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Week in review: Games a-go-go

Whether they're using a high-end video game console, or playing on Facebook or an iPhone, these days everyone's a gamer, a notion emphasized at this week's Game Developers Conference. Also: Facebook adapts to user demands.

These days, everyone's a gamer. If not a traditionalist firing away at bad guys through a high-end video game console and large TV, he or she might just be in an ongoing Scrabble duel with a Facebook friend or hooked on an addictive iPhone game like ReMovem.

Nowhere was this notion of the mainstreaming of gaming more pronounced than at this week's Game Developers Conference, the massive gathering of which some consider all themore critical to the industry this year, given market forces. Sure, the video game industry is growing and some say it's even recession-resistant, but it hasn't escaped the wrath of the downturn entirely, with a series of recent studio closings, and layoffs and killed projects at even the strongest console manufacturers and biggest game publishers.

While Nintendo's Wii continues to outpace expectations, and certain games are making fortunes for their publishers, a strong argument can be made that the hottest segment of the video games industry is one that is still in its infancy: social games.

These titles, which are popping up by the bushelful on platforms like Facebook and MySpace, as well as on Apple's iPhone, are garnering user numbers that would previously have been thought impossible.

At GDC on Thursday, Kristian Segerstrale, the CEO and co-founder of PlayFish, one of the most successful publishers of social games stated his case for how the mainstream video games industry can learn from his side of the business.

Among other assertions, Segerstrale argued that while the nature of the social games business differs significantly from that followed for many years by the more traditional, retail-oriented publishers, times are changing, customers' behaviors and expectations are shifting rapidly, and the winning model may well be the new one.

The monetization comes when a social game publisher figures out how to attract a sizable audience and convince many of those people to engage in relatively cheap microtransactions for any number of things: level-ups, game gear, music, or whatever is on offer. Advertising is also a possible revenue producer.

In another threat to the likes of the Xbox, PS3, and Wii, a start-up called OnLive announced a brand-new game distribution system Monday night that, if it works as planned, could change the games industry forever.

OnLive, which was started by WebTV founder Steve Perlman and former Eidos CEO Mike McGarvey, is aiming to launch a system--seven years in the works--that will digitally distribute first-run, AAA games from publishers like Electronic Arts, Take-Two, Ubisoft, Atari, and others at the same time that those titles are released into retail channels. The system is designed to allow players to stream on-demand games at the highest quality onto any Intel-based Mac or PC running XP or Vista, regardless of how powerful the computer is.

The system will also stream games directly to a TV via a small plug-in device, and players can use a custom wireless controller as well as VoIP headsets in conjunction with it.

Meanwhile, EA Mobile is making a big bet on the iPhone and iPod Touch, announcing plans this week to port more than a dozen of its most popular games to Apple's gadgets.

EA Mobile's Travis Boatman--who's appeared onstage at Apple's last two iPhone software events--announced this news during a keynote address at GDC. At some point this year, EA Mobile will release versions of franchises like Madden NFL, Wolfenstein, Command and Conquer, and NBA Live, according to PocketGamer.

Gaming continues to be one of the most active areas of Apple's App Store, and game developers at GDC flocked to sessions regarding the iPhone--conference organizers were forced to turn away late-arriving attendees to some sessions.

Also at GDC, Nintendo President Satoru Iwata revved up a packed house at his opening keynote address, but his revelations were limited to three new games and a new storage infrastructure for the Wii virtual console.

The games included Rhythm Heaven, an American version of a rhythm game for the Nintendo DS that Iwata said had already sold 1.7 million copies in Japan; a new Wii Ware game called Rock 'n Roll Climber that lets players use their Wii controllers and a Wii Balance Board to simulate the motions of climbing a rock wall; and a new Zelda title for the DS called The Legend of Zelda: Spirit.

Google also got in on the GDC action by unveiling the latest addition to its iGoogle start page service: a collection of themes designed by video game publishers.

The search giant has partnered with nine publishers to come up with about two dozen themes from recent games such as Electronic Arts' Spore to arcade classics such as Galaga.

And finally, at GDC Friday, engineers spelled out the inner workings and target markets for Larrabee, Intel's first graphics chip in over a decade.

Marissa Mayer, Google's vice president of search products and user experience, announced the new set of themes at a GDC event, then hosted a panel of gaming personalities, including Capcom producer Yoshinori Ono, and Charles Huang, co-founder of RedOctane, which makes Guitar Hero.

Among the topics discussed was how the Web had changed gaming development. The general answer was that game developers and publishers alike are getting much more feedback during the development process, in part from increasingly simpler ways to aggregate information from blogs and message boards, as well as public beta programs.

Huang also noted that user-generated content created inside of games has been on a sharp rise, as witnessed by the number of user-designed tracks that have been created and downloaded in the latest Guitar Hero title; the figure now tops 10 million.

Getting social
Social networks, for their part, also managed to grab quite a few of the week's headlines. Facebook, for example, after being deluged with mostly negative feedback about its new layout, announced it's making a handful of changes to appease the outraged masses.

"Over time, we'll continue to give you more control over what's in your main stream and how you consume it, wrote Product Director Christopher Cox in a blog post Tuesday. "We have the eventual goal of building filters that summarize this activity so you can see a more condensed view of what's been going on. We're also thinking about ways of filtering out some of the Wall posts and content directed to specific people to focus more on posts shared with everyone."

Among the changes already in the works is live updating, which gives users the ability to turn on auto-updating so they don't have to refresh the page to see what's new.

And on the security front, Facebook has changed the way its password reset tool works so that it does not easily verify e-mail addresses to potential spammers, after CNET News contacted it with concerns from an Israeli security expert.

A company representative also says that Facebook has been "looking at" the possibility of building in a virtual currency, but his language was about as ambiguous as it gets.

Later in the week, during a Q&A session at the Global Technology Symposium held Thursday at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said the company's still not sure why the recent redesign process irked so many of the Web site's users.

"In terms of what went wrong with the redesign, we don't know yet." But she added that the percentage of users giving the redesign a thumbs-down was smaller than previous changes to the site.

"As a percentage of our users, this one is much less than before," she said. She also offered a backhanded compliment to Twitter, the microblogging site that Facebook considered buying last year.

"What's interesting about Twitter is that they are a very good company doing one thing very well, which is real-time update," she said. "We are, by far, the largest photo-sharing site on the Web...Similarly, we are larger at doing what Twitter does. We think what they're doing is good. Our redesign is not in reference to them--nor was our redesign in reference to Flickr."

Speaking of which, Twitter and online advertising company Federated Media earlier this week rolled out ExecTweets, a Microsoft-sponsored site featuring Twitter feeds from "top business execs."

But CNET's Rafe Needleman quickly pointed out that this is not the mythical revenue model we're waiting to see from Twitter. It can't be. It's just one of those oddball content partnership sites that will look interesting for a while but probably fade away as the Microsoft contract to sponsor it runs down.

Twitter still has not announced a business model, Needleman later continued. There are no Pro Twitter accounts. There is no TwitterWords advertising program. You still can't buy plush toy Fail Whales from Twitter. But that's OK, he says. "There is rich value inside Twitter, and I do believe the company can afford to take its time to find the good ways to extract it."

Net news
Internet service providers this week started coming forward about agreeing to work with the recording industry to battle illegal file sharing.

Joe Waz, a senior vice president at Comcast, the nation's second largest ISP, told a gathering of music industry executives that the company has issued 2 million notices on behalf of copyright owners, according to multiple people who were in attendance.

Comcast said Wednesday afternoon that the notices Waz referred to were part of the company's standard practice and not a new policy.

"Comcast, like other major ISPs, forwards notices of alleged infringement that we receive from music, movie, videogame, and other content owners to our customers," Comcast said in a statement. "This is the same process we've had in place for years--nothing has changed. While we have always supported copyright holders in their efforts to reduce piracy under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), and continue to do so, we have no plans to test a so-called 'three-strikes-and-you're-out' policy."

Waz made the comments Tuesday while part of a panel at the Leadership Music Digital Summit in Nashville. This was the same event where an AT&T executive told the gathering that it was cooperating with the Recording Industry Association of America by sending notices to customers accused of illegal filing sharing. The letters are part of a trial program, the executive told the audience. That exec, Jim Cicconi, later clarified that there will never be disruptions of service as a result.

In addition, sources confirmed that Cox Communications is also assisting the RIAA in the group's new campaign to use ISPs to help discourage consumers from pirating songs.

In other Internet-related news, Google now believes there's a financial incentive for companies to support the next-gen Internet standard, IPv6. And Google itself could profit.

The big advantage IPv6 has over IPv4 is the number of unique addresses it can accommodate--4.3 billion for IPv4 compared to about 34,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 for IPv6. Although 4.3 billion may sound like a lot, addresses are often allocated in large blocks that mean many aren't generally available, and expert estimates forecast an end to new IPv4 addresses in 2011.

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