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Web-based game portal promises InstantAction

New service, which has been in closed beta for some time, offers publishers and developers a model for getting their action games in front of players.

InstantAction is a new service launching Tuesday that offers publishers and game developers a new model for getting their work in front of players, all without having to go through retail outlets. The service is starting with nine games, but it can support nearly any game.

Game developers looking for a new way to get their work in front of large audiences may soon have a new tool that could allow them to bypass the restrictive and risk-averse world of retailers.

A new service, known as InstantAction, is set to officially launch Tuesday. It aims to free developers, both inside and outside big publishers, from the traditional distribution constraints of selling PC- or console-based games.

The idea behind InstantAction is to provide developers with an end-to-end process for putting their games online, making them browser-based and making it possible for players to easily join their friends' games at any time, without the need for a proprietary service like Microsoft's Xbox Live.

And unlike the growing number of casual games, 2D virtual worlds, and Flash-based virtual-world platforms, InstantAction promises to support complete versions of just about any full-scale, or AAA, game a publisher wants to make available online. Brett Sayler, vice president of technology for InstantAction, said the service offers the first high-quality 3D games on the Web.

While the service's technology could, in theory, support a game like "World of Warcraft" or any number of titles from a publisher like Electronic Arts, it's more likely that, in the early going, at least, the service would be utilized by less-established publishers.

"The people this would likely appeal to are major publishers and game developers who," said Sayler, "are unsatisfied with the gaming-(distribution) options available right now."

Good match for Atari?
As a hypothetical example, Sayler pointed to Atari, which, in its current iteration--wholly owned by Infogrames, it is not the high-flying company it once was--has struggled to find substantial traction with retailers and consumers.

"Atari is a well-known brand with good (titles)," Sayler said, "fighting a losing battle at retail."

Working with InstantAction, Sayler said, still speaking hypothetically, Atari could make some or all of its games available to consumers via the Web in a matter of months, bypassing big-box retailers and game-centric franchises in the process and, therefore, being able to concentrate more on building its games.

Another advantage that InstantAction offers its partners, Sayler said, is browser-based. Because the games are played--and authenticated--through a Web browser, they are intended to be much harder, if not impossible, to pirate, meaning that publishers can stop worrying about digital rights management. That, said Sayler, is something that has bedeviled PC game makers.

Proof of concept
For now, InstantAction is trying to prove its model by providing nine games its users can play right away--free of charge. And because the games are all streaming, they don't require players to download client software or look for patches. Instead, they get the very latest versions of games each time they boot them up.

To Sayler, InstantAction could be a boon to developers who want to test gaming concepts right away, rather than worry about whether a retailer--or even a publisher--deems the title strong enough to invest the money to put in front of players.

"They get to try out new gaming concepts and (intellectual properties)," he said, "long before investing the kinds of money that is usually needed. It's a dream for game developers and allows them to take creative risks."

To be sure, just putting a game on InstantAction doesn't guarantee in any way that players, or revenue, will come. That will still take marketing effort, which publishers or developers can do on their own sites--or in any other way they choose. But because the distribution of the game is taken care of, a big cost in the traditional model is removed.

And while plenty of PC games are already played online, most require a downloadable client. That means that the games are not portable, in the sense of allowing players to pick up where they left off on any machine. A browser-based game, however, would be playable on any machine with an Internet connection.

Party sessions
Another advantage of the InstantAction system is that any game session has a unique URL, which can be taken with players as they go, and can be shared among friends. That means that a group that enjoys playing together can form a "party," said Andy Yang, general manager of InstantAction, and anyone who clicks on the URL joins the session in progress. This system can support up to 32 players at a time.

For now, InstantAction is solely browser-based, but the company is looking at adding Facebook and iPhone integration, Andy said. In that case, players would be able to battle against or with each other, regardless of which platform they were on.

InstantAction has been in beta for several months and, with its Tuesday launch, it is hoping to lure large numbers of new players, and with them, more publishers interested in making their games available via the Web. But this obviously presents a chicken-and-egg proposition, so InstantAction definitely has an uphill climb to prove that it can last.

InstantAction is free, but the company expects to make money with ads, premium services such as game customization and modification, and microtransactions. It also hopes to bring in revenue with licensing and revenue share, in the case of publishers or developers using the service on a white-label basis.