerings threatens to bite music and movie businesses in the neck, this success is not something to be sniffed at. However, 2007 was not merely a year of continued growth and success - it was also a year of evolution and change.

In fact, I suspect that in the coming years, we will look back on 2007 as being a tipping point for two important trends - the year in which they leapt off the pages of industry journals and conference speech notes and became a vital part of the market.

The first of those trends is casual gaming, and there's simply no doubt that 2007 was the year of the casual game - even if there's still some argument over what that phrase actually means. Across the whole spectrum of interactive entertainment, short, accessible games burst into the mainstream last year. From web-based Flash games, through mobile phone titles, to Nintendo's DS and Wii offerings, games whose core audience isn't necessarily "gamers" were everywhere - and they were making plenty of money, too.

The importance of this movement, where casual games crossed the line between being a vibrant and interesting niche and being a powerful driving force for industry growth, cannot be underestimated. It's as if cinemas had spent three decades showing nothing but Star Wars, Rambo and Conan movies, only to suddenly discover the potential of romantic comedies. Brand new horizons have opened up for games companies, and while the trend has existed for years, 2007 was the tipping point.

Another area which, in my estimation, finally crossed the line between niche and mainstream in 2007 is online gaming. This is a slightly harder one to call - after all, World of Warcraft had millions of subscribers coming into the year, Xbox Live enjoyed a measure of success even on the original Xbox, and PC gamers have been playing online since the mid-nineties.

However, in 2007 it felt like all the various strands offered by online games finally came together and created a package compelling enough to convince the average gamer to stick another cable into the back of their system. Or, in fact, not to do so at all - since the growing prevalence of Wi-Fi networks has been a key force in bringing online gaming to the masses.

Online gaming has been balancing precariously and ready to tip over into mass-market success for years, and the heavyweights behind that movement are unquestionably Microsoft's Xbox Live and Blizzard's World of Warcraft. Both are systems which take an existing activity - playing games online, and playing massively multiplayer games - and make it into a simple, pleasurable experience for a wide range of players.

They are iPod style products, in essence; they don't invent anything new, but they streamline the experience, polish the interface and make the whole thing accessible and fun for everyone. Their success in the last year comes in tandem with a host of other factors - many of them external to the games business. The wider penetration of high speed broadband across the developed world, the aforementioned availability of simple, cheap Wi-Fi routers, and a growing consumer willingness to buy media in digital form have all contributed to this particular tipping point.

What this means in 2008 is that consumers will almost certainly begin to demand more from their online functionality - and not just hardcore consumers. In software terms, the importance of multiplayer modes will certainly grow (although the success of titles like Bioshock and Mass Effect on a console which has made online into a key selling point proves that there will always be a place for single-player narrative), but the major battleground is likely to be in console OS functionality, not game functionality.

Game stores such as Xbox Live Marketplace and PlayStation Store are already an important and growing part of the ecosystem, and video and music download services will also be important in 2008. In this area, Sony lags slightly behind Microsoft - which has already launched a limited video service - but the firm's powerful presence in the film and music businesses may give it the edge in 2008, and its commitment to developing original content for PlayStation Store should also bear fruit. Whether the PSN game functionality can be brought up to the level of user-friendliness that Microsoft's Xbox Live has achieved is another question entirely.

Nintendo, meanwhile, has no ambitions for music or movies - which is probably wise, given the relative positioning of the Wii in the marketplace - but it needs to work on its offering for game downloads. The Wii's online capabilities are a peculiar hybrid, wonderful in some regards (simple applications like the Weather channel and the strangely compelling Everybody Votes channels), but utterly non-existent when it comes to actually playing games, and disappointing in terms of downloads.

The irony is that of all three manufacturers, Nintendo arguably needs downloads the most. It has an extensive back catalogue which it needs to exploit if it's to keep profits high, but at present this catalogue is severely overpriced - and without original download software that leverages the Wii's capabilities to complement it, many players probably won't even venture into the Virtual Console store. That software needs to start appearing fast.

Of one thing, however, I'm certain - the question marks over the importance of online have disappeared, just as we've always known they would. Early efforts like the original Xbox Live were somewhat ahead of their time, but they paved the way for more widespread and accessible services - and the final meeting of desirable services, good content and almost universal broadband availability happened in 2007. Online gaming and distribution has arrived; now, in 2008, we get to find out just how the shape of the industry will change as a result.

Author

Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.

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