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MS meets LucasArts for gaming

The brand power of Star Wars and Microsoft converge with an online gaming deal announced by LucasArts and the software giant.

The brand power of Star Wars and Microsoft met today in an online gaming deal announced by LucasArts Entertainment and the software giant.

Microsoft's Internet Gaming Zone will be the primary host of LucasArts upcoming multiplayer games for the Net. The partnership comes just as LucasArts is gearing up to roll out its first Star Wars-inspired online game April 29: X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter.

In conjunction with the deal, LucasArts launched a beta version of a spaghetti Western game, Outlaw, on the Zone today. Players hook up to LucasArts on the Zone through a Web site called Rebel HQ.

If recent analyst predictions about the online gaming market prove true, the marriage of Microsoft and LucasArts is a smart move by both parties. The move is even more valuable in light of Microsoft's $425 million bid to purchase WebTV. The convergence of TVs and PCs could make playing games on the Net more profitable.

Prior to Sunday's WebTV announcement, Microsoft's Zone was named as a site likely to make money in online gaming in a report released by Forrester Research. In general, however, the report released this month painted a grim picture of the immediate future of online gaming revenues, predicting that they will reach only $540 million by 1999.

But by 2001, according to the Forrester report, revenues will leap to more than $1.6 billion because of technological advances. Expected to cash in on the growth were Microsoft, Mpath's Mplayer, and SegaSoft's Heat. Some sites charge players subscription fees while others are free.

However, Microsoft needs hot titles and a dedicated user market to stay ahead of the pack, analysts say. So today's agreement with LucasArts is a step in the right direction.

"Microsoft Zone has good titles on board right now but, because its own gaming titles don't always make the "Top 10" lists, it definitely has to look outside its company to get superior game titles," said Seema Chowdhury, a Forrester analyst. "It gives Microsoft more stable footing, but it doesn't necessarily make them a winner in a market where there are others buying up good titles as well."

The Star Wars brand's popularity should make it easy for LucasArts to build an audience for its interactive games online. But there is one snag: To play on the Net users need to buy a CD expected to cost $49.95.

LucasArts says the goal of its partnership with Microsoft is to enhance its offerings to consumers who buy CDs while venturing into online gaming. LucasArts wouldn't say when or how this business model would change.

"Many of the online gaming models will only come to fruition as technology evolves," Mary Bihr, director of sales and marketing for LucasArts, said today.

She added, however, that "this will become a part of our business. We'll provide a living room where all of our customers can gather to play together."

Other Star Wars Trilogy multiplayer games will hit the Zone over the next few months until summer. In addition to X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II, and Star Wars Rebellion are slated for summertime release.