Building a Games-Ready Network

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Let us ponder GOD. In particular, let's consider whether the digital-cable networks built for services such as video-on-demand are also optimized for the even bigger world of games-on-demand (GOD) — which are, well, even more demanding.

Actually, whether it's on-demand games or merely the massively interactive networked games that now proliferate throughout the Internet, this type of non-linear entertainment represents a growing portion of bandwidth usage.

The looming introduction of console-based broadband games through Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox, Sony's PlayStation 2 and Nintendo Corp. of America's GameCube will bring the competition home even more dramatically.

TRAFFIC JAM AHEAD?

Is cable's digital architecture ready — and are operators able — to handle the kinds of traffic that these interactive games will trigger? Equally important: What types of interactive-gaming experiences are cable itself ready to offer, other than the Comcast Corp.-backed G4 basic-cable network, a mere fanzine channel?

The games category has always been a cultural enigma, even as it grows toward $8 billion in annual revenue.

Video games long ago ceased to be just for kids. Interactive Digital Software Association President Doug Lowenstein brags that Americans from age 6 to 35 consider interactive games "as natural and basic as watching TV."

Nearly one-third of game players now say they use online games regularly, up from 19 percent in 1999.

Broadband adds to the attraction. And it reinforces the question about sufficient capability.

Network architects claim that video games — even the most hyperactive twitch games (auto racing, space battles and medieval duels) — do not demand sizable infrastructure capacity.

The dense graphics are downloaded or stored on DVDs at each player's terminal, meaning that only the tiny "move" instructions transverse the network in real-time. Nonetheless, popular games — which can attract tens of thousands of simultaneous players — do put a strain on network capacity. The growing complexity and array of video games threaten even more demands.

BROADCAST GAMES NET

The dizzying variety within the video-game world adds to this complexity. And just like the cable programming industry, games developers are finding new partnerships and alliances – many of which step into the world of video programming.

For example, just in time for last week's Major League Baseball All-Star Game, FoxSports.com introduced "Hit the Pros," a fantasy online baseball game which allows online gamers to use real-time pitching and batting statistics as they assemble their teams.

The deal is tied closely to Fox's baseball TV contract, and one objective is to tie the TV viewing experience to the online fantasy game. That allows viewsers to swing at pitches just thrown by Roger Clemens or Randy Johnson.

Information is updated immediately, so online players can challenge today's pitchers as quickly as 30 minutes after the game concludes.

"Hit the Pros" is the latest sports game developed by Wild Tangent, a developer that has been working with studios, networks and advertisers on what it calls its "broadcast games network." The company has created tele-webbing games to accompany Turner Network Television's Witchblade, and its game for "Nike's Secret Tournament" attracted more than a half million players who averaged 70 minutes online per game.

Wild Tangent is working on other fee-based as well as ad-supported games.

STB GAMING EMERGES

Although Wild Tangent's games are aimed at PCs — it has deals with Road Runner, EarthLink Inc. and other broadband service providers — its alliances are reminders that the games business has the potential to spread to set-top boxes and other cable distribution platforms. Indeed, at this week's Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing Summit, companies are pitching games specifically aimed at digital STBs.

Buzztime Entertainment is touting the results from its first cable deployment: 25 percent of Susquehanna Communications' 16,000 digital cable subscribers in York, Pa., tuned in and registered for Buzztime's STB games, playing about 3.5 games daily and spending an average of 40 minutes per household per day with the games.

If measured by conventional ratings techniques, that would put Buzztime among the top 20 most-watched channels. (Disclosure: I am a director of Buzztime and its parent company, NTN Communications.)

Also at CTAM, Static 2358 will showcase Thievin' Monkeys and other STB gaming formats. Static's PlayJam games are available on a limited basis via Cablevision's iO: Interactive Optimum service, as well as through OpenTV Inc.'s global satellite services and on some European systems using Liberate Technologies Inc. middleware.

Static notes that PlayJam attracts more than 250,000 users per day on Sky Digital in the U,K., where more people have access to PlayJam than to DVDs, PlayStation 2 and GameBoy Advanced combined.

GROWING PROMOTION

These cable-gaming ventures have surfaced at a time of increasing attention to and competition for the gaming audience. For example, Sony Online Entertainment Inc. is taking EverQuest, the popular online role-playing game, on the road this summer, calling it the "EQ Invasion Tour." The 18-wheeler experience is timed to coincide with the launch of Sony's latest online gaming package, which will go on sale in August.

The connection kit will sell for $39.99, enabling viewsers to connect their PlayStation2 consoles to the Internet via a phone or broadband connection.

Through the extending cluster of EverQuest online games, Sony has signed up more than 430,000 paying subscribers, with nearly 100,000 online simultaneously at peak hours to slay dragons and explore the world of Norrath.

Coming this fall are Xbox Internet gaming — strictly broadband — which will cost $49 for a one-year subscription, and Nintendo's GameCube online offering.

All of which adds up to increasing — and intense — use of the network. New truly multiple media games, such as Z-Opolis, encourage the use of simultaneous, real-time instant messaging and even voice connections so that players can verbally spar or support their on-screen activity. Games-on-demand — downloaded, streamed or otherwise — are also part of this upcoming interactive package.

Not only will these packages prey on existing video usage and bandwidth limitations. They should instill in operators and programmers a new appreciation of GOD.

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