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Games for Windows: Microsoft Defends The PC With New Project

As consoles come to dominate the electronic gaming landscape, and PC game sales decline, Microsoft seems determined to erect a sea wall against further erosion of the desktop platform. The company launched last week the Games for Windows and Windows XP Extras programs for gaming, a promotional effort in partnership with major game publishers.

Headquartered at , the project involves an online advisor for consumers in-market for PC games as well as promotion of leading titles new and upcoming and regularly scheduled releases of exclusive downloadables related to games. In other words, Microsoft's Windows division seems to be reaching out to the game publishing community as more of a marketing partner.

Until now, Susan Kittleson of Microsoft tells EGB, "we have not engaged gamers when we talk about Windows as a platform. We are making sure that Windows is very much behind gaming." For instance, the online Game Advisor is an automated guide to help consumers find the game that is right for their tastes and for their system requirement. Microsoft's own focus groups have shown that PC gaming suffers from a tech spec problem. "People are somewhat intimidated in buying a game for the PC because they aren't sure it will run," she says. Publishers can submit the tech specs for their library of titles to Kittleson's team for inclusion in the Game Advisor database.

Extra, Extra

For publishers, the most promising part of Microsoft's initiative is the Extras program in which the company offers a monthly slate of downloads, additional levels, media skins, and other game add-ons that help promote and extend the life of PC titles. The Extras program acknowledges one of the market realities of PC game publishing, that sales on this platform may have declined overall, but game franchises have lucrative staying power here. Microsoft points to NPD/Funworld figures that show expansion pack sales for PC games grew from 2.7 million units sold in 2001 to 3.1 million in 2002.

The Extras program will feature substantial new downloadable assets for a single game title each month, and minor downloads for some other titles. Buena Vista's Tron 2.0 is the inaugural title in the program, offering gamers bonus levels for the FPS hit. According to Kittleson, the Extras program will keep to a schedule of featuring one major title each month, "to really focus on one title and ensure each publishing partner and their title great visibility."

"We are interested in a variety of different content for the XP Extras program," says Kittleson, "such as new downloadable levels and maps, game-themed Windows Media Player skins, desktop themes, interactive desktop games, MODs, etc." The promotional plan and restrictions are decided on a case-by-case basis with each publisher. "We try to customize the program for each title. With Tron they were interested in the core market but also expanding to a larger consumer base so we picked online sites that matched their need."

Publishers themselves pay nothing for this partnership, she says, but the content itself must be available for the title only on the Windows platform, and it must be exclusive to the Windows XP Extras site for the first 72 hours. After the 72-hour exclusivity window, publishers can distribute the additional content themselves. Microsoft plans to release the Extras packages on the first Friday of every month, and it has partnered with CNet's GameSpot as an additional distribution point (

Kittleson says that she and her team are already establishing relationships with the major publishers, and "We're pretty well booked heading into the new calendar year. We're always open to hearing from other publishers and content. Basically, things are getting booked on a first come, first served basis."

The program is still quite young in that the Microsoft team only started discussions with publishers in August and is not set yet on all of the promotional tools it will use. Kittleson says only that the company is looking into ways of tying the games promotion in with the ubiquitous presence of Windows XP itself at retail and the ways in which it can also promote upcoming titles.

The PC Future?

For our money, the Microsoft program is like all things Microsoftian: promising but slow to find its sea legs. The site is functional but not nearly as stylish and inviting as the Xbox site. The program also needs a direct marketing mechanism. There is no dedicated email newsletter sign-up at the site for notifying users of the new content.

If and when Microsoft decides to leverage better the Windows XP marketing machine and total retail penetration to promote gaming, then the Games for XP program may have some serious muscle that could really supplement a major publisher's marketing effort. For now, smaller publishers may see the greatest opportunity here, and Kittleson says she is eager to include a wider range of companies in both the Extras program and the Game Advisor.

Then, of course, there is the larger question of whether efforts like this on Microsoft's part really can slow or stop what appears to be a steady decline of PC gaming into niche status.

Kittleson rejects the notion that the PC is in decline as a gaming platform, pointing to massive anticipation for Valve's Half-Life 2 and id's Doom3. "The tide turned on its own," she says. The XP gaming initiative is promoting the platform's older-skewing audience, its hardware power, and its easy and fast networking.

But Kittleson is pointing to two high profile titles that also, famously, will not make the Christmas sales season as promised. By the time Valve and id do get around to goosing unit sales for this platform next year, it could very well have suffered a very tough Christmas.

Contacts: Susan Kittleson, 206/223-1606 (via Edelman PR)

[Copyright 2003 PBI Media, LLC. All rights reserved.]

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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