Windows Is Ready to Tout PC’s as Gaming Devices
By SETH SCHIESEL
Published: July 18, 2006
Quick, name the world’s most popular electronic game system.
If PlayStation or Xbox popped into your head, that’s understandable. Sony and Microsoft, the companies that make those machines, have spent rafts of cash over the years trying to make those brands synonymous with video games. But however understandable, if you answered PlayStation or Xbox or even Nintendo, you were also wrong.
In fact, the world’s most popular game machine is the personal computer. And that doesn’t mean Macintoshes; Macs are essentially nowhere in the game world. That means PC’s based on Microsoft’s Windows operating system. Hundreds of millions of people around the world use Windows PC’s and in Microsoft surveys about half of them report playing games. That doesn’t include the legions of office-bound Solitaire and Minesweeper addicts who don’t even think of themselves as gamers. (You are, though!)
But as popular as PC gaming is and has been, the general public has never really thought of the home computer as a primary game system. That is no accident. For the first few decades of the digital age, Microsoft’s top goal was to get computers into as many homes as possible. Bill Gates and friends knew that a family was more likely to spend $1,000 on its first computer if was meant to help little Johnny with his homework, or send baby pictures to Grandma, or help with the taxes, rather than if the family was thinking about the PC’s ability to send them into outer space or the depths of a dragon’s lair.
Well, here come the dragons.
After years of treating games, game players and game makers as the vaguely disreputable loons of the PC family, Microsoft is making a major strategic shift. Just as games are becoming a core part of mainstream entertainment, Microsoft is beginning to embrace gaming as a core part of using a computer. That means marketing the PC as the world’s most powerful gaming system and revamping Windows to make it more game-friendly.
Now that the computer business is about convincing people who already have PC’s to buy new ones (rather than their first one), Microsoft executives say they have realized that emphasizing games is a great way to do that.
“Previously we’ve had game technology built into Windows, but we didn’t approach gaming as one of Windows’ fundamental applications, and that’s what we want to start to do,” Rich Wickham, the director of Microsoft’s Windows gaming group, said during a recent visit to New York. “That means supporting developers more closely, seeding great games, making games easier to install and play, and having a unified marketing presence.”
The bigger picture is that PC gaming is surging these days even without Microsoft’s help. A few years ago, the conventional wisdom in game circles (even at Microsoft) was that PC gaming was stagnant, a niche backwater that would soon be swamped by consoles like PlayStation and Xbox.
The tsunami most game executives didn’t see coming was the rise in subscription-based online PC gaming, which wasn’t reflected in the retail sales charts that dominate big screens in boardrooms. Online PC games like Lineage II and World of Warcraft are on pace to take in more than $2 billion this year worldwide.
At the same time, publishers are coming to appreciate that having a strong portfolio of PC games can help them through the tough times that accompany the transition to a new generation of consoles every few years. With the introduction of the Xbox 360 just last November and the scheduled debuts of Sony’s PlayStation 3 and Nintendo’s Wii this fall, game publishers have been suffering as customers adjust and wait for the new consoles. Perhaps the biggest hit of the year has been the Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, a game with a fanatical PC fan base (though the game has sold more copies for the Xbox 360).
So with the two new Japanese consoles coming this fall, Microsoft will try to blunt their impact in two ways. The first is an all-but-certain price cut on the Xbox 360. The second will be a new marketing and branding campaign around Windows gaming. That means advertising, but just as important, it also means some long overdue help for the sad patch of real estate known as the PC games section in stores.
“There’s no question about it: Windows games at retail is a disaster,” Mr. Wickham said, “and we’re going to fix that.”
This is what he means: If you walk into a game store or the game section at a Wal-Mart these days, the PlayStation games have a clearly marked area of their own. All the PlayStation game boxes look somewhat similar, and the overall impression is that PlayStation is a unified community of games and products. Same with the Xbox area. Same with the Nintendo area. This is because Sony, Microsoft’s Xbox group and Nintendo try to make their products as attractive as possible in stores and offer financial incentives to retailers to make that happen.
The PC games area, however, usually looks like a dump. Games may be organized haphazardly, they all look different, and they are probably stacked on some dusty shelf in the back of the store. For decades PC games have been the children of a hundred mothers, with each publisher pursuing its own retail strategy, if any at all. Having learned how to do retail marketing correctly with the Xbox, look for Microsoft to apply most of those lessons to PC games this fall.
So there will certainly be some new buzz around computer games this holiday season. But that will hardly compare with what the general public should expect to hear about PC gaming from Microsoft early next year as the company trots out its next version of Windows, called Vista. As Microsoft tries to persuade millions of people around the world to upgrade to Vista, enhanced support for gaming is going to be one of the main selling points.
So even if your current computer does the taxes just fine, there may be dragons in your future.