Online video game playing is growing up. A new generation of game consoles is ushering in online features that promise to make playing with others over the Internet easier and more compelling than sitting on the couch and playing solo or with a friend.
Eyeing a much larger market, console makers are stealing a page or two from the PC gaming playbook.
Hard-core PC game enthusiasts spend a fortune "tricking out" their machines with lightning-fast memory, bleeding-edge video cards and even water-cooling systems to get an edge in multiplayer online games that can take on a life of their own.
By contrast, console games are less interactive than PC gaming cousins and consoles themselves are less easy to modify, which levels the playing field. That is set to change.
Game enthusiasts say Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox Live online game service has gained share with help from its blockbuster game "Halo 2" as well as its new Xbox 360 console. The service offers multiplayer competition and skill-matching, voice and text chat, buddy lists and shopping -- all key pillars of online gaming.
Justin Willman, a 26-year-old network administrator from St. Louis, said the walls that separate PC and console online gaming are already crumbling.
"Xbox Live is merging those worlds," Willman said.
PC game makers still have the advantage of using the keyboard and mouse as a controller, which allows them to give gamers more control and options in game play.
But gamers say few, if any, of the community-oriented online PC games are as consumer-friendly as Xbox Live, which has standardized and automated the process of selecting servers and competitors for the best game playing experience.
"Sometimes you just want to hit go and let it do the work for you," said Sid Shuman, 25, an avid PC and console gamer who contributes to GamePro magazine.
"WORLD OF WARCRAFT" = WOW
The universe of computer role-playing games -- which foster virtual online communities where people chat, form elaborate social guilds and trade virtual assets -- have taken the entertainment world by storm.
Blizzard Entertainment's "World of Warcraft," has attracted 5.5 million users to shatter previous records. Players not only buy the PC game, they pay a monthly subscription fee of roughly $15 per month -- something that appeals to upstart online game service providers looking for ways to turn a profit.
Xbox Live is a central feature in Microsoft's new Xbox 360 console and online strategies are also key for Sony and Nintendo Co. Ltd (7974.OS), which are slated to release new consoles this year.
"This will be the online generation," Shuman said.
Microsoft says its has 2 million Xbox Live users in 24 countries. Its silver membership is free to Xbox 360 owners and the $50-per-year gold membership is required to access multiplayer features.
Sony Corp. (6758.T) has 180 online-enabled games for its current PlayStation 2 and 2.7 million registered users in its North America online console gaming community. Xbox Live is considered by many gamers as the preferred service, but analysts say Sony, the world's No. 1 console seller, will give Microsoft a run for its money with its upcoming PlayStation 3.
David Cole, president of DFC Intelligence, a video game market research firm, estimates that less than 5 percent of console owners now connect for online play on a regular basis. He said that number could hit 10 percent in the next two years as next-generation units debut.
Today's average gamer has grown up with PC, console and mobile games as well as online shopping and chat. They are demanding that video game companies give them the best of all worlds on all of their devices.
"Consumers are not bashful," said Chip Lange, vice president of marketing for the online unit at Electronic Arts Inc. the world's biggest video game publisher, which is investing in online gaming for future growth.
"The difference between online and offline play will disappear," predicted Chris Donahue, director of Windows graphics and gaming technologies at Microsoft.
In addition to offering publishers a new way to fight piracy by identifying people who are copying and sharing games, the new outlet also promises an opportunity for them to keep games fresh with constant updates and offers of trinkets, weapons and other items.
"It will be more like a living, breathing world," said Schuman.