Page last updated at 03:22 GMT, Saturday, 14 March 2009

New era predicted for gaming industry

By Darren Waters
Technology editor, BBC News website, Texas

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Players can follow in real-time the GPS-equipped bowler hat

The games industry is about so much more than just the PlayStation, Xbox and Nintendo Wii, the web industry is being told at the South by South West Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas.

Every day millions of people play a video game without switching on a games console.

From Facebook to the web browser, and from to casual games on a PC to games on a mobile phone, the independent games industry is enjoying a renaissance.

"I am looking forward to the Blair Witch Project of gaming," Gareth Davis, Facebook's head of games platforms, told BBC News.

"Just like movies such as Blair Witch and Sex, Lies and Videotape broke out of the independent film scene into the mainstream the same will happen with independent gaming."

Mr Davis added: "We are seeing a new rise in independent gaming. The games industry started off as individuals creating games, now it takes hundreds of people, millions of dollars and many years to make some games.

"But we are also seeing the return of the independent games programmer."

Mr Davis predicted a breakthrough hit that cost thousands of dollars to make rather than the millions of dollars poured into some blockbusters.

'No constraint'

One of the closest things the indie games scene has had to a Blair Witch is World of Goo, a deceptively simply puzzle game that has become a breakout hit on PC, Mac, Linux and the Nintendo Wii.

Made by two ex-Electronic Arts staff for less than $10,000 it went to sell thousands of copies, and many more than that figure in pirated copies.

And it was built using free, open source tools, such as Simple DirectMedia Layer and the Open Dynamics Engine.

Games are the most popular type of application on Facebook, which now boasts more than 175 million users, and 50,000 applications.

The top 10 games on Facebook have more than three million users each and the number one game Poker has more than 10 million active gamers in a single month.

"People who create games on Facebook can create inherently social titles that can be shared with family and friends," said Mr Davis.

"The internet means there is no constraint on who can create and publish games. A lot of our developers are students in dorm rooms or lone programmers who are able to quickly create compelling game experiences, put them on Facebook and get millions of players very quickly."

There is now a growing number of platforms and tool sets available to games developers that can help transform an idea into a working game played by users in a matter of days.

New experience

At the South by SouthWest Festival two-man British firm Simon Games is showcasing an online street game called The Hat, commissioned by the Arts Council of England.

The real world game involves a GPS-equipped bowler hat which gamers can follow in real-time on a Google Map.

Gamers have to track down the bowler hat wearer and take possession of the hat themselves, and evade discovery. The person who wears the hat for the longest period wins the game.

It is an example of the web and lo-fi technology combining to create new types of gaming experience.

Trism
Trism went from idea to demo on the iPhone in 10 days
Websites like Kongregate.com act as a YouTube for video games, while the rise in popularity of the iPhone and its App Store, and the availability of Microsoft's XNA tools and the Xbox Live platform is seeing a resurgence in community gaming that can be lucrative for independent developers.

Steve Demeter built a puzzle game for the iPhone in just 10 days in his spare time and it went on to be downloaded thousands of times from Apple's App Store.

"The main thing we are seeing now compared to a decade ago is there is a lot less of a barrier of entry," he said.

Lee Uniacke, who runs Kongregate.com, said the web was engendering the "democratisation" of games development.

"Before you had to convince a major publisher like EA or Sega that you have a game worthy of being developed. There are now millions of outlets for games.

"There's no one way of connecting with consumers."

Programming tools

Despite the growth in new platforms, games still need a modicum of programming talent and the ability to engage audiences.

Boyd Multerer, a general manager at Microsoft, said: "You need some programming skill but it's more about having a good story and an idea for what is fun.

"Over the next few years that will become more of the case."

Microsoft has developed games programming tools, called Kodu, which are designed specifically to help children writes games for the Xbox.

It also offers quasi-professional tools, called XNA, which are used to write games for its Xbox Live service.

There are now more than 6,000 games available for the iPhone and iPod Touch within two years of the device launching to market.

Mr Davis said the independent games sector was also a potentially profitable one for developers.

"A few months after we launched the Facebook platform the three or four top game developers said to me 'in what world can you start a company and in three or four months have a profitable business'.

"And because Facebook itself is growing so fast, so too are our games. The top games are growing in audience at between 2% and 5% a week."

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