Microsoft announced yesterday that it was extending the online gaming service for its Xbox consoles to the millions of people who use Windows PCs to play games over the Internet, a move that could bolster the popularity — and profits — of video gaming.
Xbox Live, Microsoft’s online gaming network that serves some six million Xbox users, is scheduled on May 8 to open its basic and premium features to online PC gamers under the rubric of Games for Windows — Live, Microsoft executives said.
The service coincides with the much-anticipated release of a Windows Vista version of Microsoft’s best-selling combat game, Halo 2.
“The benefit of expanding Live to Games for Windows titles is twofold,” Peter Moore, corporate vice president for interactive entertainment at Microsoft, said in a statement. “We’re bringing together two communities that share a passion for playing online games, and we’re enhancing the online experience for PC gamers who have long desired seamless game and voice connectivity.”
While much of the $10 billion gaming industry has focused on next-generation game consoles like Sony’s PlayStation 3 and Nintendo’s Wii, most games are still played on personal computers, which are far more numerous than dedicated gaming machines.
But as multiplayer video gaming online grew more refined on console-only networks, some PC gamers became frustrated that they could not enjoy a similar experience, video game specialists noted.
Aaron Greenberg, group product manager for Xbox 360 and Xbox Live, said that bringing Xbox Live to the more than “200 million PC gamers out there playing on Windows PCs” was no small feat.
Part of what that would mean, Mr. Greenberg said, is that PC gamers would have a single identity online, a gamer tag that would follow them regardless of what game they were playing.
Other features would include text and voice chat, and a unified friends list and list of achievements for games whether they are played on the Xbox 360 or a Windows-based PC. The expanded service, which will have basic and premium tiers, will not work for games intended to play on Macintosh computers, he said.
Ross Rubin, the director of industry analysis for the NPD Group, noted that Microsoft’s inclusion of PC game players into its online network was part of a broader initiative announced last year to bridge gaming platforms — first console and PC, and eventually cellphone.
One benefit of permitting Xbox and PC gamers to play over the same network is that it revitalizes the focus of game developers on Windows. This comes at a time when Intel’s new class of multicore microprocessors, as well as expanded graphics capabilities from companies like Nvidia and Microsoft’s Vista operating system, are enhancing the play of video games on personal computers.
And some gamers prefer PC gaming because of the depth and control they say they have when using a mouse and keyboard instead of a game pad.
In some cases, Mr. Rubin said, unifying online gaming could let developers sell two versions of the game to the same person so the player could experience it on the console and PC.
“It allows them to leverage the tremendous investment — billions of dollars — it has made in the past few years in creating and refining and upgrading Xbox Live,” Mr. Rubin said of Microsoft’s move. “It offers it to a new group of users. It bridges that gap that exists between sometimes totally different kinds of gamers,” who also approach video gaming in radically different ways.
In fact, in June a new game, Shadowrun, is expected to be released and is designed to permit, for the first time, Windows gamers to connect with Xbox 360 users in cross-platform matches, said Kevin Unangst, director of global marketing for Games for Windows. Later this year, he said, another game, UNO, would also be available for similar Xbox 360 and PC play.
He said the basic level of the expanded service, known as a silver membership, was free. A gold membership, required for multiplatform gaming among other advanced features, would cost $50 a year, the same as current Xbox Live gold memberships, which automatically have access to the Windows expansion.