June 14, 2004

Infinium's Phantom vs. DISC's DISCover: Game console makers battle for mindshare

Author: James Hills

At the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) this year Infinium Labs, which introduced its Phantom Gaming Service, as we covered last month, wasn't the only vendor presenting a vision for a "PC-in-a-box." Digital Interactive Systems Corp. (DISC), the maker of the DISCover game console, also was out promoting its numerous partners and vision for the future of gaming. While both have the ultimate goal of streamlining the experience of PC gaming and delivering the bountiful content available to PC gamers to the living room, each approaches the issue differently.DISC is going in a different direction than other contemporary console developers. It hopes to create a standard hardware platform, like VHS and DVD, to play games on. While Infinium is developing a system to sell games on, DISC and partners would rather sell hardware that allows existing games to be played.

Superficially, DISC's aim is sound. If it creates a platform and licenses it across multiple vendors, it provides choice and room for innovation. In reality though, the standardization and lack of choice with traditional consoles is a source of their success, while problems resulting from abundant choice and innovation is a factor in the decline of the PC as a gaming platform.

When developers set out to create a game for Xbox or PlayStation 2, they can be sure that the system they develop for today will be the same system that consumers will use to play the game in three or even seven years. They know exactly what specification to design for. There is no need to test it across multiple platforms and no need to make compromises. Developers can focus on optimization. Also, consumers know that when they go to the store and grab the latest Xbox title, it will work on their system in the manner that the developer intended.

PC gaming, on the other hand, is a jumbled mess of operating systems, hardware combinations, and drivers. On top of this, the "average" specification is a constantly moving target. It's nearly impossible to predict what average hardware users will play on 18 to 30 months from the onset of development. As a result, developers are forced to run their products through rigorous compatibility testing and maintain the product for months after release when they find out that there are combinations of hardware and software they didn't consider. On top of this, hardware vendors may break a game with an updated driver.

Beyond the hardware compatibility aspects of the PC vs. console debate is the usability aspect. It is difficult to argue that consoles fail to offer a very smooth user experience; you merely stick a game into the box and seconds later it is playable, no worries about drivers, incompatible hardware or other issues that plague the PC.

DISCover's technology allows players to take off-the-shelf PC titles and insert them in the console. A series of scripts installs the game and loads it up so users can play. Subsequent load times it will be quicker, as the software is already cached on a fast hard drive and the CD acts primarily as a cue for a game to load. Faster load times should yield a more authentic console experience.

This scripting system seems to be the core of DISCover-based consoles and allows it to impersonate a console. As adamant as some of the company's technology partners are about their products being "consoles" though, they seem to range across a spectrum from the ApeXtreme to high-end models including one by Alienware that will be included in their Digital Home Systems PCs costing between $1,768 and $2,605. One industry observer related to me privately, "BS -- they're PCs, they run PC games" -- a sentiment echoed by other attendees.

Infinium, on the other hand, approached the issue of reforming PC gaming and bringing the experience to the masses by looking across the entire process, from development, to distribution, to the end user experience. It transforms the issue from "what platform would be best to play games on" into "how do we change the industry to make game development more profitable and gamers happier?" Infinium thinks Phantom is the answer.

Like DISCover, Phantom includes a hardware platform to facilitate game playing with a fixed specification that developers can target. However, Infinium also addresses the hidden problems of the retail channel. Indie developers for years have relied upon online distribution -- through the Web today, via shareware BBSes 10 years ago, and sending diskettes through the mail or copying them at user group meetings before that. Larger developers have had to rely on the retail channel, where games are expensive to produce, ship, and stock, and where retailers force publishers to buy back unsold product. This results in a limited and seldom profitable shelf life.

Phantom's delivery service eliminates the issue of stocking shelves and maintaining physical inventory while addressing the complications of existing online distribution methods. In the proposed world of the Phantom Gaming Service, Infinium will place game software on its network and categorize it so users can find, select, download, and play the game they want, instantly. If this approach works, Infinium will have created an opportunity for games to have a longer, more profitable shelf life, while simultaneously offering consumers simple, instant gratification.

Industry analyst Jon Peddie, president of Jon Peddie Research, says of Phantom, "It's a clever idea, and they are creating a new category. There's a gamble involved, but then they aren't a giant company that has to sell a zillion to make it work, so I think they'll do OK."

Marketers and retailers have trained consumers to look for boxes with pretty pictures, because it is easier to sell games that way. That isn't what games used to be about, and it doesn't have to be that way in the future either. Infinium hopes to strike a balance and deliver both good games and good graphics, while providing the opportunity for freedom of content -- the ability to play games -- old as well as new -- on a platform that embraces content by innovative developers.

In order to accomplish this though, it sacrifices the freedom that an open PC platform offers and replaces it with a box that is designed to be more user-friendly. Like the digital video recorders currently being provided by cable operators, the hardware is closed to the user and the downloaded content is locked to the specific hardware. Phantom is not aimed at current PC gamers, who expect to own both the software and the hardware they use. Instead, the company hopes to attract users for whom current PC gaming is simply too complicated.

If Phantom succeeds, it will not necessarily be because it has the latest games with the best graphics -- even though they claim it will have a number of top PC titles (details will be announced in August). Infinium isn't competing against $3,000 PCs with top-of-the-line hardware and gamers who insist on upgrading and tweaking their systems to eke out that last extra bit of framerate. Instead its success will be because of choice and innovation -- in an easy to use package.

This may not sound too exciting till one realizes that there is in fact a huge market for games that are past their retail shelf life. While maintaining silence about specifics, Infinium president Kevin Bacchus said that this is where his company may offer exclusive titles -- "exclusive" to the extent that you cannot easily get them outside of the Phantom service. Good games from five years ago are still good games, and thousands, if not millions, of gamers enjoy classic games using emulators.

Bacchus also addressed the issue of fixed console-like vs. fluid PC-like system specifications by saying that the current Phantom platform would be good for around three to four years, at which point it would be easy to update the hardware to maintain parity with contemporary PCs. This would strike a balance between the two paradigms and give developers a target to shoot for when developing for the platform, while flattening the cycle found in the console world. He suggested that at the end of a subscriber's two-year commitment Infinium would probably offer "something" to ensure that the customer maintained the subscription.

Both Infinium and DISC have unique solutions to address hardware performance and software delivery and each seemed to work pretty well during demos at this year's E3. Infinium's hardware was faster, had a more polished chassis, and allowed seamless downloading of content from its service, but DISC's plan is more practical and does not require the creation of an infrastructure to provide games for download. In Phantom's business model the consumer pays for a "service," whereas with DISCover, the user pays for the hardware.

If Infinium is able to deliver on its promises, it may become the leader in this new space, because it has developed a solid business plan and knows what it wants to deliver. Its competitors, including DISC and Indrema before it, have other business models that address the end-user aspect of gaming, but only Infinium is presenting a soup-to-nuts vision for the future.

James Hills is a freelance journalist and avid fan of technology and gaming who has been following the industry as a developer, marketer, and journalist.


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