Industry icons get connected

Luminaries with ties to EA, Ubisoft, Sony, Microsoft converge to talk about the online future of the gaming industry.

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MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIFORNIA--Online gaming has been "the next big thing" for years now, and the success stories are beginning to show their impact on the industry. From Counter-Strike to World of Warcraft, breakthrough games are piling up, increasingly making some form of connectivity a mandatory feature for upcoming products.

Last night, the Churchill Club held a panel discussion featuring a few industry heavyweights to discuss the changing landscape of game design in light of an online world. The lineup gathered to discuss "The Era of Connected Gaming - An Inside Look At An Industry On Revolution" included Lars Butler, former vice president of global online for Electronic Arts and current CEO of the upstart TWN; Laurent Detoc, president of Ubisoft North America; Raph Koster, chief creative officer of Sony Online Entertainment; and Peter Moore, corporate vice president of Microsoft's interactive entertainment business. The panel was moderated by GameSpot cofounder and senior vice president of CNET Networks' games and entertainment division, Vince Broady.

Addressing an auditorium filled with sharply dressed businesspeople, the luminaries engaged in a discussion spanning a multitude of issues facing the industry, from the impact of user-created content to end-user privacy concerns.

Broady started the conversation by asking the panelists what they thought "the connected era" meant. Moore answered with a rare response that did not begin with an in-depth explanation of an Xbox 360 selling point.

"In the future, if your console isn't connected, it's no different than a laptop that doesn't connect to the Internet," Moore said. "It's an inferior experience and it really is a step backwards for the industry... Offline seems primitive at this point."

Koster went beyond simply calling offline games primitive.

"The entire video game industry's history thus far has been an aberration," Koster told the audience. "It has been a mutant monster only made possible by unconnected computers. People always play games together. All of you learned to play games with each other. When you were kids, you played tag, tea parties, cops and robbers, what have you. The single-player game is a strange mutant monster which has only existed for 21 years and is about to go away because it is unnatural and abnormal."

Detoc and Butler weren't sold on the inevitable death of single-player games, with Butler borrowing an analogy that the entire crowd instantly understood, if the laughter was any indication.

"Linear entertainment in single-player is to media what masturbation is to sex," Butler said. "It'll always be there, but it is not the real experience."

Be that as it may, Koster suggested that even the games that say "for one player" on their boxes have largely ceased to be solitary experiences.

"The players, once they go connected, they don't go back," Koster explained. "They find it difficult to go back to experiences where they can't share experiences with others. Even any single-player game today is going to have wrapped around it the forums, the cheat sites, and so on endlessly."

However one interprets the semantics of the connected era, Butler thinks the industry still has a ways to go before it completely transitions.

"The first thing that people do is they take their old stuff and put it into this new world, like NBC doing cable," Butler said. "But the real value will come from people who create new entertainment experiences that leverage the full power of the broadband world, just as CNN and MTV and HBO and ESPN create original entertainment for the cable world."

The impact the true arrival of this connected era has on the industry will be immediate and pronounced, Butler said. "Calling [online-connected games] revolutionary is absolutely on the ball. I think that most companies that are still going strong today will wake up tomorrow as if they've been hit by a truck. It is such a fundamental shift in the industry."

While the arrival of that truck is likely to shake out a good number of game developers and publishers, Moore said that the retail landscape is set to undergo a particularly drastic change of face. Even though he made a point that the current retail model was hugely important to Microsoft's plans for the near future, he sees its days as numbered.

"Let's be fair. Whether it's five, 10, 15, 20 years from now, the concept of driving to the store to buy a plastic disc with data on it and driving back and popping it in the drive will be ridiculous," Moore said. "We'll tell our grandchildren that and they'll laugh at us."

That move to digital distribution is just one in a series of transitions to a connected era the industry is currently undergoing. Moore could easily have been addressing the sum of those changes when he referred to the Xbox 360 as "a living entertainment experience powered by human energy," but it seemed every member of the panel foresaw a gaming industry where the publishers and the games themselves were much more closely integrated with the consumers.

"In the long run that is actually the unique selling proposition of a connected platform: that it is bidirectional, that it is persistent," Koster said. "That's really long-term what we're selling. We're not selling the bits. We're selling those other intangibles, the opportunity to feel special, to show off your achievements, the opportunity to upload something."

As Koster had noted earlier in the evening, "Using the word 'connection' even feels small. It's a place. And all of this industry is moving toward realizing this, and all of this is going to be a place that serves a medium like entertainment in a lot of ways beyond shooting games."

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