Monday, October 31, 2005

The Business of Escapism

The Business of Escapism: An Introduction

Think video games are a strange source for entertainment? Well, with the gaming industry poised to be worth over $55 Billlion (PriceWaterhouseCoopers, September 2005) next year, most people familiar with gaming will disagree with you.

What kind of gaming are we discussing? Well, a game in this context is composed of a computer-controlled virtual universe with which players interact. Player input is taken through various types of controls, and output is usually given through a screen and sound devices, as well as through an increasing trend toward haptic feedback. Playing videogames as a source of interactive entertainment is becoming more mainstream now than it ever has over the last decade, for reasons that go beyond just a need to escape reality. Today there are many different devices that games may be played on. Personal computers, consoles, handheld systems, and arcade machines are all common. There is a thin line between games played on the computer and those on the console in terms of genre.

“What rock and roll was to the youth of the Sixties, gaming is to the youth of today.”

— Killol Bhuta,
Brand Manager,
Ford Motor Company

Before we delve into the details, lets start with a little history first, to help you understand how it all began. Way back in the late 50s and early 60s, when computing was still an elitist occupation and very few people understood the business opportunities computers provided, the first primitive computer and video games were developed in America and ran on platforms such as oscilloscopes, university mainframes and EDSAC computers. Coin-op games (games that ran when you put coins into them) were developed in the 1970s and led to the so-called "Golden Age of Arcade Games", which even saw a brief spurt of interest in metropolitan cities in India.

The 1980’s saw a spurt in home console gaming (a videogame device which connected to a television, displaying 8-bit graphics and with the capability of playing different games with just swapping a cartridge) Companies like Nintendo, Sega and Atari were the kings of the hill at the time, making millions of dollars off parents and children in Japan and North America. Europe caught onto the home console gaming craze slightly later, but also became one of the most important markets for game publishers and console makers.

While the fruit of development in early video games appeared mainly (for the consumer) in video arcades and home consoles, the rapidly evolving home computers of the 1970s and 80s allowed their owners to program simple games. Hobbyist groups for the new computers soon formed and game software followed. With hugely popular games like Wolf3D and Myst, the slew of new games in the 90’s drove both PC sales and cutting edge technology in terms of PC hardware.

And the rest, as they say, is history. Today, most PC games require the Windows operating system to be installed on the computer (There is, however, a continuing movement to get the most popular games to run under the Mac and Linux operating systems.), with powerful graphics cards and surround sound hardware to help make the gaming experience richer.

The major downside of personal computer games is that your computer must meet certain requirements such as CPU speed, memory, video card memory, hard drive space, operating system, Internet connection speed (for Internet games) and other criteria. Otherwise, the game may perform poorly or maybe won't work at all.

Today, the video game industry is a juggernaut of development; profit still drives technological advancement which is then used by other industry sectors.

On the console side, we have three big players: Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft. These companies already have their consoles on the market, and are set to launch their next generation of consoles in 2006. On the PC gaming side, we have the big game publishers like EA Games, Activision, Microsoft, and a select few others. Though maturing, the video game industry is still very volatile, with third-party video game developers quickly cropping up and, just as quickly, going out of business.

The scene in India, however is just a tiny fraction of the gaming industry as a whole. While some gaming companies have been outsourcing certain aspects of development (programming, graphics design and 3D animation) to India for over 5 years now, there are still no mainstream game development companies in India. Sure, we have mobile game development happening, and a couple of failed attempts in making a PC gaming titles, but we haven’t reached the milestone of having one good, critically acclaimed PC or console title with a “Made in India” tag yet. Maybe investors and the people who have the ambition to create their own games believe the market isn’t big enough here yet.

We’ll look at the impact of games on popular culture abroad and its nascent stages in India next fortnight, with a special mention on how multiplayer gaming is taking the world (and Indian kids) for an adrenalin packed roller coaster ride.