Has Gates got game?

How important is the gaming market to Microsoft? Consider their press conference at E3 in Los Angeles (the gaming industry’s biggest yearly show), where, much to the shock of all assembled, Bill Gates himself made an appearance, not to discuss hot button issues such as security or server development, but gaming.

Gates showed up at Grauman’s Chinese Theater to launch Microsoft’s next volley in the battle for your living room and entertainment dollar — Xbox Live Anywhere. XLA will ship with Vista as a built-in feature that allows gamers to have the same interface and options, whether they are playing on their cell, PC or console. More interestingly, this also opens the door to cross-platform gaming between users of these devices.

The implications of this are staggering, and, I’m sure, not at all lost on Mr. Gates himself.

“The vision here is that each platform plays its own role, and the platform development tools let you share everything,” Gates said at E3. “It will be part of Windows Vista. When it ships in January, this capability will be built in. It means you will have one online community. One user interface, awards, friends, one marketplace (to purchase games and entertainment from).”

What this really means is that Microsoft sees this as an opportunity to corner yet another market and, despite what you may think, if they build it, gamers will come.

In fact, they are already there. Microsoft has five million Xbox live players.

If (as his quote suggests) Microsoft is smart enough to reward high rankers and tournament winners with prizes, they are making just the right move, since, as any experienced gamer will tell you, it is rewards and recognition of high rank that keep players coming back.

Gates also mentioned that gamers could keep one handle or tag (gaming nickname) for all their platforms. Don’t underestimate the attraction of this announcement — reputation is everything in the online gaming world and keeping your nick across platforms just gives the hard-line gamers more opportunity to build their rep and develop personas in online communities.

However, one area where Gates may be missing the boat is the seemingly misplaced priorities among game developers, who are directing more resources at photo realistic effects than playability. Creating these graphics is a huge drain on resources, and means other important game features go undeveloped.

In the end, it doesn’t matter how pretty a game is if it’s not fun and compelling. Any game that forgets to follow this mantra is likely to do as well as a loose rabbit in a lion cage.

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