Application service provider (ASP) technology is flooding the business software and solutions market, but is the latest IT craze a viable model for delivering games? ASP delivery has the potential to boost flagging sales in the PC games market, because consumers can try out games for a relatively low cost with no commitment, but there are fears this model could cut out the channel.
Games manufacturers acknowledge the future of gaming may move to ASP delivery, but they argue this won't be happening any time soon because of the present limitations on bandwidth.
Bruce McCabe, research director at analyst GartnerGroup, said the ASP concept was not new for gaming, just undeveloped, and it was `definitely where gaming is going'.
He likened the current distribution model to `printing a letter, faxing it and then scanning it', when the information could be transmitted instantaneously by e-mail or over the Internet.
`Rental via ASP has enormous potential,' McCabe said. `It allows the customer to try it out for a low entry fee. The other nice advantage is that if you are a vendor leasing through a hosting model, you still control the software, so piracy's not such an issue. You can also add value by dialling in online and playing in a multi-player environment. But the problem is bandwidth.'
At present the barrier is `a dearth of bandwidth to the household via telephone lines' which will ease over time as fibre-optics technology is introduced, McCabe said.
ASP delivery will do away with the need for software or CD-Roms by giving users the opportunity to lease games. The applications will be held on a remote server and users will access them on their PC or gaming console via a secure Internet line.
Software giant Microsoft is currently trialling ASP delivery of Microsoft Office and will await the outcome of the trial before deciding whether to pursue the ASP model for other software.
Alan Bowman, director of Microsoft's home and retail business division, said that once current bandwidth limitations were overcome, ASP delivery for games was a possibility, but it would depend on consumer demand.
`In the casual gaming community, people buying games for their PC are continuing to buy a physical product, whether from bricks-and-mortar outlets or electronic retailers,' Bowman said. `ASP delivery is technologically possible, but not necessarily likely. It will be user driven - it depends if the customers want it. You don't need a full-blown ASP model to try out games because the Internet already provides that.'
ARN found some reluctance in the games channel to talk about the possibility of ASP as a model for games delivery. Sources revealed off the record that many sectors of the channel fear that ASP technology and online gaming could shut them out.
`The online industry is retail sensitive because people believe it will cut out the channel. It's the fear factor,' explained one industry source. `ASP is clearly the future of the industry. The bandwidth's not here yet but it will be within two years. The industry's moving at 100 miles per hour.'
Nintendo refused to comment on the possibility of ASP delivery for games, because the company `is only interested in the Game Boy format'.
It is possible Nintendo declined to comment because ASP delivery for games is still in the research and development stage and they would be cautious about tipping off their competitors and jeopardising their relationship with the channel.
Nintendo's competitors, Sega and Sony PlayStation, were more forthcoming, indicating that in the short-term their new consoles would be Internet-enabled, while the ASP model was a possible model for the long-term.
Logan Ringland, analyst at International Data Corp, said that with the proliferation of games on the Internet there was a clear demand for ASP software for games.
`It could take off, especially with the launch of digital TV in the next few months,' Ringland said. `It comes down to individual companies offering the service to end users. It could be pay-per-use or leased for a particular length of time. As the Internet becomes more inherent in society, it will become the major mode of distribution. You can see that with the take-off of music over the Net.'
GartnerGroup's McCabe said that with the advent of ASP, the channel `as we know it' will die, not just for games but progressively for all software.
However, there is hope for resellers who position themselves properly, McCabe believes.
`Resellers will play a different role. If they are in the business of selling games, it will be online. People tend to think of a company like Amazon.com as a direct seller of books, but it's not - it's the largest reseller of books. They still play a role aggregating all the products, prices and information from the publishers. A good gaming site will play a similar role in aggregating products, and also value adding with reviews, previews, samples, demonstrations and strategy advice.
`The popular gaming portals will have no trouble getting gaming manufacturers to supply good margins and advertising to be part of the site. The whole industry is evolving to be entirely online.'
Microsoft's Bowman said current bandwidth limitations mean downloading an entire game off the Internet is `not practical', but the Web could be used to download additional components at a later date.
There are a number of Web sites offering online gaming, like www.sony.com, but McCabe points out that these online games are usually more strategy- based, like chess, because the highly popular graphical games are too unwieldy for the bandwidth.
Consumers can play games online for free because the Web sites generate income from advertising and sponsorship. Steve Wherrett, public relations/promotions manager for Sony PlayStation, said that some games made for Sony's PlayStation gaming console were available on the Web now, with the Sony Web site offering games like Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune.
`Sony very much sees the Web as part of the future of games and part of their strategy is to do with the Web,' Wherrett said. `ASP delivery is definitely something that could happen with PlayStation 2 and all the things Sony has on the drawing board.'
Kym Warner, national public relations and promotions manager for games distributor Ozisoft, said Internet gaming and associated piracy had gutted the PC games market, but the console market was still performing strongly.
`Consoles will always be around,' Warner said. `The Internet is affecting the PC market but not the console market. It's taken about 60 per cent of the PC market. Two to three years ago the PC market was selling 10,000-20,000 units of a product per day, now we're lucky to get 5000-8000 of a good release over six months.'
Warner attributes this phenomenon to a number of factors: Internet piracy; the huge volume of games to choose from in the PC market; the expense of maintaining and upgrading a PC; and the sociability of console gaming compared to PCs.
Edward Fong, marketing director at gaming publisher and distributor GT Interactive, said there was no hard data on the size of PC games software sales, but the console market is likely bigger.
`The console market is now probably bigger than PC software for straight games, but the PC market also includes peripherals such as educational software,' Fong said. `According to the Australian Software Distribution Association, the industry body-corporate, there is more volume going out the door, but the average prices of units sold is going down.'
However, claims that sales of games are drop- ping because the prices are too high and the content too repetitive are also valid, believes GartnerGroup's McCabe.
`That's completely valid,' McCabe said. `There's certainly a lot of repetition. Publishers often just try to do a better job of the same thing. That's valid to a point but it's not as stimulating as something new.'
A shift to an ASP model for delivery could revive flagging sales for the PC market because it allows consumers to try a new game for a period of time for a relatively low entry fee, alleviating the need for a purchase commitment.
McCabe argues that the greatest potential growth area is in multi-player gaming, because `there's more interactivity and it's much more stimulating to have a human opponent'.
Gaming Web sites are one model for multi-player platforms but bandwidth is still an issue.
Other possibilities include Internet-enabled consoles and PC networking. The next generation of consoles will be Internet-enabled to allow multi-player gaming online, as well as Net surfing on the console. Sega Dreamcast, due to hit store shelves and Christmas lists at the end of November, will be connected to the Web, as will Sony PlayStation 2, due out next year.
`The Internet component is more than just online gaming,' said Wherrett. `You can also browse the Web and download products just like from your PC. You can play with friends anywhere in the world, whether they're in Melbourne or Iceland.'
Maurice Famularo, the marketing and channel manager for network manufacturer D-Link, said his company was currently selling a networking package for the home PC, which allows users to link up a home network and play multi-player games across the network.
`Online gaming is part of the future of gaming - it's like chat rooms,' Famularo said. `This is a similar concept to multi-player gaming on a console but it's on a PC. It frees up bandwidth because the software is held on the computer's hard drive. It's possible the industry will move to ASP delivery when the bandwidth issues are cleared.'
Consumers will ultimately decide the question of whether the gaming industry moves to an ASP model of delivery. All the channel can do to ensure it remains viable is prepare itself for inevitable change.
`Every company needs to prepare itself for technological change, whether it's going to happen in two months or two years time,' said GT's Fong. `The market is consumer driven and if they want delivery via the Internet, we'll give it to them.'what's new from . . . SegaThe first of the next-generation gaming consoles has arrived, with the launch of the new Sega Dreamcast at the end of this month.
The Dreamcast will be equipped with a built-in modem to enable online gaming, Web browsing and e-mail abilities, and the package includes three months free Internet access.
The Internet connection will allow multi-player games between players anywhere in Australia and New Zealand, and eventually around the world.
The console uses a GD-ROM, a 12-speed unit similar to a CD-ROM, which can hold 1GB of data, as well as play audio CDs. The entire 26MB of RAM inside the Dreamcast can be loaded full of data within 15 seconds by the GD-ROM drive.
Dreamcast uses an enhanced version of Microsoft's Windows CE operating system, similar to the Windows 98 system, but Sega claims the Dreamcast is more efficient and not prone to crashing.
Sega says Dreamcast has over three times the polygon-generating capability of today's fastest PCs, and a more advanced memory, providing state-of-the-art graphics, gameplay and sound.
Accessories include a zip drive, peripherals like a keyboard, steering wheel and fighting stick, and a memory card to save game progress, trade game data and play handheld or arcade games.
The launch price of the Dreamcast will be $499, and the software will retail between $89.95 and $99.95.
Sega Dreamcast games
Along with the launch of Sega Dreamcast comes a host of games for the new console.
House of the Dead 2 is the sequel to Sega's original House of the Dead, which came out in the arcades three years ago. A first-person shooting game for one or two players, the story line revolves around a maniacal businessman who has unleashed the undead on the people in the city and is trying to reincarnate an ancient demon. Players use the Light Gun peripheral or the game pad and follow a predetermined path around the city and its surroundings, destroying enemies and saving innocent bystanders. House of the Dead 2 uses Dreamcast's high resolution mode of 640 x 480 pixels for a super clear screen image, 32-bit colour mode and 64-channel sound.
For younger players, there's Toy Commander for up to four players, which puts the player in the role of a regular toy soldier piloting more than 35 different craft in more than 50 different missions in big, amazing 3D worlds.
Mission tasks vary from the simple search and destroy 60ft raving Teddy Bear, to raiding the enemy fortress guarded by roaming plastic soldiers, or gathering tanks and aeroplanes to attack the family cat. Toy Commander also uses Dreamcast's 640 x 480 resolution, and 16-bit CD sound quality.sega ozisoft (02) 9317 0000what's new from . . . SonySony PlayStation has released Forty Winks, a 3D adventure for younger kids, set in a free-roaming 3D world of children's dreams. Players take control of one of two characters, Ruff or his twin sister Tumble, and then enter their dreams to rescue the trapped Winks from the evil NiteKap. For racing enthusiasts, there's Championship Motorcross, with a proprietary 'RMD' (Real Motorcross Dynamics) bike physics system, to provide realistic bike control and an advanced-intelligence character engine for intense pack racing. Motorcross features intense two-player head-to-head racing, more than a dozen realistic motorcross and supercross tracks, a huge library of aerial acrobatics and a hard-hitting soundtrack.
Both games are available from games distributor GT Interactive and sell for an RRP of $89.95.
The Wheel of Time, which is based on Robert Jordan's popular fantasy novel series, is to be released next month. This is a first-person action/strategy game with role-playing elements, set in a highly detailed, real-time 3D world.
Unreal Tournament uses the Unreal engine as a technological base, but is a stand-alone game that does not require a copy of Unreal to run. This game sports some of the most impressive graphics yet seen in a computer game, plus unparalleled level design and character modelling, according to distributor GT Interactive.
Both games have an RRP of $89.95.
Also in the PC games market are the latest offerings from games distributor Jack of All Games, including Max Payne (to be released in April next year) and Darkstone, both retailing for $89.95, as well as Age of Wonders, to be released in January with an RRP of $79.95.
Max Payne is an action crime story set in present-day New York City during the worst winter blizzard in a century. The MAX-FX technology from Remedy Entertainment provides Max Payne with an E2 Rendering machine for visibility optimisation, a level editor to allow players to create their own killer levels, and realistic full radiosity lighting.
One of the distributor's most popular games, Darkstone is set in a medieval world living under the shadow of a fire-breathing dragon. A first-person action/strategy game, the player takes on the role of a knight, monk, thief or sorcerer to journey through dungeons, towns and wilderness on the quest to slay the dragon.
Age of Wonders is another fantasy role-playing game for Windows 95/98 or NT 4.0, set in a world of elves, dwarves and orcs, where magic and primitive techno -logy co-exist. The game can be played as a non- linear single player campaign or with friends.
Distributors: Gt interactive (02) 9902 3000 jack of all games (02) 9482 3455