June 3, 2003 4:33 PM PDT

Sun makes play for games market

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Sun Microsystems hopes to open new frontiers for its Java technology by spinning off a division dedicated to pushing the programming language into computer and video games.

The company plans to announce Wednesday, in advance of its JavaOne conference, the formation of Game Technologies Group, which will focus on providing technology to run games--particularly online titles. Chris Melissinos, Sun's chief ambassador to the gaming community for several years, will lead the department under the new title of chief gaming officer.

The primary task of the group will be to promote Java, Sun's programming language for writing software that can run in multiple environments, as the best choice for creating games, said John Fowler, Sun's chief technology officer for software.

"There's a tremendous move to adapt games for an online environment," Fowler said. "With Java technologies being multi-platform, it's a natural place to develop for the network."

Java has already caught on as the dominant format for making games for mobile phones, but the language has yet to be widely used for PC-based games.

Melissinos expects that to change as game publishers find it increasingly important to offer their games on multiple devices--not just different types of PC operating systems but handheld computers and mobile phones as well. "You're now in essence chasing your consumer from device to device," he said.

Phone-based games have been one of the most notable successes in Sun's spotty track record for Java adoption, said Chris Lanfear, an analyst with Venture Development, so it makes sense to try to build on that. "This could be low-hanging fruit for them--easy money to further justify the existence of Java," he said.

Java also has been used to build a number of simple online PC games, such as card games, but the language can be used to create sophisticated graphics for A-list games, Melissinos said. "Some people may have the misconception that Java can't do great, high-performance graphics, and that's absolutely not true."

Besides lobbying for Java, the game division will pitch game publishers on servers, software and other infrastructure needed to run online games. IBM last year helped launch Butterfly.net, a project to apply grid supercomputing techniques to running online games, and a number of specialists have formed companies to address online gaming mechanics.

Fowler said several major publishers already run their online games using Sun systems, a natural choice given that such games demand that same type of round-the-clock availability as Sun's enterprise customers. "Most of the infrastructure needs the game people have are extremely similar to what people have in financial services or CRM (customer relationship management) or other aspects of high-performance computing," he said.

News.com's Stephen Shankland contributed to this report.


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