||Biggest News Stories of 2006
December 18, 2006 John JCal Callaham
Summary: John goes over the top 10 biggest news stories of 2006 in the gaming world. Read on, Macduff!
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10. XNA Studio Express Announced; Launched
It’s always been the dream of many to develop a game and for PC developers it’s relatively easy to create game titles. Making console games, however, ultimately requires getting access to an expensive console dev kit. At least that was the situation until last August when Microsoft officially announced XNA Studio Express, a way to make games for both the PC and for the Xbox 360 without having to get a Xbox 360 dev kit. Microsoft officially launched the final version of XNA Studio Express just last week and opened the door for amateur game developers to use their PC to make games that can, when properly compiled, work on any Xbox 360 console (a license fee is required to make this happen).
This kind of program illustrates one of Microsoft’s biggest strong points in game development. Unlike Sony and Nintendo, Microsoft already has a strong background in creating software tools for game development. The ability for anyone with a creative bent to make a game for a console opens up game development in ways that the other two console makers haven’t even tried yet. While the full impact of XNA Studio Express won’t be felt until 2007, we think it will be not just a huge selling point for Microsoft’s console but for game development in general.
9. Live Anywhere Announced
At E3 2006 last May, Microsoft’s head man Bill Gates stepped up to the podium of his company’s pre-E3 press conference and officially announced Live Anywhere. The program, set for its full release in 2007 with the launch of Windows Vista, will allow people to play PC games alongside their Xbox 360 counterparts. So far there has been only Shadowrun has announced support for Live Anywhere, but according to Gates Live Anywhere can also be extended to mobile phones to download, say, a new car for Forza Motorsport 2 that can be added to the full game later.
This interoperability between Vista, Xbox 360 and supported mobile phones could be a pretty major development in games. There are still some questions we have such as how the PC and Xbox 360 gamers will play against each other (especially when it comes to possible PC cheating) but much like XNA Studio Express opens up game development to the masses, Live Anywhere could blur the definitions of PC and console gaming. We look forward to seeing how this will work in 2007.
8. Alienware and VoodooPC Buyouts
Anyone who thought that PC gaming was dead forgot to tell the gaming PC boutique makers such as Alienware and VoodooPC. Their machines as well as ones from other similar companies have gotten a lot of mainstream media attention as they became successful at catering to PC customers who want every last ounce of performance – and image – they can squeeze out of computer hardware. So it was a shock when it was announced in March during the Game Developers Conference that Alienware announced it was being purchased by Dell, the single largest PC maker in the world. Later this year, VoodooPC announced its own buyout by HP, Dell’s biggest rival.
While both Alienware and VoodooPC have maintained their independence for the most part after their sales were completed, these actions show that the large PC makers like Dell and HP appreciate the market for high end PCs made for hardcore gamers. Gamers are no longer some tiny niche market to them but a force to be reckoned with, and as we enter 2007 we will see just how seriously Dell and HP are willing to come down on the side of the PC in the gaming wars.
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7. Doug Lowenstein To Step Down As Head Of ESA
Lowenstein founded the video-PC game trade group in Washington DC after the industry got attacked by lawmakers over violent content in games like Mortal Kombat and other titles. The ESA’s main purpose is to be a sounding board for the industry to federal officials. Lowenstein has watched the game industry grow by leaps and bounds in his 12 year watch. He helped to establish the ESRB rating system that nearly every video and PC game in the US uses. He has successfully led court fights against laws in US states and cities that have tried to impose sales restrictions on games. He also helped to form E3, the single most important trade show in the video game industry until just recently.
His departure comes at an interesting crossroads for the industry. Lowenstein will exit the ESA with the industry at its high point in terms of sales yet still under attack by some lawmakers for its content and its ratings system. Whomever replaces Lowenstein will have a big job to take on in 2007.
6. AGEIA PhysX Hardware Card Launches
Game graphics have gotten most of the attention from PC hardware but physics effects have slowly become more important in the past few years. This year marked the first time that a company released a PC hardware product that accelerated not graphical features but physics features. AGEIA launched their PhysX card through third party makers like BFG and ASUS and Dell and Alienware, among others, offered PhysX cards in their systems.
At the moment the effect of the PhysX card on the game industry is still something that can be debated as only a few PC games have been released that take atvantage of the PhysX card (these include City of Villians, Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter and the free demo CellFactor). Havok, which has supplied a software physics solution for game developers for some time, sent out notes to the press that attempted to downplay AGEIA’s hardware solution. In March, the company demonstrated Havok FX which used NVIDIA’s GPU to accelerate PC game physics effects. In early June, Havok announced a plan to team up with graphics chip maker ATI on a way to use ATI’s Crossfire solution to offer hardware accelerated PC game physics. So far there has been no news on the progress of either plan.
Having more interactivity and more physics effects in games has becoming more important in game development and the addition of hardware acceleration could be a huge leap in 2007 when more AGEIA based games are released and when ATI’s hardware solution combined with Havok is scheduled to begin.
5. Windows Vista Delayed To January 2007
It hit the PC game industry with a huge bolt in March 2006 with the announcement by Microsoft that their Windows Vista operating system would not launch for consumers by the fall of this year but in January 2007. All those plans for people to buy new PCs for Christmas with Vista inside got put off as a result.
PC gaming pretty much is tied into Microsoft’s operating systems so any delay of Vista would affect the game industry. Microsoft had announced plans to beef up its promotion of PC gaming with the launch of Vista with its new Games for Windows program so the fact that it would miss the all important holiday shopping season had to be a major blow in that effort. While it may have been just a coincidence, many PC games that were planned for release in 2006 were pushed back into 2007 (Crysis, Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, World of Warcraft: Burning Crusade, etc). This makes the upcoming year as the prime entry point for a ton of major PC only titles.
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4. DirectX10 To Be Windows Vista Only
There’s always a transitional period with each DirectX release but the fact that DirectX10 launches exclusively to Vista caught some PC gamers off guard and some complained that Microsoft was too quick in dumping Windows XP which will likely be around on many gamer’s PC for a couple of years to come. Yet it’s also true that the first true DirectX10 games will be few and far between in 2007 which should ease the transition as gamers make their way to upgrading to Vista.
3. E3 2007 Scaled Down
For over 10 years, the Electronic Entertainment Expo has been the single biggest event for major PC and console game announcements. The massive show got attention from both game and mainstream media as tens of thousands of people checked out what was coming up in the next year. Huge announcements, big parties and booth babes all combined to make E3 a gamer’s dream come true.
That dream may have come to a halt as the ESA announced last July that they were scaling back E3 in 2007 to an invite only event with only a few thousand attending in a series of hotel room suites in Santa Monica rather than the massive Los Angeles Convention Center. Rumors flew that the game publishers got tired of spending millions of dollars for E3 exhibits, parties and other expenses. Most of the details of the new E3 2007 are still under wraps at the ESA. With president Doug Lowenstein’s planned departure before E3 2007 begins it remains to be seen how E3 will make the change from a huge party to a small meeting room event.
One thing that is clear is that with the scaling back of E3 there are efforts being made to fill the void with events like the Game Developers Conference, PAX, and the German Games Convention being expanded and a new and so far unnamed October 2007 event in LA planned. It looks like cancelling E3, rather than saving money for publishers, will simply redistribute their funds to other shows.
2. AMD Purchases ATI
It’s without a doubt the biggest story in the PC hardware industry in 2006 as PC processor maker AMD announced in the summer their plans to purchase graphics chip maker ATI. The deal, which officially closed this year as well, has huge effects for PC gaming as well. With the purchase, AMD plans to enter the graphical race head on against ATI’s former rival NVIDIA. AMD has already announced plans to create a hybrid graphics-PC processor for release sometime in 2008. More ominous, however, is the prospect that AMD is simply buying ATI for its engineers to help in AMD’s struggles against Intel.
At the moment the effects of this purchase have yet to be felt by the PC gamer-consumer but we should soon see how AMD’s purchase of ATI will change PC hardware and as a result the choices and features that PC gamers will have. Will this deal help or hurt NVIDIA? How will Intel be affected? 2007 will be the time when PC gamers will get a full view of how this important event will affect them.
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1. The Playstation 3 and Nintendo Wii Launches
It began just before last May’s E3 when Nintendo announced it was naming its new console the Wii, dumping the previously announced title Revolution. The name change caused something of a rebellion among gamers and there is still debate to this day as to whether the name change was a good idea. What can’t be debated is the impact the Wii had for its launch in the US on Nov. 19. Nintendo’s new idea of a motion sensing controller that looked like a TV remote was designed to bring people who had never played video games to the Wii. The fact that Nintendo decided to make their long awaited GameCube title Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess a Wii launch title helped a lot as well. The results were instant sell outs for the Wii not just in the US but in Europe and Japan, despite some solid shipment numbers of over 400,000 units for the month of November in the US.
It wasn’t as smooth of a launch for Sony’s PS3. The company announced at its E3 press conference that there would be over a million PS3 units for the US launch but that the console would be priced at $499 and $599 for its two models. While the PS3 has a huge leg up on the Wii in graphics and for online play, the expensive price announcement turned many people off. Sony dug themselves a bigger hole when it announced a few months later that they would have only 400,000 units for the PS3 launch and that the PS3 wouldn’t be launched in Europe until March 2007. As it turned out, the official launch numbers were less than 200,000 consoles for the US. This caused instant sell-outs, but the jury is still out on if the PS3 will be as successful as Sony’s two previous consoles, thanks to the year head start for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and the price point and motion sensing features of the Wii.
Will Sony recover and release games for the PS3 that will be hardware sellers for the console? Can Nintendo keep up the attention that it has received for the Wii with a series of games that truly use the controller at its best? Will Microsoft beat them both with its online service and its 2007 line up of games? Will Windows Vista reinvigorate PC gaming after several years of decline? By this time next year we should get the answers to these questions.