February 19, 2008

San Francisco Chronicle

S.F. conference spotlights PC gaming

Despite its ubiquity, the PC has often been viewed as the ugly gaming stepchild compared with the popular PlayStation, Xbox and Wii consoles. But the tide may be shifting.At the Games Developers Conference in San Francisco this week, the PC is mounting a comeback, aided by a couple of announcements intended to push PC game development.On Tuesday evening, heavyweights Intel, AMD, Nvidia, Dell, Microsoft and others said they are forming the PC Gaming Alliance to help unify development around the PC platform. The companies said the alliance also will collaborate on standards that make it easier for consumers to understand what titles will play on their various computer configurations.WildTangent, an online provider of advertising-supported video games, in a separate release, said it is introducing a PC application today that will allow PCs eventually to play console titles online. The service, called the WildTangent Orb, will allow developers to release their console titles online to PC users and take advantage of WildTangent's ad-supported model.The initiatives seek to shake up the PC gaming world, which by some measures is not growing as fast as console gaming, despite the popularity of titles like World of Warcraft. The market research firm NPD said recently that of the $18.85 billion in revenue the video game industry generated in North America last year, only 14 percent, or $910.7 million, came from PC titles. The figures, however, don't include game revenue from digital downloads or online micro-transactions, which have been growing considerably in recent years.Still, they suggest that a lot of excitement, even among some dedicated hardcore PC gamers, has shifted to the consoles. For developers, the console is an appealing platform for a number of reasons. It has a large consumer base and is a stable platform. And with the latest consoles from Microsoft and Sony, the hardware actually exceeds what is available on many computers.PC specifications are also always changing and advancing, and although that offers developers some powerful hardware to work with, it also invites confusion for consumers, who sometimes buy games unaware that their systems can't play them.The PC Gaming Alliance not only will set standards, but will help promote guidance, recommendations and market information sharing among the companies. The organization, which will be based in San Ramon, also will serve as a public champion for PC gaming and a forum for cooperatively resolving market and technical challenges among its members.Alliance members "believe that we are stronger and more effective together than any member company is alone, and that our shared vision and group effort will improve PC gaming worldwide," said Randy Stude, director of the gaming program office at Intel and president of the gaming alliance. "Industry forums have proven to foster competition and innovation among member companies and grow markets while improving user experiences."Analyst Billy Pidgeon of International Data Corp. said the Alliance goes beyond Microsoft's recent Games for Windows initiative, which reorganized the marketing of PC games for Windows and set standards for developers that wanted to receive the Games for Windows seal.Pidgeon said the Alliance members could work together to ensure games will play better on computers, even ones that fall short of the suggested hardware specifications for a title. He said the industry players also could improve communication with developers about what hardware will be available when their games are finally finished."This is an acknowledgement there are problems with PC games, but this could be the organization that takes care of this and starts solving the problems," Pidgeon said.WildTangent's initiative hopes to turn a PC into a virtual console, able to play many of the latest games usually available only on consoles from Microsoft and Sony. The company has lined up publishers THQ and Sierra Online, which have said they will provide console titles when the WildTangent Orb is expected to be available, in April.The service offers developers who transfer a console title to Orb a new source of revenue. Under WildTangent's business plan, users can pay for games outright or pay for gaming sessions. Or, they can watch a video commercial and have the advertiser pay for that particular gaming session, which can last as long as the gamer keeps playing.WildTangent CEO Alex St. John said the company has signed agreements with PC-makers Dell, HP, and Toshiba and others that enable it to embed its service on 85 percent of computers being sold today. He said the new generation of computers will be able to exceed the performance of the current consoles, promising gamers a wide array of experiences on a familiar platform."The WildTangent Orb turns any PC into a game console with the same user experience, content and even the same game pad," said St. John. "This creates a bigger distribution for console games."Van Baker, an analyst with Gartner Research, said developers will need to be persuaded to port over their games to Orb, which may prove to be difficult and costly in some cases. But he said the service creates an attractive revenue stream for publishers, who usually have one shot during a game startup to recoup their costs."It could be very attractive if the developers can generate enough revenue from the ad-funded model. But that's a big if," Baker said. "The question is, what will the revenue stream look like?"