Thinking Socially
Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 7 (July 2004)

Thinking Socially

In a new report titled “Moore’s Law and Electronic Games,” Deloitte Research makes a bold prediction about the future of online gaming: By 2010, online games will become truly mainstream—the total number of online game players should be in the high tens of millions, and may reach as many as 150 million to 200 million globally. Says Paul Lee, Deloitte’s director of research and author of the report, online gaming will become so commonplace it will recede into the background; it will no longer be reserved for the gaming elite.

Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), shares that view. In his state-of-the-industry speech at the recent E3 conference, Lowenstein explained that for much of the last decade, we've been hearing that online games are the future. In the coming decade, he says, that future will arrive.

Is this vision likely to become reality? It would certainly seem so, if online technology and gaming trends are any indication. Here are some of the major forces converging to propel this new wave of online gaming and a look at the implications for game developers hoping to stay ahead of the curve:

Global connections: By 2010, nearly 450 million homes around the world will have broadband connectivity at speeds greater than 1Mbit/sec, according to the Deloitte study. That will be more than enough to enable robust online gaming experiences.

Online appeal: Online gaming is already surging in popularity among existing game players. Currently 43 percent say they play online games one or more hours per week, up from 37 percent last year and 31 percent in 2002, according to "Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry," from ESA.

Real players: Game players increasingly like to compete head-to-head with other players, rather than simply play against the computer, ESA finds. Players also find it appealing to co-operate against common enemies, which is possible in a growing number of games, such as Halo, in which players can collaborate with each other in order to take on more challenging opponents.

Double lives: Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) like Everquest and Ultima will continue to prosper. But online communities like Second Life—which allow players to reinvent themselves in virtual worlds where competition is less important than shared experiences—are experiencing a population explosion (see "Life, Or Something Like It," pg. 54).

Community gaming: The image of the solitary gamer is rapidly fading, says Lowenstein. In the next decade, solo gaming will become the exception, not the rule. Community games like Rainbow Six are showing the way toward a fundamental shift in the game-playing experience. The increasing popularity of local-area networks and game centers in which people can meet to enjoy a common passion for games will further accelerate the trend toward social gaming.

For game developers, the opportunities these trends present are enormous. But unlike in the past when success depended on leveraging the latest technological advances, the key to capitalizing on the trends in online play lies in understanding the sociological aspects of gaming. Those who satisfy the player's need to interact and share experiences with friends, family members, and others, rather than creating online versions of existing games, will be the big winners in this rapidly emerging market.

Phil LoPiccolo