Making its global reputation on its operating systems and aggressive Internet strategy, the Redmond, Washington, behemoth is now moving onto yet another turf, one that's far from its word-processing roots. Unbeknownst to many general consumers, Microsoft is moving with increasing speed into the gaming world alongside Sega, Nintendo, and other market leaders.
And between those two market moves, the company unveiled 11 new game titles at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in May, compared to its usual annual rollout of two or three new titles. Already, Microsoft has two titles in the top-20 rankings, and other game companies are prepared for more. (See chart)
"We recognize a certain percentage of market share will go to Microsoft," said Ken Williams, chief executive officer of Sierra On-Line, the number-one publisher.
So what's driving the software behemoth to bring a bigger bat to the playing field at this time? And will it annihilate the players along the way, as it has threatened--and has done--to so many other competitors.
Microsoft is hoping to extend the market leverage of Windows 95 to more gaming products. At the same time, the "dedicated console" market saw sluggish sales as buyers waited for new platforms going from 16-bit to 32-bit systems, said Dean Lester, a product unit manager in Microsoft's games division.
Not to mention the booming games and PC markets. The industry, which has exceeded $1 billion in sales, grew nearly 31 percent in 1995 over the previous year, according to PC Data. That's almost twice the rate posted in 1994. So far this year, the growth has been 26 percent.
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The games group accounts for substantial portion of the Interactive division's revenues, but Brudvik-Lindner declined to release figures. The PC games staff has grown to nearly 200 people, compared with less than a dozen about eight years ago.
Meanwhile, Microsoft has increased its market share ranking to sixth, with 4.8 percent of the market in 1996, compared with tenth spot in 1993 with 4.4 percent, according to PC Data.
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"The industry is consolidating and in the next three to five years, there will be three to four companies that hold 80 percent of the market," Williams said. "I think Microsoft will take market share away from the smaller companies, but we'll be one of the ones to survive."
He noted the company will compete by continuing to build the "best games" that it knows how.
Nevertheless, no one is sure what will happen in the widely anticipated shakeout of the gaming industry.
"The shakeout is going to happen with or without Microsoft, because there are more companies than the industry can support right now," said Lee Isgur, an analyst with Jefferies & Company in San Francisco. David Cole, president of DFC Intelligence in San Diego, said he suspects that Microsoft isn't interested in making money from its games as opposed to the money the games will generate from its Windows 95 sales. "Microsoft may be willing to spend more on marketing than other competitors because of the other benefits it will get, and it may even cut the prices on their games in order to make up sales elsewhere," he said.
Brudvik-Lindner, however, adamantly refuted that speculation. "This is not a loss leader business," he said.
Microsoft's current titles that made the top 20 selling PC games during the first half of the year include Flight Simulator, which ranked fourth, and Return of the Arcade, which was 16th. (See table)
"PC game sales have historically lagged behind consoles. But we see projections that the number of PC has reached a critical level, so the expectation is that PC gaming software will expand significantly," said Doug Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association.
But at least one analyst doubts that PC games will ever replace the console market.
"They are a stepchild that is inferior in size and revenues in comparision to the dedicated console market," Isgur said.
|Top-selling PC games|
for first half 1996
|5||Duke Nukem 3D||Formgen|
|7||Command & Conquer||Virgin|
|8||Doom II||GT Interactive|
|9||Ultimate Doom Thy Flesh||GT Interactive|
|10||Star Wars Rebel Assault II||LucasArts|
|11||Wing Commander IV||Electronic Arts|
|14||Need for Speed||Electronic Arts|
|15||NBA Live '96||Electronic Arts|
|16||Return of the Arcade||Microsoft|
|17||Gabriel Knight 2: Beast Within||Sierra On-Line|
|20||MASCAR Racing||Sierra On-Line|