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The game industry saw four different but equally compelling visions of the future this week thanks to Apple, Intel, and a cloud-gaming conference. Nintendo also announced at its event in New York that it would launch its upcoming Wii U game console on Nov. 18. Rarely do we get to see so many visions of gaming side-by-side. What a week! What a diverse industry, moving in so many directions at once. All of the news will be good for gamers, but it remains to be seen whose game business will prosper the most.
Intel kicked it off with a talk about “perceptual computing,” which adds voice commands, face recognition, and gesture controls to the traditional touchscreens, mice, and keyboards as input devices for the personal computer. Perceptual computing enables new kinds of games that you can play up close with your laptop without ever touching it. The technology creates a whole suite of control mechanisms that game developers can exploit however they wish starting next year. Instead of doing silly things in front of our game consoles, we’ll be able to do them in front of our Ultrabooks (thin and powerful laptops). By next year, these technologies should be staples across many laptop models. And after Windows 8 arrives on Oct. 26, touchscreens should become much more common, creating a better market for touchscreen games.
Apple also unveiled its iPhone 5, which has a new A6 processor with twice the visual punch and central-processing unit performance. Electronic Arts’ Rob Murray, showing off the demo of Real Racing 3 above, described the graphics on the iPhone’s fancy new screen as “full console quality.” He demonstrated how you can challenge another player in multiplayer racing even if that player isn’t actually racing. The “asynchronous” play allows you to race against your rival’s performance from yesterday. The screen is a half-inch bigger, and that means the games can now be displayed in widescreen format. Like the iPhone 4 and 4S, the iPhone 5 uses Apple’s retina display. Ge Wang, the chief creative officer at social-music developer Smule, was intrigued by the inclusion of a third microphone for more accurate voice recognition. A better iPhone means goodness for all apps and for games, as well.
The big benefit of a new iPhone and a new, more powerful iPod Touch is that Apple’s game platforms should get into the hands of more people. The company will have to manage the fragmentation on its platform, but it is advancing the computational power of its devices at a far faster rate than other platform owners. That makes life tougher for game developers, who have to move faster and increase the quality of their games. But it serves to expand the gaming market and our appetite for games.
Meanwhile, at the Cloud Gaming U.S.A. event, startups were plentiful. They were both inspired by the success of Gaikai, which Sony acquired for $380 million, and troubled by the downfall of OnLive, which ran out of money and had to undergo a change in ownership at a fire-sale price. I moderated a panel on new cloud-gaming startups, including The Happy Cloud, Kalydo,and Tangentix.
Rather than focusing on improving data center services for cloud games, they’re focused on making downloads better. Kalydo and Happy Cloud deliver progressive downloads, shortening the wait for gamers. Tangentix applies better compression techniques, taking the size of download files down to a third of their original size. Those solutions, particularly when combined together, will enable gamemakers to create games with much larger file sizes — meaning higher quality. Other presenters were bullish on cloud technology. Agawi, Playcast Media, and CiiNow all had compelling announcements. That suggests that a second-generation of cloud gaming will deliver more coolness for gamers and carry on the vision that the original companies had.
Nintendo’s vision is finally fleshed out. Besides the November launch, Nintendo said the Wii U will come in black or white versions and sell for $300 to $350, depending on options. Wii U owners who own games for the Wii’s WiiWare and Virtual Console services may transfer those games to the new system. Nintendo is making a step into the online world and a new style of “asynchronous play,” where a player with a tablet squares off against one with a regular controller.
Gaming giant Electronic Arts is making games for the Wii U, but it doesn’t consider the console to be one of its highest priorities, according to executive vice president Frank Gibeau. Nintendo shouldn’t be written off. Gibeau himself acknowledged that the Wii surprised everyone with its simple motion-sensing innovation. But he doesn’t think the Wii U is as innovative. As a traditional console maker, Nintendo’s business model is also under assault. In that respect, Nintendo is in the same boat as Intel and Microsoft. It has to do something about Apple and the free-to-play games that are disrupting traditional business.
It’s easy to get depressed about the weak sales, floundering console gamemakers, and the troubles of Zynga and OnLive. A lot of jobs are vaporizing. But this week reminds us that the game industry is always in a state of creative destruction. As some efforts fall by the wayside, new ones appear. And the relentless spread of games into all homes, workplaces, and platforms is something to get excited about. New technology and better games are coming. Perhaps they’re not coming as fast as we all would like in order to help a lot of game businesses, but the market may not be able to absorb all of these changes at the same time. After all, we only have so much lunch money to spend. So we should celebrate the creation of new startups and the arrival of new platforms and think about what next week will bring us.
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