We'll just be honest from the get go, and say that online gaming in Australia has always been somewhat of a mess. The first real form of online gaming, the Multi User Dungeon (MUD), was originally banned in Australia due to excessive bandwidth consumption. PC online gaming was slow to take off, mainly due to a lack of servers, but as the Internet broke through into more homes, it took off like wildfire. Unfortunately, online console gaming hasn't seen any real success in Australia so far. When the Dreamcast was released in November 1999, one of its primary features was online gaming out of the box, thanks to the 33.6kbps modem built into the machine. As many of you would know, online play on the Dreamcast never got off the ground, thanks to the unholy alliance of Telstra and Ozisoft (now Atari Australia), as well as less than stellar sales of the machine. Online gaming is being touted as the way of the future by many developers, but we need to ask ourselves if we, as Australians, are in a position to actually care about the online transition.
Xbox vs. PS2: The New Age of Consoles
It's no secret that both Microsoft and Sony have made clear their intentions to take their respective consoles into the online arena. Both companies have had successful launches of their ranges in the United States, and moderately successful launches in Europe. Now both companies have their sights set on Australia as the next place to launch their online gaming services.
Unfortunately, these services aren't coming together too quickly. Sony has only just started to launch some semblance of support for its online network, about a year after it hit the United States. They were also in talks with Telstra to set up some sort of structure, but we've not heard anything for a while. Microsoft is also slow on the uptake in regards to introducing Xbox Live to Australia, with the official launch not due for another 3 weeks. On top of this, Microsoft has no intentions of providing local servers, opting to make Australian consumers play on American servers. Microsoft has hinted at the possibility of setting up servers in Australia, should Xbox Live be successful here, but we at PALGN do not believe this will be the case anytime soon.
To put it simply, Australia doesn't have the necessary broadband infrastructure required to make online gaming a factor this generation. In fact, out of the 44.5% of Australian households who are online, only 15% of that 44.5% are on broadband connections (Source: AC Nielsen). That equates to about a million households on broadband connections. After this, you must take into equation that there are about 280,000 Xbox owners, and 870,000 PS2 owners - and what % of those have broadband and the desire to play online. Not going to equate to a big turnout.
Developers need to produce more attractive online gaming packages to trap existing console owners with broadband into these online plans. Currently, online gaming on consoles is lacking the game loyalty that is prevalent on PCs - there's no equivalent of Half Life: Counter-strike on the consoles just yet. Players on online games tend to pitter out after about a month or two, mainly due to lack of interest on the behalf of those players. Better games = more subscribers = more players.
Telstra's dominance of the broadband industry is the other major factor blocking online console gaming from being an important factor. Australian broadband is the 7th highest in the world according to an ITU study, and we're second last in terms of penetration (for developed nations). Telstra's poor infrastructure is another factor stopping many potential broadband users from getting access, with over 800,000 homes reportedly interested in broadband, but being unable to obtain access due to being on a RIM or pair gain. Until Telstra upgrade their network to the point where universal broadband access is a possibility, online gaming on consoles will not be accessible to the masses.
All is not lost. According to the Nielsen study, broadband is growing at about 9% a year which would mean that by the launch of the next generation of consoles, online gaming in Australia might be a feasible option. There is some concern on our part that the lack of infrastructure provided by Telstra may lead to plateau in this growth, as they are allegedly refusing to activate more exchanges for ADSL. Deals for broadband are gradually becoming more and more attractive, with more free content, higher download quotas and cheaper prices being provided by most ADSL resellers. However, until broadband is available to a much larger proportion of houses in Australia, online gaming on consoles isn't going to be a big factor.