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Playing Them Again

By Mike Musgrove
Thursday, October 20, 2005

It's a part of modern lore that the video-game industry makes more money than Hollywood -- but, alas, it really is just lore.

Sure, the video-game business -- with sales of the consoles and the games -- brings in more money than Hollywood's box office receipts. But movies -- unlike video games -- continue to bring in cash for weeks or years after they leave the theater through DVD sales and product licensing.

Now, some companies are trying to create a profitable business by tapping into the catalogues of video games that never really shined or were overshadowed by big-name, popular titles.

A service called GameTap, from Time Warner Inc.'s Turner Broadcasting System Inc., went online Monday and is trying to open a new window for game fans by letting them get online access to games that can be played on a computer. Think of GameTap as a sort of Napster -- the revamped pay version, that is -- but for the gamer set.

In addition to hosting last year's PC games, such as Ubisoft Entertainment's Tom Clancy-branded hit Splinter Cell, the GameTap lineup includes games originally designed for a virtual Who's Who of dead consoles: Atari 2600, Sega of America Inc.'s Dreamcast, Intellivision, to name a few.

For folks hankering to finish that Commodore 64 game from their childhood years, that chance has arrived.

"Expand your playground" is the company's marketing pitch. For $14.95 a month, GameTap subscribers have unlimited access to 300 games and 24 publishers. The service's roster is sort of a greatest-hits collection of ancient pizza-parlor classics, like Pac-Man or the Atari 2600 classic Pitfall, thrown together with last year's bestsellers and not-quite bestsellers.

It's easy to see the appeal of digital game distribution services for game developers, who typically have to fight for space on the shelves of big-chain retail stores like Wal-Mart and Best Buy. While such stores are giving video games more floor space than ever, those aisles are now more tightly squeezed. These days, those shelves hold titles for the PlayStation 2, the Xbox, the GameCube, a couple of versions of the GameBoy and the PlayStation Portable.

But the idea of distributing games online is about as retro as some of the games the TBS service is offering. The concept dates back to the early days of America Online Inc. and beyond to even, yes, the Atari 2600. True fact.

And no company has yet been able to make this sort of thing take off as a business model.

Last year, for example, Yahoo introduced a games-on-demand service that allowed gamers virtually the same deal and some of the same titles as GameTap. Nintendo of America Inc. has said its next game console might allow for some sort of digital delivery of its old -- excuse me -- classic games.

And a start-up called Infinium Labs Inc. has been struggling to bring a console to market that would bring those games to the living room TV instead of the PC, as GameTap does. Since Infinium's Phantom console was supposed to hit the market a year ago, the name has become something of a joke among gamers.

TBS is laying the marketing for GameTap on thick, with ads in Rolling Stone and Spin magazine and a TV ad campaign appearing on Viacom International Inc.-owned networks like Comedy Central, MTV and, of course, TBS.

Game marketing has gotten "edgy" and GameTap has that angle covered with a smattering of fake blogs and joke news sites, purporting to be written by game characters, to promote the service. The company also gave concertgoers a free taste of GameTap by setting up booths by the Nissan Pavilion this summer.

So far, digital downloads have just been a no-cost way for publishers to make a buck or so off their back catalogues. Could it be more, though?

GameTap executives say they hope their service will give some game or games, the "Family Guy" treatment -- that's the Fox network cartoon show that was taken off the air but was brought back to life when brisk DVD sales gave network executives enough reason to commission new episodes.

Ricardo Sanchez, vice president of content at GameTap, just finished playing a game called Beyond Good & Evil, a sleeper from last year that was critically acclaimed but didn't sell well.

"What we're trying to do is HBO for the game generation," Sanchez said.

Another of Sanchez's hopes is that GameTap could eventually host or help give rise to an "indie" community -- the lack of which is another way the game world comes up short when compared with Hollywood. Publishers generally won't fund the development of a game these days unless it sells zillions of copies. If small game developers are able to get their games online without a publisher's help, it could change the industry.

It's too early to tell how GameTap will fare, but therein could lie the secret, hidden bonus-level payoff for gamers.

Anything that can encourage some experimentation -- and bring in a few extra bucks -- can't be a bad thing.

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