Broadband breaking all frontiers for far-out gamers

My last column discussed the need for a line of technology products for those older than 50 (“curmudgeonware”). This time let’s go to the opposite end of the spectrum and talk about what new-genre games are going to do for the communications industry.

In case Pong was the last game you played, let me tell you how important this segment is: big. Global game software is growing at 16 per cent per year worldwide and is a US$15-billion business in the United States; 35 per cent of U.S. cell phone users are playing games and the market is growing at 100 per cent per year. In June, Viacom bought NeoPets, a site where users can adopt virtual pets, for US$160 million.

But what’s more interesting is where games are going. Nintendo is coming with a new clicker that knows where you and your hands are — imagine boxing with Muhammad Ali or playing tennis with Steffi Graf. Now imagine that your kid can win points by boxing with another 10-year-old in a virtual Golden Gloves championship.

The big issue: broadband. Broadband will do more for the game industry than narrowband did for eBay. Today your kid plays with a LeapFrog. Tomorrow — virtual leapfrog with Michael Jordan.

Now the advertisers want in. Want to play the next-generation version of Electronic Arts’ Madden Football? Budweiser will have its signage on the scoreboard…and pay for that. Want to ride the Tour de France on Lance Armstrong’s team? His and your jerseys may carry an ad for the Discovery Channel.

We are seeing the convergence of games and physical activity. Dance Dance Revolution is now installed in 24-hour fitness gyms and has sold three million units. The advertisers even want to have different kinds of ads for different types of users. Let’s face it, the communications industry could use some steroid growth — cell phones have reached saturation, so what is going to drive up minutes of use? Games.

What will developers come up with when virtually every home has broadband? Just like when every time Intel came up with a faster chip Microsoft found a way to use that power, game developers are jumping on broadband and using all that communications capability to totally involve you in games that are challenging, entertaining…and addictive.

Where does all this go? Imagine a game that uses all your senses, where you are totally involved and part of your status is your relative ranking. Imagine a game like Star Trek, where you take control of the Enterprise and your physical actions control the story.

Do you win the laser sword fight? Then the action moves one way. Do you challenge Spock? Then the ending changes — except the game never ends.

Instead of playing Rotisserie football, how would you like to be the starting quarterback for the New England Patriots, where your quarterback score improves with your throwing expertise, where you had better learn the plays or you are going to be sacked.

I almost can’t wait until the pornographers get hold of this. The early success of AOL was based on its explicit chat rooms. Now, fast forward to 2009 — where virtual reality and physical activity coincide.

Don’t laugh: many of the major revolutions in consumer behaviour were driven by sexually explicit programming. Video rental stores, before Blockbuster, had a back room where you could rent X-rated videos. Once that market jump-started purchases of home VCRs, then the rest of the movie industry provided programming.

It costs up to US$10 million to develop a first-rate interactive game, but there is a whole category of casual games that will pop up. Club Pogo from Electronic Arts has one million paying subscribers. Games build loyalty and return customers. Second Life is free to play, but users buy and pay upkeep on virtual land. The game is entirely driven by user-generated content. It has users actually living off their game income, just like some eBay vendors.

The real and virtual worlds have collided. See you in cyberspace.

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–Anderson is the founder of The Yankee Group and YankeeTek, and a cofounder of Battery Ventures. He lectures on technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and speaks on technology subjects at meetings across the country. He can be reached