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Q&A: WildTangent's St. John On Vista, The PC Gaming Future

WildTangent CEO and founder Alex St. John previously contributed a much-discussed editorial on Windows Vista and gaming to Gamasutra, and in this Q&A, he returns to discuss his stil
As the CEO and founder of casual game firm WildTangent, Alex St. John has been one of the most vocal members of the PC gaming community for years. The executive was the original force behind DOS compatibility with Windows 95 and the Windows Game SDK project, which eventually became DirectX, and has an unique take on where the PC gaming market has been, and where it is headed. He has also been one of the most outspoken opponents of Microsoft's Vista operating system, the subject of a rather heated editorial he penned for Gamasutra in January. Recently we were able to revisit the issue with Alex to see if, now six months later, his opinion has changed. We also quizzed him on why he feels PC gaming is here to stay, and how he hopes WildTangent will change how we play our games online. Let's address the proverbial 900-pound gorilla first. Earlier this year you wrote a passionate, if opinionated piece for Gamasutra on the state of Windows Vista. Has your opinion of the operating system and gaming platform changed since that time? No, I take personal offense at the sloppy job Microsoft did on Vista gaming support. They made a mess; they were told they were making a mess long in advance of shipping it. The biggest problems were easily avoided; they made arbitrary changes to the OS environment that added no value or security but made life tougher for Windows game developers. They should be ashamed of themselves. They completely forgot the technology lessons that made DirectX wildly successful and popular with game developers - Keep the OS lean and out of the way. Vista is the opposite of that: a giant bloated, slow, intrusive resource consuming beast. Fortunately PC game developers are an extremely ingenious and persevering bunch. They'll find their way around Vista's mess just as we had to. I'm a "retired" ex-Microsoft OS engineer, and I can think of a dozen better ways they could have built a secure consumer friendly OS that ran the most important consumer applications people buy well. To be fair to the guys working on gaming at Microsoft, I believe that people responsible for security plumbing in Vista had an “overwhelming” influence on the new OS which affected everything else people were working on. I don’t have the impression that the gaming guys at MS had sufficient influence to stem the tide of security nonsense that got imposed on them. We guess this is the case because of the many situations in Vista where they broke or impaired their own premier applications with security changes that had to be worked around to remain compatible. Nobody working on MS applications would have done this to themselves if they were in control. Very few consumer applications, especially games, inter-operate with each other. It would all have been incredibly simple and secure to run each of these applications in their own sandboxed XP OS instance. This would have made the transition for developers and driver writers to a more secure OS computing environment smoother and given Microsoft time to refine their security approach instead of dropping it unilaterally on the market. A “smart” use of OS bloat would be to carve Windows down to the simplest, cleanest, secure core possible and let applications carry their own copies and correct versions of any OS components they rely on with them. Each application would be trusted to dynamically update itself as needed within its own OS sandbox. The result would be, fast boot times, leaner use of RAM and CPU resources, better backwards compatibility and highly simple and reliable per application security at the cost of a fuller hard drive. I’ve always marveled at Intel’s incredible track record of backwards compatibility over many many chip generations and architecture changes. It’s a phenomenal achievement in maintaining continuity while constantly innovating. Microsoft could learn a lot from taking the same approach to OS backwards compatibility, while innovating. So what do you feel is the one thing is most missing from Vista as a viable gaming platform? And maybe more importantly, is it fixable? Vista's security model is highly obstructive and intrusive to gaming, not to mention insecure! Modern Intel and AMD chips are extraordinarily powerful virtualization engines. Microsoft could easily have run a full version of Windows XP for every application completely isolated from the rest of the system or every other virtualized OS instance. It would have been 100 percent compatible with all existing software, games and video drivers, totally secure and easy for consumers to transition from. This is what Apple basically does to run Windows applications. Instead they made some bizarre convoluted security mess with half backed backwards compatibility and forced it on the entire market simultaneously. Crazy.. I think they've totally lost it. Vista aside, what is your opinion of the current state of PC gaming? Many would argue that PC gaming is being stifled by the growing popularity of console gaming. The interesting thing about PC gaming is that because it's an open publishing environment gaming has evolved on it vastly beyond what modern proprietary consoles have been able to keep up with. While the traditional boxed product guys report the death of PC gaming because of the collapse of boxed sales they ignore the phenomenal growth in alternative business models for PC gaming that generate over a billion dollars annually in unreported subscription, advertising and online download revenues. The PC is and will remain the largest "other console" and still represents a multi-billion dollar game market. The difference is that the revenue has moved online, while the console guys are still trapped in boxes. Most any modern PC consumers buy today is a superior gaming device to any next generation console and it will very quickly become obvious to consumers that while next generation consoles don't evolve, each new PC vastly exceeds the installed base of consoles in gaming capabilities. A recent Stanford Study reports that online gaming is the number one online activity people engage in after email and chat. Playing games is the number one purchase consideration consumers have when buying a new PC, and playing games is the number one use of a home PC offline. Downloadable games are also the number one purchased digital media asset on the Internet, outstripping music, video, e-cards, etc. in revenues. Another recent study shows that over 65 percent of all PC users play games. That said, at the most recent E3, PC gaming seemed to be at an all-time low in terms of profile, while console gaming took center stage. Why do you think this was the case? PC gaming has moved online. We don't need a show for consumers to try new games that can only be purchased in boxes; PC gamers can try new games for free on the Internet. Free trials are the new business model for gaming. From now on, consumers will expect to play a game for themselves free on demand before paying for it. Speaking of online, how is WildTangent impacting online gaming? You can't beat free premium games for popularity. We've invented a new business model for gaming that allows advertisers to "sponsor" full free access to games that otherwise sell for $20-$50 on a per session basis. Instead of gunking up the game with in-game ads or interrupting play, consumers can by individual "sessions" of game play from our catalog using WildCoin tokens. Each "session" is unlimited access to the game of their choice for as long as they choose to play it until the user voluntarily closes the game or stops playing for more than 45 minutes. Consumers can pay 1-6 WildCoins for a session of a game with each WildCoin valued around .25 cents, or they can choose to see a video from an advertiser who will buy them their next game session for them. It's a very powerful and consumer friendly model. No more paying a premium for a game you'll never finish, or not having access to a cool game because you can't pay for whatever reason. We're making games broadcast and advertiser sponsored just like television content. So what are Wild Tangent's plans going forward? Where do you see your company in 5 years? MMOs are the next big wave in gaming. They're hugely popular and increasingly more compelling to consumers than linear single player game narratives. We're partnered with several leading MMO providers to distribute their games and provide full access to their premium content free via advertiser sponsorship. Our model also applies very well to traditional hardcore and console games, so I imagine that in 5 years you'll see the traditional fixed price take-it-or-leave-it boxed pricing model for games get replaced with our more versatile and consumer friendly online WildCoin model. Could you see Wild Tangent moving beyond the PC space to take advantage of digital downloads in the console market, say on Xbox Live Arcade or the PlayStation Network? Consoles are and always will be closed proprietary environments constrained to the limits of what the platform owner, in this case Sony and Microsoft, choose to enable on their platforms. I think they will always trail the PC space in innovation. We may distribute some of our downloadable games with them as they begin to figure out digital distribution, but the real growth and opportunity is on the PC for us. Much ado has been made lately about expanding the gaming market, drawing in non-gamers. Do you see this as something that is needed in the industry? It's already happened; what's remarkable is how many traditional game publishers are still struggling to realize that the transition happened with the Internet. Nearly everyone with a PC these days is a gamer of some type. They don't necessarily buy Halo, but that doesn't mean they don't spend 9-13 hours a week gaming or spend billions of dollars on gaming. Along these same lines, some communities have voiced concern that this expansion could alienate hardcore gamers, which may make up a smaller segment of the consumer market, but purchase many more games than casual or non-gamers. Silly. Hardcore gamers play everything. What people don't realize is that hardcore gamers are the minority of consumers who buy "hardcore games." Although the two million hardcore gamers are very vocal and spend a lot of money on the games they love, they would already have no games targeting them at all if the games they happen to like weren't already popular with a very broad "non-core-gamer" audience. Core gamers love great games, just like everyone else. They'll never lack for content. Finally, given the recent firestorm surrounding Epic and its licensing of Unreal Engine 3, what do you think of the gaming industry's dependence on third party middleware for game development in the face of projects that take more time, energy, and money to create? It's a necessary transition. It's nice to see this kind of complaint about somebody other than Microsoft for a change. At least Epic has many competitors that developers can choose between. I think it is naive of anybody wanting to make a "leading edge" next gen game to expect to be the first to use a licensed engine that has not been tested in the market first by its developer. Shipping a game internally on an engine is how Epic knows its engine and tools are ready for the market. It's unrealistic to expect to be first to market on a licensed game engine.

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