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WildTangent wins Sony cash for Web games

With an investment by Sony, a small Web graphics company earns new prominence in the much derided but increasingly competitive business of Web 3D and Web games.

With an investment by Sony, a small Web graphics company has earned new prominence in the much derided but increasingly competitive business of Web 3D and Web games.

WildTangent, a Redmond, Wash.-based start-up, scored $34 million in its third round of funding. Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment and Accenture Technology Ventures led the round, with ATI, Millennium Technology Ventures, Washington Mutual and IDG joining it. The round accounts for roughly a quarter of the company's equity.

With its investment, Sony has begun implementing WildTangent's Web Driver, which aims to bring the kind of interactive graphics associated with PC games such as "Doom" and "Quake" to Web sites. Sony is using the technology to create Web-based games that will promote upcoming movie titles, launching the initiative with a promotional game based on its film "A Knight's Tale," opening May 11.

The goal of bringing interactive graphics for the Web has proved an elusive target, and Web 3D applications have earned mostly derision since the failure of the much-hyped VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) to gain widespread adoption.

But WildTangent's funding success in a grim venture market has won the company plaudits from analysts.

"The industry and investors are a little leery going back to the days of VRML," said Wanda Meloni, an analyst with M2 Research. "But I think WildTangent has a really innovative business model. They certainly have the technology, and they have a great lineup of clients and investors."

"They're one of the few companies getting funded right now," said Mike Wallace, analyst with UBS Warburg. "And that should tell you something about them."

WildTangent, whose technology uses Java to access Windows PCs' DirectX graphics capabilities, is betting that a combination of media effects will help it thrive where others have failed.

"The reason that 3D has never taken off on the Internet is that nobody knew how to build a complete business model around it," said Chief Executive Alex St. John, who spearheaded the DirectX effort at Microsoft. "What's powerful and what people want is interactive immersion. WildTangent does more than 3D--we do 2D graphics, sound mixing, joy sticks and steering wheels, real-time multiplayer networking. You need all of those components integrated to create complete interactive experience."

WildTangent's technology also speeds up game development. Whereas traditional computer games based on movie themes tend to come out long after the film's release, Sony's WildTangent-based games will launch prior to release as part of the movie's initial marketing push, much the way movie the studios handle soundtracks.

WildTangent is hardly alone in the quest to popularize 3D and other graphics-intensive Web applications. Macromedia and Intel, collaborating on 3D improvements to Macromedia's Shockwave software, are expected to release a product soon.

Macromedia praised WildTangent's effort, but noted that it is vying with nearly 60 other Web 3D players now available and Shockwave's audience of 200 million players.

"It's a really targeted player built for very compelling gaming content," said Peter Ryce, senior director of Shockwave Director marketing and product management for Macromedia. "What we've got is a much broader platform. We've also got much broader deployment. Our customers want something that's cross-platform, that's not gated by the availability of hardware acceleration, and has already a large enough audience so their customers who want to see the content aren't faced with a dialog box to install a plug-in from a company that they're not familiar with."

Of the people browsing the Web, 60 percent already have the Shockwave player installed, according to Ryce.

"That's important to the Disneys of the world," he said.

Still, there may be more room for multiple players to succeed in Web 3D than in the past. Analysts sound sunnier today about the market for online gaming and other graphics applications than they have since the heyday of VRML hype.

"People got excited too early about online gaming, but I think it's going to be kicking in now," said UBS's Wallace. "We're going to be seeing better content over the next 12 to 24 months. There's been some skepticism because, like everything else, the hype starts before the technology really kicks in."