By Shawn Rider
Yahoo! has built a lot of things in the past. Beginning as a list of websites circulated through email and newsgroups, it could be said that Yahoo! is a good portion of the reason the World Wide Web took off the way it did ? we wouldn't be surfing around so much if we had to rely on JoeBob's List of Kickass Links to get the job done. The company has always been on the cutting edge; from their unique ad campaigns to their development of community-oriented online spaces, they have done a lot to enhance our experience of the Web and to bring new users online.
Yahoo! has also done a lot for the gaming world already, although they're probably not fully aware of it. Their online games service, Yahoo! Games, brings in 8 million players and serves 4.5 billion minutes of gametime each month, and we can't help but think that Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA) statistics about gaming (such as the fact that 48% of gamers are women or the average age of a gamer is 28) would be skewed in a very different direction if they did not include the diverse crowd that Yahoo! Games pulls in. The site peaks each day with about 150 thousand simultaneous players. Many of these gamers are of the elusive "casual" variety, playing pool, chess, and hearts routinely, perhaps even compulsively. Anyone who has played at Yahoo! Games can attest to the quality of the experience ? there are always plenty of opponents, it doesn't take too much time to load, and the games work reliably. What more could Yahoo! do for the game industry? How could they make themselves more of a destination? By filling one of the voids we've experienced for a long time.
Historically, there has been no real outlet for renting PC games. Some local videogame stores, and even large retail chains like Hastings, have toyed around with the idea, but nobody has really made it stick. There are too many issues involved that don't normally come with renting console titles, and the big one is an issue of piracy. Stores instantly hurt their own sales of popular games if people with PCs can rent the game, install it at home, perhaps copy it (or just leave it installed on the machine), and return the title well in advance of the due date. The need to actually purchase the game is instantly removed and while rentals do great, sales drop off. This is a bad thing.
Yahoo! hopes to work around the troubles of renting PC games in the real world by doing it online. Today (Monday, September 23, 2002), they are launching their Yahoo! Games On Demand service, which allows broadband PC users to rent titles at prices very competitive with your local video store. Yahoo! has overcome security issues by using a custom client for playing the games, so you never download the whole package, and this has allowed them to team up with some of the biggest publishers in the business. Currently there are 40 titles available for rent at http://gamesondemand.yahoo.com, and they are very much worth the download.
Here is how it works: You login to the Yahoo! Games On Demand service and pay for a rental. You have four choices: A three day rental will cost you $4.95 and that allows you to play a single game as much as you'd like for three days. You can also get a package deal in 3, 5, or 10 games, which cost $9.95, $12.95, or $14.95 respectively. These packages allow you to play a number of games for a full month. For example, if you sign up for the 3 game deal, then you get three "slots" to fill for a month. You may play Civilization III the first week, get some Serious Sam in the second week, and then spend the last half of the month bouncing between those two games in addition to Deus Ex, which you never got around to finishing. The 10 game package, at less than half the cost of a new PC title, is a phenomenal deal ? for the price of a cup of coffee each day you can play games until your eyes bleed.
The pricing and availability of these games makes it affordable and enticing to play some of the older titles Yahoo! Games On Demand supports, and according to Dan Hart, Senior Director of Yahoo! Games and Entertainment, supporting catalog titles is a major goal of the service. Increasingly, games are judged more like films, where the opening weekend determines how successful a movie is. The shelf-life of games in a store is too short, and there have been numerous articles written about shady dealings in game retailers to secure the best shelf space. As Hart says, "On the Internet, shelf space is unlimited." This means that not only could catalog titles form a major portion of Yahoo!'s service, but they could also get into independent games and smaller publishers. Some of these smaller, independent companies, like Strategy First and Shrapnel Games, deserve more recognition than they currently receive, but it is hard for gamers to find the great titles they produce. Although there are no games from these two publishers on the Games On Demand service now, publishers like these two are definitely in the sights of Yahoo!.
So just what is available for download? Yahoo! has signed on four of the biggest games publishers in the industry: Activision, Infogrames, Take Two, and Eidos. Together, these companies have given Yahoo! access to 40 titles, mostly older titles that stand out of a crowd. The highlights are certainly games like Deus Ex, Hitman: Codename 47, Civilization III, and Serious Sam, but there are plenty more. The complete list of current offerings is impressive:
1. Beach Head 2000
2. Heavy Metal FAKK 2
4. Thief II: The Metal Age
5. Star Trek Away Team
6. Star Trek Voyager Elite Force
7. Hitman: Codename 47
8. MechWarrior 3
9. Serious Sam
10. Rune Gold
11. Grand Theft Auto 2
12. Alone In The Dark: The New Nightmare
13. Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver 2
15. Project Eden
16. Tomb Raider Chronicles
ARCADE / FAMILY
17. Addiction Pinball
22. Missile Command
23. Deus Ex
24. 4X4 EVO
25. Fast Food Tycoon 2
27. Monopoly Casio Vegas Edition
28. Super Car Street Challenge
29. Backyard Basketball
30. Golf Resort Tycoon 2
31. Skateboard Park Tycoon
32. Boarder Zone
33. Ski Resort Tycoon 2
34. Age of Wonders
35. Call to Power 2
36. Civilization III
37. Dark Reign 2
39. Monopoly Tycoon
40. Star Trek Armada 2
While there is a prevailing attitude of "newer is better" among gamers, it is impossible to play all of the good games right when they come out. For experienced gamers, titles like these can fill the holes left in an otherwise complete gaming record. However, Yahoo! is only partially focused on the "hardcore" gamer right now. Hart says Yahoo! hopes to "expand the PC games market by attracting a lot of new people and create new gamers." One of the reason there are so many "casual" console gamers is that once you buy the console you really need not invest in any titles. You can always go rent your favorite game, play through a few levels, return it after the weekend, and rent it a month down the road. Or if you're interested in a game, you can at least rent it to check it out and then decide if a purchase is in order. Aside from downloadable demos, which never quite represent what a game is really like, there is no equivalent in PC gaming, and folks who aren't so into games that they read sites like GF! every day probably aren't going to mess with a demo anyway. Yahoo! has targeted this audience in a couple of ways.
First, the whole procedure for renting a game is very easy and runs smooth like butter. You pay your rental fee, download the Exent EXEtender client directly from Yahoo!, and then choose the game you want to rent. For each title you rent, you must download a pre-cache. These are the initial files you need to play the game, and the filesize ranges from 75MB to 200MB. You never actually store the executable files or all of the game files on your hard drive. Yahoo!'s goal is to make the pre-cache download time equivalent to the time it takes to install a game from disc, which is pretty accurate for the smaller pre-cache files. The larger files take closer to 15-20 minutes depending on your specific broadband connection. Still, this pre-cache is only downloaded once for each title (unless you delete the files from your hard drive), so it is a one-time delay in your gameplay. Once you're going on a game, needed files download in the background as you play.
When you've got the pre-cache down, you're ready to play. All functions available in the retail version of the game are available in the Yahoo! rental. Play online multiplayer, host multiplayer matches, use the in-game editors ? whatever you can do in the "real" version, you can do here. What's more, if you get two levels into Deus Ex on your first weekend, put it down, then pick it up a month later, you can begin where you left off. All of your save data remains intact on your hard drive, even between rentals. Of course, at any time you can delete game files to free up space on your drive, and that removes the possibility of continuing from a saved game.
We got to test the system over the past weekend, and we found very few problems with it. The biggest concern is system specs, which are outlined for each game online. PC games are tricky, and the difficulty of getting a PC game to work is another reason why there are not more hardcore PC gamers. Fortunately, the games that are offered currently are not the most hardware-intensive titles, so most PC owners who have bought a computer in the last 1-2 years should be fine on specs. The fact that the game is stored in a strange spot on your hard drive precludes your ability to install patches and whatnot (and it's assumed that Yahoo! distributes the most current version of a game, patches and all), so updating your drivers is about the only thing you can do as a user to get a game going. Yahoo! does give you access to a technical Readme.txt file to help you troubleshoot. We had a couple of problems trying different games on an older PC, but these were troubles I would expect to have installing the game from a disc, too.
The positive aspects of the program far outweigh the negative. You can download games to your PC at home, school, or work, giving you access to a library of titles at a reasonable price. If you only play games once a month when your college buddies virtually get together, then this is a perfect solution for you. Try a game before you buy it, and if you buy it through Yahoo!'s partnership with GameStop, you'll receive a 10% discount on the title. That means you can recoup your rental fee on most titles you purchase, making this an even better deal. Convenient and robust, the Yahoo! Games On Demand system works like a charm.
Those of you who have played all the games you want from this list, have no fears. Yahoo! is in the process of securing the second wave of titles for the Games On Demand service. They plan to add 3 to 5 titles each month, and hope to get into pre-release rentals and other services that cater more to the cutting edge gamers. The most hardcore of gamers should love the idea of renting a full version of a game a week before its release.
So far everything is running smoothly at Yahoo! Games On Demand. Our weekend of gameplay took us through some classic titles that haven't been booted on GF! computers for a long time. Each game played exactly as the original, disc-based version. If you are a PC owner with broadband access, http://gamesondemand.yahoo.com should be on your list of links. This is the future of PC game rentals, and the future is bright.
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