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Game consoles: Is cable ready to play?

Fri, 11/30/2001 - 7:00pm
Jeff Baumgartner, Assistant Editor


In addition to the conceivable cable modem marketing hooks,
MSOs are preparing to face a variety of technical implications–namely
provisioning and bandwidth management.

Video game consoles. They're neat. They're powerful. They're the "Tickle-Me-Elmo" of the 2001 holiday season. They may also represent yet another IP appliance that could be attached to a service operator's network, opening the door to a variety of plausible provisioning and bandwidth management issues.

So far, Sony Corp.'s Playstation 2, with its Ethernet port and millions of users, hasn't wreaked much havoc in the multiplayer sphere since its October 2000 launch. That's mostly because Sony has yet to move very far beyond its primary business: pushing game titles off the shelf.

That may change soon, however, thanks to two new, high-end gaming consoles that plan to play up their broadband, multiplayer capabilities: Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox and Nintendo Co.'s GameCube. By the time this story is being read, both should be available on retail shelves.

Microsoft, in particular, has publicly stated that the broadband data port on the Xbox will play a starring role in the company's overall strategy, or at least a bigger role compared to Sony's and Nintendo's near-term plans. But no matter how quickly it happens, consoles in a broadband environment will take TV-based multiplayer gaming to a whole new level.

Through a narrowband connection, PC multiplayer gaming is an exercise in futility. Players who use a dial-up connection for games like Doom or Quake are typically so lag-ridden they are "fragged" (parlance for "killed" in 3-D shooters like Quake) quickly by players with faster broadband connections.

With a high-speed connection, console-driven games will put players on a fairly equal footing. On top of that, multiplayer games will run faster and smoother. They'll also be capable of fostering real-time, IP-based voice commands between virtual dogfight pilots in the same squadron–even if they're thousands of miles away from each other.

When it comes to gaming, a few cable operators already offer software-on-demand services through relationships with companies like Into Networks and Media Station Inc., but those services are centered on the PC. Video game consoles, conversely, play within cable's primary domain: the television set.

Consoles: Friends or foes?

Check your six! In a broadband-based multiplayer environment coupled with an application such as Roger Wilco, a squadron of players flying the “finger four” from around the world can send voice commands to each other in real time.

Today, it's probably too early to classify a new console such as the Xbox as cable's buddy or enemy. On one hand, the Xbox has the ability to stream video, and its embedded hard drive can store content. On the other hand, users require a high-speed connection to do that, creating some obvious marketing tie-ins. On the mutated third hand, console gamers can get a high-speed hook-up from someone other than the local cable operator.

So, what's the answer? "I think it's somewhere in between," says Charter Vice President of Corporate Development and Technology David Housman. "We have no deals with anybody; no trials with anyone. Today, it's a lot of engineering work and less about business discussions with the folks who are out there."

Though the console makers have a "pitch" for cable operators, it's still questionable how they might fit in. "At the very least," adds Jim Chiddix, president of AOL Time Warner's Interactive Personal Video Group, "the people who buy [gaming consoles] could become good cable modem customers."

Richard Hertz, vice president of broadband labs for AT&T Broadband, agrees. "I think we look at [game consoles] as being friends. Consoles are something that will, in the future, really draw upon that. We also know our way around the television space, which is really our sweet spot."

Adds Mark Coblitz, Comcast Corp.'s senior vice president of strategic planning: "I think if the manufacturers of the consoles want to be friends [with cable], they have a real opportunity to be so. I think if we get creative, there may be a very good place for us to be able to participate together."

One avenue of participation could come in the form of a proposed gaming channel that's being referred to as G4. Comcast is reportedly investing in G4, which will offer shows about gaming platforms and gaming titles. A Comcast spokesperson declined to comment about G4.

It's still unclear whether interactivity will be part of G4's modus operandi, but more about its programming and strategy could be revealed in the first half of 2002.

Though no one is ready to outline specifically how a cable operator and a console maker could team up, the most obvious possibilities are marketing driven. For example, it might be logical for an MSO to employ a marketing campaign with Microsoft and retailers that calls for local systems to provide free high-speed installation, a free cable modem or a free month of service when a customer buys an Xbox. Of course, DSL service providers could do the same thing, since the data port on the console doesn't discriminate how bits flow back and forth.

"I think there are opportunities for that sort of thing," Hertz says.

While the jury is still out on how these consoles, and their broadband capabilities, will impact cable operators, there are two primary areas of concern: provisioning and bandwidth management.

Keeping a close eye on consoles

Because this new class of consoles is equipped with Ethernet ports, at a high level, those boxes can also represent yet another IP appliance connected to a cable operator's network. That means operators must be wary of potential bandwidth management and provisioning issues. For instance, console owners can't simply go out to the Internet "cloud" and begin playing against each other; they must first get the house in order with their high-speed Internet provider, be it a cable operator or a telco.

Equipped with 3-D graphics capabilities, some advanced boxes, such as Motorola’s new line of 5000-class 
set-tops, can run games like Doom.

Though Charter has not leaned toward any particular console camp, the Xbox's simplistic approach to registration and provisioning is a point in its favor, Housman says. "I think they have the concept right," he adds, noting that a CD bundled with the Xbox should provision the gamer on a cable operator's network without too many headaches.

Getting there is a whole different world. "If we have to roll trucks to get an Xbox installed, we're dead," Housman says. "They have to be provisioned very carefully, because [console gamers] want to throw the disc in, hit the start button, and have a flawless, low-latency experience."

At least a few MSOs have held such discussions with game console vendors and home networking device manufacturers to avoid such potential bugaboos. "We are in contact with device manufacturers, advising them on what sorts of things they need to do to make sure that their equipment will go on our network seamlessly from a customer perspective," AT&T Broadband's Hertz says. "Gaming manufacturers are no exception to that rule."

That rule also applies to CableHome, CableLabs' home networking initiative. Game consoles are "going to be another device in the home, and the CableHome project is looking at all of those devices, including consoles," Hertz says.

Though Pace doesn’t 
expect to sell them in huge quantities, this Sega Dreamcast-enabled set-top could pave the way 
for more console 
partnerships involving the
U.K.-based box vendor.
Because game consoles can foster a session-based broadband connection, costs–both in monetary and bandwidth measures–are associated with that IP stream. Console gamers have the potential to be bandwidth hogs, Housman says, noting that he expects users to require a half megabit to a full megabit "to really be out there screaming" in a multiplayer environment. With proper provisioning and management, however, a cable operator can at least "see" how consoles are impacting the network.

"The bandwidth is there for cable operators that have built the plants, knowing this stuff was coming," Housman says. The question, he adds, is whether gamers will pay for the bandwidth they absorb, and whether operators can create a cost structure with a proper profit margin that customers can afford. "The last thing we want to have is a $15 per month impact on our plant, and charge $9.95 for service," Housman says.

While games with richer graphics are on the horizon, deployed S-A set-tops can easily render and deliver a variety of popular parlor games today.
Still, if consoles end up soaking more than their share of bandwidth, a new breed of power user could emerge, and they might be willing to pay for a higher-tier of service if it means negligible latency and overall better game play. Hertz, meanwhile, doesn't believe gaming consoles will create a huge bandwidth burden for cable operators. "Their requirements tend to be more in terms of response time...as opposed to being massive bandwidth hogs," he says.

While hooking game consoles to cable's provisioning and billing systems and how they may or may not tax the network are real concerns, some of that work is already underway. "I think those are all mountains we can get over," Housman says.

Box fusion: Is one box better than two

While gaming consoles today are stand-alone devices, they could be fused with set-top boxes. Taking the lead in this area is U.K.-based set-top manufacturer Pace Micro Technology plc, which early this year unveiled a thick-client set-top integrated with Sega Corp.'s Dreamcast console platform. Equipped with a 40 gigabyte hard drive to hold as many as 60 titles, Pace's vision is a game "jukebox" that can download and run 3-D-heavy titles.

Pace's original planned release for the Dreamcast set-up is early 2002, although Sega has already said it would scuttle production of the gaming box and instead license titles for PCs, handheld computers and other consoles. Some of Pace's competitors have challenged the Dreamcast decision, claiming that operators would not be willing to pay the incremental costs.

Pace Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing Andrew Wallace admits that a gaming console combination would raise the price of a basic box dramatically, "but not much more than a PVR box." He says Pace has seen "a lot of interest" in the Sega-set-top combination, although the company plans only to build them to order for now. "Are we going to see what we demonstrated in February out there in the markets as a large volume device? I don't think so," Wallace says. "But I do think that overall games involvement [in the set-top] will continue to evolve."

The beginnings of that evolution will likely involve the porting of more simple games to the set-top.

Pace, for one, has already ported a number of titles from Friendly Giant, a U.K.-based games publisher. While those titles aren't as high-end as console games, "from a capital expenditure point-of-view, it's much more sensible," Wallace says. In that scenario, the games are stored on a carousel at the headend (so it doesn't require a set-top with an onboard hard drive), and then ported directly to the set-top. Once play is stopped, the set-top's memory can overwrite the game.

"The upside is you don't need to have any [capital expenditure] in the set-top to run it, and the choice available is huge, like networked VOD (video-on-demand)," Wallace says. "The downside is that the games are smaller and simpler than what you'd find in a console."

However, if new consoles like the Xbox and GameCube really take off like the Playstation 2 did, expect Pace to at least explore the idea of welding at least one of those platforms to a set-top. "We're talking to more than one of those companies about doing similar levels of integration with their consoles," Wallace says.

Still, others in the industry don't think combining a set-top with a console is a great idea. "If [the consoles] are compromised in some way to become something else that they're not, those gamers are going to look for some other place that's done a better job," Coblitz says.

Another subject of scrutiny is a console's obsolescence factor. While cable operators would like to deploy set-tops that can do the job for at least seven years, gaming consoles tend to reach the end of their obsolescence cycles in about two or three. "You have to look at how often those game consoles churn out," Housman says. "They don't really run parallel tracks."

On that, Chiddix points to lessons the cable industry learned during the heyday of the gone-but-not-forgotten Sega Channel, a subscription-based gaming service several operators marketed in the mid-1990s. "The actual game platforms are subject to rapid obsolescence and the fickle tides of fashion in the gaming industry," Chiddix says. "But that doesn't mean that we can't bring real value...and let the customer and the consumer electronics industry take the technology risks on the actual game platforms."

For now, or at least until cable boxes equipped with massive muscle power reach larger populations, expect plainer, classic games to win out in the set-top environment.

Just last month, Susquehanna Communications launched a set of parlor games, such as backgammon, checkers and poker, to customers in two markets in conjunction with Scientific-Atlanta Inc.

In addition to reducing churn and boosting digital penetration, Susquehanna also has the ability to drive revenue by planting advertising next to the game on the screen.

Meanwhile, Motorola Broadband Communications Sector is keeping an eye on graphically richer games. The company's new line of DCT-5000s, for example, comes with advanced 3D graphics capabilities, meaning they could run popular games such as Doom, notes Bernadette Vernon, director of strategic marketing for Motorola Broadband's DigiCable division.

Today, however, "there's a greater focus on PVRs (personal video recorders), HD (high-definition) and home networking," Vernon says. Though Motorola Broadband's DCT-2000-class boxes can run a variety of modest games, the potential for more advanced gaming apps via the set-top is still uncertain at this point, she says.

Housman notes that Charter's trial of the original DCT-5000 in St. Louis offers simple games like Battleship and checkers. AT&T Broadband's Hertz says the set-top is the right environment for certain kinds of games, "but the set-top box is not a gaming console anymore than a gaming console is a set-top box."

Obsolescence factor aside, Hertz says, "I think some games will lend themselves to a set-top box environment, and there are some that flat-out won't."

Microsoft Xbox Sony Playstation 2 Nintendo GameCube
CPU 733 MHz 294.9 MHz 405 MHz
Graphics processor 250 MHz 147.5 MHz 202.5 MHz
Memory 64MB RAM 40MB RAM 43MB RAM
Polygon performance 125 million per second 66 mill./sec. 6-12 mill./sec.
Audio channels 256 48 64
Controller ports 4 2 4
DVD movies Yes Yes No
Release date Nov. 15, 2001 Released Nov. 18, 2001
Price $299 $299 $199

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