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'Doom 3' may doom users' current systems

Power-mad gaming titles may spur demand for high-end hardware upgrades.

The latest versions of popular gaming titles such as "Doom" and "Half-Life" will have PC owners tracking down hardware upgrades to keep up with the demanding requirements of these power-hungry programs.

The recent addition to the "Doom" franchise, "Doom 3," went on sale this week and currently holds the No. 1 sales rank on online Web retailer Amazon.com. But the game may be a boon for more than just game developer Id Software and publisher Activision. With heavy-duty system requirements, high-end games like "Doom 3" may end up earning money for hardware companies, specifically makers of graphics cards and chips.

Gamers have become an important audience for high-end PC specialists, prone to some of the same hot-rod urges that motivate car buffs. Devotees of fast-paced shooting games often arm themselves with PCs featuring the latest graphics chip, which can make the difference between victory or ignominy during "LAN parties," one- or two-day events in which serious gamers gather to compete on networked PCs.

Bill Rehbock, head of developer relations at graphics card maker Nvidia, said he expected the sales of such performance-demanding games to transfer to graphics cards because the two go hand-in-hand. He said he expected the sales boost to continue into the holiday season as more high-end titles come out.

When it comes to PC shipments, gaming systems are just a blip, but they are an important indicator of where the market is headed.

"High-end gaming is rarefied, but it sets the pace for everyone else," said Roger Kay, an analyst with research firm IDC. "Its actions imply the mainstream will be headed in that direction soon enough."

Kay added that until 1997, the PC and hardware industry seemed to be outstripping the software industry in performance, which played a part in average system prices coming down. However demanding applications led by gaming titles are now challenging hardware performance, and system prices are creeping back up.

"Games are on the leading edge and creating a reason to upgrade," Kay said.

Anthony Kros of research firm Gartner agreed. "It's really interesting how an application can create a whole upgrade cycle for a class of users that is small but growing," Kros said.

System requirements, which are the minimum components needed in a PC to play the game, are often souped up compared to the average system. For "Doom 3" they include, according to Amazon.com: Microsoft Windows 2000/XP, a 1.5GHz Pentium 4 or an equivalent AMD Athlon processor, 384MB of RAM and various high-end video cards. Integrated graphics chipsets are not part of the requirements mix.

But Kros said that players using those recommended components may have a less-than-ideal gaming experience. He said that set of requirements was probably listed to appeal to as large an audience as possible.

The average desktop PC in the market today has a 3GHz processor and 512MB of memory, according to Kros. These specifications are good enough to handle these games, but PCs that came out a year or two ago may not be. Memory in PCs doubles about every 18 months while processor speeds jump 50 percent to 60 percent a year.