Lara Croft escapes console in latest adventure

Gamers looking to play the next version of the Lara Croft computer game will not be lining up at a store when it launches, but logging on to download the title over the internet.

The next iteration of the game franchise is to be released as an internet download only, as Square Enix becomes the latest games publisher to tap the growing consumer appetite for playing games online.

Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is to be released in the next few months, priced at about £10 ($15) in the UK, and representing a significant revamp of the 13-year franchise.

“We wanted to promote new games for new markets. The adventure series for Lara Croft will be more arcade-like, with the camera further away, more action and the ability to play characters other than Lara,” said Phil Rogers, chief executive of Square Enix Europe.

It is the first Lara Croft title to be released since Square Enix of Japan took over Eidos a year ago, gaining ownership of one of the UK’s most famous games franchises. Mr Rogers said they were targeting a new audience of casual gamers who want to “snack” on games for a short period, rather than immersing themselves for hours at a time in an expensive console game.

A revamp is necessary. The last Lara Croft game, Tomb Raider: Underworld, released in 2008, had lower sales than expected. Crystal Dynamics, the Square Enix studio that developed it was forced to lay off staff and Toby Gard, co-creator of the game, left the company.

A number of computer games publishers have been rushing into online games. Electronic Arts is developing online versions of most of its games franchises and last year paid $400m for Playfish, which makes games for online social networks including Facebook.

The World of Warcraft online role-playing game – which has more than 11.5m subscribers – accounts for nearly a third of revenues at Activision Blizzard, the world’s biggest games group.

Codemasters of the UK, which recently saw Reliance Big Entertainment of India take a 50 per cent stake in the company, said it planned to invest heavily in online games, creating web versions of titles such as its Ashes Cricket game.

This year, EA predicted a 3 per cent fall in industry sales of packaged games but 26 per cent growth for digital and online games.

“2008 was the peak in terms of sales of boxed products. Although we will see a new generation of games consoles coming out in 2013 or 2014, we wouldn’t expect the new cycle to reach the same highs,” said Piers Harding-Rolls, lead games analyst at Screen Digest. “All games companies need to switch onto online to maintain sales.”

Mr Harding-Rolls estimates 38 per cent of western games revenues could come from online sales by 2014.

Online gaming could also help companies move into markets such as China, where widespread piracy has often made publishers reluctant to launch boxed games.

In spite of the stampede online, it is still unclear how the economics of online games will stack up. They tend to be much cheaper and quicker to produce than console versions.

“We were working on it for months rather than years and had a team of 20 people rather than 200,” Mr Rogers said. However, they are priced much lower too.

“Online games will reach more people, but the big question will be whether that audience can be monetised to the same extent,” Mr Harding-Rolls said. “The answer is probably no. Online is a very fragmented market with a precedent of a lot of free access. Online gamers will not spend the same amount as a hardcore gamer [would have] in the golden era of packaged console games.”

Tellingly, Square Enix is not planning to stop making packaged games any time soon. “We still fully believe in console games and will not give up selling disks,” Mr Rogers said.

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