Q-Games

I still have vague Kodachrome memories of playing my first video game. The "game" was one of those early refrigerator-sized Space Invader machines, which probably dates the event to the mid-70s. The beast suddenly appeared in a corner of the local burger bar one day - and that was about it for a while - everyone seemed afraid to take it on. I guess the whole thing was just a bit too Star Trek for small town New Zealand.
by Kym Hutcheon

But the other kids figured out what it was pretty quickly, and after that the machine saw regular use. I eventually got up the nerve to try it out, but somehow it didn't really set me on fire, and this is basically how it has been ever since. I'd like to think that I've evolved into a fairly IT-literate citizen of the modern age, but I just don't seem to be programmed for the video game experience.

Likewise, if my profile for readers of this magazine is correct, you probably feel the same. USA Today tech columnist Kevin Maney summed things up pretty succinctly when he wrote, "[I]f you're over 35, chances are you view video games as, at best, an occasional distraction...If you're under 35, games are a major entertainment and a part of life."

You can debate the choice of 35 as the cut-off, but the fact is that, as with other tech waves, a cut-off definitely exists. A cut-off clearly requires some readjustment because video games have long since migrated from antisocial behavior to mainstream money-spinner. The international game industry is now valued at around 28 billion dollars, and this does not factor in highly lucrative spin-offs such as movies, television programs, and sound tracks.

The prediction is also that the industry will expand by about 10 percent over the next four years. Or at least this is the fervent hope of the three leading hardware makers, Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo, each of which has a significant chunk of its corporate future invested in a next-generation console release.

So if it is not kids in burger bars, who actually plays these games? The 2005 market survey issued by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), the U.S. industry's largest lobby group, makes for surprising reading. The report claims that the average age of gamers is now 30, with 19 percent of players over 50. Seventy-five percent of these people are heads of households. These figures are also largely corroborated by research in other countries - with the possible exception of Japan.

Statistics for the Japanese market are a guesstimate. For reasons that remain opaque, the country has no representative body like the ESA to supply data, and what figures are available can be misleading. For example, rather than actual units sold, most "sales" stats refer to units shipped (and still potentially sitting on shelves).

Localized Content
With the local industry such a closed shop, it is a joy to meet Dylan Cuthbert and the Q-Games team. Dylan established Q-Games in 2001 as an independent development studio after departing Sony Computer Entertainment Japan. Fortunately, the separation was fully amicable, and Q-Games now handles R&D projects for Sony, with past credits including the demo for the launch of its PlayStation Portable in 2004.

This in itself is unique, but the story becomes even more readable when you learn that Q-Games also develops content for Nintendo, the company that originally lured Dylan away from high school in England for his first stint in Japan. In fact, as you read this, Q-Games should be bracing itself for new glories, with two releases due for Nintendo this autumn.

The first of the releases is for the evergreen GameBoy, Nintendo's latest handheld platform, the Nintendo DS, another potential mega-seller, as explained later.

On the surface, serving two head-to-head competitors would seem like a greasy tightrope to walk, but Dylan explains his time at both companies bequeathed the personal connections that have made this possible. These relationships are essential in Japan, where there are few independent studios and most development is undertaken internally by Sony, Nintendo, Capcom, Konami and the other big players.

Clearly the formula works. From a starting lineup of three, Q-Games has grown to employ an international staff of over 20. Perhaps this success also has something to do with the special way the company's home base, Kyoto, weds the traditional and the high tech. Dylan claims the city's "real Japan" feel filters through into Q-Games' work. And where else could a maker of traditional Japanese playing cards reinvent itself as a creator of video games, as Nintendo did so spectacularly?

Despite the city's reputation for turning a cold flank to "outsiders," Dylan says he found it surprisingly easy to set up here, although he acknowledges having a Japanese partner helped considerably. This doesn't mean that Dylan necessarily always follows local "traditions." He remembers fighting, vigorously, with one of Kyoto's notoriously exploitive estate agents to win back bond money when Q-Games moved to its current premises.

On the other hand, Dylan's approach has subjected his Japanese employees to stress. These problems are often the result of differing expectations and can manifest subtly. For example, Japanese initially attracted by the flatter personal relations structure of a Western-style company, particularly a creative enterprise, can later flounder without the vertical network they are used to.

Then again, "floundering" seems a professional hazard in the game industry. Completion of a single project typically takes around two years, during which time it is, as Dylan says, a challenge to "keep quality and artistic senses on the bleeding edge." This long lead-time has proven fatal for many developers that have either failed to track their cash flow or to produce the goods necessary to secure a new project when the current funding abruptly cuts out.

Game On
Resolving the boom-and-bust cycle inherent in games creation may well be the main factor determining Q-Games' longevity. Dylan's solution is to double operational capacity to around 40 staff to allow the development of two games in parallel, but staggered one year apart. And with the boost in name value from the launch of their two games for Nintendo in the next few months, 2006 could be the year Q-Games' business booms.

However, as with any entertainment offering, video games are subject to public whim. In the past, Q-Games has passed up project offers from Microsoft, opting to go with Sony and Nintendo instead. The decision to go with the domestic developers has proved prescient, given the lukewarm reception of Microsoft's Xbox 360 and the success of Nintendo's portable DS console in the Japanese market.

The Nintendo DS has been perpetually sold out in Japan since its release, mainly due to the sudden surge in popularity of its Brain Training and other new genres of games. This type of software has been a smash hit, especially with older people, who see it less as a video game and more as a way to stave off degenerative mental diseases such as Alzheimer's. This augurs well not only for the prospects of Nintendo's new Revolution console, but for the future of the industry as a whole. While Microsoft and Sony may have concentrated on beefing up existing functionality with their new machines, they are also probably quietly hoping the Revolution can expand the market. With the core teen and 20-something male segments approaching saturation, they clearly need new gamers - especially with the rising challenge from cellular phones and non-dedicated players.

Image Problem
Unfortunately, though, gaming has an image problem: It is largely seen as something for the boys. Confesses ESA President Doug Lowenstein, "Our own industry, mainly through our marketing practices, reinforces the stereotype that most gamers are men." That translates as lost revenues. It may also be stereotyping to assume females don't want to play kill, pillage, destroy games like the lads' favorite "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas." Then again, perhaps not.

"Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" is probably the prime example of the dangers of this excess testosterone. In 2005, its developers decided to add a little spice to the title by mixing in hidden sex scenes. The raunchy bits stayed secret for about 10 seconds, and the resulting fall-out had concerned citizens in the United States baying for stricter censorship laws. Coincidentally, this charge was led by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is perhaps contemplating a run for president in the 2008 election.

Reassuringly, amid all this virtual madness, some voices of possible reason remain - like our man Dylan, who believes that when creating a video game, "the point is to give people an escape from daily life. Games should be purely fun." If you share this philosophy, the Q-Games team is, in fact, currently seeking like-minded individuals to join them on their corporate mission "to create the game of the future. JI

Check the Q-Games Website (www.q-games.com) or e-mail Duncan Flett at duncan@q-games.com for the fine print.

It may be stereotyping to assume females don't want tp play kill, pillage, destroy games like the lads' favorite "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas."

Console Wars
If it's not already, the term 'game console' may soon become something of a misnomer. The trend started at the end of 2005 when Microsoft launched its next-gen Xbox 360 machine. Microsoft has loaded the 360 with extra functions and is investing heavily in marketing it as a hub for home entertainment networks - a concept it must establish if its current push to reposition as a consumer electronics hard/software maker is to be successful.

Things will become even more interesting once Nintendo's Revolution and Sony's PlayStation 3 finally hit the market. The Revolution promises to redefine the way games are played, floating a raft of new non-game applications, while PS3 is expected to significantly push the envelope on computer sound and graphics. Sony, in particular, will be hoping for a big win with its console to brighten dimming corporate fortunes.

Xbox 360
Apart from its processing power, the main draws of the new Xbox are its (optional) wireless receiver and hard drive. With this receiver, the 360 can communicate directly with a home PC, giving it access to a wide range of Internet content. The feature really starts to have meaning when linked with the new hard drive, which allows downloaded material to be routed to, for example, a home theater system.

There are definite limits on functionality at present (and, anyway, who has the required Media Center Edition of Windows?) but the potential is huge. Even if Microsoft hasn't got the hub thing fully working, the 360 still boasts the impressive Xbox Live service. This currently allows subscribers to talk together via the console, and there are also plans to introduce a video chat option.

Revolution
The key feature of the Revolution is its wireless hand-held controller. Instead of pushing buttons, gamers direct the on-screen action by pointing the device and moving it around. Although it looks basically like a TV remote, demos of the unit have shown it to be extremely precise, allowing players to conduct an orchestra, practice fishingノ and also, of course, shoot and stab things.

The sales potential of the new Revolution technology is wide and deep. As well as ushering in a whole new genre of games appealing to currently under-represented demographics such as the female and mature segments, the console is expected to open up the development of applications for use in education, sports, job training and even physical rehabilitation.

PlayStation 3
Much of the pump surrounding PS3 centers on its Blu-ray disc format and awesome processing power. The word is these two features give the new machine roughly 250 times more muscle than PS2, allowing it to produce visuals akin to high-end special effects. Of course, you will need an HD TV to fully appreciate this clarity, but the improvement will be obvious even on a standard screen.

Sony is also expected to challenge Microsoft's Xbox Live by offering its own integrated network service with PS3. This new feature will probably, in fact, significantly one-up MS. Any such service should allow connection with the PlayStation Portable, thereby providing remote access to music, movies and other content stored on PS3 while on the move. JI

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