The Game Goes On

The video game industry's "big three" are thriving, even as the E3 trade show shrinks.
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The video game industry's "big three" are thriving, even as the E3 trade show shrinks.

Last months Entertainment Software Association E3 Show may have been smaller than it was in years past, but the hardware and software from the Big Three (Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo) is still enough to support a vibrant and growing video game industry.

Based on what was shown to the press and selected industry invitees at the mid-July event, the paths by which each of these Big Three have chosen to grow their businesses will continue to have an impact on your role as a systems designer/installer.

Although each brand has its own specialties, there are some areas where at least two, or perhaps all three of the console systems converge when it comes to system integration. For example, given the huge success of the off-the-couch gaming concept of Nintendos Wii, each of the systems will offer their own take on games that shatter the notion of gamers as couch potatoes. On a macro scale, each offering will create increased design challenges along with opportunities for significant value-added revenue beyond the simple sale of some gaming hardware and accessories.

Wii Model is a CI Opportunity

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Nintendo executives demonstrate the forthcoming Wii Music game, showing how player movement is translated into a jazz ensemble.
Because Wii-style games are best played to an audience, not face-forward to the main display screen, you have an opportunity to add multiple stage monitors for video and audio, so gamers may face each other, or look directly at those still seated in the theater seats, and still concentrate on the game action. In addition, new audience involvement games will require new input devices such as cameras, microphones, guitars and drum sets, along with the now-famous Wii Balance Board. They also will place other demands on your teams design skills to properly organize the needs for component/remote charging or power, lighting and scene control, audio inputs, video inputs, specialized components such as the Wii Bar, all the different remotes and other input devices, and even organized storage for all of this stuff.

Oh, and did anyone remember networking? All three consoles have always been network-dependant, but as each console increases the need for speed, you have to adjust both in-place and new systems accordingly.

Why networking? For Sonys PlayStation and Microsofts Xbox 360, downloadable entertainment content in the form of movies, TV shows and more is going to be a key sales point for the consoles this fall. As an example, Xbox 360 is already the largest purveyor of HD content downloads, and they are expanding their offering with interactive entertainment content from Endemol, the producer of reality game shows such as Deal or No Deal and 1 vs. 100. The games to be offered through the new Xbox Live Primetime tab on a totally new system interface that will be available to download to all current Xbox 360 units this Fall will allow players to become contestants playing simultaneously with thousands of gamers around the world.

As a subtle reminder, whenever your staff visits a clients home, their service checklist should include making certain that any video game console has been updated to the latest software version. As will be the case with the new Xbox features, this is mandatory, but it is something your more technophobic clients may not want to do themselves. After all isnt that one of the reasons they hired your company? To speed things up on the job site for PS3 upgrades, the techs can download the latest version to a USB thumb drive before leaving the shop.

Microsofts Expanded Offering
Beyond the new content in what will be known as Xbox Live Primetime, Microsoft will expand beyond the content already offered for Xbox 360 from major studios and program suppliers. This will allow anyone with the appropriate level of Netflix and Xbox Live subscriptions to select content from the services more than 10,000 (SD resolution) titles and instantly view it on the system connected to the Xbox 360. You can even link up with a bunch of other friends to have a virtual movie party by simultaneously watching the same movie and talking about it.

Sony Keeps Pace
Not to be outdone, Sony used E3 as the place to formally announce the availability of both SD and HD movies from many of the major studios for purchase and rental through the recently re-skinned PlayStation store. Unlike the Xbox/Netflix arrangement, which wont be available until after the major system refresh later in the fall, movies through your PS3 is available now.

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When it is fully populated with content, the movie donwload service announced at E3 for Playstation Network will deliver a wide variety of content from major studios.

As a bonus for your clients who have both a PS3 and a PSP portable, movie content downloaded to the PS3 may be transferred via a USB cable to a PSP for viewing on the go. This is a unique feature, and it gives you both the opportunity to educate your clients and the challenge of creating user-friendly integration for the PS3. Your inclination might be to put the sometimes-noisy game in a rack, but for this application it needs to be accessible with the cable stored close at hand. Wireless transfer is not available.

Although some content may be available on both platforms, most of it will be unique to one system or the other. For that reason, as these games become full-featured IPTV systems, to assure that your clients are able to access the full range of content, you may want to suggest adding both systems, even if they are rarely used for their original purpose as a game player.

Wii is Taken to a New Level
Sticking to their knitting, Nintendo did not add a movie service, perhaps due to certain hardware limitations. Then again when you see and hear what they did announce, you might say the real reason is that they dont need it.

Having virtually re-invented the way game systems work and how players interact with the games, Nintendo will take things to an even higher level in the next six to eight months. First previewed last year at E3, and introduced with the Wii Fit game, the Wii Balance Board will become a virtual snowboard late this year with a game endorsed by two-time Winter Olympic Gold Medalist Shaun White. But that is only the beginning.

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Nintendo's Wii Music goes beyond letting your clients play "air guitar," with "air sax," "air drums," and more.

Available late this year, Wii Music lets players use their Wii Remote and Nunchuck controllers to play what can only be called the ultimate air guitar...or more than 60 other instruments, including air sax, air violin, air xylophone, and with the Balance Board serving as the drum pedals, air drum. The players pick their instruments, and Wii Music lets them strum, shake, tap and play away to their hearts content. If your clients virtual combos create a hit they want to share, WiiConnect24 will let them do just that. This is one you have to seeand playto believe. The integration opportunities are endless.

A new input accessory for Wii is the Motion Plus adaptor that will ship in spring, 2009, with the Wii Sports Resort game. Adding more pinpoint and realistic in place motion sensing capabilities, Motion Plus will let players have sword fights, play Frisbee with a virtual Disc Dog, cruise the seas on a water scooter, and more. These will also be both single- and dual/multi-player games, so prepare the game room accordingly.

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Olympic snowboarding Gold Medalist Shaun White uses a Wii Blaance Board to snowboard without snow. Make sure to leave lots of room in your theater designs to allow for player movement, and don't forget player "stage monitors."

One more input device for Wii will be the WiiSpeak microphone designed to sit atop the Wii Bar to allow voice chat, as well as vocal interaction through the forthcoming Animal Crossing: City Folk game, aimed at younger players and the whole family. This is a great idea, but note that it will be a special purpose-wired microphone connecting to the Wii console via a USB connector. For those who have had to learn the integration tricks for the Wii bar with retractable screens and unusual flat-panel display mounting situations, something as simple as WiiSpeak will present another challenge to the talents of your designers and installers. As this was announced during E3, none of the traditional third-party accessory suppliers such as Nyko were able to comment on possible wireless adaptors for this use.

User-Controlled Content
PS3 and Xbox 360 have not totally matched the off-the-couch paradigm of Wii, but each expanded the nature of gaming beyond the traditional RPGs, sports games, first-person shooters, racing and guitar games to incorporate their own respective takes on social and participatory games.

Although Sonys Eye Of Judgment (EOJ), was the first camera-based game, they have not expanded that franchise to any great degree. Microsoft, on the other hand, is taking camera-based games to a totally new level when it premieres Youre In The Movies for the holiday season. Perhaps the ultimate party game, participants face the camera and match their movements and expressions to on-screen templates with their own improvisation. This is somewhat similar to original Eye Toy games for PS2, but in this case, once each of the players has been filmed, the system creates a composite title that is always different.

Also camera based, but using specially coded cards in the same vein as EOJ and aimed at a younger audience, Viva Piaya: Trouble in Paradise gives the game user input on background content such as weather and gardens for customized games.
Neither the Xbox or PlayStation games can use standard USB cameras for their games, and beyond that, the Xbox, PS2 and PS3 cameras are each different from one another. Here, both engineering and integration skills will be needed to make sure that any required cameras are mounted with the right field of view and then connected to their respective consoles.

The trend toward user-controlled content is also very much alive for PlayStation 3 gamers, with Little Big Planet soon to be available for PSP as well as for PS3. Although no special input device is used, players have the ability to create content conditions and levels and share them with others. Although not available to the public, a special version of this game was used to create the statistics part of the Sony press conference that would normally be done with traditional spreadsheet-generated graphs and presentation software.

Accessories and Social Gaming
Sonys forthcoming Buzz! and SceneIt? Box Office Smash for Xbox 360 are both trivia games that use wireless buzzer press remotes to mimic the buttons contestants press on game shows. When you realize that, according to research from the Entertainment Software Association released during E3, the average age of a console gamer is 35 years old, and that a quarter of all gamers are over age 50, both of these trivia games fit nicely for the regular and casual gamer in what is likely to be a good fit to your client base. Dont be shy to use them as examples of non-shooter/non-sports games when suggesting theater or home entertainment components for prospects that might not seem to be gamers on the surface. Just be prepared to make certain that there is a place for all the stuff that is now required for some of these games.

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The faux living room environment these Xbox execs are using to demonstrate the forthcoming You're In the Movies illustrates how lighting and camera placement will be key to proper integration in the next generation of games.

Wii, in general, and the air guitar of Wii Music not withstanding, perhaps the most successful trend in alternative input devices/controllers has been guitar-based games such as Rock Band, Guitar Hero and others. Each of the franchises in that category, which, when categorized as family entertainment was the second largest super genre in 2007 with 17.6 percent of unit sales, trailing only Action games, but ahead of Sports games, will have new entrants this fall. As with cameras and the quiz show buzzers, keep in mind that while some guitars may be used for more than one game, none can be used for more than one console. Be creative, as your clients may end up with a wall full of game console guitars just as a true picker may have their treasured Fenders, Martins, and others lovingly displayed.

A final, but related category, are karaoke-style games. SingStar for PS2 and PS3 have led the way, and not to be denied their share of the market, iNiS/Microsoft Game Studios will release Lips this holiday season with a wireless microphone included. The preview at the Xbox press event featured Duffy signing her own songs, and as you might imagine, the score was high. Here, its not only video monitors and an interference-free environment that give you value-added potential, but perhaps faux stage monitor speakers, as well. Peaking everyones interest, but with sketchy details at this time, were hints that the game will permit input from your own music collection, which means that another installation challenge may lie ahead as iPods and other portable players, or perhaps a link to the homes central music server, may be in the cards for Lips players.

Traditional Genres Remain
If the concentration here on new input technologies and social or family games leaves you worried that the world of console games is moving away from their traditional standards of first person shooters, racing games, fantasy and sci-fi games, sports franchises, action games and the like, neither you, the gamers on your staff, or your clients need worry. There are plenty of gangsters, monsters, soldiers, good guys and bad guys, aliens, animals, creatures, and princes and princesses to go around. Oh, and dont worry, within the limits of the appropriate ratings, there is also plenty of blood and guts for those who fancy that genre.

Trends in the game world, however, are moving simultaneously in many directions. Family games, participatory games, music, and get in the action concepts, will be joined by a wide range of streaming and downloadable content, informational services such as a special Gran Turismo TV channel with custom HD and SD online content within the latest version of that game franchise, Sonys forthcoming Life, which will integrate news and Google services, and more.

Anyone who has read past E3 reports in this space knows that the strong feeling here is that games are a tremendous opportunity for you to differentiate your planning, integration, installation, and concierge services to hit a hat trick: Win new jobs, make more profit on each job, and establish the reputation as the go to company for complete systems that wins you referrals to yet more profitable business wins. Nothing that was shown, hinted at, or talked about at this years E3 did anything other than reinforce that contention more than ever. Get in the game, its a great place to be!

Michael Heiss ( is an industry consultant based in Los Angeles.