The hard stuff

Darren Waters looks at the competition in the platform market

Statistics are often misleading but sometimes numbers do not lie. The global video game industry generates $30bn in sales each year, and the average age of a gamer is said to be 28 years old.

In the UK we spend more on computer games than we do on films at the cinema.

According to Screen Digest, more than £1.5bn will be spent on games in 2007, compared with £821m spent at the cinema box office.

Children and adults are playing more games on more platforms than ever before - from games consoles, to set-top boxes, mobile phones, the PC, the web and even the iPod. Yet hardware is not necessarily a money maker in the gaming market. In the console arena, Microsoft has now sold 13.4 million Xbox 360s worldwide, Nintendo has shifted 13.2 million Wii machines and Sony has sold 5.6 million PlayStation 3s, yet both Sony and Microsoft lose money on every console that they sell. For them, consoles are the delivery system through which they deliver the software and services that make the money.

Microsoft has capitalised on its 12-month head start into the market in this round of consoles, but it is Nintendo that is the success story of 2007. It is the only one of the three firms to make money on each console it sells and the Wii has been a runaway success to such an extent that Nintendo is struggling to meet demand.

Targeting family gaming

The company has targeted family gaming and shied away from the hardcore gamer market, focusing on fun, social interactivity and simplicity. Of all the three consoles it is the purest gaming platform - it does not play CDs, or DVDs, let alone high definition movies.

The Wiimote controller, which uses motion sensitivity rather than a plethora of buttons to direct the action has proved a huge hit with gamers of all ages.

Actors Nicole Kidman, Patrick Stewart and Julie Walters are the faces of an advertising campaign for Nintendo's handheld console, the DS - hardly the stereotype of the friendless, teen gamer.

Nintendo has sold more than 53 million DS consoles worldwide, twice the number that Sony has sold of its PlayStation Portable (PSP). Here too, Nintendo has focused on pure gaming, while Sony's PSP is also promoted as a media player and web browser.

Long term, it looks certain that all three console firms remain committed to the business. Microsoft has the deepest pockets of all three companies and sees the Xbox as a gateway to the digital living room of the future. It has invested billions of dollars in Xbox over the past decade and has yet to see a single cent in profit. Earlier this year, Microsoft's Shane Kim predicted that the firm would see its first profit from Xbox before the end of the 2008 financial year.

Hardcore gamers

The Xbox 360 continues to be seen as a console for hardcore gamers, despite attempts to broaden its appeal with arcade games available via its online service Xbox Live. In just five years Xbox Live, has attracted eight million subscribers worldwide and offers not just gaming but also video downloads and voice and video calls over the internet.

Sony has had a sticky 18 months - with delays to the launch of PlayStation 3, a lukewarm response to games on the machine and complaints that the console is too expensive. It has now launched a cut-down, cut-price version of PlayStation 3 and sales have spiked as a result, up 197 per cent in the month following the refinements.

HD movie player

Sony also makes great play of the fact the console can play Blu-ray high-definition movies. But, with the battle of formats between Blu-ray and HD-DVD still aflame, it is too early to know if this is a feature that really sells the console to consumers.

In the US, sales of hardware and software this year are up 50 per cent on 2006 and Christmas holiday sales are yet to be factored in.

The platform that is expected to see the biggest growth in the coming years is mobile gaming. Global mobile gaming revenue is set to skyrocket from $2.9bn in 2006 to $9.6bn in 2011, according to analysts Gartner.

Mobile phones like the iPhone, LG Viewty and Nokia N95 are now powerful enough to offer 3D gaming experiences.

The inclusion of global positioning satellite technology in phones could also lead to a rise in location-based games, with real-time action dependent on the gamers' physical location in the world.

The other growth area for gaming is among casual gamers, with an estimated 56 million people worldwide who play games on their PC regularly - everything from online chess and card games to puzzle titles.

Common games platform

The industry is expected to be worth $1bn in 2008 and encompass 80 million players within three years. Long term, some in the industry have predicted that the hardware wars could become irrelevant. Gerhard Florin, a senior executive at giant games publisher Electronic Arts, said the industry would benefit from a common games platform, instead of competing, and incompatible, systems.

Games hardware manufacturers could perhaps one day be competing services, or channels. Your gaming device of choice - be it console, PC phone, or set-top box - could be your conduit to Xbox Live or PlayStation World or Nintendo Land.

Whatever the future holds for the manufacturers of hardware, one thing is certain - the popularity of gaming shows no signs of diminishing.

One day it might not matter what hardware you play your games on.

Darren Waters is technology editor, for the BBC News website

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007

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Puffins in peril

Britain’s best-loved seabird is vulnerable to global extinction.

The boatmen helped us scramble ashore and soon there were 50 people wandering on an uninhab­ited slab of sea-battered dolerite called Staple Island. It is one of the National Trust-owned Farne Islands in Northumberland and among England’s most spectacular wildlife locations. There are 100,000 pairs of breeding seabirds here and they were everywhere: at our feet, overhead, across every rock face. The stench of guano was overwhelming.

While the birds seemed to be boundless, the human beings converged on the grassy knoll where the local star attraction resides. It’s the creature that adorns the boat company’s publicity and is emblazoned on the National Trust’s website for the island, the bird that possesses what the poet Norman MacCaig called the “mad, clever clown’s beak”: the pint-sized, parrot-faced puffin.

The British love for this creature is so intense that it is, in essence, the robin redbreast of the sea. Nearly all of its breeding colonies around our coast are tourist attractions. Just across the water, along the shore from Staple Island, is the town of Amble, which holds an annual festival devoted to the puffin. From Lundy in Devon and Skomer in Pembrokeshire to the Isle of May off the Fife coast, or Fair Isle in the Shetlands, trips to puffin colonies are frequent, sometimes daily, events.

“Every tourist shop on these islands sells puffin merchandise – knitwear patterns, tumblers, carvings, coasters, cuddly toys, clothes and, of course, puffin hats,” Helen Moncrieff, the area manager in Shetland for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), told me.

While the love affair is unquestionable, what seems in doubt is our ability to help the bird now that it is in trouble. Fair Isle once supported a puffin colony of 20,000 birds. In less than three decades, that number has halved. Similar declines have been reported at Britain’s most important puffin site on St Kilda, Scotland, where millions are said to have bred. Now there are fewer than 130,000 pairs, half the total recorded as recently as the 1970s.

The national picture is alarming but the news from elsewhere is even worse. Continental Europe holds more than 90 per cent – five million pairs – of the global total of Atlantic puffins but they are shared primarily between three countries: Denmark (the Faroe Islands), Iceland and Norway. Across this subarctic region, losses have been estimated at 33 per cent since 1979, when monitoring began. But the most striking figure comes from a colony on Røst, Norway, where there has been a fall over this period from nearly 1.5 million pairs to 285,000.

The Westman Islands off the south coast of Iceland hold a substantial proportion of the country’s puffins. Since 2005, breeding success there has been almost nil, and a similar failure has recurred on the Faroe Islands for more than a decade. In both places, where hunting puffins was once a staple of cultural life, catchers today have initiated a self-imposed moratorium.

Puffins are long-lived species and a life­span of between 20 and 30 years is not unusual, yet Euan Dunn, principal marine adviser to the RSPB, explains the implications of persistent breeding failure. “Puffins on Shetland or the Westmans may go on attempting to breed for years, even decades, but eventually all those old adult birds will die off and, if they haven’t reproduced, then the numbers will start to plunge.”

BirdLife International, a conservation network that classifies the status of birds worldwide, has reached the same conclusion. It judges that the Atlantic puffin is likely to decline by between 50 and 79 per cent by 2065. The nation’s most beloved seabird has been declared a species that is vulnerable to global extinction.

To unpick the story of puffin losses, marine ecologists have examined the bird’s oceanic ecosystem and looked particularly at changes in the status of a cold-water zooplankton called Calanus finmarchicus. This seemingly insignificant, shrimp-like organism plays a crucial role in North Atlantic biodiversity and has experienced a huge decline as sea temperatures have risen steadily since the 1980s. While the decline of the finmarchicus coincided with swelling numbers of a close relative, this other zooplankton species is less abundant and nutritious.

As the finmarchicus has suffered, so, too, has one of its main predators, the lesser sand eel. And it is this formerly superabundant fish that is the staple food of puffins in many areas of the Atlantic. At the root of the disruption to marine life are the hydra-headed effects of climate change.

Though no one disputes that an important shift is under way in the sea areas of northern Britain and beyond, not everyone agrees that the present puffin situation is a crisis. A leading British expert, Mike Harris, thinks it is premature to designate the bird an endangered species. There are still millions of puffins and, he says, “We need numbers to plummet before we even start to assume that things are terminal.”

Similarly, Bergur Olsen, one of the foremost biologists studying puffins in the Faroe Islands, believes that the talk of extinction is over the top. “The food situation may change and puffins may well adapt to new prey, and then their numbers will stabilise and perhaps increase,” he says.

***

On Staple Island, the extinction designation does appear bizarre. The Farne Island puffin population has increased by 8 per cent since 2008 and there are now 40,000 pairs. This success mirrors a wider stability among puffin colonies of the North and Irish Seas. The distinction in feeding ecology which may explain the birds’ varying fortunes is that, in the southern parts of the range, puffins can prey on sprats when sand eels are scarce. Sprats appear to have suffered none of the disruption that assails the other fish.

But Dunn says it is important to look at the whole picture. “It’s fantastic that puffins are doing well in places like the Farnes, but remember: Britain holds less than 10 per cent of the world total. Also, the declines that have beset puffins in Shetland and St Kilda are even worse for other seabirds.”

The numbers of a silver-winged gull called the kittiwake have fallen by 90 per cent in Shetland and St Kilda since 2000 and by 80 per cent in the Orkneys in just ten years. Shetland’s guillemot numbers have also halved, and the shag, a relative of the cormorant, has experienced falls of over 80 per cent on many islands since the 1970s – 98 per cent, on Foula. Most troubling is the fate of the Arctic skua, which feeds mainly on fish it steals from other seabirds and is reliant on their successes. Its declines are so severe that Dunn fears its eventual loss as a breeding species in Britain.

While there is disagreement about what to call the puffin predicament, there is unanimity on one issue: much of the data that informs the discussion in Britain is out of date. All of these seabirds, which are of global importance, have been monitored decade by decade since the 1970s. Yet the most recent big audit of our cliffs and offshore islands was concluded in 2000. The full census data is now 16 years old. The organisation that underwrites this work is the Joint Nature Conservation Committee; it is sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which has suffered deep budget cuts since the 2008 financial crisis. There is no certainty that another comprehensive census will be mounted any time soon.

“Much is made on wildlife television of how special these islands are for wildlife and how much we care about it,” Dunn says. “In the case of our seabirds, one of those claims is indisputably true. Britain holds populations of some species that are of worldwide significance. But if we lack even basic information on those birds and how they’re faring, especially at a time when our seas are in such flux, what message does that send about how much this country cares? And how can we ever act effectively?”

The plight of the puffin is shedding light on the fortunes of our marine wildlife generally and the shifting condition of our oceans as a result of rising carbon-dioxide levels. Now, puffin politics is also starting to show
this government’s indifference to nature.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue