Four years ago, John Hussey bought a powerful PC and the car-racing game "Need for Speed" to go with it. He expected to have big fun but...
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Four years ago, John Hussey bought a powerful PC and the car-racing game “Need for Speed” to go with it. He expected to have big fun but instead suffered big headaches when his two new purchases didn’t get along.
From a casual gamer’s frustration, a new online business was born.
Today, Hussey’s System Requirements Lab in El Dorado Hills, Calif., scans the innards of between 60,000 and 70,000 PCs each day via the Internet — judging whether they are capable of committing “Grand Theft Auto” or helping Lara Croft raid tombs.
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His system is licensed by game publishers and hardware makers in the multibillion-dollar PC game industry — and linked to thousands of computer game blogs and fan forums.
“The technology has gotten so complex that people just don’t know what they have in their computer these days,” Hussey said from the bare-bones El Dorado Hills office he shares with two programmers and a small rack of servers.
The longtime software entrepreneur recalled that it took hours of back-and-forth with the auto-racing game’s tech support staff before they figured out his computer lacked a crucial hardware feature.
“I live and breathe this stuff, and if I didn’t know, how is anyone else supposed to know?”
Indeed, computer-game specifications might as well be written in ancient Greek. How many consumers know, for instance, whether their PC boasts an ATI Radeon 9500 or greater graphics card, or whether their sound card is compatible with DirectX 9.0c technology? Both are required to run Electronic Arts’ “Command and Conquer 3.”
At www.canyourunit.com, gamers can select from among 450 game titles and then run a free diagnostic tool to see if their PC meets such technical requirements. Hussey said his system has run about 17 million tests since it launched in 2005.
After asking the user’s permission, the site scans the PC, reporting back on a dozen or so specifications and whether the computer passed or failed. If it fails, the analysis details what upgrades will fix the problem.
The software doesn’t scan or record any identifying information, Hussey said.
Anyone can use Hussey’s system for free. He earns his revenue from game and hardware makers that pay a licensing fee to link from their Web sites to his service.
Licensing is key
Hussey’s privately held company, Husdawg, doesn’t disclose financials, but the owner said some of his clients pay in the six figures for licensing.
Nvidia, a leading maker of graphics hardware used in PC gaming, has multiple links to Can You Run It scattered around its Web site. Hussey has similar arrangements with powerhouse game developers such as Electronic Arts (“Madden NFL,” “SimCity”) and Eidos Interactive (“Tomb Raider,” “Lego: Star Wars”).
“The biggest challenge in the PC gaming market is that the majority of people really don’t know what kind of hardware they need to play different games,” said Bill Rehbock, Nvidia’s director of worldwide marketing.
That poses problems for both game and hardware companies. If someone buys a game and it won’t run on their PC, they’re likely to blame the game publisher and then call the tech support line to remedy the problem,
Diagnostic software such as Can You Run It can identify the problem in advance, saving the player frustration and the game publisher tech-support costs.
It also helps Nvidia and other companies because often a computer graphics card isn’t powerful enough for newer games. If gamers know what the problem is, they would likely be customers for more powerful graphics hardware, Rehbock said.
At the least, it will prompt gamers to download the required software drivers for their Nvidia graphics cards, again saving tech-support costs.
Eidos, which makes the Lara Croft game series, is an enthusiastic supporter of Can You Run It. Bob Lindsey, executive vice president for sales and marketing at Eidos, said that since his company began using Can You Run It in 2006, its tech-support costs have fallen 35 percent.
While not all the credit can go to Hussey’s technology, Lindsey said, it helped both in customer service and in generating sales.
“The more tools we give the customers, the more they’ll reward us with additional purchases,” he said.
Rich Brown, a senior editor at the consumer online site CNET, said such technology primarily benefits the casual gamer.
“There is the definite danger that some people will get excited about a game, buy it, bring it home, and then it doesn’t work,” he said. “But most people who are hard-core gamers or semi-serious about it will have a good idea of what’s in their PC.”
System Requirement Labs and Can You Run It grew out of Husdawg, a business that Hussey operated in San Francisco from the early 1990s until moving to El Dorado Hills in 2002.
Husdawg developed a system to simplify the online registration process for people who bought hardware and software. One of the features was the ability to scan the PC to let the manufacturer know what kind of hardware its customers used.
Hussey said that after his tussle with the race-car game, he realized how that technology could be applied to vetting software for compatibility with a PC. He launched the Can You Run It service in 2005 with the specs to 100 popular games in his database.
With a permanent staff of only five, he’s been constrained on expanding into new markets. But he said he’s now ready to move beyond the gaming industry.
He’s pitching his system to other software companies, which might want to let customers know whether their computers will effectively run the latest programs, and he said he has several contracts awaiting his signature.
Other potential clients include large corporations that might want to evaluate which of their thousands of PCs can run what kind of software.
Hussey said he’s also considering organizing and selling the aggregate data he gets from the millions of scans his Can You Run It performs each year.
Software makers might be interested, he said, in what kind of computer systems their potential customers have. Eidos already has used some of that information to design a game scheduled for release next fall.
“There’s no data like John has,” Lindsey said. “His is current every month.”