Multiplayer Gaming Rises, But MSOs Aren't Playing

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With broadband-enabled game consoles ready to hit the consumer play button this fall, many experts are predicting that the new units will open up a rare profit opportunity to feed a growing consumer content demand.

But while several technology companies are actively looking to score in online multiplayer games, it remains to be seen if cable operators will come in from the sidelines and offer gaming services of their own.

There is little doubt the online gaming market is growing. In particular, multiplayer games — where users link via the Internet to play each other — now attract about 1.2 million players in the U.S. That number is projected to grow to 7.5 million, according to figures compiled by gaming middleware provider Zona Inc. and Executive Summary Consulting Inc.

Broadband game consoles will likely play a big part in the growth. In August, Sony Corp. unveiled a network adapter that allows Playstation2 gamers to link their consoles to the Internet using a narrowband or broadband configuration.

Not to be outdone, Microsoft Corp. is set to go live in November with Xbox Live, an online gaming service built entirely around a broadband connection.

"The important thing is a lot of this is happening very quickly, and all of a sudden there are a lot of devices out there that will soon be capable of supporting multiplayer broadband capabilities," said Glenn Russell, director of the PacketCable initiative at Cable Television Laboratories Inc. "That's a good sign that there is hopefully going to be a good critical mass of end points out there."

Needed for downloads

One company that is charging into online games distribution is digital-content provider Trymedia Systems. The company claims the top spot as the largest peer-to-peer online gaming distributor with more than 5 million game downloads. With game applications running a hefty 30 to 100 megabytes or more, broadband is a crucial element, according to the company's vice president of marketing Gabe Zichermann.

"Without effective broadband people are not going to download games," he said. "It's not what percentage of the population has broadband, it's what percentage of gamers have broadband." The consensus is that the number of hardcore gamers that already have broadband may top 90 percent, Zichermann said.

Trymedia is partnering with game publishers and Internet distributors such as Web portals. The company doesn't have any deals with broadband network providers yet, but "very very soon we will be announcing deals in that genre," Zichermann said.

"It's finally extending to cable operators, and whether they look at it from a peer-to-peer centric model or they look at it from a client-server architecture model, the bottom line is there is money to be made there," Zichermann added.

MSOs including Comcast Corp., AT&T Broadband and cable competitor RCN Corp. have introduced premium cable-modem services offering higher throughputs. But to date, no U.S. MSO has come out with a gaming-specific broadband service, Zichermann observed.

"The cable guys have a tremendous advantage in being able to grab multiplayer gamers," he said. "It's surprising to me why they have not done more direct outreach to those communities."

One of many options

Gaming is in fact attracting the cable industry's attention, but it is one of several Internet Protocol-based advanced services in the mix, according to CableLabs' Russell.

"I think there is no question they see users adopting a lot of these services out there," he said. "They see multiplayer games increasing, they see multiplayer games traffic increasing on their networks. In terms of the exact strategy, I think that is to be determined, and I know many of them are working on that."

As the industry's technology consortium, CableLabs is working on strategies to support game traffic across cable networks. The biggest issue is latency — in cutting the delay between the user's action and when it is registered.

"That is what we are trying to tap into with DOCSIS 1.1 and 2.0 and PacketCable capabilities and make them accessible to the average game player and average game developer," Russell said.

Upstream bandwidth as gamers respond to each other in rapid fire also comes into play. There, DOCSIS 2.0's greater upstream bandwidth could offer better network performance.

"I think a lot of the games right now have not been optimized yet for any cable networks, so right now some of the game architectures send a lot more data than is necessary," Russell said. "But going forward, we hope to address that either with adding more bandwidth via DOCSIS 2.0 or a better use of the existing bandwidth."

But there is still a question as to how much importance cable will place on gaming traffic compared to voice and other data flowing across cable networks, noted Michael Harris, president of Kinetic Strategies Inc.

"The question is, in terms of latency controls and the QoS and that vector, you are talking about tying up network resources," he said. "And the question is, could potentially a gamer use more latency and bandwidth QoS than a voice customer? How do you bill for that, when it is a finite resource? If you start thinking about an actual latency-based gaming tier, what does that do for the economics you are thinking about for their more high-valued services like voice, which has similar characteristics?"

With new broadband versions of Xbox and Playstation on the horizon, it also raises an issue of usage, Harris added.

"There is a fundamental question for cable industry — whether or not a customer is allowed to do whatever they want within reason with their broadband IP-access service," Harris said. "Connecting a game box instead of a computer to that modem — is it reasonable or unreasonable? If it is reasonable, what role does the cable operator play except for trying to create a situation where they can add value? The lame way to address the situation is to penalize customers and become a gate keeper."

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