Generation Gamer: Life Plugged In -- Exploring today's video gaming industry

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by CHARLES TRILLINGHAM / NWCN

NWCN.com

Posted on December 13, 2011 at 9:00 PM

Updated Wednesday, Dec 14 at 4:21 PM

SEATTLE – So long Pong.

Today's video game fan plugs in on the go, and players come in all shapes and ages.

"Technology is no longer just this box that sits across the room from you," said lockergnome.com's Chris Pirillio. "Technology is everywhere, and games are everywhere."

According to recent NPD Group research, 91 percent of children ages 2-17 are gaming in the U.S., but the Entertainment Software Association reports the average age of today's gamer is 37, and the average age of today's game buyer is 41.

"Now gamers are everyone, younger people, older people, the majority of gamers are women now," said Zipline CEO Todd Hooper, "so you"re seeing this really broad adoption mainly because people have phones with them all the time."

Companies like Zipline, Z2Live, and even more social gaming giants like Pop Cap Games, Big Fish and GameHouse see the online and mobile market as exploding with opportunity.

"If you can leverage something, somebody already knows, one of our brands that have been around already for ten years," GameHouse President Matt Hulett explained, "and put that in the right place and run it correctly on Facebook, or on an iOS device like the iPhone or iPad, you can actually reach a huge audience that already wants to play those games."

Despite the growing success of upstart mobile and online game companies, the industry giants, Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony aren't exactly sleeping on the job.

All three are turning their consoles into complete home entertainment devices. Microsoft's Xbox LIVE service now offers live television and voice control through Kinect.
 
Sony is expanding its Playstation Home service for the PS3 and taking portable to the next level with Vita.

And Nintendo will be the first to roll out another next generation console, with the debut of Wii U in 2012.

"We use the terms surprise and delight," said Nintendo Director of Corporate Corporations Charlie Scibetta. "How can you bring something to people that they've never experienced before, never even thought about before, so that's where our future is."

Valve co-founder Gabe Newell said the growth is incredible.

"In some industries it's possible to think of, you know, a company being separate from its customers, and video games it really doesn't work that way," said Newell. "The rate of change seems to be picking up, and that's both terrifying, and exhilarating." 

The video game industry is also giving back in ways that might surprise you. The University of Washington recently created a game called "Foldit" that, as gamers played, generated data that lead to the discovery of proteins that could one day help cure AIDS.

And at the University of Utah, a group of professors, engineers and students created a Playstation 3 Move game that helps kids battling cancer improve their quality of life, and get exercise.

"What the kids see is a superhero, who's sort of been damaged fighting his arch-nemesis, so they take the role of this superhero, and they have to save a town, and go through all these various activities rescuing townspeople, and each time he does something special for them, he gets a little bit healthier," said Utah professor Roger Altizer.  "So the idea is as the kids participate in this physical activity, they can both see the superhero getting healthier, and they can feel like they are getting healthier as well."

It doesn't stop there. Charitable giving by industry leaders is rising at an incredible rate, lead by the efforts of the Child's Play charity in Seattle, which helps kids getting treated in hospitals around the country and world.

"It started with Seattle's Childrens hospital, and now we have 70 facilities that we benefit," says Child's Play project manager Jamie Dillion. "Getting the toys to the kids, that's a reward in itself."

Various online promotions have popped up as well, the most popular being Humble Bundle. The idea is simple. Gamers agree to pay whatever they want, whether it's a penny or a thousand dollars, in return for several independently produced games, and along the way, they decide how much of their money goes to charity or other options.

"They know that games have helped them through tough times," said Richard Esguerra, Humble Bundle Advocate. "Gaming is a great interactive hobby, it's actually very social, and we can do good with it."

Blue's News editor-in-chief Stephen Heaslip, who has covered the industry online since the 1990s, asaid the technology out there allows anyone to be a gamer, whether they identify with that tag or not.

"For every multi-million dollar production like a Call of Duty game, there are more and more, hundreds of little $1.99 apps on the app stores and other web based games," said Heaslip, "that are very small, and light, and simple, and more accessible."

One key area of growth most developers point to is the rise of Facebook as the dominant social media platform.

"Social gaming is a huge category that has been growing like wildfire, over the last four or five years," said DoubleDown Interactive CEO Greg Enell. "With Facebook and their 700 million users, they have provided a massive audience by which we can go in and drop a game and put a lot of fun multiplayer social features into the game, so as people are playing they can interact with one another."

There's also been growth in games that are anything but normal, like Mindbloom.  It's an interactive experience that plays like a game combined with social media with the goal of balancing ones personal and professional life.

"When we started Mindbloom, Wii Fit had just come out, and it proved that people wanted a more engaging way to improve their health," said Mindbloom executive producer Chris Hewett.

But what about the core market of gamers? 

Bellevue-Based developer Sucker Punch games works exclusively with Sony's Playstation, and says we won't see an end to the highly immersive style of games anytime soon.

"What you see is really just the broadening of the thing we love, which is gaming to a much wider market," said Sucker Punch co-founder Brian Fleming.  "There's an incredible set of choices for players, and I think our job as entertainers is just to make sure we put good product in the channel and let people tell us how we"re doing."

Video game pioneer Richard Garriott compared the current time to a sort of video game renaissance.

"It's still like the Wild West," said Garriott. "There's still a lot of very fresh and new thinking, and new companies coming into being."

For more on the growth of the video game industry, be sure to tune into the Northwest Cable News special "Generation Gamer: Life Plugged In" airing Tuesday, December 13th at 7:30 p.m., 8:30 p.m., and 10:30 p.m., as well as Christmas Eve at 3 p.m., and Christmas Day at 11 a.m., and 2 p.m.  A very special encore presentation will also air Monday, January 2nd at 5 p.m.  Or click the video links above to watch the special in its entirety.

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