Pac Man bites back as old titles invade new consoles

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The video games of yesterday are coming to the consoles of tomorrow as game publishers reposition their back catalogue for the next generation of machines. The result is a revenue stream that is nearly pure profit.

The older games, such as Pac Man and Space Invaders, are easier to play and appeal both to a generation of gamers who grew up playing them and to players who are put off by the complexity of many of today’s games.

Repackaged games are distributed on disc for current consoles, but the companies aim to move to digital distribution for games for the next generation of systems, such as Microsoft’s Xbox 360, Nintendo’s Wii and Sony’s PlayStation Portable. The game companies are also looking at devices such as the BlackBerry and the iPod.

Greg Canessa, group manager for Xbox Live Arcade, which offers 20 retro games for Xbox 360 owners, says: “The overall success of Xbox Live Arcade comes down to people wanting small, quick, fun play experiences on their consoles. Every console player doesn’t want a 30- hour game.” The service, which currently offers titles such as Marble Blast Ultra, Joust and Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved for between $5 and $15, plans to increase its inventory to 35 soon. Microsoft says it pays the publishers an “aggressive” percentage of the revenues, which for some games can reach six-figure sums.

Among the companies with an increasing number of titles on Xbox Live Arcade is Midway, the Chicago-based developer and publisher. Midway began as a maker of arcade machines, such as Defender, Mortal Kombat and Spy Hunter. It still develops new games but it is also focusing on putting its older games on new platforms.

Putting out older games is relatively inexpensive and fast, thanks to new technology. “We can get it done in a few months with under $100,000 in development costs,” says Steve Allison, chief marketing officer. “It brings in a few million that is almost pure profit.”

Sony recently announced that PlayStation Portable users would soon be able to play games published for the PlayStation 1 by downloading them to their systems. “Simple games are becoming more and more popular,” says Ryan Bowling, spokesman for Sony Computer Entertainment America.

The companies continue to feed the current market by releasing collections of their older games for today’s devices. Services such as Direct2Drive, Yahoo Games on Demand and GameTap let users download a wide range of games from the past for a subscription. “GameTap is to games what DVD is to movies,” says Stuart Snyder, general manager of GameTap.

Atari has also been making innovative use of its back catalogue. After its acquisition by Infogrames in 2001, the company followed a four-step plan to get its content into gamers’ hands, says Bruno Bonnell, chairman and CEO. First, it rewrote all its games for the current generation of systems, before rebuilding the original 2600 console and releasing it as the Flashback 1 and 2, which only play original Atari games.

“Now we are in stage three,” says Mr Bonnell, “where we plan on releasing classics such as Battlezone on the PlayStation Portable and Xbox Live Arcade. In stage four, we will offer the possibility to play classics on a much bigger scale than is available today. We are planning on being on the BlackBerry and on the iPod.”

Nintendo’s forthcoming Wii console will include a “virtual console” that will enable users to download some of the huge back catalogue of games made for earlier Nintendo consoles.

Sega, one of the first companies named as making its older games available for Nintendo’s virtual console, intends to provide a selection of its former hits for a range of machines. “The window of opportunity is never greater for publishers than during a hardware shift,” says Scott Steinberg, Sega of America’s vice-president of marketing.

Publishers with large back catalogues also see putting older content on to newer systems as a way of reviving moribund franchises for a new generation of consumers.

“We are introducing classic intellectual property to a younger generation. And when they are able to afford their own consoles, they will be ready for a relaunched IP and its sequels,” says Mr Steinberg.

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