Does Vista herald a Gaming Renaissance?

Imagine that. Microsoft VP Interactive Entertainment, Peter Moore, certainly thinks so

Microsoft VP of Interactive Entertainment Peter Moore says that the company will lead a PC gaming “Renaissance” with the release of Vista, which is being touted as a gaming platform as much as an OS. Just as he believes Microsoft was “derelict in its duty” to seriously get behind PC gaming and expand the market in the past, he also thinks that the company is in the position to help it along considerably in the future.

Unsurprisingly, Rich Wickham, director of the Games for Windows Business, shares Moore’s Vista optimism, perhaps with good reason. The most recent NPD US retail figures showed PC game sales in 2006 of nearly $1 billion, up 1 percent year-over-year—obviously, that can barely be called growth, but at least it’s not declining, and those figures don’t reflect global sales or revenue generated from subscriptions and paid downloads, which are on the rise.

Last year, World of Warcraft dominated the US retail charts with nearly 1 million units, followed by The Sims 2 with 600,000. So how does Wickham expect the PC retail landscape to change in a Vista/Games for Windows world?

“I think that the 2007 [top ten sellers] list is going to look very, very different [from 2006’s] and it’s going to have a number of million sellers just in the US,” he says “…I would not be at all surprised to see five titles on this platform sell a million units in 2007,” noting upcoming games such as Spore, Crysis, Age of Conan, Hellgate: London, Supreme Commander and January’s World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade, which sold a staggering 2.4 million units in its opening day.

PC gaming for the “fallen away”

You’ve probably heard about most of Vista’s game-related offerings, perhaps most notably a little thing called DirectX 10. But with DX10 still in its infancy, at launch, Vista might seem relevant only to the hardcore gaming crowd that’s willing to cough up money for the OS and expensive graphics cards that support DX10.

Wickham says otherwise of Vista, even in the near term. “It’s not just the DirectX 10 games [that will benefit from Vista,] but great games like Spore, Enemy Territory—there’s a whole list of games that aren’t going to support DX10 but actually will run better and have a richer experience on Windows Vista,” he says.

Although casual PC gaming is on the rise, many mainstream consumers are still frankly scared of the PC gaming experience. Wickham hopes that Vista will change the complexity issue for all gamers using the new OS.

“I think it’s the casual, the fallen away, the non-core gamer that’s really going to see that [inaccessibility] improving right away,” Wickham explains, echoing strategies now permeating the console market. “They probably tried gaming one time on their PC and found it to be kind of hard. When they try it on Vista they’re going to see how much easier it is, and again that’s part of the plan and the idea to bring these folks back into the gaming universe. And that helps everyone.”

A few of Vista’s more user-friendly gaming-focused features include a more organized filing system that allows easier access to games and game saves, greater security measures, family controls and built-in family-oriented games.

This strategy to appeal to a broader gaming audience is expected to help grow the total Windows gaming market to $12 billion by 2010, growing at a rate of 14 percent annually, according to DFC Intelligence. In addition, IDC forecasts 55 million shipments of Windows Vista Home in calendar’ 07.

The face of PC gaming

Vista will be at the forefront of Microsoft’s so-called “PC game Renaissance,” but the previously-announced Games for Windows initiative will be the face of PC gaming at retail. 9,000 retail outlets in the US, Canada and Europe will carry sections with the Games for Windows branding, with 1,000 interactive kiosks and standardized packaging to please even the most anal of GameStop managers.

Wickham adds that by lowering the barriers of PC gaming with Vista and Games for Windows, it will set off a chain reaction that will help move hardware, software and expand the PC gaming area overall.

“I predict a substantial growth of retail in the US because of the release of Vista and because of some of the work that we’ve done with these game developers and the support of the Games Windows campaign—but also because there’s just a lot of great games coming this year,” he says.

Compared to Wickham, Roy Taylor, a self-proclaimed hardcore PC gamer and VP of content at Nvidia, is completely open about his need for bleeding-edge gaming tech. While Nvidia makes most of its money from mid-level “performance” grade hardware, the terms “casual gaming” or “mainstream” only came up maybe once or twice—and that was to help describe console gaming.

He also has a confession: "Everyone in the PC industry is guilty of a huge, giant conspiracy, which is, if we were really to all stand up and tell the truth—and God forbid anyone would ever do that—we’d say you don't actually need a powerful PC if all you're going to do are spreadsheets and e-mail. Frankly, you could do that with Windows 3.11 and a 486."

Of course, he's exaggerating this supposed "conspiracy" for comedic effect, but the underlying point is valid—PC games and hardcore gamers' thirst for beautiful visuals and performance drive the PC hardware market, not Joe Accountant and his need for the gnarliest office suite.

DX10 and bigger hardware sales

Vista has a bit of a leg up on the aforementioned Windows 3.11 with the inclusion of DX10, which will have a huge impact on Nvidia, which claims 90 percent of the DX9 hardware market share. Last November, Nvidia launched its flagship GeForce 8800 GPUs, which are absolute graphical monsters and just happen to be the first DX10-compatible cards.

"There's absolutely no question [that DX10 is the most significant part of Vista]," says Taylor, adding that "more DX10 products are coming fairly soon."

But what does Vista, DX10 and the Games for Windows initiative mean for Nvidia from a business perspective? In short, Taylor says "more hardware sales."

"To get the most out of Vista and DX10, you'll obviously want a better GPU,” he explains. “There's no question we're excited about that.” He adds that Nvidia estimates 13 to 14 million DX10-compatible GPUs will ship in 2007. "That might not sound like that many, but that's a lot more than Xbox 360 will sell consoles," he says.

Pretty games

From a gamer's standpoint, the whole reason to have DX10 and fancy hardware are the games. Taylor says that Nvidia has been working closely with developers who had been utilizing DX10 well before the November launch of its latest graphics cards. For instance, Nvidia has been working with Crytek since last June to help develop the jaw-dropping visuals of Crysis.

Currently, Crysis is one of best-looking DX10 games on the slate, and one that has garnered much of media's attention. But when asked to play favorites, Taylor names a different game that has impressed him the most from a graphical standpoint.

"That's an easy one: World in Conflict, which is going to be published by Vivendi [and developed by Massive Entertainment]. The first time I saw the nuke in the game, I was absolutely stunned. There are a lot of clichés in the software industry—oh my God, there are a lot of clichés—and one of them is, 'This will redefine gaming! Blah blah blah!' The one time that I'll say that a cliché isn't a cliché is this: World in Conflict genuinely blurs the line between RTS and first-person shooter. ... I'm really impressed with that."

He also points out that a number of previously-released games are already set to receive a DX10 makeover shortly, such as Relic's already great-looking RTS Company of Heroes and Microsoft's Flight Simulator X. Games coming in the near future, such as Supreme Commander, will launch with DX9, with DX10 updates coming soon after launch. Age of Conan from developer Funcom will actually be the first game to ship DX10-ready, according to Taylor.

FPSes such as Crysis are often used as technological showpieces, but Taylor knows that MMOs are a booming business, and he’s anxious to see where these graphical advancements will take the MMO genre. "MMOGs have been hugely popular and one of the big surprise hits of PC gaming. However, I think it's fair to say that even the most ardent MMOG fan would not claim that they've been graphically wonderful. They've just been okay. Age of Conan will change all of that," he claims.

Viva la… Renaissance?

With the launch of Vista today, Nvidia and Microsoft can’t afford to go to the edge of the woods and let their products free into wild like you would with some squirrel you nursed back to health. The planning to help grow the PC market is not over for either of the companies.

Taylor says that Nvidia is playing its part in creating a more active PC games market by taking on an integral role in the production of games. "The biggest thing we can do for Microsoft and the industry and everyone, is produce content. That's number one, and we're doing that. ... There's not a single DX10 game that's been mentioned in the press that we're not working on."

Adds Wickham, "[From] my perspective, this is really a turning point for the platform. There are really a number of stars that are aligned. [Microsoft has] had something to do with those stars but I think a lot of publisher and developer partners have looked at this platform again and said, ‘Wow.’ There’s a huge opportunity out there and all of those stars seem to be coming together for a great 2007.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.