Networked games: The road ahead

Cast of global players contemplates a world where games are played via multiple terminals; proposes solutions to the technical, creative challenges.

Mobile gaming representatives from four different countries convened at Tuesday’s E3 Conference Program to discuss the integration of networked gameplay into the mainstream industry.

Yet despite their varying backgrounds, the speakers seemed to share a common vision.

Entitled “The Total Picture: Factoring Mobile Handhelds and Networked Gameplay Into the New Marketplace,” the session was moderated by Rob Tereck, chief strategy officer at MForma. Other panel members included Ubisoft's Julian Merceron from Paris, Square Enix's Ichiro Otobe from Tokyo, Habbo Hotel's Timo Soininen of Finland, and Sun's Athomas Goldberg.

All five speakers expressed the desire to access the same persistent online world from different devices. “Each device becomes a portal or window into shared content--a single effort divided into all these areas,” envisioned Goldberg, who serves as the project lead for Sun Microsystems’ Game Technologies Group. Merceron, the worldwide technical director of Ubisoft, echoed this idea of a shared world, predicting that a player will be able to access the gamespace, “wherever he is on whatever device--in the bedroom, in a plane, in a train, in the street.”

The panelists further agreed that developers need to take advantage of the heterogeneous environment created by multiple input devices. “There’s a rule for each medium,” stated Otobe, who argued that mobile content should have its own standards. Otobe, the general manager of global business at Sqaure Enix, predicted that developers won’t be required to create impressive graphics for mobile-game world interfaces and will instead focus on user interface design.

Soininen, who serves as the chief executive officer at Sulake Labs, seconded the notion that developers must find compelling reasons for using these new devices. Pointing to his project, Habbo Hotel, an international massively multiplayer online “hangout” space, Soininen explained that Sulake Labs integrated mobile phones into the world precisely because mobile phones are so integral to teenage life in Europe.

Translating these theories into practice, several panelists proposed specific ways of using the mobile interfaces. Soininen described how Habbo Hotel already incorporates instant messages, and Otobe alluded to Square Enix’s plans to allow Final Fantasy XI players to “peek” into online world happenings via mobile phones. Goldberg even suggested that downtime in everyday life could be used to accomplish more menial tasks, such as trading items or equipping characters.

In addition, panelists seemed to share the view that online games have the potential to transcend mere entertainment. “Online games connect us to communities,” Goldberg stated, “They become a part of who we are.” Soininen added that self-expression plays an important role, from the way you interact with other players to the way you dress your digital avatar. Merceron also highlighted the important role technology, like microphones and the EyeToy, has played in personalizing the virtual world. “It’s going to go further as soon as we have more devices,” Merceron predicted.

By far, the most unresolved issue of the session was the problem of mobile game management and distribution. Goldberg, who emphasized the problem of reluctant carrier companies, repeatedly posed the question “How are we going to deal with cross-carrier gaming?” Merceron likewise explained that managing several platforms at the same time is not a game engine problem but a problem of “organization [and] communication with hardware manufacturers.”

Though the problem lacks a clear solution, panelists seemed to agree that the future would bring significantly different distribution methods. Tereck even predicted, “I fully believe that our industry is changing from fixed products…to a service.”

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