May 30, 2007 in Business

Gamers will take pause

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Ingrid Lindemann photo

From left, PlayXpert project manager Aaron Lennon, technician Rasim Adjiasmanov, lead developer Alex Korchemniy, technician Tyler Wilson and CEO Charles Manning.
(Full-size photo)

On the Web:

www.playxpert.com

A North Idaho software company bills its forthcoming product as “game over” for Alt-Tab — a keyboard shortcut PC gamers use to multitask while playing online.

That key combination allows players of “World of Warcraft” and other online titles to quickly switch between full-screen games and other programs they use to communicate with fellow players and research game strategies and back-stories.

Sandpoint-based PlayXpert LLC says its new application, however, allows players to chat and search the Web without leaving the action. It’s a virtual convenience, but one for which the company’s founder believes advertisers and players will pay real cash.

“It’s a shockingly big market,” said Charles Manning, company CEO.

The company plans to offer two versions of its PlayXpert software: a sponsor-funded model free to players and a “premium” one that costs about $2 a month.

Undergoing beta testing now by an invite-only group called “The Inner Circle,” the application is scheduled for widespread release sometime this summer, said Manning, 32. PlayXpert LLC is working on deals with major game publishing companies, content providers and potential sponsors, Manning said, but he declined to give specifics.

Because the software operates at a basic level, it doesn’t slow games or violate game publishers’ license agreements, Manning said. It also works cross-game, allowing players in one game to signal friends in another game for help.The program appears as a transparent interface over games, and it uses a connection with company servers to offer a variety of “widgets” — small programs similar to those found in the dashboards of recent Windows and Macintosh operating systems. Using a chat widget, for example, players can message members of player groups called “clans” or “guilds” using Yahoo Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger and other services.

While Manning stressed that PlayXpert isn’t just for “World of Warcraft,” many of its current widgets are geared for the popular “massively multiplayer online role-playing game.” As of March, publisher Blizzard Entertainment Inc. claimed the application, which costs $13 to $15 per month, had more than 8.5 million subscribers worldwide.

Current widgets for “World of Warcraft” include: Thottbot and WowHead, two unofficial game databases, and WoWWiki, a community-created, online encyclopedia about the game. Other widgets offer Google searches, a notepad and tools for clans, such as access to calendars, forums and rosters. Gamers can program custom widgets or download other players’ creations.

Gamers are also testing PlayXpert with “Counter-Strike,” “America’s Army” and “EVE Online,” Manning said. But fans of the virtual world “Second Life” will have to wait for the full release because the game uses a different application program interface.PlayXpert LLC employs 10 people in Sandpoint and Spokane, and Manning expects to double that headcount within months.

Paul Schimpf, chairman of Eastern Washington University’s Computer Science Department, said he was “pretty amazed” when Manning started the company in Sandpoint. Schimpf has invited PlayXpert employees to speak to classes.

“We haven’t had as much trouble as even I thought we would have, and I was optimistic,” Manning said. “It’s primarily because it is just a great place to live.”

Other programs, such as Xfire, offer similar cross-game chat functions. But Manning claims PlayXpert operates at a more fundamental level, improving performance. The company filed for patents relating to the technology late last year, he said.

It took an eight-person team six months to develop the technology, he said.

“This is the only piece of software that I’ve ever heard of that does this at the frame buffer level that allows it not to violate end-user license agreements,” said Ross Lanes, a senior computer science major at Eastern Washington University who will intern at PlayXpert this summer.

Agreements for “World of Warcraft” and other games prohibit third-party software that interacts with the applications, potentially allowing players to cheat. Using such software can get players booted from online games, said Lanes, 21.

Manning said the company will focus on its free model, which will be funded by “contextually sensitive” ads.

“It’s not going to be delivering Viagra ads as pop-ups in an intrusive way,” he said.

Potential advertisers could range from gaming hardware companies to brands like Gillette that want to reach the young, male audience, he said.

“When you start to understand how much money is being spent on this space, you realize there is this entire subculture that is effectively printing cash,” Manning said.

Staff writer Parker Howell may be reached at (509) 459-5491 or parkerh@spokesman.com.


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