When most marketers talk about the future of the Internet, two subjects dominate: broadband and convergence. Broadband promises rich, streaming content into (and, hopefully, out of) the home. Convergence means that many of our everyday appliances, including the TV, will be transformed by the enormous power of the Internet.
Imagine a future where the majority of Americans regularly interact with each other in engaging, highly stimulating computer-generated environments, many of which are connected to the Internet. Imagine a time when millions of us amuse ourselves with small hand-held devices with complex inputs, color screens, and rich, entertaining content.
The future is already here, and it’s video games.
Most of us ignore a powerful transformation going on right under our noses. Video games are conditioning successive generations of people to expect, and enjoy, rich interaction with computer worlds. And the video game experience of narrative, 3D graphics, and artificial, compelling environments is already becoming part of the way people use the Internet.
This type of experience will soon be part of the way we think about marketing and commerce on the Internet. Already, advertising adorns the virtual walls of sports arenas. What about when marketing moves beyond banners to become part of interactive environments in which people socialize and shop?
According to a recent study, 60 percent of Americans play video games on a regular basis, and most of them are older than 18. Some even say that certain demographic groups, like boys in their early teens, spend more time with video games than with any other medium. Video games are a $9 billion industry, expected to grow to $23 billion in three years, competing directly with the motion picture industry for entertainment dollars.
Much has been made of the power that the Internet gives us to get the information we want, when we want it. But video games bring in a new dimension of control. With the near-TV graphics available on this generation of video game consoles, electronic media is being transformed from a passive to an active experience.
This transformation goes well beyond downloading web pages. On a console or PC video game, instead of watching an actor have an adventure, players can explore beautifully rendered computer worlds on their own (and with their friends). Instead of watching an NBA game, people can control their favorite players and compete against people across the country.
These experiences are highly social, and, more and more, they are happening over an Internet connection. On the PC, games like Ultima Online have attracted millions of paying customers. And last month, Sega.com launched SegaNet, which is a dedicated, narrowband network for online gaming, chat, tournaments, cheat codes, etc. Beta reviewers say that playing games on SegaNet with people across the country has the smoothly rendered experience of playing with someone in your living room.
This month, Sony is releasing PlayStation 2 in the United States, which offers a huge leap in computing power and gaming experience. In Japan, Sony sold two million units in less than three months, and without question will be met by huge demand in the United States.
But Sony is hoping PlayStation 2 will be more than a category killer; with DVD-playing capabilities and USB and FireWire ports out of the box, Sony hopes the PlayStation 2 will be a convergence device that will be the nexus for interactivity and the Internet.
It remains to be seen whether this generation of video consoles or PC games will expand its scope into information, commerce, and broadly relevant entertainment. But sometime in the near future, the interactivity and rich experiences offered by video games will no doubt become part of every user’s Internet experience.
The next time you see a little kid banging away on a Game Boy, or a roomful of grown adolescents shouting over a computer game, watch carefully. You are looking at the Internet’s future.