Microsoft shoots for NT gaming standard

Now that his work is done conquering the desktop, Bill Gates is headed for the arcade.

Now that his work is done conquering the desktop, Bill Gates is headed for the arcade.

As part of a major push into all levels of video gaming, Microsoft is hatching a strategy to standardise coin-operated arcade games on the Windows NT operating system, James Spahn, new business development manager in Microsoft's multimedia technologies group, says.

First introduced to the coin-op community in late September, the strategy will move forward this month with the launch of an API (application programming interface) that enables developers to add arcade functionality, such as coin counting, to games running in a Windows-based environment, Spahn says.

Called DirectArcade, the tool is a component of Microsoft's DirectX set of APIs for interactive game development. It is set to be launched at Microsoft's Judgment Day 2 developer conference in Alameda, California, taking place on November 22 and 23.

DirectArcade is also the linchpin of a Microsoft-devised specification that the company hopes will standardise the fragmented arcade game industry, he says. "What we are proposing is an NT-based arcade PC," Spahn says. Microsoft is now trying to sell the idea to major PC and video game console makers in the US and Japan.

Under the current coin-op business model, large vendors such as Sega build stand-alone games with proprietary software and consoles that differ from game to game. By bringing the open systems model to arcade gaming, Microsoft aims to turn around the gaming industry's declining fortunes. In the US, for instance, since 1992 the amount of money put into coin-operated video games has fallen by one-third. Microsoft plans to offer the industry a standard platform that will lead to lower costs, increased flexibility and a larger universe of games, Spahn says.

Though not finalised, the Microsoft standard will include minimum performance requirements and a standard game-control interface for an NT-based PC that would fit into a standard console chassis, he says. With a standard chassis, game makers could ship just the software and "decor", or the machine's outer layer, that are specific to their game. The arcade would then be able to install the game and snap on the decor and control panels.

Then, if the arcade were to hold a Virtual Fighter tournament, it could quickly convert its rows of standard consoles to the popular kick boxing game and afterward change them back. The arcade PCs will be networked, making it easier for an arcade to manage its money collection while monitoring usage patterns of games. In addition the networked games could enable arcades to offer mulitplayer online gaming, Spahn says.

The company expects the first arcade PCs to appear in the middle of next year. "We have a good starting point," Spahn says. "Not a single company is in disagreement with the standardization part. It's just the implementation."

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