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Last Updated: Friday, 10 September, 2004, 16:37 GMT 17:37 UK
Consoles play online catch-up
By Richard Taylor
BBC Click Online

It's often been said that gamers are not really getting out enough, which is quite possibly true. But at least the view of the gamer as some kind of social outcast sitting alone at the console is no longer true.

Microsoft Xbox
In 2003, $10bn was spent on consoles and games in the US

Online gaming is nothing new, not at least to PC users.

In places like Japan and Korea where broadband is practically a given, it's an outright phenomenon, with compelling online worlds pitting gamer against gamer who are often physically thousands of miles apart.

Given that online PC gaming has been such a success, you may wonder why it has taken console makers so long to come to the party.

In fact, the online console was around several years ago, courtesy of Sega's Dreamcast.

But few of us really knew or cared, after all, we didn't have fast enough internet connections for one thing.

Times are changing now. Broadband's well and truly arrived in many parts of the world, there are more console users than ever before and today's hardware giants are squaring up for a slice of the online action.

Big business

It's a game both Sony and Microsoft are desperate to win; they now see getting consoles connected to the outside world as a priority.

Sega scrapped Dreamcast after poor sales

Games journalist Aleks Krotoski says: "It seems that the major publishers like Sony and Microsoft are definitely talking up console online gaming.

"When you look at the revenues generated since that started, well, certainly Xbox has 100,000 people within the UK alone, while PlayStation 2 has something like 75,000.

"That's exponential, and people are obviously paying up on this."

Microsoft's offering, Xbox Live, is built into the console itself.

Simply follow the on-screen instructions, and you can be online within a few minutes assuming you've got broadband and the right cables.

You'll also need a credit card for the annual subscription. It works out around $70 a year.

There's no charge to play networked games on the PS2, but you will need an adaptor and - depending on the way you connect online - other bits of kit like a router.

Sony acknowledges that it can demand a degree of technical competence which puts some people off.

Sony Computer Entertainment Europe's Nainan Shah agrees: "I'm absolutely sure that is the case, and there's a lot more that needs to be done, both by ourselves and our ISP partners, and also with our partners in the network and router equipment sector."

Simplistic attraction

Once you are online, the action really begins, as you experience the thrill of racing against real opponents, or perhaps rewriting the history books of memorable sporting encounters.

Eye Toy Chat
Eye Toy Chat allows PlayStation 2 to be used as a videophone

Now, at this point PC gamers may well be saying: "Hang on, you can do all of that on a PC. Why on Earth would I need an online console?"

Stephen McGill, head of marketing for XBox, counters: "Well, online gaming on a console is very different from a PC environment.

"PC games have been there online for a long time, but they're quite difficult to get into.

"It's typically the technically competent hardcore gamers that have been driving that forward. Console gaming's really simple, plug it in and it works."

That's not to say it's without problems. Poor network connections can cause frustrating lags in fast-moving games.

And despite official sanctions to guard against it, abusive behaviour can and does occur.

Some gamers prefer the more in-depth PC gaming, others like the challenge of beating a computer, and find the whole online idea a little bit intimidating especially when you show yourself up by always coming last.

That's going to burst this market wide open because it's going to attract a completely different type of gamer
Games journalist Aleks Krotoski

Stephen McGill says: "One of the things we've been working hard at, particularly with the games developers, is to make sure the games allow players to select their level.

"What sort of gamer are they like? For example, I'm quite good at first-person shooters, so I want to play someone of equal calibre to give me a challenge.

"But I'm not so good at driving games, so I'd want to play with someone who is equally as bad as me."

The console makers are working hard to broaden the online appeal beyond gaming.

Sony, for example, is working on an application called Eye Toy Chat, which uses the webcam so you can actually see your opponents or simply have a chat.

Aleks Krotoski says: "That is going to be huge. That's going to burst this market wide open because it's going to attract a completely different type of gamer.

"It's going to attract the girl gamer, and the older gamer, its going to attract people who don't traditionally game either."

As for me, I'm going to keep practising my driving games. I think I could do with it.

Click Online is broadcast on BBC News 24: Saturday at 0745, 2030, Sunday at 0430, 0645 and 1630, and on Monday at 0030. It is also shown on BBC Two: Saturday at 0745 and BBC One: Sunday at 0645. Also BBC World.

Other items in this programme were:

Xbox Live aims for million gamers
08 Jan 04 |  Technology
Xbox and PC to share gaming tools
25 Mar 04 |  Technology
Game console sales start to slip
26 Nov 03 |  Technology
PlayStation 'wins next gen wars'
09 Mar 04 |  Technology
GameCube fights to stay in the game
15 Jan 04 |  Technology

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