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Future looks good for online games

AUSTIN, TEX.--You're sitting in a coffee shop playing "Untold Legends" on your Sony PlayStation Portable when you get a message from some friends playing on their mobile phones while riding the subway in Tokyo.

You play with them for a while, but finally decide to go home. There, you decide you're not done, so you log on from your next-generation console and pick right back up where you left off--with the same character, in the same place and even with the same people.

Finally, it's bedtime, so you go to sleep, but the next day at work, your guild friends IM you and say they're going on a raid and that you have to help out.

So you fire up your PC and log back in again. You go on the raid, kill some monsters and then bid the friends adieu.

It sounds kind of decadent, and might not please your spouse or your boss, but if you're John Smedley, president of "EverQuest" and "Star Wars Galaxies" publisher Sony Online Entertainment, it's a future bright with profitable possibilities.

"What I've just described is how we see the real world evolving," Smedley said during a keynote address to several hundred Thursday morning at the Austin Games Conference here. "We want you to be able to log in in real time from any device."

Smedley's talk was called "The future of online gaming," and he used the stage to talk about how developers of massively multiplayer online games-–which he said can now cost more than $30 million to develop–-must evolve.

Essentially, he said, the key boils down to two things: games that can be played the world over, and the ability to play games across the many different platforms in use today and in the near future.

It's a new world, he explained. Game companies, which formerly shunned--officially at least-–the trading of virtual goods for real money are going to find such traffic profitable. Thus, they're going to have to change their tune if they want to keep up with game companies that do incorporate such trading into games, as well as with companies whose entire business is facilitating such trades.

In any case, with next-generation platforms coming from Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft, and with cell phones having excellent graphics and portable game devices popping up everywhere, publishers are going to have to evolve, Smedley said. Or they'll go the way of an orc getting slain by a group of better-prepared fighters.