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EA to Produce Games for iPhone

Though it hasnt been officially discussed, there is no doubt that mobile gaming is coming to the iPhone. Its just too perfect of a platform for gaming. Though not many developers have been clamoring to talk about their personal plans for the new Apple cell phone, Electronic Arts isn’t playing coy. In fact, they seem rather eager.

According to Mobile Industry, Mitch Lasky, VP of EA Mobile, has confirmed that EA is in talks with Apple about bringing their brand of game development to the new iPhone and list iOS on TweakBox. The iPhone, Apples newest gadget which is one part iPod and one part cell phone, is expected to be released sometime this summer in the U.S., and EA plans to be prepared. We see a lot of the technology that weve utilized on the iPod side being incorporated into the iPhone, said Lasky.

With the huge amount of positive buzz surrounding the new iPhone, and Apple in general, any developer would have to be nuts to not want to get a piece of the action. Other than EA, PopCap and FreshGames were developers for the Apple iPod, could we be seeing them make another appearance on the iPhone? I wouldnt be terrible surprised to find myself playing Zuma on my new iPhone sometime this fall.

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DirecTV Launches Game Channel

Casual games are such an interesting investment because the price for entry isnt even remotely as high as normal game production but still reaches a huge market. Thats why it seems like everyone is getting into the casual games business lately. Not to be left out, DirecTV, satellite TV giant, has rolled out its new gaming channel called the Game Lounge.

DirecTVs Game Lounge boasts several different categories of gaming, from puzzle to arcade, and are playable using the remote. To help broaden the appeal of the new service, DirecTV has also signed a deal with Mattel which will allow them access to many of the popular Mattel product lines, such as UNO and Barbie. Eric Shanks, VP of DirecTV had this to say about the deal:

“Game Lounge’s unique platform is engaging the minds of both parents and children and bringing family game night back to DIRECTV households across the country. Game Lounge gives families an alternative way to play games together, using a medium that kids are used to while also playing in a controlled environment that parents are comfortable with. Working with industry leaders such as Mattel and Nickelodeon, as well as our unique distribution structure, will make the Game Lounge platform incomparable to any other television service provider in the market.”

This new service is available via monthly and yearly fees or on a per-day basis.

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RealNetworks Gaming Growth Despite Lower Income

As the year goes on, more casual game companies are reporting record sales for 2006. With the proliferation of new technology and heightened awareness of whats out there now, sales are up across the board. RealNetworks, online media company and casual game producer/publisher, has reported its earnings for Q4 and 2006 overall, and even though theyre a little odd, theyre still pleasing.

According to Gamasutra, Reals profits in the fourth quarter reached up to $125.6 million, up 50 percent from last years $80.6 million, with downloadable gaming being accountable for $23.9 million of that figure and showing a total of $86.2 million worth of gaming for the year. however, the years revenue was down substantially. The reason attributed for most of the discrepancy between 2005 and 2006 is that Real won an antitrust suit against Microsoft during 2005. However, though profits were lower, Bob Glaser, Chairman and CEO of RealNetworks is optimistic and gave reason for hope in 2007 as Real expects revenue to fall between $540 million and $560 million for the year.

“2006 was a very successful year for RealNetworks,” said Glaser. “We are pleased to report another year of record revenue and strong profitability. In addition to the company’s financial achievements, 2006 was a year of important strategic achievements for Real that set us up for our next phase of growth.”

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So heres your fascinating factoid of the day, taken from a study by Synovate, a market research firm, which recently conducted a broad survey of Europeans between 18-24:

Of those interviewed, 25 percent use social networks. And 19 percent play MMOs.

Talk about upending common assumptions! Despite a mere 6% disparity, if asked to name a popular Net-based activity for the young, most people are far more likely to name MySpace or Facebook, than World of Warcraft or Habbo Hotel.

“What we find is that it is pretty mundane things that they are doing online,” Synovates Julian Rolfe told Media Life Magazine that is, e-mail and instant messaging. “The opinion on social networking sites is that the perception among 18 to 24s is that it is younger people that are doing ittheir younger brothers and sisters.”

So if the study holds up, social networks are less popular than generally assumed though Im actually not surprised, given the time and effort it takes to create a worthwhile presence. Whats truly surprising is how prevelant MMORPGs have become, with young adults. (More than blogging, which Synovate tallies at 15% usage.) And my guess is if social networks are more popular with the under-18 set, so are MMOs.

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They Saw Farther – An Early History of EA

Electronic Arts is a ridiculously huge mega-publisher that owns half of the gaming business. Theres no doubt about that. And once you reach that level, you usually end up being the bad guy – just look at Microsoft. However, theres one thing thats easy to forget: all of these companies started somewhere. Thanks to todays feature on Gamasutra, we get a look at how Electronic Arts became the uber-conglomerate that they are today.

Trip Hawkins, early employee of Apple and founder of Electronic Arts, sat down with Jeffrey Fleming and discussed the early days of EA and how the company came to be. In 1975, Hawkins saw his first microprocessor and decided that in 7 years, enough technology would be available to make his company a reality. Oddly enough, it happened just like that.

Hawkins managed to get into Apple Computers in 1978, when there were just 50 employees, and by 1982 he had made enough money off of Apples IPO that he could start EA. Once the company was started, Hawkings started hiring programmers and releasing games. Thanks to good fortune and wise hiring decisions, EA had a great year:

It was a pleasant surprise that the media quickly embraced my vision and lifted the profile of the company. In hindsight, my choices of the first round of products turned out amazingly well. Of the first six games, three of them ultimately made the Computer Gaming World Hall of Fame, and a fourth one charted on the bestseller lists of the day.

However, not everything was going to be smooth sailing. Shortly afterwards, gaming hit a wall and imploded:

Ataris meltdown created a tsunami that wiped out public interest in games, retail support, media interest, and gave gaming a stigma that lasted a decade. I made a conscious decision to ignore Atari and to focus on the next generation of technology. We had to operate like the Fremen of Dune, recycling our own saliva to live in the desert, to survive. We had to rebuild the industry brick by brick over a period of years.

After making it through the market collapse, Hawkins then made the one move that forever cemented EA into gaming history: he signed John Madden as a celebrity endorsement for his football game.

I picked John because I wanted a design partner that could help us make the game authentic but also have selling-power from his name on the cover. After signing him, I flew to Denver with my programmer and producer and went over my game design. We spent two whole days on the train with him going over an incredibly long list of details about football and it helped me finish the design properly. Wed get together periodically after that initial session to review our progress, and John would yell and scream about details we had wrong, and it was a lot of fun!

As with any other company, Electronics Arts was founded on ingenuity and the desire to innovate. If you add that to hard work and luck, for better or worse, you get the industry we have today. Check out the rest of the article over on Gamasutra. Its a really interesting read.

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Handheld Games for Q1 ‘07: The GigaGamez Watch List

Handheld games, on average, dont suffer as bad of a drought as PC and console games do after the holiday season, but theyre not exactly coming out of the woodworks, either.  As in our other article about PC gaming in Q1, today, were going to take a look at handhelds and see what games we think are gonna make it – or not.

Lost in Blue 2: Lost in Blue is a DS survival game that was released in 2005. In the game, you play as a high school student who is stranded on an island after his ship capsizes. Once you wash ashore, you have to survive by foraging for food, making weapons and so on. Lost in Blue, while it received middling reviews, was one of those games that you either loved or hated, and its hard to imagine the sequel being any different. While the scenario in Lost in Blue 2 is a little different, it appears to involve the same challenges. If, for some reason, Konami can make the inventory system a bit more managable and movement a touch less tedious, then this game could be a hit. However, we arent holding our breath.

Card Fighters 2: Ah, heres a classic with a touch of flare. Back in the days when men were men and Neo Geo was trying to contend with the Gameboy in the handheld arena, SNK came out with Card Figthers Clash, a card game that pitted SNK characters against each other in a duel to the death CCG (Collectible Card Game) style. Well, if you dont know how the Neo Geo Pocket fared (when was the last time you saw one?), we can just say that it didnt win. The real tragedy, though, is that some of its more classic games have been lost but this isnt one of them. SNK has decided to take another shot with a DS-ified version of SNK Vs. Capcom Card Fighters. What could be the sales potential of a game like this? Huge, oddly enough. Though not the most mainstream of gamers, there are still a ton of SNK fans out there. In fact, I think my friend Brian would probably throttle anyone who dared speak ill of his favorite fighter company. Needless to say, if enough old school fighter fans hear about this one, we could have a hit on our hands. Its not like the DS doesnt have a large enough install base to sell a few copies.

Super Collapse 3: Oh, ho ho! A casual game shows up on the list of anticipated software releases! Theres a few reasons I chose this one. First of all, its coming out for both the DS and PSP (oddly enough, its cheaper on the PSP). Theres nothing like killing two birds with one stone, and thats essentially what youre doing when you release your title for both major handheld platforms. Then, you have to consider that its an addictive, block-destroying game that in its franchise history has sold over 500,000 copies. Finally, casual games are what people crave on handheld platforms, so this is really an easy call. Though it wont be a blockbuster, Super Collapse 3 is going to make quite a few bucks.

Ratchet and Clank: Size Matters: Heres an easy one to call. Ratchet and Clank, one of the longest running and most beloved Playstation franchises, is back again, and this time its on the PSP. This is almost the Sony equivilent of releasing a Sonic game, except that Ratchet and Clank hasnt veered dangerously into the world of horror that is taken up by the Sonic Team. This one is money in the bank.

Monster Kingdom: Jewel Summoner: From the man behind the popular Shin Megami Tensei games, comes a new RPG for the PSP called Monster Kingdom: Jewel Summoner. Featuring monster collection and battling, this is the kind of game that will appeal to all the Pokemon fans out there who want to try something new but not too new. Just relying upon the continued fascination with monster collection games and new RPG properties for the PSP, this game should do fairly well. If you discount the purchases made by fans of the genre, you also have the fans of Kouji Okada to consider. However, its hard to judge this kind of game and the market is fickle. When is more of the same just too much? You never know until you hit that point.

Thats enough quirky handheld gameplay to keep most gamers-on-the-go happy for a month or two at least. As always, if we missed anything, or there are any games that you feel we should look at, please tell us in the comments!

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Virtual World Population: 50 million by 2011

When technology analyst group Gartner recently asserted that “80 percent of active Internet users (and Fortune 500 companies) will have a ‘second life’, but not necessarily in Second Life” by 2011, a lot of people jumped the gun and assumed 8 out of 10 of all Net users would be in a virtual world in four short years. Not exactly, Gartner Chief of Research Steve Prentice tells us. “Firstly,” says Prentice, “this statement refers to ‘active’ Internet users– a subtlety missed in much of the subsequent reporting.”

Their actual estimate, as it turns out, is decidedly less expansive, but about as impressive, and that’s by conscious choice. The statement was meant, says Prentice, as “a wake-up call to the CIO and CEOS out there that this is not a game, just sort of messing around. It’s interesting [and] we think it’s going to big.”

By “active”, Gartner is referring to “people who are heavyweight Net users.” And by their definition, all of them are broadband users. “They’re my kids, to be honest, back from school, right onto MySpace.” That in mind, the estimate is actually that 50-60 million Net users will participate in a virtual world by 2011. “Doesn’t seem totally outrageous to me,” says Prentice.

Considering the largest existing worlds, including South Korea’s Cyworld, and its 20 million uniques, World of Warcraft with its 8 million subscribers, and Europe’s Habbo Hotel with its own 7 million regular users, that guess is actually on the conservative side. (While researching another story, Lisa Cosmas Hanson of Chinese game market analyst Niko Partners told me she estimates 26 million online world users by 2011 in China alone.)

To arrive at that figure, Prentice considered numerous variables, chief among them these five:

* Upward growth rates of existing worlds and social networks like MySpace.
* Usage patterns of current online world users (“Especially in the teen and young adult area…”)
* General computer game usage (Gartner cites a recent Entertainment Software Association report indicating that 69% of US head of households already play computer games.)
* Penetration and growth of Internet-enabled notebooks in this generation and spread of easily accessible wireless Internet.
* Involvement by major firms like IBM in virtual worlds, coupled to metaverse consulting groups to serve them there. (“[T]his reflects both a growing interest from their client base, and will result in growing pressures (and competencies) to accelerate the move by corporate users into the virtual worlds space.”)

Surprising to me at least, Prentice believes most virtual worlds of 2011 will not be console-based, and that they’ll primarily remain a PC-centric platform. But he thinks it’s possible we’ll see metaverses accessible through phones and PDAs by then. (”Never say never: people said they’d never watch movies on a phone, and they do.”)

Another surprise is that Prentice thinks none of the existing virtual worlds will dominate four years from now– hence the “‘second life’, but not necessarily in Second Life” qualification. At this point, he says, “Linden is [like] the AOL of the early Internet. The biggest ones don’t even exist yet.”

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What’s the ROI on marketing in Second Life? After attacking the topic from a couple directions (most SL users seem receptive, but so far, are largely unimpressed with existing attempts), we finally have some concrete numbers to work with, at least on the more relevant metric of unique visitors.

So how does anywhere from 6,454 to, well, zero, grab you?

That’s the spread of weekly visitors to real world corporate sites in Second Life, according to SL demographics expert Tateru Nino. Every Monday on my Second Life blog, she reports on the number of Residents to visit these locations; the world’s dynamic map enables her to headcount actual visitors, and with some common sense extrapolation (sampling numerous peak and offpeak use periods), winds up with a fairly accurate estimate of total uniques.

In the three weeks since she began, the highest weekly total belongs to Pontiac, which hosts a kind of virtual autobody island where Residents can customize their cars (pictured), followed by a site for Showtime’s The L Word (4,687), where regular events are held on a recreation of the show’s main locations; IBM has an expansive site which includes an open source coding tutorial lab (4826).

The low end, however, is littered with some of the world’s most prestigious corporations and brands. Despite entering Second Life to much mainstream media fanfare, companies like Sears, Sun Microsystems, Dell, Coca Cola, Reebok, Coldwell Banker, and Calvin Klein have so far failed to attract even 500 weekly visitors each (during Tateru’s headcount, at least)— some of them far less.

For comparison’s sake, there are currently about 400,000 Residents who log into SL on a weekly basis; about a million have logged in over the last month. By far the most popular sites remain grassroots “native” locales; over the last three weeks, for example, the most heavily trafficked place was not a casino or a sex hangout, but “Phat Cat’s Jazzy Blue Lounge”, a PG-rated ballroom for elegantly dressed avatars. With a highest weekly performance of 31,248 unique visitors, it vastly eclipses even the most popular corporate site.

So roughly a year after SL’s mini-dot com boom began, most companies are still struggling to even be noticed. I recently put these paltry figures to Steve Prentice of Gartner, as a caveat to his firm’s bullish predictions that 80% of Fortune 500 companies would have a virtual world presence by 2011. He seemed surprised, then fingered the relative lack of company avatar activity at most of these locations.

“[Y]ou’ve got to be able to go in there and interact [with people],” he said, “that’s the nature of 3D interactivity.” Though many companies will quit in frustration, Prentice believes they’ll learn from their early botched attempts— whether they want to or not. “Like the [early] Web,” he added, “most will be brought back to the table due to user pressure.”

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Skype Got Game? Too Little, Too Late?

Om just passed along the news that Skype just launched a Game Developer Program, replete with their own branded Game Channel, and a dev kit so folks can create third party games that run over Skype, and make them money. This is a great idea bound to succeed– rather, it would have been, if it had been launched a few years ago. Now, they’re competing in an already crowded market.

VOIP is essential for hardcore gamers who depend on group chat for split-second teamwork in Counterstrike, World of Warcraft, and other online multiplayer games. Thing is, there are already a number of established VOIP providers in the game space, like Teamspeak, Ventrillo, and Xfire, and it’ll be difficult for Skype to rebrand itself as a game channel provider, especially for gamers who have been using services like those for years.

Then again, hardcore gamers are just a small fraction of a much larger market, and the real potential for a large audience is in casual games. If Skype’s game channel can come up with a few hits that truly leverage voice communication, they could taste success in their latest initiative.

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Here come Virtual World Intranets… Seriously

Online worlds on the Internet? That’s so last month ago. Judging by recent initiatives from Sun and IBM, the latest trend is a corporate-controlled, business-centric virtual world architected for internal use only– call it the intranet metaverse. In Sun’s case, it’s MPK20, a “a virtual 3D environment in which employees can accomplish their real work, share documents, and meet with colleagues using natural voice communication.”

The idea is to bring remote workers in Sun’s worldwide offices together into a single embodied space, “where the spacial layout of the 3D world coupled with the immersive audio provides strong cognitive cues that enhance collaboration.” (Via 3pointD, where blogger Mark Wallace has worthwhile commentary.) In IBM’s case, it’s a rough-and-ready 3D environment created by their Innovate Quick team, using the Torque graphics engine from Garage Games.

“The project team is exploring ways to scale, and also applying different models of operation,” Ian Hughes of IBM’s UK branch tells me. “We are building a user base of interested users and developers as part of our CIO office technology adoption program.” Hughes spearheaded IBM’s early explorations of Second Life as a private development lab for the future 3D Internet, where the team creates cool applications like a universal language translator for avatars.

In SL, Ian goes by the unlikely Resident name epredator Potato, and looks less like an IT specialist than an alien hunter the Governor of California memorably dubbed, “One ugly mother****er.” The trouble with using Second Life for IBM business, writes Hughes, is that it’s inaccessible behind Big Blue’s firewall [some intranet, internal applications cannot be reached from Second Life], and they were looking to bolster the companies existing internal communication channels. “What we need is the ability to gather some people together and use the human aspects of the avatar interaction to be more effective in our communications.”

While some Net pundits have quickly dismissed Fortune 500 interest in virtual worlds as mere marketing hype, it’s projects like these which suggest that high tech companies are serious about their potential to transform the Internet. If they privately come up with new protocols and technology that adds real value to the way they do business, the future of the broader Net as a 3D medium is all but insured. By the same token, they may just end up adding another level of aggravation to the conference call.

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