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Gaming rAges on in South Africa (part 1)

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The recent rAge festival again proved that gaming is booming in South Africa – and there’s no sign of it letting up, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK in the first of a two-part series.

A green hue illuminates the faces of men, women, boys and girls as they are transfixed on the machines in front of them. They could have stepped right out of a zombie game, but are fully functional human beings. They just happen to be playing games at the green-lit Xbox stand at the rAge festival.

Going green at the Xbox stand at rAge. Pic: Arthur Goldstuck.

Going green at the Xbox stand at rAge. Pic: Arthur Goldstuck.

Held once a year at the Ticketpro Dome north of Johannesburg, the computer games event is a regular reminder that gaming has a massive following in South Africa. A record 33 000 people attended the 2015 event. Globally, gaming has long been far bigger than the music industry and is even ahead of global box office takings at the movies.

One reason for the robust health of the sector is that there are many powerful sub-niches within the gaming niche. Xbox fans match the PlayStation 4 fans for both passion and skill, and help drive sales of both consoles and new games. The traditional PC game, however, is about to overtake consoles, projected to achieve $29-billion global revenue in 2016, versus $28-billion for consoles.

Cosplay at rAge. Pic: Arthur Goldstuck.

Cosplay at rAge. Pic: Arthur Goldstuck.

The PC game also remains the biggest drawcard at rAge, with is own sub-sub-categories, ranging from multiplayer gaming and international contests to networked tournaments called LAN – Local Area Network – gaming.

A typical LAN tournament runs over several days and contestants don’t leave the battlefield until it’s all over. At rAge, more than 2500 players arrived with sleeping bags, energy drinks and fast food budgets to keep them going for the 53 hours the NAG LAN tournament lasted.

Here, too, one could mistake them for participants in a zombie ritual – except that the machines they lug into the tournament area are as high-tech as PCs get. They are all more powerful and more expensive than any computer one would encounter in a corporate executive’s office. And around 8 000 of these PCs are sold in South Africa a year.

Crowds and characters at rAge. Pic: Arthur Goldstuck.

Crowds and characters at rAge. Pic: Arthur Goldstuck.

“Our mainstream gaming machines cost from R11 999 to R24 999 – you’ve got to be a fairly serious gamer to buy these,” says Jeff Kuo, South African country manager at ASUS, one of the biggest makers of high-end gaming computers.

He says ASUS sells about 5 000 units a year, making for around 60% market share.

“Our goal next year is to sell 6 000 machines, which is a big jump, because gaming is a niche market. But we want to expand the gaming market from premium model to mainstream machines, to reach occasional users.”

The most expensive gaming machine available from ASUS right now runs to an eye-watering R30 000. And next year, it will bring in a premium water-cooled monster for well over that amount.

At a slightly lower level of the wallet range, ASUS used rAge to showcase the new ZenBook, punted as “the world’s slimmest Ultrabook” at 12.3mm thick and weighing 1.2kg, along with the ZenPad, which brings PC standards to tablet audio and screen quality.

Long lines to play the hottest PlayStation 4 games at rAge.

Long lines to play the hottest PlayStation 4 games at rAge.

Kuo insists the new devices are not merely window-dressing: “Innovation must deliver new experiences and this is the overall benchmark for new ASUS devices coming into the market. For instance, ASUS is considering ways in which gamers can be more involved in the reality of their gaming experience. We’re looking forward to shaking things up in the gaming space with more interactive gaming options.”

ASUS was not the only big name taking the rAge gamers seriously.  Leading technology distributors Rectron showcased high-end gaming equipment from brands revered by players, like Corsair, Gigabyte, and Cooler Master. It also sponsored a team tournament around the popular new Heroes of the Storm multiplayer action strategy game, which publisher Blizzard describes as a “hero brawler” game.

HP and Intel joined forces to set up the networking equipment and servers that powered the LAN. Internet Solutions provided a 6.5Gbps connection to the Internet – and even this mammoth capacity was pushed to the limit, with 143 terabytes (TB) downloaded and 46TB uploaded. PlayStation, Xbox, Megarom, LEGO, Disney, BT Games, Dark Carnival and Rectron all added to the feeling of an international tech event.

The key to the success of the event, however, is in the games themselves.

“If there are ten massive games, we’ll have ten massive gaming events at the show,” says Michael James, senior project manager at rAge. “The gaming component is very dependent on what games are coming out, so you’re at the mercy of the industry but I’ve only ever seen rAge grow as an exhibition.”

The industry was especially kind this year: Game-maker Activision for the first time allowed one of its new flagship games to be previewed at the event. The long-awaited Call of Duty: Black Ops III, due to be released a month after rAge, saw aspirant players stand in long lines to get their turn.

“We’ve never had Call of Duty on the show floor before. It means Activision is taking the show very seriously, so that is healthy and exciting,” says James.

The big trends in gaming, he says, include gaming continuing to push the boundaries of technology, the growth of virtual reality gaming, and telecommunications companies like Telkom giving mobile data a big push. The real surprise, however, is the rise of “geekery”.

“It’s quite an old concept but, ever since Big Bang Theory arrived on TV, it has been pushed it into limelight. Geeks are cool this year.”

Next week in part 2: the rise of Made in SA games

* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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Money talks and electronic gaming evolves

Computer gaming has evolved dramatically in the last two years, as it follows the money, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK in the second of a two-part series.

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The clue that gaming has become big business in South Africa was delivered by a non-gaming brand. When Comic Con, an American popular culture convention that has become a mecca for comics enthusiasts, was hosted in South Arica for the first time last month, it used gaming as the major drawcard. More than 45 000 people attended.

The event and its attendance was expected to be a major dampener for the annual rAge gaming expo, which took place just weeks later. Instead, rAge saw only a marginal fall in visitor numbers. No less than 34 000 people descended on the Ticketpro Dome for the chaos of cosplay, LAN gaming, virtual reality, board gaming and new video games. 

It proved not only that there was room for more than one major gaming event, but also that a massive market exists for the sector in South Africa. And with a large market, one also found numerous gaming niches that either emerged afresh or will keep going over the years. One of these, LAN (for Local Area Network) gaming, which sees hordes of players camping out at the venue for three days to play each other on elaborate computer rigs, was back as strong as ever at rAge.

MWeb provided an 8Gbps line to the expo, to connect all these gamers, and recorded 120TB in downloads and 15Tb in uploads – a total that would have used up the entire country’s bandwidth a few years ago.

“LANs are supposed to be a thing of the past, yet we buck the trend each year,” says Michael James, senior project manager and owner of rAge. “It is more of a spectacle than a simple LAN, so I can understand.”

New phenomena, often associated with the flavour of the moment, also emerge every year.

“Fortnite is a good example this year of how we evolve,” says James. “It’s a crazy huge phenomenon and nobody was servicing the demand from a tournament point of view. So rAge and Xbox created a casual LAN tournament that anyone could enter and win a prize. I think the top 10 people got something each round.”

Read on to see how esports is starting to make an impact in gaming.

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Blockchain unpacked

Blockchain is generally associated with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, but these are just the tip of the iceberg, says ESET Southern Africa.

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This technology was originally conceived in 1991, when Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta described their first work on a chain of cryptographically secured blocks, but only gained notoriety in 2008, when it became popular with the arrival of Bitcoin. It is currently gaining demand in other commercial applications and its annual growth is expected to reach 51% by 2022 in numerous markets, such as those of financial institutions and the Internet of Things (IoT), according to MarketWatch.

What is blockchain?

A blockchain is a unique, consensual record that is distributed over multiple network nodes. In the case of cryptocurrencies, think of it as the accounting ledger where each transaction is recorded.

A blockchain transaction is complex and can be difficult to understand if you delve into the inner details of how it works, but the basic idea is simple to follow.

Each block stores:

–           A number of valid records or transactions.
–           Information referring to that block.
–           A link to the previous block and next block through the hash of each block—a unique code that can be thought of as the block’s fingerprint.

Accordingly, each block has a specific and immovable place within the chain, since each block contains information from the hash of the previous block. The entire chain is stored in each network node that makes up the blockchain, so an exact copy of the chain is stored in all network participants.

As new records are created, they are first verified and validated by the network nodes and then added to a new block that is linked to the chain.

How is blockchain so secure?

Being a distributed technology in which each network node stores an exact copy of the chain, the availability of the information is guaranteed at all times. So if an attacker wanted to cause a denial-of-service attack, they would have to annul all network nodes since it only takes one node to be operative for the information to be available.

Besides that, since each record is consensual, and all nodes contain the same information, it is almost impossible to alter it, ensuring its integrity. If an attacker wanted to modify the information in a blockchain, they would have to modify the entire chain in at least 51% of the nodes.

In blockchain, data is distributed across all network nodes. With no central node, all participate equally, storing, and validating all information. It is a very powerful tool for transmitting and storing information in a reliable way; a decentralised model in which the information belongs to us, since we do not need a company to provide the service.

What else can blockchain be used for?

Essentially, blockchain can be used to store any type of information that must be kept intact and remain available in a secure, decentralised and cheaper way than through intermediaries. Moreover, since the information stored is encrypted, its confidentiality can be guaranteed, as only those who have the encryption key can access it.

Use of blockchain in healthcare

Health records could be consolidated and stored in blockchain, for instance. This would mean that the medical history of each patient would be safe and, at the same time, available to each doctor authorised, regardless of the health centre where the patient was treated. Even the pharmaceutical industry could use this technology to verify medicines and prevent counterfeiting.

Use of blockchain for documents

Blockchain would also be very useful for managing digital assets and documentation. Up to now, the problem with digital is that everything is easy to copy, but Blockchain allows you to record purchases, deeds, documents, or any other type of online asset without them being falsified.

Other blockchain uses

This technology could also revolutionise the Internet of Things  (IoT) market where the challenge lies in the millions of devices connected to the internet that must be managed by the supplier companies. In a few years’ time, the centralised model won’t be able to support so many devices, not to mention the fact that many of these are not secure enough. With blockchain, devices can communicate through the network directly, safely, and reliably with no need for intermediaries.

Blockchain allows you to verify, validate, track, and store all types of information, from digital certificates, democratic voting systems, logistics and messaging services, to intelligent contracts and, of course, money and financial transactions.

Without doubt, blockchain has turned the immutable and decentralized layer the internet has always dreamed about into a reality. This technology takes reliance out of the equation and replaces it with mathematical fact.

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