'Net does not do miracles for games, panel agrees

Online capabilities in a game alone do not mean a game is great -- they are an addition to the basic qualities of a game, said one of the panelists in a gaming session at the CES show in Las Vegas on Friday.

"Online is a feature, not a genre. It has to be the additive benefit of a game," said Charles Bellfield, vice president of content strategy at games maker Sega Corp. "Content is king, connectivity is queen, and together they will change the industry."

Bellfield's statements did not stir a debate as the other panelists agreed. Panelists were André Vrignaud, director of technical strategy for Xbox Live at Microsoft Corp., Alain Tascan, vice president of worldwide product development at games developer BAM Entertainment Inc., columnist Steven Kent and Tim Bajarin, president of research firm Creative Strategies Inc.

Networked gaming has been one of the hottest subjects in the gaming industry for the past years. Traditionally, networked games could only be played on PCs with Internet connections, but now game consoles such as Nintendo Co. Ltd.'s GameCube, Sony Corp.'s PlayStation 2 and Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox are also getting connected.

"Online is an evolution, not a revolution. You must have compelling offline gameplay first," said Bellfield, adding that an available network connection does not mean that all games will offer network capabilities. "There will also be some very compelling single player and offline games as well."

Over 250,000 starter kits for Xbox Live, Microsoft's online gaming service, have been sold in the U.S. since launch of the service on Nov. 15. Over 40,000 unique players now sign on to the service each day, said Vrignaud. "Sales more than doubled our expectations," he said.

The video game industry is growing fast, recording sales of over US$6 billion in the U.S. in the first 10 months of last year, that is 25 percent more that in the same period of 2001, according to Bajarin. For the full year 2002 the industry reached US$11 billion, more than Hollywood movie ticket sales, Sega's Bellfield said.

Still, gaming and online gaming in particular is not for everybody, as opposed to the movie business that the game industry likes to compare itself with.

"There is no one in the (video game) industry with mass market skills. We are not Coca-Cola," said Bam Entertainment's Tascan. Microsoft's Xbox Live, for example, has attracted mainly 18 to 30 year-olds, which the company expects to broaden in the next years, Vrignaud said.

"Videogames are one of the strongest forms of entertainment because it is empowering. You care, because you are. When you watch the movie Star Wars Return of the Jedi you care about the Jedi, but when you play the game you are the Jedi," Tascan said.

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