It’s been a while in the making, but broadband seems to have finally made it to the digital hub of Europe for residential users and small companies. This opens up an array of opportunities for the consumer market as both Eircom and Esat BT hope that DSL will take off quickly. There has been a recent advertising push for consumer broadband, with Eircom’s residential iStream currently available, and Esat BT’s broadband home service launching through Ireland Online in the middle of May. It’s about time too, as Ireland may now have the chance to reclaim its position as a digital hub, a farcical statement to date given that most Irish people connecting to the net do so at under full-speed through under-performing dial-up connections.

Dreamcast’s brief appearance opened up the market for online gaming with Sega’s own Phantasy Star Online back in early 2001. This showed that even though it only allowed users to connect via standard connections, that an online console game can sell, and it did by the bucketload, as did Sega’s other online offering, Chu Chu Rocket. Since then things have grown up. The Xbox has a broadband adapter built in to support Xbox Live! This service is now available across much of Europe, with an Irish launch due in Winter 2002 given sufficient take-up of broadband in Ireland. The Playstation 2 also has room in its expansion bay for a hard drive/broadband modem but no details of the service being launched in Ireland were available at time of writing. Given recent developments in Japan, Gamecube also may be in there too, with high hopes from Nintendo that it can compete with the big boys as its own service launches in 2004, spearheaded by an updated Phantasy Star Online.

While Ireland is behind the times by about half a year in terms of broadband provision, this does allow some time for companies to consider future opportunities. One potential revenue generating services is to facilitate online gaming. Online gaming has taken off hugely among PC gamers, with first person strategy titles and MMORPG games leading the way with some subscription services boasting hundreds of thousands of users. The popularity of subscription titles such as the Electronic Arts Ultima Online series, as well as Sony’s hugely popular Everquest show that this subscription model can work for companies who get it right.

However, for every successful online subscription service, there are dozens of ventures that either don’t make it to the light of day or just fail miserably. Balancing the mix of variables is always going to be difficult, and one title that comes to mind is Planaterion. Back in 2000 the game boasted tens of thousands of users by offering them a real time empire building game. The fan base grew for the game, which, simple as it was, became as addictive as any Championship Manager (Sports Interactive) game could ever be. Their main stumbling block came when they decided well into the gameplay to start charging users to continue their game, and a combination of short-notice, an awkward payment plan for users and an inability to process those payments turned a lot of people off. They eventually got their act together offering payment services across many European countries as well as online credit card services, but their user base had dramatically fallen. Instead of having a steady income flow they have lost users to the level of hugely investing in a service that has failed to grow outside of its dedicated hardcore fanbase.

In the Irish market though, Kapooki games are currently working on Lorgaine: The Black Standard. This 3D strategy title is set in a fantasy Erin, allowing you choose one of two Celtic races and battle for domination of our green isle. Mixing combat, trading systems and resource management, the game looks impressive and is set for a 2004 release. It will also be largely online, and according to Michael Griffin (CEO) they hope to launch a subscription service. We hope to provide more information on the title as development progresses.

The value of the online gaming in Europe alone is expected to pass €1 billion by 2006 according to a BBC report this year. Microsoft’s only flaw in relation to their service is that consumers will require a credit card to access the service, which may rule out many younger consumers. However, as consumers become more and more accustomed to using and paying for services over the net, the opportunities for broadband content and services, especially games, grow. Looking forward there are plenty of ways for companies to get involved in this. For Eircom to get broadband up and running in Ireland, it needs to bring consumers on board who are willing to pay the high costs of installation and running a broadband service. However, companies may be able to get involved in the creation of Irish broadband gaming services that may in time become revenue generators. Esat BT through Ireland Online are also launching a service to compete with Eircom’s iStream service. On the face of it, it looks like it gives more value for money, at €5 a month cheaper, a cheaper installation fee and they provide the DSL modem, while Eircom insist that you either buy your own or pay an inflated amount for one of their modems.

Another often-overlooked source of income in relation to online gaming comes from mobile services. Now that mobiles are coming into their own with the picture phones and future 3G services, gaming will surely follow. People are perfectly willing to pay for and download games onto their phones. It whittles away boring time commuting in the morning and evening. Everyone has played Snake, but what about if they could play snake head to head against a completely anonymous user somewhere else in Ireland? Vodaphone are also currently running an advertising campaign for their WAP services which allows consumers to download ringtones and games via their WAP service.

3G phones will allow this to go even further, as their high speed connections, advanced technology and features may potentially allow you to play everything you could play on your PC on your way to work. In the UK, mobile technology firm Masabi has made a version of id Software’s classic shooter Doom for the Nokia 7650 handset. 3G potentially allows you to go further with this. Imagine being able to sit down on the bus and deathmatch over Unreal Tournament on your phone. Or on your way home to battle in a real time strategy game. The development of titles such as these is surely in the pipeline, and there is nothing to say that Irish companies cannot get involved ahead of the bandwagon and give people a reason to take up new technologies such as 3G and broadband. You never know, we might become that digital hub thing that we were so hyped up to be once again.

Author Bio: Jamie McCormick is the former editor of the Irish Games website, as well as a freelance writer for a number of magazines and sites around the country. He is currently studying Marketing in Dublin Institute of Technology.