Is the PC fading as a gaming platform?

With the appearance of powerful but simple-to-use new systems such as Microsoft’s Xbox, Nintendo’s GameCube and Sony’s PlayStation, sales of games for consoles and handheld devices rose more than 6 percent in this year’s first quarter, according to research firm NPD Group Inc.

Sales of games for personal computers, meanwhile, fell 5 percent. The market for PC games is now about a fourth the size of the console game market.

“With consoles, you pick up a game and you know it’s going to work” when you get home, said Pete Myhre, manager of a GameStop store in Austin, Texas. “With PCs, you have to look at system requirements, make sure your machine is compatible,” and sometimes spring for an expensive upgrade, Myhre said.

At the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo, the traditional launch party for new video games that wraps up here Friday, it’s clear that console games now rule.

Amid the roar of digital dragons and screech of virtual tires, game developers and retailers can try the latest version of best-sellers such as “The Getaway” or “The Legend of Zelda” on a GameCube or PlayStation 2 console, but not on personal computers.

With about 57 percent of all new games designed primarily for consoles and 16 percent for other platforms, compared with 27 percent for PCs, even finding a traditional computer on the show floor is tough.

And now, even more competition is coming to the industry created by the computer.

Wireless phone giant Nokia took the wraps off a $299 game-playing cell phone at the show. The N-Gage, due on the market in October, is the most ambitious of several attempts by cell phone makers to get into the gaming business.

Separately, Sony announced plans for a handheld gaming device aimed at helping it build on its dominance of the home console market. Sony didn’t put a price on its new PSP device, scheduled for sale this fall.

Both Sony and Microsoft this week cut console prices well under the $200 mark, making them much cheaper than any standard PC.

Even the biggest fans of PC games admit growth is getting hard.

“It’s a maturing market,” said Stuart Moulder, general manager for PC games at Microsoft Corp. “We seem to be nearing a point where growth from now on is flattened out.”

Forty years after Massachusetts Institute of Technology students used a giant mainframe computer to create and play “Spacewar,” the first video game, nobody is declaring that it’s Game Over for PCs just yet.

On the contrary, some highly anticipated games scheduled for release this fall _ sequels to titles such as “The Sims” and “Medal of Honor” _ are geared toward PC players.

Electronic Arts Inc., the world’s biggest video game maker, makes those titles. EA raised some eyebrows here this week when it announced its latest line of online sports games would be designed specifically for Sony consoles.

But while the company is snubbing Microsoft’s Xbox with its online sports games for now, it has no plans to quit making games for traditional computers, said spokeswoman Trudy Muller. And for good reason: EA still gets about 25 percent of its sales from PC games.

“The PC (games) market may have very small growth … but it’s still a huge market,” Muller said.

To attract more gamers and rejuvenate business, some in the computer industry are trying to put more pizzazz in PCs.

Dell Computer Corp., for instance, introduced a computer configured and designed specifically for gamers late last month.

Computer processor giant Intel Corp. recently teamed up with Atari Inc. and DreamWorks SKG to collaborate on a video game connected to the forthcoming “Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas” movie.

And Intel arch-rival Advanced Micro Devices Inc. has long marketed itself as the chipmaker of choice for PC gamers and other users of graphics-intensive software.

Nonetheless, the PC may be facing a future as a platform primarily for older, hard-core gamers, analysts and others say.

Among regular PC gamers, about 40 percent are over age 35, and the majority are older then 18, according to figures from the Interactive Digital Software Association, a trade group for video game developers.

Among regular console game players, only 18 percent are over age 35 and nearly half are younger than 18.

So as console game players get older, sales of PC games may continue to slide.

Computer gaming is “really starting to be a niche business,” said David Cole, president of research firm DFC Intelligence. “It’s a fairly stable audience, but it’s not growing much.”

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While some of the most popular new video games are geared toward consoles, the PC will likely remain the primary platform for some types of games.

So-called “massively multiplayer” online games, for instance, in which thousands of players pay a monthly subscription fee to interact as wizards or ogres in pretend Internet worlds, are almost exclusively for PC users.

“I’m pretty bearish on consoles altogether,” said renowned Austin, Texas game developer Richard Garriott, creator of two of the best-selling Internet games, “Ultima Online” and “Lineage.”

Consoles hold some potential, Garriott said. “But in my mind, it’s still the next generation of consoles,” he said. “I’m not going to design a game for the first Xbox or PS2.”

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