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September 23, 2003
By Andy Eddy
Continuing the look at games as a mainstream consideration that's been the subject of this column for the past few weeks in one form or another, there's the announcement that Intel is developing a new version of its Pentium 4 processor, which it will call "Pentium 4 with Hyperthreading Technology, Extreme Edition." The info was released as part of the Intel Developer Forum that was held in San Jose last week.

Long, goofy name aside -- does anyone else think the word "extreme" has been getting too much play over the last few years? -- this is nice for a few reasons. First among them is the obvious attention that Intel is giving the game industry and its consumers, enough so that it wants to address the market with a target-specific chip. The processor, which will reportedly be available in one to two months, is said to be a speedy 3.2 GHz brain with 512K of Level 2 cache (standard for Pentium 4s), but also feature a Level 3 cache of 2 MB, which media sources say will help in graphics-heavy software.

But it's also good to see that Intel is looking at the needs of individual segments, and catering its offerings to them. It's the old supply-and-demand of consumer products, that if there's a big enough market for something -- even a specialized product such as this one -- it might be worth the added cost to release that niche item.

The potential downside that this chip has is its likely cost. According to a PC World report on the announcement, the Extreme Edition specs makes it seem more like a version of Intel's Xeon chip than the standard P4 chip. Intel's pricing for the standard P4 is about $640, while the Xeon (which is mostly targeted to high-end servers and workstations) costs about $3700. While certainly Intel will have to find a happy middle ground if it hopes to cater to gamers, it makes sense that the chipmaker would say that the Extreme Edition is being aimed at "high-end gamers and computing power users," according to the NewsFactor news service.

With the heavy number-crunching demands that today's slate of games will need -- Doom III and Half-Life 2 won't be confused with Pong and Tetris, and their detailed graphics come with a heavy processing cost -- it'll be interesting to see how Intel positions the Extreme Edition chip … and indeed whether it's something that will catch on with more than extreme gamers who want to milk the most out of their systems through overclocking and advanced cooling systems.

Chips II

Oh, and it's also important to note that Intel's gathering comes just before AMD's planned (and long-awaited) launch of its Athlon 64 chip on Tuesday. And, if you want to gauge how much gaming plays into that company's plans, you don't have to go much further than the Athlon 64 information page, which quotes Epic Games' Tim Sweeney (Unreal) about the importance of 64-bit processors to the future of his company's software.

I'll be at the AMD event, so I'll probably have more to say in next week's column. I'm curious how much gaming will make it into the presentation. It reminds me of how Apple has always said how important games are to its plans, but when it comes down to major marketing efforts, there ends up being very little said about games and the Macintosh -- aside from the regular appearances on the stage with Steve Jobs by id Software's John Carmack, who inevitably is called to show off his latest game graphics and how it's so easy to accomplish on the Mac. The long-time perception has been that Apple appreciates what games can do to inspire its public, but if it got behind a "games are great on the Mac" bandwagon too much, it might hurt its marketing as a serious business and education computer.

E.T., Frag Home…

When it comes to trends, there are obvious ones and there are more subtle ones. One of trends I'd put in the subtle -- yet entirely prominent and increasingly ubiquitous -- column is Voice Over IP (VOIP). Simply put, if you're not already aware, it's the ability to have a chat with another (or others) through the Internet. With the growth of broadband this is becoming a consideration of businesses, and even to a consumer population, in hopes that phone calls can be carried over the Internet … and do it for cheaper than the phone company can offer it. Though it's not something to go into detail on here, one company that hopes it'll catch on is Vonage, which offers a $40 package for unlimited calls in the U.S. and Canada.

The Voip trend is hitting the game world in force, too. Yes, there have been scattered offerings of voice chat within a game -- one of the earliest I remember is FireTeam by the now defunct Multitude, but also with the Roger Wilco software offering and Microsoft's GameVoice hardware/software combo. However, it seems that Voip is becoming more common in new interactive-entertainment releases: Unreal Tournament 2004, the Xbox Live game service, various PlayStation 2 online games (beginning with last year's SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs), and even the quirky There virtual world.

Voip in such cases isn't as flexible as a phone -- you can't call someone at their house or mobile phone from these products -- but if both people are using the software already or one person calls the other to plan it out, it's an open door to chat away for no added cost. No, there's no way I'll ever say to my mother, "Hey, Mom, at 7pm tomorrow, let's meet in that deathmatch map we both like, and we can catch up on things," but I can certainly see people taking advantage of all-you-can-eat broadband connections and a free-to-use Voip feature integrated into the software to lessen their reliance on phone company charges. And maybe we're not that far away from being able to dial up someone's number from within a deathmatch.

Microsoft held its X03 European conference in France last week, and out of that came a series of announcements. Among them was the launch next month of Xbox Live in six more countries: Austria, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Norway, and Switzerland. Fourteen European countries now have the online game service available, with new pricing of 4.99 pounds/6.99 euros (approximately $8 U.S.) on a monthly basis, or 39.99 pounds/59.99 euros (approximately $65-70 U.S.) for an annual subscription. And European Xbox owners will also have the opportunity to try out Xbox Live through the purchase of certain games, with two-month free trials offered as part of the software buy.

In a separate X03 announcement, Microsoft stated that it has signed on for a partnership with Epic Games. Under the pact, Epic and its Scion Studios subsidiary will "develop several new games exclusively for Xbox and Windows."

Star Wars: The Clone Wars is one of two games being offered in a new Xbox retail bundle.

There were also some Xbox announcements outside the X03 realm. Microsoft noted that it has created a holiday hardware bundle that consists of an Xbox console, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Tetris Worlds Live, and a two-month trial to Xbox Live for $179.99. The promotion -- which started on September 17 with some retailers combining the items -- will also feature a boxed version of the collection starting October 15.

Finally, Microsoft signed an agreement with Eatsleepmusic to add karaoke tunes to the forthcoming Xbox Music Mixer multimedia package. Users of Music Mixer, which will ship to stores on October 14, will have access to over 20,000 downloadable tracks, with the added songs coming in ten packs of five each; pricing will be about $10 per pack. Microsoft expects to have over 30 packs available through the holiday season, and is launching a special website to handle that segment. Artists whose songs will be offered include 3 Doors Down, Christina Aguilera, Good Charlotte, and Smash Mouth.

Atari announced a three-year licensing deal that will have it as the "exclusive U.S. jewel-case distributor for select Windows titles developed by Microsoft Game Studios." Among the titles that will be republished are Age of Empires -- Gold Edition, Microsoft Flight Simulator '98, Crimson Skies, and Starlancer.

  • In a separate financial announcement, Atari indicated that it has set the terms for its over $200 million recapitalization, which comes out of an agreement it has with its parent, Infogrames Entertainment SA. The funds will be generated by the issuance of new shares to Infogrames and in a public offering. The move will eliminate Atari's long-term debt, and put it in a "much stronger cash position to face the challenges of the future," said Bruno Bonnell, Atari's chairman/CEO.

  • Namco Hometek has signed a licensing deal with Canada's Hip Interactive that will bring several of Namco's game titles to the PC. The previously announced PC take of Dead to Rights -- which is due out this fall in North America and Europe -- will be joined by such games as kill.switch and Pac-Man World 2 across those regions in 2004.

    Konami and Playmates Toys will dish game codes with action figure purchases.

    Konami has stated that it's partnering with Playmates Toys to share game codes in Playmates' line of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures. The codes will be good for the forthcoming release of Konami's latest TMNT game, which comes out on October 21 for Game Boy Advance, GameCube, PC, PlayStation 2, and Xbox. Playmates will also add three new TMNT figures to its catalog starting late this year: The Foot Gunner (December), The Evil Turtlebot, and The Giant Mouser (both next spring).

    In a separate announcement, Konami also said that it has signed with Davis Films to produce a movie developed out of the Silent Hill game franchise. Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo will also assist in the production of the film. The movie will be directed by Christophe Gans (Crying Freeman).

  • Jaleco Entertainment has indicated that it's partnering with magazine publisher Primedia to create a "rhythm-action video game" tied in to Lowrider magazine. The game will come out in November for PlayStation 2, and be co-promoted in Lowrider; and Jaleco will sponsor next month's Go-Lo/Lowrider Legends Tour 2003 Super Show in Las Vegas.

  • Electronic Arts has announced the launch of the EA Partners business unit, which will manage the publishing giant's "worldwide distribution and co-publishing relationships of third-party products." The new unit comes out of what was called EA Distribution, and it will work with independent studios and publishers to help ship their games on a worldwide basis. Current relationships under the EA Partners umbrella include Fox Interactive, Lego Interactive and Lionhead Studios. The company stated that it's looking to grow its "externally sourced business," which currently has revenues of about $300 million.

  • Sony Computer Entertainment America (SCEA) has added another music tour to its sponsorship lineup. The company will help launch the PlayStation 2 Road to Voodoo tour, which starts in San Francisco on September 29. The tour -- which includes Fuel, Smile Empty Soul, and DJ Swamp -- will hit 21 clubs across the country through September and October.

    The deal will also have SCEA backing the 2003 Voodoo Music Experience festival, which runs October 31-November 2 in New Orleans. Featured artists include 50 Cent, Marilyn Manson, Queens of the Stone Age, and Staind in addition to the Road to Voodoo bands. This is the fourth year SCEA has sponsored the event.

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    †AK and HI residents pay $29.95 shipping. ††Limited time offer. Valid for residents of the United States (&DC), 18 years or older, who open new accounts. Offer good while supplies last and only on new account activations. One kit per account/household. Offer cannot be combined with any other discounts, promotions or plans and is not applicable to past purchases. Good while supplies last. Allow up to 2 weeks for shipping. Other restrictions may apply.

    1Unlimited calling and other services for all residential plans are based on normal residential, personal, non-commercial use. A combination of factors is used to determine abnormal use, including but not limited to: the number of unique numbers called, calls forwarded, minutes used and other factors. Subject to our Reasonable Use Policy and Terms of Service.

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    HIGH SPEED INTERNET REQUIRED. †VALID FOR NEW LINES ONLY. RATES EXCLUDE INTERNET SERVICE, SURCHARGES, FEES AND TAXES. DEVICE MAY BE REFURBISHED. If you subscribe to plans with monthly minutes allotments, all call minutes placed from both from your home and registered ExtensionsTM phones will count toward your monthly minutes allotment. ExtensionsTM calls made from mobiles use airtime and may incur surcharges, depending on your mobile plan. Alarms, TTY and other systems may not be compatible. Vonage 911 service operates differently than traditional 911. See for details.

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