Road Runner has embarked on an ambitious program to expand
its portfolio of broadband content, starting with plans to introduce online gaming in a
deal with SegaSoft Networks Inc.
The high-speed service's plans for a
broadband-enhanced multiplayer environment linked to SegaSoft's online operation,
Heat.Net, presage several steps that the company plans to take over the next few weeks.
These include the introduction of high-quality video
streaming over a newly enhanced broadband backbone, said Meredith Flynn-Ripley, vice
president for product management at Road Runner.
"Heat.Net represents just the first in a series of
announcements as Road Runner continues to add new functions and features to our
services," Flynn-Ripley said. "We're actively working on several different
partnerships and technologies that will bring new levels of experience to our
She added that improvements in the venture's national
backbone that have been quietly under way for the past few months, together with the
consolidation and integration of affiliated systems of Road Runner's MSO partners,
have set the stage for introducing these new services.
Road Runner is a partnership of Time Warner Cable, MediaOne
Group Inc. and Advance Newhouse (which is controlled by Time Warner).
"The Road Runner backbone can support streaming at
very aggressive rates," she said. "We're looking at the whole
streaming-video space as a foundation for enhancements on a service-by-service
Rival @Home Network recently announced that it would
implement a broadband-streaming component over its new backbone later this year, with
speeds pegged to the 300-kilobit-per-second to 500-kbps rate where video approaches VHS
quality at full-screen resolution on personal computers.
While Road Runner officials declined to discuss details of
the emerging broadband-content strategy, elements of what's in store were evident in
their gaming plans with SegaSoft.
These include: network support for extremely low-latency
interaction among users; packet-voice communications in conjunction with game-playing;
community chat and other activities; and a tie-in with SegaSoft's next-generation
game-playing console system, Dreamcast. The latter is designed to link players online.
SegaSoft's partnership with Road Runner is similar to
one already in play over @Home's service, giving the online-gaming company the
pre-eminent position in the emerging broadband arena. @Home began featuring the Heat.Net
option in August, while Road Runner has it under way in a handful of MediaOne systems, and
it will soon expand the service to all of its affiliates' systems.
Although both Road Runner and @Home had previously been
offering a few games -- mainly slow-action ones -- SegaSoft is set to be the primary
conduit for multiplayer gaming through both data-service providers' networks, said
Mike Zukerman, vice president of business development at SegaSoft.
While Road Runner provides other game options, "in our
deals with Road Runner and @Home, Heat.Net is the only online-game service prominently
featured," Zukerman added.
Users on either service clicking onto the gaming option
enter a co-branded page that serves as the gateway to Heat.Net, he added.
Initially, Road Runner customers will get access to
participation in the same lineup of action and strategy games that Heat.Net's dial-up
customers currently play.
"SegaSoft has altered its software so that our
customers get low-latency, high-twitch experiences not available to narrowband
users," Flynn-Ripley said.
In addition, SegaSoft is positioning some of its servers to
connect directly into the broadband providers' backbones, further cutting latency,
Heat.Net now has about 800,000 registered users, with some
15,000 participating daily -- mostly during the peak hours of 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. Pacific
time, Zukerman said.
He added that these numbers outpace SegaSoft's primary
rivals in online multiplayer gaming -- Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Gaming Zone and
Mplayer.com, the service supplied by Mpath Interactive Inc., which, like SegaSoft, is
partly owned by Japanese software concern CSK Corp.
Users accessing Heat.Net over narrowband or broadband links
can play most games free-of-charge, but they can also sign on as premium members for $5.95
per month or $49 per year.
Advertising is Heat.Net's primary source of revenue,
Players of CD-ROM games like Quake I and II, Baldur's
Gate, Sin and myriad others purchase the games from retailers and download software from
Heat.Net to support online play.
Today, SegaSoft offers only one high-twitch fighter game,
Net Fighter, where users battle each other as they would in an arcade action battle,
"We've managed to solve the delay problem with
some optical illusions," he said.
But broadband promises to change the gaming experience to
the point where such fast-action games are doable, opening the way for introducing what
are expected to be very popular mainstream sports games, such as football and basketball,
"Broadband is going to have a big influence on this
market," said Sarah Anderson, vice president and general manager of Heat.Net,
speaking in a session at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
"Imagine football played by different people, all in
different positions, on two teams," she said. "That's something that you
can't do today."
SegaSoft's Dreamcast system -- which is now in
commercial operation in Japan, and which is set to be released in the United States this
fall -- adds still another dimension that could benefit broadband customers, Zukerman
The Dreamcast console, linked to a TV, runs on the Windows
CE operating system and comes with a modem that allows users to play the console games
online with each other.
"We may have the opportunity to feature our partners
-- @Home and Road Runner -- in whatever they might do with Dreamcast," Zukerman said.
"There's a lot of stuff still to be figured out."
A Dreamcast console equipped with a cable modem would allow
users to play the advanced fast-action games on TV sets, opening a path for such services
to people who don't own PCs. Flynn-Ripley said it was too soon to say how this option
will be developed.
But she made it clear that Road Runner officials view
gaming over broadband as much more of a mass-market service than online gaming is today.
"We've found that there's a much larger
appetite for the community online-gaming experience in the mainstream market when you add
the broadband component," she said.
SegaSoft will soon introduce a voice-communications
capability in the Heat.Net space, Zukerman said. This will add still another advantage to
the broadband experience, officials noted.