As video-on-demand's momentum builds, there's a growing undercurrent of activity surrounding another advanced application for present-day digital set-top boxes: interactive gaming.
Insight Communications Co. has rolled out gaming as part of its Liberate Technologies Inc. middleware platform, offering games like Solitaire, Twenty-One
And during its Sony Corp. digital rollout last year, Cablevision Systems Corp. included games from Static 2358, an OpenTV Inc. subsidiary.
Susquehanna Communications Corp. is in the final stages of testing Buzztime Entertainment Inc.'s trivia games on the Scientific-Atlanta Inc. 2000 platform. (S-A is now a minority investor in Buzztime.)
Games have long been a staple of satellite provider British Sky Broadcasting plc's interactive platform in the United Kingdom. But trivia, parlor and betting games are also evident on cable platforms in Britain and continental Europe.
Gaming proponents hope that their applications will be the next logical step in interactive content delivery, once VOD is widely available in the U.S.
"Cable operators are putting real effort into the technology necessary to make interactive television possible," said Buzztime president Tyrone Lam.
Added Static 2358 president Joan Gillman, "Operators are embracing games as a way to stimulate loyalty and grow digital marketshare."
There are high hopes for gaming at Two Way TV, which is designing games for the Digeo Inc. platform to be deployed by Charter Communications Inc.
"Following VOD, it's the next best revenue stream for cable and satellite," said Two Way president Robert Regan.
Interactive gaming proponents face a number of hurdles, though. For the past few years, most game developers required middleware to make their applications work on set-tops.
Aside from Insight, though, operators have been reluctant to roll out such middleware.
Porting VOD to 2000-series set-tops was a task that was finished relatively quickly. Adapting memory-hogging gaming applications to those already deployed boxes proved more difficult.
But rudimentary games have now made their way to the 2000 boxes. Buzztime has tested trivia games on Susquehanna's system. It's trialing live, TV-based multiplayer gaming using S-A's Explorer 2000.
"We're producing a 24-7 broadcast channel that's made for interactive TV," Lam said.
Buzztime's content resides at the headend. It's a fast-paced trivia game, in which a question is asked during each minute of a 15-minute session.
Contestants are ranked according to how they fare against other Susquehanna subscribers, in real time.
Buzztime draws from a list of 120,000 trivia questions in its library. The application now runs in about 25 homes in Susquehanna's York, Pa., cable system.
"We found a couple of bugs we're fixing," said Lam, who noted that a full rollout is set for June. Susquehanna counts about 22,000 digital subscribers in York.
Buzztime is integrated into S-A's PowerTV Inc. operating system.
"S-A wrote the code, and we're on the client side," Lam said.
Buzztime also recently signed a development deal with Liberate to port applications onto Motorola Inc. DCT 2000 boxes.
There's an added promotional benefit for Buzztime: The trivia game Susquehanna has deployed is the same contest that's played in many bars and restaurants around the country, via NTN.
"We have four NTN locations in York," Lam said. "They are jammed every night. NTN and Buzztime brand awareness is very high."
Lam is working on a joint restaurant-and-cable promotion. Subscribers would compete at home; top winners would get invited to NTN's restaurant locations to vie for larger prizes.
Buzztime has 6 million unique users in restaurants, said Lam. Thirty percent of NTN players in restaurants have digital cable.
Lam said there's been strong interest from four of the top seven MSOs.
"The MSO does not have to make a middleware decision," Lam said. "We can switch the application over in a year or two" if an operator decides to deploy middleware.
MSOs pay Buzztime "a nominal fee" per digital set-top, Lam said.
"It puts some skin in the game to get us the promotion we need," he said. "When we get to 15 million to 20 million homes, then we get to a premium level of service."
A third revenue level could be interactive advertising, or "creatively placing ad spots within the game," said Lam.
IT PLAYS IN U.K.
Static is trying to parlay its U.K. success here in the U.S.
"The Cablevision deployment is very positive for us," Gillman said.
Some 1.4 billion Static PlayJam
games have been contested via BSkyB over the past year. The leading title is East End Arrows, which has been played 70 million times.
Static generates revenue from advertising, sponsorship, pay-per-play and registration. It has logged more than 10 million minutes of premium-rate phone calls.
Cablevision launched with three games, including Blackjack, and will soon add a fourth title, Gillman said.
"The trivia game we refresh quite often" by building special gaming content such events as the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards, she said.
Today's games are free under Cablevision's iO: Interactive Optimum digital package, but Gillman hopes to someday offer pay-per-play functionality. The plan would be to always offer a free set of games, then give subscribers incentives to play at higher levels, she said.
The higher-level games would be more graphically rich, arcade-style games with a wider range of scoring possibilities, she said.
In addition to BSkyB, Static has games on U.K. MSOs NTL Inc. and Telewest plc. Its games run on the OpenTV, Liberate and Canal Plus middleware platforms.
In the Cablevision-Sony box, Static runs on Device Mosaic. Static's PlayJam service has also been trialed on AT&T Broadband's Half Moon Bay, Calif., system.
Static has examined the 2000 set-top environment and likens it to the playjam.com
Web site, which is also a "non-middleware initiative," said Gillman.
It would require more software-coding efforts, Gillman said.
"The question is, can you develop and take full advantage of that environment?" he asked. "It may not be economical.
"The aim is to refresh it on a fairly regular basis, and that's tough to do with the 2000."
OpenTV's deal with small-system digital-cable provider Headend in the Sky also allows Static to tap into the small and midsized cable market.
"We're leading with PlayJam and in the next few months, we'll introduce an offering," she said.
MULTI-PLAY IN THE U.K.
BSkyB will roll out multiplayer gaming this summer, she said. Subscribers will be able to play against each other, and they'll be billed on their telephone statement.
"The first multiplayer game will be a dart game," he said. "They have a large, loyal base that's playing those games.
"We track those that are more high-tech and develop a more sophisticated game for them."
Two Way TV has joined forces with Liberate, Motorola and Digeo for gaming tests.
"We have a game pack out with Liberate" that's been tested in a few AT&T Broadband systems, said Regan.
Two Way also tested with Digeo on the Microsoft-Motorola platform in St. Louis.
The company has also worked with OpenTV, Wink and recently signed a co-development deal with Game Show Network.
The Liberate games include Picnic Antics, Tactiles
and the card game Deal With It. "Those games don't need updating," Regan said. "They constantly refresh themselves."
Like Static, Two Way is drawing on its European experience. It's deployed on BSkyB, Telewest and NTL, through OpenTV and Canal Plus middleware. The standalone games are available on a per-play basis.
BSkyB subscribers can play along with soccer games by betting which team and which player will score first, for instance. BSkyB picks up $2.25 per game for that privilege, using Two Way software. Players can win from $3,000 to $15,000 per game.
The trouble in the U.S., Regan said, is that "no one's wanted to pay for anything."
But the numbers are there in the U.K, he said. Each household plays an average of 1.2 games per month.
Some 40 percent of all users pay to play one game each month. Among pay-per game players, average revenue is $12 per month, while monthly set-top churn is 3 percent.
"This is truly the business we've all be waiting for," said Regan, the former content chief of ITV pioneer GTE Main Street.