By Wanda Meloni
With its acquisition of Time Warner, America Online now boasts more than 23.5 million online subscribers, the largest number held by any Internet provider. Yet this figure will seem miniscule compared to the number of Internet-ready game consoles scheduled to hit the market over the next few years. The PlayStation 2 from Sony, scheduled for release this year, could reach at least 118 million units by the year 2004. Together with Nintendo's Dolphin system, planned for an early 2001 launch, and Sega's Dreamcast, launched last September, these consoles could reach as many as 144 million units by the end of 2004. This figure doesn't even include Microsoft's entry into the game console fray, the X-Box, planned for release in late 2001.
Behind the anticipated demand are the ad vanced graphics systems these game consoles will incorporate-comparable in power to high-end workstations but at a price of around $200 per console. These Internet-ready consoles will play DVDs and handle multi-channel audio for home theater hook-up.
The introduction of these next-generation systems means we are at the cusp of monumental changes affecting not only the gaming market but the graphics hardware and software industries as well. For graphics vendors, life is getting a little more interesting-and complicated. Game developers will be looking to create cutting-edge content, and the tools will have to be in place to support it. In fact, all the top 3D vendors are feverishly working on real-time components to their packages.
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"Game developers have been used to creating and manipulating low-polygon scenes, but will now need real-time tools that deliver visual effects as appealing as what is seen in movies," notes Phil Harrison, vice president of third-party relations and R&D for Sony Computer Entertainment. Sony has in fact developed a tool and middleware program specifically to encourage vendors looking to build tools that support real-time PlayStation 2 content.
Some vendors, such as Softimage, are taking an open approach toward meeting the heightened demands of game development. Its software now supports XSI, an open-architecture file format that runs across Softimage 3D and its soon-to-be-released successor, Sumatra.
Another company working on a real-time solution is Alias|Wavefront. At the Game De vel op er's Conference in March, Alias released the Maya Real-Time SDK, a game engine developer's kit fully integrated with Maya to provide a single-architecture game strategy the company describes as "Art to Engine." In practical terms, an artist creating imagery in Maya will be able to instantly export content to the gaming side and view the results.
The downside to these consoles is that their hardware arch itecture is complex, re quiring dedicated tools and engines for each platform. Alias believes its Maya SDK is a step in the right direction, but "creating content of this quality and quantity will require much more efficient production pipelines than those used today, as game development schedules are seemingly the one element of the business that is not expanding," explains Mike Wilson, director of interactive business development for Alias|Wavefront.
Game developers will undoubtedly struggle for a time while they grasp the complexity of these systems. Add to this the increasing importance of visual artistry, life-like characters, and engaging multi-player game participation, and suddenly the bar for measuring a successful game gets raised. The next 18 months will be looked back on as an age of transition, a time when every aspect of game creation was altered in some way. Software tools will evolve, and more pure artists will be drawn to the medium, though one aspect will not change-the game content, as always, will ultimately fuel the fire. Wanda Meloni is the principal of M2 Research, a market research firm in California. She can be reached at email@example.com.