Watching British Telecommunications Plc dress up for the trial it’s easy to get caught up in the fanfare and miss the parade. It’s even easier to miss the news that there is just one gaming company involved. What does the secretive Nintendo Co Ltd hope to gain from the world’s biggest interactive television trial? Could […]
Watching British Telecommunications Plc dress up for the trial it’s easy to get caught up in the fanfare and miss the parade. It’s even easier to miss the news that there is just one gaming company involved. What does the secretive Nintendo Co Ltd hope to gain from the world’s biggest interactive television trial? Could it be that the world’s very battered but still leading player in the video games player market is cagey about its involvement because it knows how big the promises are if it works? The trial, involving 2,500 customers in Colchester and Ipswich, starts this autumn, and the company hopes to have a fully working marketing model for interactive services by this time next year. Services on offer in the trial include those of 20 film and television companies, eight high street shops, 26 advertisers, 10 educational services, 50 local interest organisations, six music video companies and seven children’s television companies. Services are initially offered with free six-month installation, a monthly charge of ú5.00 and variable rates for services ranging from 25 pence for children’s television to ú4.00 for movies.
Nintendo, marching alone in the British Telecom parade, has a system to download 40 of its games – including Rare Ltd’s Donkey Kong Country, the fastest-selling game ever – it shifted 7.5m copies in the first six months – to its Super Nintendo Entertainment System consoles via the trial service. The Super System is the latest bid to keep a hold on the 16-bit market, before 32-bit and 64-bit machines sweep the console market onwards and upwards into greater things. It is a digital stereo console with an unprecendented 32,768-colour palette. It also features Mode 7, Nintendo’s proprietary hardware that enables the player to see smooth 360o game play. In short, the Super NES is the latest of the games machines. It also has a socket on the back to plug it into a television set-top box via an adaptor. And that’s where British Telecom comes in. The games service is offered at ú1.00 to ú3.00 per play or, more likely for anyone with the hardware, ú7.00 per month. The game has a self-destruct code when downloaded so that it lasts only the 24 hours of play paid for. As it stands, the service is simple download-to-play with no option to play with other people on the service. Paul Sharma, marketing relations for British Telecom, is trying to find how much the market is prepared to pay for multimedia. And that’s it. No more information on why Nintendo was chosen. Not a squeak of whether Sega Enterprises Ltd was approached. The reason for this is that leaking too many details of the possibilities of cable-based game playing could blow the cover on a potentially very lucrative on-line market.
By Morgan Holt
The popularity of Sega, Sony Corp, Atari Corp machines means that British Telecom will not be able to survive on Nintendo alone, so the room for competition in this area, as with all the other interactive services, is large. David Tabizel, a multimedia analyst at brokers Durlacher & Co Ltd in London, is already focussing keenly on the on-line games market. Very shortly, with an increase in bandwidth and digital cable, he predicts, we’re going to see CD-ROM quality games shunted across the Internet. What does the Internet have to do with this? It will, of course, change greatly over the next few years. Some cable companies are already starting to tie up with the World Wide Web, offering monthly access charges rather than the telephone bill involved in modem connection. Multiplayer games (like Domark Software Ltd’s Confirmed Kill featured in CI No 2,709) are beginning to connect not just tens of players, but hundreds. With digital cable this will become thousands. Simon Norris, a telecommunications consultant at Analysys Ltd in Cambridge, sees multiplayer growth in the US as small compared with the potential, although the opportunity is still limited because games – and any other interactive services – have to be wrapped up and presented to a channel package
r, such as British Telecom, which provides the service as part of a greater whole. When companies can offer their own gateway to the cable network, limited at the moment by cost and uncertainty of regulations, each games company will have its own channel, its own programmes and its own slice of the pie. Cable has a lot to offer against satellite but there are hundreds of digital high-bandwidth satellites offering 4Mb ‘lumps’ of data due to launch over the next eighteen months. So cable companies are keeping a competitive eye on the opportunities and seeking to offer what satellite cannot – real time interactive services over a global network. Anyone using the Internet will know this requires a great deal of compression, but Tabizel believes it is at hand. In a report on the Internet due out in two months and another on advanced games in three, he hopes to show that huge compression ratios are close at hand. Companies like Eidos Plc, which is in process of buying Domark and two other games companies, are gearing up to a new breed of games. Mix high-grade compression with Internet and interactive television and Tabizel predicts games over phone lines in three to five years. Let’s say, 45% to 50% of the games market will be on-line by 2002.
Competing standards will be interesting, especially as Microsoft Corp introduces several million new on-line users on its Microsoft Network at the end of the year. As yet, we lack the artificial intelligence software agents to deal with such a vast gaming input. What is really needed, however, is for games developers to start looking at the medium as a new one. That is, writing games that are not just a global translation of an old medium. You need games designed to be played on-line, said Tabizel. Until you can offer what you can’t get elsewhere, why would people do it? The opportunity for games to be played on a charged interactive service introduces the opportunity of playing against other people for money. A football game with a ú10 entrance fee could be organised into leagues and moderated by the new breed of on-line supervisors. By the end, the final contestants could be playing for thousands, perhaps millions of dollars. Tabizel has a vision of the future: Virtual casinos. Think of all the fuss made about the UK National Lottery. Imagine putting ú1 in with the possibility of winning ú1m. The whole world would become an amusement arcade.