The 'Buttering' Edge
Phil LoPiccolo
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 1 (Jan 2003)

The 'Buttering' Edge

Last month in this column, I urged developers of interactive 3D computer graphics to look to innovation as the means to expanding the Web 3D market. But are there really any applications of the Web that can support 3D content pioneers willing to jump into this historically unfriendly void? Or will they lose everything, like so many Web entrepreneurs before them, and do nothing more than education another thin slice of the mass market for their successors?

Well, the good news is that there is at least one application positioned to lead the deployment of 3D content on the Web. And, not surprisingly, it's the same one driving development of 3D content in general: computer gaming. Indeed, the future for Web-based gaming looks bright. The game industry has already proven enormously successful with computer users offline. So there's a ready-made, and growing, potential audience. Moreover, the advantages of moving games to the Web are obvious: Users could receive games at home and get continuous upgrades instead of being limited to a finite program.

To understand the value of this proposition, one need look no further than the television industry, which has proven to be a more popular, and profitable, medium for delivering content than its historical alternative, the motion-picture business. In fact, computer gaming today is not unlike movie going, in that consumers pay one price for a single experience. But given a Web-delivery system, tomorrow's gaming may be consumed more like television.

One proponent of this theory is Alex St. John, president of WildTangent, a maker of tools for building games and delivering them online. "In the future, you will more likely pay for gaming by subscription or get it for free because it will be brought to you by advertisers and sponsors," he predicts. "And rather than getting a $50, 80-hour game, you'll get a few hours of play, and if it's popular, more assets will arrive the next week or month."

Gaming may well be the most appropriate use of 3D content on the Web because 3D provides the interactivity and realism that gamers demand. But given the bandwidth constraints, how innovative are these games likely to be? Not very, at least not in the short run, and not in the way we normally think of innovation—in terms of game depth and complexity.

In fact, the Web 3D games that are appearing in this format so far are mainly scaled-down versions of tried-and-true CD-based games, and many of these are simple "advergaming" experiences tied to the marketing of movies, TV shows, cars, toys, games, snack foods, and just about any conceivable product. In that respect, these games are more at the "buttering" edge of technology than at the cutting edge.

Yet even with the technology limitations, there are true innovations, as well. For example, during last year's baseball season, Fox television developed a Web site that allowed visitors to bat in an online game against pitches thrown in an actual game.

In the near term, the challenge for innovators is to build more original Web gaming experiences to attract more users. But in the long run, the real goal should be to apply what works in Web-based gaming to education, training, and other applications. Creating Web-based "advergames" may be a good way for developers to butter their bread today. But providing merit beyond entertainment and marketing offers the greatest value proposition for tomorrow. In any game, the best players keep their eyes on the bigger prize. ..

Phil LoPiccolo