2 can play that game

As Sony shows the world its new console, the PlayStation2, millions of otaku geeks around the world can't wait to spend their money on the latest in electronic gaming. What they do not know is that Sony and Sega are infiltrating their homes with more than a games machine. As the world turns digital, the fusion of TV, Internet and the games console seems inevitable. Lars R. Olsen explains why the next generation of game consoles may start a communications revolution in your home.

The revolutionary new PlayStation 2
Photos Courtesy of Sony Computer Entertainment Inc.

Time flies...
Do you remember? Millions of years ago, or so it seems, Atari unleashed upon the world the very first popular home video games console. The game was Pong, and it became the best selling item in the US Sears Catalog in 1975. Pong, a two color game where a ball bounced back and forth on the screen, made Atari heaps of money. Attracted by Atari's success, a host of companies created their own video game consoles including Nintendo and Sega, who went on to release their own machines in 1983 and 1986 respectively. A generation of gaming fanatics was spawned in the process, and the television set suddenly became something more than a pacifying photon emitter taking up space in the living room.

As the generations who grew up with a Nintendo controller glued to their fingers are getting older and becoming parents themselves, the average age for a console owner is continuing to rise. Today, the average PlayStation owner is 21. The moment when the games console changed from being "just a toy for kids" to being a multi-generational entertainment instrument is quite easy to pinpoint. Prior to the launch of the PlayStation in December 1994 by Sony, or rather Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. (SCEI), market leaders Nintendo and Sega had concentrated their efforts exclusively on the under-twenty population. Sony, on the other hand, sought out and influenced trendsetters by sponsoring concerts, festivals, snowboarding competitions and other popular events. Slowly but surely the console grew up and gained acceptance with new layers of society.

Surfers' paradise
Today, Sony and Sega (it is still unclear what Nintendo is bringing to the party) seem to know that popular games and hype for their machine is vital. Still, these companies have no intention of stopping with "just" games. New features are needed to excite the customer, and it is here that the revolution will take place, and there is one medium that will make it happen: the Internet. According to the "Computer Industry Almanac," worldwide use of the Internet is expected to grow from 76.5 million to more than 207 million users by 2005. Console gamers and other "geeks" are thought to be some of the most frequent users of the Internet.

Still, a PC (today virtually the only way to access the Net) is not very practical furniture. In the general scheme of things, it's not easy to use and it's certainly not cheap. It's here that Sony and Sega have spotted a potential niche that may end up killing off the home computer as we know it. Both Sega and Sony, with the Dreamcast and PlayStation2 respectively, have developed their own dial-up networks for Internet traffic. The Dreamcast simply plugs into your regular phone line outlet and off you go, while Sony's solution for the PlayStation2 will no doubt be equally simple to use. Dreamcast owners are also able to buy a keyboard, something that most likely will also be available for the PlayStation2. Ease of use is the key, something the PC is not known for. Sega's Shimitsu Miako has no doubt that the Internet will change the gaming experience.

"The Internet capabilities of the Dreamcast will increase the variety of games available in the future. For now, the Internet will mostly be used for e-commerce and Web-browsing, but already users of the Dreamcast can download new characters for the memory card, and unlock hidden secrets." Further into the future, Shimitsu believes, there may be a storage medium available so that the Dreamcast can save large amounts of data downloaded from the Net.

The console's big advantage over the PC is that the latter is a cumbersome piece of hardware more geared towards fueling manufacturers' need for money than to any particular ease of use. This will not change as long as corporations (the main customer base for PCs) don't seem to care that they must buy new PCs regularly at inflated prices. Frustrated consumers, on the other hand, may soon look to the game consoles for their Internet and gaming needs.

Dreamcast owners can already surf the Net with their built-in modems. Users do not have to install one single piece of software and, after you have signed up, you are ready to surf your heart out. This may not seem like anything to rave about, but remember that e-commerce (shopping and other paid services on the Web) will total about US$30 billion this year alone. Today, my mom does not shop on the Web, neither does dad. The simple reason is that they find the computer too complicated. For them, the simplicity of just a keyboard and an "on" button will bring their share of money to an already booming industry. The ever-expanding software giant Microsoft has realized this and codeveloped the Dreamcast with Sega. With their newly acquired expertise, rumor has it that the Bill Gates empire has started developing its own console.

Box clever

While the games console and the Internet have just started dating, television also has a crush on the Internet. The reason: the set-top box. This box is vital to all recipients of digital broadcasting and will eventually find its way into all homes with a digital television. Today, the first generation of set-top boxes decodes the digital signals and allows users to order movies and change camera angles. But the set-top boxes of today mark only the beginning of another chapter. Cable providers and the makers of these boxes have long since announced that the public shall soon be able to surf the Net via their television sets, as well as be able to play games.

It is here that the lines between the console and the decoder begin to blur. While the Dreamcast is not as sophisticated as the PlayStation2, both also have Web surfing capabilities. It will be no surprise if the next generation of Dreamcasts and PlayStations make a go at being the new set-top box. Sony Corporation of America announced just last month that it would, in a one billion dollar deal with a company called Cablevision, try out a new piece of hardware in the US that will allow users to surf the Web, order movies and other programming. All, of course, on set-top boxes designed and manufactured by Sony. Nobody is saying that this piece of hardware is a PlayStation2, but don't be surprised if the box turns out to be a version of Sony's new console. Sega is denying that it is going to make the Dreamcast a set-top box. Sony, though, reveals that such a move may lie just years in the future.

"Making the PlayStation2 a set-top box, incorporating video, audio and Internet capabilities is something that we have not yet decided upon. We have no plans to do so, although it is technically possible," said a spokesperson from SCEI. Having a CD and DVD (Digital Video Disc) player and the ability to play games and surf the Net all in one box is certainly a step in the direction of such a device, the spokesperson admits, but the many divisions that make up Sony Inc. have not yet decided to make this happen, says the spokesperson.

feature1.jpg (14097 ???)New rules of the game
As the consoles gear up for the never ending struggle of world domination, the gamer will only think of one thing: What will the games be like? As always, the answer will most likely be: Nicer to look at but pretty much the same. The usual genres will still be around. Fighting games such as the Tekken series will continue to get better. The platform games such as Mario 64 and adventures such as Zelda will also continue to get more engrossing. The creator of the PlayStation, Ken Kutaragi, has proudly boasted that his new console will truly bring life to games. His Emotion Engine that powers the new Sony wonder will bring emotion to the characters of games, making the physics of the game world, and even facial expressions, virtually indistinguishable from real world counterparts.

But prettier graphics have never really revolutionized the gaming experience; the real change will come as the result of the fusion of the console and the Internet. Already, games requiring an Internet connection, allowing for interaction between humans in different locations, are becoming more and more popular.

As soon as the Internet allows faster transmission of data, the multi-player games will also become better. But the decision of what kind of games we get will lie with the software companies. These things are always difficult to predict, says the SCEI spokesperson. Sony also sees a possible change in software distribution methods as the Internet and the console get better acquainted. Whole games may eventually be downloaded over the Net, creating a whole new means of distribution.

PlayStation2Nevertheless, the networking and Internet capabilities of the new consoles will lead to more multi-player games with human opponents and teammates. Communication between games players, often thought to be antisocial hermits, will flourish and probably lead to even more parents worrying about the time their kids spend in front of the television. Lately, the Internet gaming community has embraced multi-player games where the players build "virtual" characters for themselves, and enter the life of a "village" populated with other gamers. These villages are expanding and games players will soon find themselves part of "cities" populated with thousands of citizens, talking to others through the keyboard, and soon, maybe, through their own voice as Internet bandwidth capacity increases. Soon everyone can lead a second life, either as a swashbuckling space pirate, or a member of a political faction aiming to overthrow the elected leader of their "world."

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