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February 19, 2008 9:12 PM

GDC: Industry giants unite to boost PC gaming

Posted by Benjamin J. Romano

SAN FRANCISCO -- I'm here covering the Game Developers Conference for a few days. The show doesn't have the glitz and slick stage shows of the Electronics Entertainment Expo better known as E3, but for video game developers, this is the place to talk about their craft, network and show off the latest and greatest.

Developers are working on games for a variety of platforms, including mobile phones, consoles and PCs. In recent years, consoles have been the stars of the video game world, while PC games have been pushed to the back shelves of electronics retailers.

A group of industry heavyweights is seeking to change that and reverse the perception that PC gaming is dying. Today, on the sidelines of the conference, they announced the formation of the PC Gaming Alliance, a nonprofit group that will try to counter the perception that the platform is out of vogue. The PCGA plans to push information about the size of the PC gaming market and try to clear up consumer and game-developer confusion about hardware requirements.

The initial participants include Microsoft; chip-makers Intel and AMD; game publisher Activision and developer Epic; and PC-makers Dell and Acer. The group aims to expand its membership to 40 companies by the end of the year.

The PCGA plans to produce its own research on the PC gaming market and tout third-party data, as it did today. There are some 263 million online PC gamers world wide. Global PC games revenue stood at $8.3 billion last year and is expected to grow 16 percent in 2008, according to DFC Intelligence research cited by PCGA. (By comparison, NPD Group pegged the U.S. video game industry at $17.9 billion last year.)

The PCGA board members had few specifics on just what the group will do, particularly around identifying standard hardware specifications to help consumers determine whether their PC will be able to handle a given game. PC gaming has come under fire recently because some of the most visually stunning and innovative titles -- "Crysis" and "Assasin's Creed" foremost among them -- require high-end, expensive PCs to play.

These machines are "very much out of the reach for a large number of consumers who might otherwise enjoy and play PC games," said Randy Stude, director of the gaming program office at Intel and president of the PCGA.

PCGA could make recommendations for game developers so they target games for mass-market PCs. It also intends to create specifications to categorize games based on a combination of minimum processor speed, memory, graphics processors and even operating system. Asked whether it would push Windows XP or Vista as the gaming platform of choice, Stude said the group will be publishing its minimum system requirements in the future.

Some gamers and PC users are urging Microsoft to extend the lifespan of Windows XP, but Microsoft is firmly backing Vista, which has been on the market for just more than a year. Kevin Unangst, who heads Games for Windows and is a PCGA board member, said Vista has been "incredibly successful" relative to XP in its first year on the market. Microsoft recently said it has sold 100 million licenses for the software.

He acknowledged that Vista has had its shortcomings.

"I know that the hardest of hard-core gamers have given us some feedback ... that performance needed to better for graphics drivers and we needed to have games that took advantage of things like [Microsoft's new graphics-rendering technology] DirectX 10 earlier," Unangst said, adding that the PCGA would be the perfect forum in which to address these and other issues that may arise.

In some respects, the PCGA resembles Microsoft's "Games for Windows" efforts, which it revamped in 2006 with advertising and retail support. The program includes new labeling on games designed to tell consumers "that the game has met a set of technical guidelines that give consumers a consistent, reliable gaming experience on Windows XP [and] Vista operating systems." The guidelines, which developers must follow to get the label, are designed to ease game installation and add support for features in Vista.

Unangst said he doesn't expect any of the participants to stop their individual efforts to promote PC gaming. "This, I think, is a fantastic companion, corollary effort to what we're doing," he said.

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