May 20, 2004

Finally, a close look at Infinium's Phantom game system

Author: James Hills

LOS ANGELES -- Upon arriving at the Infinium Labs booth at the Electronic Entertainment Exposition (E3) Conference, visitors were greeted by T-shirt-toting models beckoning visitors to enter the booth and try the Phantom. Infinium chose a high-flash booth -- seemingly decorated by IKEA -- to showcase its Phantom Gaming Service.

NewsForge has been following the development of the Phantom platform for about a year. The company has had a number of problems bringing the product to market. Perhaps it is solving those issues.

Visually the hardware is gorgeous, featuring a single controller cord, coming from the middle of the front of the box connecting to the lapboard, featuring keyboard, mouse, mouse pad, and USB hub device, to which a game pad can be plugged in.

Inside the sleek, white box with a pulsing, hypnotic blue LED "on" indicator, lies an off-the-shelf PC, including an Athlon XP 2500+, GeForce FX 5700 Ultra, and an nForce 2 Ultra 400-based motherboard. These are moderate specs and should be able to play most games available today, but they may have trouble with games released for PC this holiday season when the console may be available to consumers.

Personalize it for each user

When one turns on the console, a log-in screen is presented, so that each member of the household can have his or her own set of games, and permissions can be set to limit available games. This means that while Mom and Dad can view everything from kids' games to adult content, children will only be allowed to view titles appropriate for their age group.

Two gamers take the Phantom for a test ride at the E3 show in Los Angeles.

Currently the service uses the ESRB ratings, but more granular, per-title white and black list, options may be available later. This is a very nice feature, because it simultaneously offers a safe playground for kids, while also allowing mature adults the ability to gain access to material they might be interested in exploring. Content you will NEVER find on Xbox, PlayStation, or Nintendo.

After logging in, it is time to play some games. Each user's interface may be "skinned" to offer a basic level of personalization. Gamers are then presented with three options to access games: "Subscribe," "Rent" or "Try." This is where details get interesting. While the option is currently labeled "Subscribe," the developers insist that this is actually the "Buy" option and you own the game. Even after canceling the service, the game can still be played on your individual Phantom unit, but patches and updates will not be available. Alternatively, gamers may chose to rent the game for a fraction of the purchase price, or they can try a free demo.

Currently no games have been announced, but the company's E3 demo implies that GarageGames must be a major partner, because several of its titles were available on the system, as was the Unreal Tournament 2004 demo.

After choosing a game, the console pulls it from Infinium's central server and launches the game only a few moments later, while the remainder is downloaded in the background. In the demo environment, this process was quick, simple, and much more gratifying than downloading demos to a desktop PC, or even installing a game off a CD-ROM. Subsequent loads could be even faster, because the complete game can be saved to the hard disk.

Not exactly bug-free -- yet

The Unreal Tournament 2004 demo launched smoothly, but there were some text-rendering issues, most likely because the game was looking for an HTML parser that was incompatible with the one in Phantom's software. This exemplified one of the hidden problems with migrating PC titles to the Phantom. However, I was assured that Infinium's quality assurance would resolve any issues like that before a game was officially available on the system.

One nice thing is that since the Phantom is fundamentally a PC, games such as Unreal Tournament 2004 are also interoperable with servers designed for the PC version. This means that out of the box there will be a community of Phantom gamers for competition, unlike the early days of other online console gamer communities.

Unfortunately, Infinium was unable to confirm that the games it was demoing would be available on the shipping model. It also was unable to confirm a single publisher or developer committed to delivering content for the system, though they promise an answer to that later this year. Luckily for the company, it shouldn't be that big a deal to acquire games for this system, because it is simply an off-the-shelf PC running Windows XP Embedded. As such, only minor porting -- mostly in the interface, to get it looking good on the TV -- should be necessary.

The trick though is getting unique titles. The developers seem very indie-friendly and have a lot of experience with content development, so perhaps they can lure some rising star developers or publishers to launch their games first on Phantom. To do the heavy lifting required to make the company profitable, however, they will need to sign some exclusive titles and some major "system-seller" titles, such as Halo was for the Xbox.

Pricing structure can be tricky

Cost-wise, the console is effectively free with a two-year subscription, or $199 without, which will be credited back over two years. A subscription to the service, however, will cost $29.95, and what that will include is unknown except that it provides the ability to purchase games from the service as well as update and patch previously downloaded titles. This means that over 24 months, it costs $718.80. The subscription may also include the ability to play certain games for free, but like all specific details required to properly evaluate the console, Infinium is withholding information.

James Hills can be reached at


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