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PC gaming executives: Everything's fine

Executives from the PC gaming world reassured their best customers Friday that all is well with the PC gaming world, but they also acknowledged that they have work to do to get the average gamer interested in the PC again.

The state of the PC gaming industry is fine. Just ask any executive whose business depends on PC gaming.

Representatives from Nvidia, Intel, Microsoft, Electronic Arts, and Crytek held a combination political rally/pep talk for the PC gaming industry Friday at Nvidia's GeForce LAN 4 event in Alameda, Calif. The audience--several hundred rabid PC gamers with plans to spend the entire weekend playing Crysis--cheered the panelists as they reassured attendees that all was well in the PC gaming world.

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The runaway success of gaming consoles like Microsoft's Xbox 360, Nintendo's Wii, and Sony's PlayStation 3 has the PC gaming industry on the defensive these days. Once the only destination for serious gamers, the PC has lost a little momentum as less expensive and increasingly powerful consoles proliferate. According to NPD, sales of PC gaming software in 2006 were down substantially from 2001, when $1.5 billion worth of games were sold. Last year, total sales were just $970 million.

Some of the panelists took issue with those numbers, claiming they don't reflect the increasing number of games distributed digitally. And Michael Wolf, global product manager for Microsoft Games for Windows, pointed out that there are more people playing games on PCs than on all consoles combined. Still, the executives couldn't help but sound defensive as they discussed some of the broader issues.

Part of the problem is that modern PC games require a very expensive system to deliver a suitable experience. Nvidia's Roy Taylor, vice president of content relations, noted that Crysis can't be played at its maximum settings even on top-line PCs today. Half the audience upgraded their systems just to play Crysis, which is great for hardware companies like Nvidia and Intel but tough on the average person's wallet.

Consoles deliver a pretty good gaming experience for far less, and even an audience of hard-core PC gamers had to agree. About two-thirds of the audience owned either a Xbox 360 or a PlayStation 3--or both. As a result, the PC gaming market is increasingly devoted to more immersive games, such as complex first-person shooters like Crysis, while the consoles are thought of as more of a social experience, Taylor said.

And that's what the PC industry would like to try to do: find a way to get casual gamers interested in the PC again as a gaming platform. Randy Stude, director of Intel's gaming platform office, fielded several questions about the integrated graphics performance of Intel's PC chipsets. No one at the event was using an integrated graphics chipset, which is designed to deliver basic graphics performance for cheaper desktops or notebooks. And that's part of the problem. "Something needs to be done so a person buying a PC at Wal-Mart could be a PC gamer too," Stude said.

There are always going to be inherent advantages of the PC as a gaming device, said David DeMartini, vice president and global general manager for EA Partners, a division of Electronic Arts. For one, it's easier for game developers to write software for Windows PCs using Intel's or AMD's chips, as the three major consoles all use different technology. It's also possible for gamers to evolve their systems with the games, dropping in new processors or graphics hardware to accomodate the demands of new games. Once a console is developed, it doesn't evolve, and the game experience doesn't evolve along with it.

But it seems that PC gaming is becoming more of a specialized experience for only certain types of games. At an event last week, Intel's Dadi Perlmutter, vice president and general manager of Intel's mobility division, bemoaned the fact that just about every game developed for the PC these days seems to involve killing on a mass scale.

There's more to it than that, of course, but PC games do seem to either be first-person shooters or complex role-playing and strategy games. And that's the interesting question for the PC industry: people are buying PCs anyway, why don't game developers focus on casual yet compelling games for those of us without an itchy trigger finger?

Perhaps because they are making so much money on the current audience. The several hundred gamers at the Nvidia event are willing to spend vast amounts of time and money on the games that are already out there, and no good business executive wants to alienate their best customers. It seems likely that the PC will continue to be the platform of choice for the rabid gamer, but if the gaming industry wants to convince people who are buying PCs anyway to think of those systems as more than just a word-processing and Internet surfing device, they've got some work to do.