Playing for keeps
By Jason HillNovember 17, 2005
Electronic games were once confined to children's bedrooms, but in just 10 years the gaming industry has been transformed into a mass-market entertainment behemoth. Three-quarters of all Australian households now have a device for playing computer or console games. In a decade, Australian annual spending on gaming products has risen from $90 million to $850 million.
A comprehensive new study on Australian game-playing habits and opinions by Bond University has found that the average gamer is 24 years old and 38 per cent are female. As testimony to the popularity of interactive entertainment, 70 per cent of gamers play at least once a week and more than half believe they will continue to play as often in 10 years' time.
Games are an accepted part of everyday Australian life. About 78 per cent of adults in game-playing households say games are educational and 58 per cent see them as a social activity.
"The report proves beyond a doubt that video gaming is not just for children and is no longer the domain of only boys and men," Interactive Entertainment Association of Australia president John Watts says. "Video gaming is something the majority of Australian households partake in on a regular basis."
Games industry analyst Matthew Liebmann, of PricewaterhouseCoopers, says the research demonstrates interactive games are now mainstream entertainment.
"Any lingering stereotypes of this being entertainment solely for teenage boys are outdated and incorrect," he says. "We expect some further growth in the average age because gamers are increasingly less likely to churn out of interactive gaming."
PlayStation, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary in Australia this week, has been instrumental in the gaming market's growth. Sony has sold more than 4 million consoles in Australia, including 2.5 million PlayStations and 1.8 million PlayStation 2s.
Worldwide, the 102 million PlayStations and 96 million PS2s sold dwarf the global sales of iPod (28 million), a product regularly labelled as representing the entertainment zeitgeist.
Using astute marketing and relevant games, Sony has helped make gaming cool and attracted millions of new players, opening up the young adult market, which was virtually untapped. The Entertainment Software Association now estimates annual worldwide game sales are more than $38 billion.
Dr Jeffrey Brand, associate professor in communication and media at Bond University, says that for many adults, "PlayStation re-ignited our imagination with video games".
"The introduction of hip music (Wipeout), iconic characters (Crash Bandicoot), adult male appeal (Lara Croft) and an easy hand controller with vibration feedback all worked together to create a sense that the future of entertainment would soon be upon us."
Dr Andrew Stapleton, a game researcher at Swinburne University of Technology, says PlayStation succeeded because it offered compelling technology at the right price and a wide range of games. Globally, more than 8500 PlayStation-branded games have been released.
"Sony marketed very aggressively and could draw on its brand awareness as a maker of quality consumer electronics," Stapleton says. "These factors - price, technology and marketing - meant it was very attractive to game developers."
Sony was a rank underdog when it first announced plans to enter the video games business - and still remains unpopular with some dedicated gamers. With no experience, analysts gave the Japanese electronics firm little hope of taking on Sega and Nintendo at their own game.
It was Nintendo that aroused Sony's interest in electronic games after forging a partnership to develop a CD add-on for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System.
Nintendo ended the relationship just a day after the first PlayStation prototype was revealed at Chicago's Consumer Electronics Show in 1991. Despite the embarrassing setback, Sony pursued the PlayStation project alone, with a different device eventually making its Japanese debut three years later.
A key decision was designing PlayStation's processing power to specialise in shifting three-dimensional "polygons" rather than the 2D graphics that had defined previous generations of video games. The CD format would also prove crucial, enabling high-quality music soundtracks and cheap manufacturing compared to expensive cartridges.
PlayStation was launched in Australia on November 15, 1995, for an intimidating $699. In contrast to previous game marketing aimed at children, Sony's advertising campaign targeted young men with disposable incomes.
Games such as Wipeout, a futuristic racer, with techno music from leading dance bands, and 3D fighter Tekken, helped define PlayStation's cool street image. Later titles such as schlock-horror adventure Resident Evil and realistic driving simulation Gran Turismo also attracted many adults.
Despite solid early sales and a catalogue of popular arcade games such as Daytona and Virtua Fighter, competitor Sega Saturn had a short life.
By the time another PlayStation rival, the Nintendo 64, was launched in 1997, Sony had sold 11 million consoles worldwide and dropped PlayStation's Australian price to $299, further boosting sales.
PlayStation 2 was launched locally in November 2000 for $749. Sales were initially slow but PS2 has since enjoyed a 75 per cent market share against the technologically superior Microsoft Xbox and Nintendo GameCube in Australia and Europe. Sega, the market leader a decade ago, no longer makes consoles after being muscled out.
Building on its brand strength, Sony used new hardware toys to widen PS2's audience. The EyeToy digital camera series let players wave their hands to interact with the on-screen action, and the microphone-equipped SingStar karaoke games attracted many women.
Both the original PlayStation and PS2 had technically superior competitors, yet are an example of how the best technology does not always dominate, according to Swinburne University of Technology lecturer Dr Mark Finn. "Sony has very deep pockets for marketing its product as well as the ability to draw on its music and film companies for licensed content," he says.
"Over time, Sony was able to convince the public that gaming wasn't just for geeks and nerds by associating relatively cool activities like skateboarding with the platform.
"The wider audience (then) came to associate gaming with the Sony brand."
Kazunori Yamauchi, creator of Gran Turismo and a member of the original PlayStation design team, says: "When we started the PlayStation format our most important objective was to make games cool."
But other game developers remain surprised at PlayStation's success and the growth of the industry.
Clemens Wangerin, a studio director who worked on Wipeout, says: "I don't think anyone envisioned the explosive growth that our industry has seen in the past
10 years and the mass market's adoption of gaming as one of their favourite pastimes."
Evan Wells, creative director at Naughty Dog, developer of Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter, says when he started in the games industry "it was definitely still seen as a very geeky pursuit".
"Now, when you are at a party or a bar and the topic of jobs comes up, being in the games industry definitely gets a lot of respect. PlayStation is responsible for making playing games cool."
Ted Price, chief executive officer of Insomniac, the creator of Spyro and Ratchet and Clank, says PlayStation accelerated the shift from toys to mainstream fare. "But back then, I don't think it was apparent to anyone how huge the industry was going to become."
David Jaffe, creator of Twisted Metal and God of War, says PlayStation's best achievement is "moving games into the mainstream. Since I started back in 1993, Sony always has talked about games as being as important a medium as film".
Yoshiki Okamoto, creator of Street Fighter II and Devil May Cry, describes PlayStation as "revolutionary - PlayStation has changed gaming, distribution, sales, image and more".
But despite PlayStation's success, Sony's lead in such a fast-changing industry is not assured. Ensuring next year's PlayStation 3 is as successful as its predecessors will be difficult.
Microsoft will be first to release a "next-generation" console in Australia early next year after building a solid foundation of Xbox fans. Xbox 360 is a powerful console with an excellent online service and broad multimedia capabilities.
Nintendo also plans to release its innovative "Revolution" console next year. Eschewing the traditional joypad, Revolution uses motion sensor controllers waved in the air as with swords or musical batons.
Bond University's GamePlay Australia 2005 study revealed more than 50 per cent of Australian gamers plan to buy a new console in the next two years.
"I see games heading towards being interactive movies," says a 35-year-old Melbourne man surveyed in the study.
"You can choose a character and instead of putting up with some Hollywood scriptwriter's ideas of what to do, you do it yourself. I think its going to get better and better and more lifelike."