Don't just play the games, play the video game industry

Q: I'd like to invest in the video game industry. What are the companies, and stock symbols, of the leading players?

A: Blockbuster games like Grand Theft Auto and Halo are a big reminder of just how popular video games have become.

Rather than being just for teenagers, games have broadened their appeal to include other people. Some consumers would just as much play a video game than watch TV or see movies. Nintendo's popular Wii console, which is controlled with an easy-to-use wand rather than a controller, has made gaming more popular in unlikely spots including nursing homes and with physical therapy.

The broadening appeal of video games makes the video game industry attractive from an investment perspective. Rather than being a cutthroat battle for market share, as is the case in most media including TV, print publications and Internet, the video game industry is still big enough for there to be plenty of business for most of the players.

Also interestingly, despite the advances made in the current generation of technology, the investment options haven't changed all that much from the previous generation. Below is a quick summary of the different plays that are available to investors looking to invest in various aspects of the video-game industry:

1. The hardware makers. These companies develop the hardware that games are played on. This includes the big three console makers, Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo. But I've also included several publicly traded makers of personal computers and graphics cards, which have divisions and products dedicated to gaming.

• Microsoft msft. The company best known for Windows and Office has made great inroads in the industry with its Xbox 360. By arriving on the market well before Sony's PlayStation 3, it grabbed early market share. Developers like its friendly interface for building games and its online Live service is considered to be the industry's gold standard. Consumers also like how the Xbox 360 doubles as a entertainment system, allowing them to stream music and movies from the PC in the office to the Xbox in the living room. Microsoft also has a video-game development studio, which created hits like Halo and Gears of War.

There are downsides. For one, the gaming division at Microsoft is pretty tiny relative to the other parts of its business. The company also got a big black eye when it was found that early versions of the Xbox 360 had a design fault that may cause it to overheat and require repairs, which Microsoft is paying for.

• Nintendo ntdoy. Nintendo is everyone's favorite in the current console cycle. Outgunned in making a high-powered console, the company went low-tech in graphics and focused on creating a unique experience with the Wii. Grandmothers and housewives have lined up to for these devices to play offbeat games. The company's DS portable has also proven popular. Nintendo has also always dominated its platforms with its own software, making it both a hardware and software leader.

• Sony sne. The incredibly popular PlayStation 2 had many assuming Sony would be the company to beat in the current generation. And the company developed a tremendously powerful PlayStation 3 console that comes packed with a high-definition Blu-Ray disk player. The company seems to be hitting its stride by bringing down PS3 prices and getting more games on the market. It's also planning to take the wraps off its interesting online offering.

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