Computer game developer Firaxis Games Inc. had already sold millions of copies of its Civilization series when the Baltimore area company decided it needed a new wrinkle.
The game, which lets players guide a budding nation from prehistoric times to the modern era, was normally played by one person against the computer. Firaxis wanted to get the game onto the Internet, so players could test their empire-building skills against one another.
The company could have built the software and managed the network itself; instead, it turned to IGN/GameSpy. The company is famous for its video-game news sites such as gamespy.com but also offers software for game companies that want to let players set up tournaments online.
"It would have required a staff to develop the system and to maintain the system," said Patrick Dawson, a programmer with Firaxis. "Both are things we don't need when we have GameSpy."
Once the narrow province of hard-core gamers, sites such as GameSpy are growing in prominence as more and more computer games move onto the Internet. They are part of a synergistic universe of companies that are attempting to be the ESPN or TV Guide of the gaming industry.
IGN/GameSpy does this by being part Web publisher, part Internet matchmaker. Its network of 90 Web sites cranks out some 4,400 articles and reviews a month that pay microscopic attention to nearly every conceivable aspect of the industry. The company also provides an online arena where gamers are able to meet up and challenge one another and where fans can get free software updates and other extras.
The formula has had success. The company's sites see 19.7 million visitors a month, and more than 200,000 subscribers pay $7 a month or $60 a year for access to special features or files. The privately-owned IGN/GameSpy, born of a recent merger between onetime rivals, expects to collect revenue in the neighborhood of $50 million this year from its collection of online businesses.
The gaming business, though, is a competitive one, and business models are still in flux. Video console makers such as Microsoft Corp. and Sony Corp. have recently launched new online initiatives featuring their own machines. Meanwhile, other game companies have decided to build their own proprietary online worlds, taking on the expense of running vast networks of servers and staffing 24-hour help desks.
IGN/GameSpy, based in Brisbane, Calif., hopes to monetize the growing interest by providing an independent home for avid players. As such, it is one of the early pioneers. GameSpy has been online since 1996, the Stone Age of Internet gaming. In those days, getting online to play wasn't exactly a user-friendly process: Internet-connected fans could spend half an hour trying to find one another and a stable online match to join -- a byproduct of slow Internet connections and the occasional computer crash.
GameSpy remedied the problem by giving away a small piece of software that helped quickly line up players for online matches for a "shooter" game called Quake.
Quake was popular enough to create a community of obsessed fans. GameSpy's first site, called PlanetQuake, was just one of dozens or even hundreds of sites dedicated to the game -- but PlanetQuake found a place in the hearts, minds and Internet bookmark lists of gamers largely because of its software.
"We were uniquely successful because we brought the technology and the gameplay directly to the community," said David Wright, who dropped out of Stanford University to work for GameSpy after designing some of the most popular of online modifications to Quake. He now is responsible for the design of IGN/GameSpy's products as the company's chief architect.
The site became so hot that PlanetQuake added full-time "news guy" Dave Kosak among its small staff of gamers, who had met each other through Web sites and online games of Quake. Kosak is better known in video-game circles by his online handle "Fargo," under which he plays and writes columns for IGN/GameSpy's sites.
"There was a lot to download, a lot to do, a lot to talk about," Kosak said of those days. When some of the founders, and a couple of hundred other fans, met for the first time at a marathon Quake-playing session in New York City in 1997, Kosak wrote that it was "the Woodstock of my generation."
As new games came out that offered Internet playability, GameSpy's founders opened new "Planet" sites -- the first one to follow PlanetQuake was called PlanetUnreal, in honor of another shoot-'em-up game called Unreal Tournament. The games, in turn, created a steady supply of fresh material that PC gamers needed or wanted to download as soon as it came out -- either software fixes, called patches, authorized by the companies or new, fan-created game modifications, commonly called mods.
The downloads were free, but demand became so high for patches to popular games that GameSpy started charging a subscription for people who wanted first-in-line status at its affiliated download site, called FilePlanet. Some executives credit the subscriptions for having kept the company afloat during some lean times after the dot-com boom.
Though FilePlanet is still an important part of IGN/GameSpy's revenue, most of its income now comes from advertising; clients include Napster LLC, Coca-Cola Co., Samsung Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc. Over half of the company's ad revenue is generated from video-game makers, though some executives forecast that non-game advertising revenue will overtake game industry revenue in the next year or so.
As an experiment toward a possible next business model, IGN/GameSpy is letting some subscribers download entire games instead of just patches. Firaxis's Civilization III: Play the World is one of the debut titles under the program, called HitPoints. The service, announced last week, gives away games on a frequent-flier-style basis, determined by how many and what kind of GameSpy subscription programs a user has signed up for.
Right now, HitPoints does not offer new games, but both game players and game makers can easily see the benefits if IGN/GameSpy executes this business successfully: Game companies would dearly love an alternative to battling for shelf space in retail stores, and many game-playing customers would prefer the convenience of getting new games sent straight to their computer hard drives instead of heading to the mall on a new game's release day.
Frank Azor, director of worldwide marketing at Alienware Corp., a maker of high-end computers for video-game fans, said he figures "there's a whole world of opportunity" for IGN/GameSpy or whatever company pulls off this trick.
"When a new game comes out, everybody's running out to Electronics Boutique or Best Buy," he said. But because of limited supplies in retail stores, "only half of us come back successful."
For IGN/GameSpy, one challenge is to maintain the loyalty of its longtime fans as it evolves. Hard-core gamers can be fickle, especially when something they love starts to feel like it is becoming a captive of the mainstream.
Benjamin Trapp, a gamer who lives in Reston and the kind of guy who prefers to build his own computers rather than buy them off the shelf, used to love GameSpy in the Quake days. Now he said he prefers to go elsewhere if possible because he can find information that is just as good at sites with fewer ads.
The company, he said, "kind of turned into a Best Buy or Circuit City for gaming, trying to be everything for everyone."
Chief executive Mark A. Jung would not mind the company being a Best Buy Co. or Circuit City Stores Inc. He cites Viacom Inc., the vast entertainment and publishing conglomerate, as an example of the multi-brand company he wants IGN/GameSpy to be, one that builds on his core audience.
The company's sites now feature more coverage of non-game-related stuff: "films, DVDs, cars, gear, sports, music, et cetera," as he puts it.
"We are pushing outside gaming," he said.