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Wanted: Animated monkey with business plan

One of the lessons I've learned at the Game Developers Conference is that despite the explosions and animated chimps, modern video games are a big, serious business.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--"The great thing," the guy ahead of me in the hot dog line explained to his briefcase-toting, loafer-wearing companion, "is that we've totally monetized the concept with an ongoing revenue stream."

It was standard high-tech bizbabble. But given the setting--the convention floor of the Game Developers Conference here--I had to restrain myself to keep from yelling, "The product you're monetizing, you morons, is an animated monkey driving a dune buggy!"

But that's one of the lessons of the GDC, which runs through Saturday. Behind all the shooting and exploding of modern video games, there's a big, serious business. And success depends greatly on getting the right people to put the right stuff in the game software they create.

That's where the GDC comes in, with an improbably mixed crowd that juxtaposes Armani-wearing sales reps with game pros who looked like they just got off a job modeling characters for "Tony Hawk: Pro Skater."

The programmers, graphics artists and other software dweebs from around the world attend the event to hone their skills at workshops with pay-per-view-ready titles such as "Server Load Issues for Massively Multiplayer Online Games."

Business types, representing companies ranging from tech giants Sun Microsystems and Intel to start-ups so poorly funded they can't afford a booth, come here to woo the developers. Some seek to convince the code jockeys to use their hardware or software to work digital magic. For others, survival depends on convincing the developers to write support for their products into the games they create.

And when they have time to spare, some even try to pitch to the press. Here's some of the more striking ideas we heard:

• While everybody else was hyping plans for broadband online gaming, the man behind "Duke Nukem" was focusing on narrowband. Jim Perkins explained that his new Arush Entertainment venture will focus on games that can be downloaded easily over dial-up Internet connections.

"Broadband is great and I'm sure it will change gaming," Perkins said, "but it hasn't happened nearly as rapidly as everyone thought. We're making games for the way people get online now."

Games from Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Arush will be published episodically, with players downloading a free initial file of 10MB or so that contains the game software and the first level of the game. Additional levels are made available for downloading on a regular schedule for $5 each, and take up less than 2MB. Titles in the works include a new version of "Duke Nukem" and "Feeding Chloe," a redneck hunting game chock full of scatological humor.

The episodic approach allows the company to retool games or scrap them before spending a wad of cash on development--as opposed to the crapshoot of traditional game distribution, , Perkins said. "It's kind of like television," he said. "We can run pilot episodes and see what's popular and know when it makes sense to keep going with a project."

• Sony's Aibo robot dog is getting into the software business. New programs, written on Sony's Memory Stick format, turn the plastic hound into a dancing party pooch or let you train him from puppy to adult. Don't worry, though-no matter how badly you neglect Aibo, he won't turn into the robot equivalent of a Presa Canario killer canine.

"About the worst he'll do is get lazy or unresponsive," said Stuart Wallock, marketing director for Sony's robot entertainment division.

Coming up is AIBO Master Studio, a software package that lets owners write custom programs to control the dog's behavior. It will be a pricey alternative to obedience school, though. Plan on forking out $500 for the software and $200 for the wireless LAN card you'll need to feed the digital kibble to Aibo.

• A lot of now-defunct companies have tried to displace mice and joysticks, but New York-based Essential Reality thinks it has its thumb on what it takes to build a better input device. The company's P5 is a kind of skeletal glove that connects to a PC or USB-equipped game console. You move your hand around to move the cursor and replicate mouse clicks or joystick buttons by wiggling various fingers.

The company expects to have the $129 product on store shelves by September, and CEO David Devor is confident it won't meet the same fate as other would-be mouse killers. "This is what you're used to doing," he said. You're used to using your hand to point at things. As a kid, you were used to pointing your finger and yelling 'Bang!' Realistically, I don't think the learning curve for using this is much at all."

Initial marketing will focus on pitching the P5 to gamers, but Devor sees a multitude of good fits, from painting programs to 3D modeling software.

• One of the major competitive advantages Microsoft's Xbox console boasts is its beefy 8GB hard drive, while Sony is still working on an add-on hard drive for its PlayStation 2. But Iomega may help Sony buy some time in the storage race with software that will allow USB-equipped Zip drives to transfer data to and from the PS2.

Mike Conyers, senior manager of business development for Roy, Utah-based Iomega, said the software necessary to make standard 100MB Zip drives connect with the PS2 console is just about ready. Success depends on convincing developers to include Zip support in the game code they write, allowing users to save games and add levels and characters via Zip disk.

"We think it should be a pretty popular feature, because what our experience shows us is that people want portability," he said. "You want to save your games and take that to a friend's house. You can't do that with a hard drive."

• Monetize your own revenue stream by playing games for money. Moshpit Entertainment gives multiplayer online gaming a twist by offering prizes. Players pony up an entry fee, which becomes the prize money for the top-scoring gamer--after the publisher and Moshpit take their cut.

The approach, organizers explained, adds a fresh competitive buzz for online gamers and gives publishers an ongoing revenue stream. Best of all, it's totally jake with national gaming laws, since it involves games of skill, not chance.

Competition currently is limited to Moshpits's own first-person shooter, but they expect to add content from other publishers any time.