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Multimedia Maven

Alex St. John, whose company Wild Tangent picked up a cool $34 million in venture capital last week, has been named by Ziff-Davis as one of the “Most Influential People in Multimedia.” He’s also been lampooned as one of the looniest. Whichever may be the case, Microsoft was so impressed by his unique brand of leadership and lunacy, the company created a brand new position for him: “Game Evangelist.” St. John’s crusade: to convince game developers that Windows 95 was the way of the future, powered by a new technology called DirectX. Several generations of DirectX later, many began to consider Alex the father of DirectX and gaming on the Windows platform.

In the early days at Microsoft, Alex formed a group caled the Beastie Boys, a skunk works team that siphoned company resources to invent a new game technology. In those good old days, he prowled Microsoft’s halls sporting a fake battle ax and a long beard, like a character out of Dungeons and Dragons. On occasion he would burst into colleagues’ offices with cans of Silly String in both hands.

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Where does St. John see the quality of 3D Web media heading in the future?
St. John: Seven years ago, all CD-ROM and multimedia content was developed with Macromedia Director, and if you look at it, it really resembles how the web looks now. As technology advanced, more bandwidth became available, and DirectX took hold, multimedia applications changed drastically, and now we have “fully 3D” immersive experiences. Macromedia was in trouble.

However, take a look at the Internet. Macromedia was able to adapt its tools for a medium that is currently at the stages of where multimedia was several years ago – the bandwidth constraints make tools like Shockwave and Flash ideal for the net. But a few years down the road, that will all change, expanding resources will allow the web to grow past these constraints.

What is the WildTangent system all about?
St. John: There are many advantages to this type of a system. A core part of our philosophy when it comes to gaming is that the game should always maintain itself. The way the industry stands now, it’s always up to the consumer to make sure they’ve got the latest hardware drivers and patches for their games. The pressure shouldn’t have to be on the consumer to make sure everything is up to date – when you load up a game, it should check in every time and upgrade itself if necessary. A game built with the WildTangent web driver can do this very easily.

Another big problem with today’s games is identifying system requirements. A lot of today’s computer users might not be aware of their exact configuration – they just know they have a Dell or a Gateway. So when they go to the store to buy a game, they’re forced to read the side of the box and attempt to figure out if their machine is capable of running the game. That’s too much of a burden to put on the consumer. Games should be able to identify their own system requirements. A game that’s downloaded through the web can easily check the client’s machine to see if it’s robust enough to run BEFORE you waste any time or money downloading it. This eliminates guesswork, and prevents the disappointment of having a game that just won’t run on your machine.

Prior to co-founding WildTangent, St. John started out at Boston-based Hell Graphics and Harlequin Ltd. in the UK where he developed a postscript interpreter. Before leaving Microsoft in 1997, St. John worked on creating ChromeEffects, a family of multimedia technologies to extend Internet Explorer to support 3D graphics and real-time interactive animation. Perceiving that multimedia technology was not advancing rapidly enough to meet the demands of the Internet, St. John founded WildTangent Inc. to drive the development and adoption of streaming 3D technology. He is a frequent speaker at Multimedia and Internet conferences, and recently passed the torch as a regular columnist for Maximum PC. A book entitled “Renegades of the Empire: How Three Software Warriors Started a Revolution Behind the Walls of Fortress Microsoft,” chronicles St. John’s antics and the history of the Manhattan Project and how it changed computing.