A Gaming Buffet

New: An online streaming service could allow PC gamers to buy and play favorites without going out to a store.

August 05, 2004|By Victor Godinez | Victor Godinez,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

It's easy to forget that consoles aren't the only game in town.

Sales of games for video consoles such as the PlayStation 2, Xbox and GameCube hit $5.8 billion last year.

But PC games raked in a respectable $1.2 billion with much less fanfare than their console counterparts.

Now a handful of companies are hoping they can boost computer game sales by adopting a new way for PC gamers to buy and play their favorite games. Call it the all-you-can-eat buffet model.

These companies are banking that gamers, instead of driving to a store, browsing through crowded shelves and maybe purchasing one $50 PC game, will subscribe to what is essentially an online streaming service.

For a monthly fee, you'll be able to play as many games as you want, downloading one section of the game at a time through your broadband connection.

Two models for subscription-based PC gaming are emerging: one using a regular PC hooked up to a computer monitor, and a more specialized PC-in-a-box system that attaches to a television like a standard video game console.

Yahoo (gamesondemand. yahoo.com) and cable television and Internet service provider Comcast (www.comcast.net/gamesondemand) have their systems up and running.

For $14.95 a month, you can log on to their gaming sites with a standard PC and access about 100 titles, with more on the way.

Comcast's titles include fairly new blockbusters such as Neverwinter Nights, Unreal Tournament and Dead Man's Hand.

Popular games on Yahoo's service include Civilization III, Rollercoaster Tycoon 2 and Mafia.

Both also offer simple board and puzzle games and children's releases.

As long as your subscription is active, you can play any of the games as often as you like.

"Video on demand has been out for some time, and we think that consumers are growing more and more accustomed not just to the on-demand concept, but to what the benefits are that on-demand can bring them," said Jeanne Russo, director of corporate communications for Comcast Online.

Comcast's Games on Demand service also eliminates the risk of buying a game that your PC doesn't have the horsepower to run, thanks to a built-in application that checks whether your machine matches the required hardware, said Jen MacLean, director of sports, entertainment and games for Comcast.

"You go to the store and look at the requirements, which are kind of buried on the bottom of the box and say things like they require DirectX 9.0 and 64-megabyte video card," she said. "We do the job of making sure the customer can ... play the games."

The other subscription model for PC games comes from Infinium Labs Inc.

Infinium's Phantom system was once sarcastically considered "vaporware" by many gamers.

But with finalized technical specs, a formal unveiling at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in May and a targeted launch date of Nov. 18, the Phantom is clearly on its way.

The Phantom has the guts of a PC but the visage of a console.

Like a PS2, it plugs into your television, and the sleek box nestles comfortably with your DVD player or home theater system.

But you never insert a game disc into the Phantom.

Using a separate broadband connection, gamers will be able to buy or rent PC games for the Phantom's hard drive and play them with a specially designed keyboard and mouse on their television.

Hard-core gamers have posted critiques of the Phantom on gaming message boards, mainly regarding the two-year, $29.95-a-month subscription, a lack of first-run games and the inability to upgrade the Phantom's hardware as more technically demanding games are released. (You also can buy a Phantom for $199 and pay a month-to-month subscription.)

But hard-core gamers aren't Infinium's main target, said Mike Goodman, an analyst with the Yankee Group. Goodman said that publishers will still want to release top-tier games to retail stores first, where they can collect the full $50 price from serious gamers.

But games-on-demand services such as the Phantom mean that older games that have exhausted their retail runs won't disappear, he said.

"Once that game has sold what it's going to sell in retail, you then create - the way the movie industry has done with theatrical, video and cable releases - a second window," he said.

And the subscription model means that Infinium doesn't need a lot of customers to make a profit, Goodman said.

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