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Why the Phantom Console Won't Succeed Even If It's Not Vaporware.
Author: Michael Ahlf       Date: March 3rd 2004

There'd be an image here, but we felt it 
wasn't worth getting Infinium Labs mad over.

So we've all heard about how Infinium Labs intends to use its apparently wonderful new, wow-it's-cool gaming system (which Tycho and Gabe at Penny Arcade aptly described as a "broken computer") to take over the console gaming world. At least that's their claim.

And we've all seen their efforts to attack [H]ardOCP, who wrote an editorial last September going after the company for things that just didn't and still don't seem to add up. And then, late today, we were treated to [H]ardOCP's return salvo and subsequent press release on their frontpage.

I'm not going to touch on that beyond mentioning it. Instead I'm going to address Infinium Labs' rather slick sales pitch with a bit of reality concerning how the device works, where its differences with the console world will cause problems or not, where the hardware seems to have problems, and why I think their model for how the thing will make money and be adopted by the gamer community just won't fly.

But first, some disclaimers:
1. I do not actually have the hardware. I am working entirely from the specs and statements made on Infinium Labs' website at the time of writing. If Infinium Labs is willing to send me their hardware to try out, I will be more than willing to do so. (My being a skeptic of their claims, I'm betting they won't.)

2. I have stated previously that I believe that the Infinium console, the "Phantom", is likely vaporware. It may not be intentional vaporware, there may actually be a plan to bring it to market, but ultimately I believe it'll either end up like the Atari Lynx or the Indrema. Regardless, I am setting that aside. The purpose of this article is to state that, under the assumption that the console ISN'T vaporware, it still has some major design problems.

Now, on to the good stuff.

Part I: Processor and Memory.

The Phantom seems to be a juicy machine, if it were a PC.

Processors range from the AMD Athlon XP 2500, 333MHz FSB, to the Athlon XP 3200, 400MHz FSB. These are a pretty good range, for processors: at time of article, XP 3200's are still going for $195 on Pricewatch. Unfortunately, the extra boost of speed isn't something console gamers are likely to go for.

Remember, console gamers are a different breed. They're used to every device being exactly the same. Not only that, the programmers for console games are expecting that the hardware won't change for the 5-7 years (or even longer) that they're programming FOr the machine, allowing them to choke maximum potential out of it.

When upgrades do come, they inevitably leave out a segment of the console owners who don't buy the upgrade. In good times, this is a low price, as when N64 users found out they needed the memory expansion, and everyone went along with it because Nintendo shipped the expansion with a high-selling game. In bad times, they can tank a system; a good example here would be Sega's 32X and Sega CD add-ons for the Sega Genesis.

Likewise, the Phantom comes with 256 MB of Dual Channel DDR memory standard, upgradable to 512 MB or 1 GB. Fundamentally this HAS to be considered a design flaw; programmers work on consoles, again, expecting to work with minimum specs and get what they can out of them. Trying to program for three different memory sizes will be interesting and not fun, and if they take the low road - just programming everything for 256 - then gamers won't see that much benefit from the upgraded versions.

Bottom line: while higher-powered specs in a console SOUND good on paper, programmers are going to have to build all games for the minimum spec to avoid cutting owners out of the market.

Part II: Minor things

Actually, there are a few things in the Phantom console I don't mind seeing, but nothing that hasn't really been done before. Including the NV36 and a NForce-2 chipset is just a more updated idea of how the Xbox is set up with a custom Nvidia chip and proprietary Intel setup. Including Dolby Digital surround sound is normal, nowadays - the Xbox has it, PS2 has some games that have it (and has the optical output), and while the Gamecube doesn't, their Pro Logic II setup is darn sweet and is a viable surround implementation on its own that all Dolby Digital receivers still recognize.

There's no mention of component video output for HDTV owners, but I think it can likely be expected with the NV36.

Enter the wireless keyboard / mouse / controllers with chargers, however. Controllers are something gamers will put up when they're done with. Keyboard and mouse? Think of a device with a not-so-powerful battery, getting misplaced as often as a TV remote, and then failing at the worst possible moment.

Part III: Hard drive space

This is one part where the Phantom picks up something that has sort-of worked for Tivo, getting people to shell out more for a bigger hard drive. And it's got big options: all the way from a now-PC-normal 80GB, to a beefy 320 GB. Unfortunately, we've got a bit of a problem here. As years go on, games are going to get bigger. They already use DVD media, and some games are easily into the dual-layer sizes (over 4.7 GB). At that range, an 80 GB Hard drive may sound like a lot, but for gamers who want to keep a decent-sized library, it might not be. 

Take an average gamer. Library of games: perhaps 25-30, or less if they're frugal or regularly frequent places like Gamestop or Gamecrazy stores and trade in old games for new. Still, I feel that 25-30 games over the lifetime of a console is a likely understatement, so let's examine the numbers.

25 games, at an average space usage of 2 GB each, is already 50 GB. If we go to 3 GB each, that's 75 GB... just enough to squeak them all in assuming (a) none has large-sized save files and (b) the OS, their tweaked version of XP, is decently small.

While the upgraded HD size makes this less of an argument than it otherwise might be, it's still something to consider. How many titles DO fit into a console like that?

There's also the problem of what happens if the system has problems. On the Xbox, if your hard drive fails, the worst you lose is your saved games. Your Xbox Live setup can be recreated fairly easily. You have all your disks, so there's no worry about replacing them.

Consider on the other hand sending your Infinium console off to be repaired, seeing it come back with a new, blank HD to replaced the one that died, and finding out you've got 60 GB of downloads (to do just to reassemble your library (see part IV below).

Even if your HD doesn't die, everything is factory-service-only. Want a bigger HD? Send it back. And don't use your console for a month or more. Doesn't sound that appealing to me.

Part IV: Bandwidth availablility and download times.

Part of the marketing strategy for the Infinium is that it's an "always on" console and that it uses your home's broadband connection to get your games. That's right, no store, you just select the game, it downloads, and your credit card gets the bill.

Let's take a look at the size of these downloads however. For the sake of argument, we'll look at a relatively low case, where a game in question is 2 GB. On DSL, the functional download speed most people are going to get tops out at 1.5 Mbit. Technically DSL is capable of a little over 8 Mbit, but that's if you're in the same ROOM as the DSLAM router, so I'm working from what I get at my place. Cable modem is 2-3 times as fast, depending (unless you uncap, in which case you'll get busted and kicked off the Cable Modem service). 

At 1.5 Mbit, you've got a functional download speed, maxed, of 192 kb (kilobytes) per second. That 2 GB download on the other hand, is actually 2*1024^2 = 2097152 kb. At 192 kb/second, that's roughly 3.034 hours to download. If Cable Modem is 3x faster, that's still 1 hour to download your game to the Phantom's hard drive.

Faster than going to the store, perhaps, but questionable in terms of what someone does if (a) they want to develop a library, or (b) they're trying games out. And, of course, everything's relative; as the size of the games increases, we can expect that download time to just increase, since Cable Modem operators are starting to cap bandwidth more fiercely and DSL's got its functional limits.

The problem's not at the Phantom console, that much is true. Its 10/100baseT Ethernet card is just fine for hooking in to your home network. Getting to the outside world is a bit of a problem.

There's also the problem of what to do while you're waiting. That 192 kb/second figure is assuming that (a) you're running max speed (many home DSL users don't even get 1.5 MBit, they can be left at 768 kbit or less if they're unlucky) (b) that nothing else is using the line, and (c) that Infinium's servers on the other end can saturate your, and everyone else in question's, connection for the entire download period.

If anything to the contrary happens - your big brother/wife/sister/whoever decides to play Everquest, or Quake 3, or Unreal Tournament, or Final Fantasy XI, or anything else at all that could use bandwidth, expect your download to slow down.

If Infinium's server is being hit hard for some reason, the same.

[Updated 3-3-04] An anonymous reader points out that certain cable companies and some Universities are now running monthly bandwidth caps and/or charging for bandwidth cap overages, and their particular cap is 5 GB/month. That means in a best-case scenario they may be shelling out $50/month for Cable Modem, $10/month for Phantom, and then $20/Gig for any overages. Buying three games/month, the price of a third game in one month just shot up to $70 or even $90.

Part V: No-Media setup.

This is part one of where the Infinium starts to fall apart. Games are one of these things that people give as gifts, and make tangible items out of. Some throw them haphazardly around the room, while others have a special shelf to show them off, but all console gamers and PC gamers alike have a rich understanding of what it is to hold the physical disk and be able to say, "This is MINE." Games are carted to a friend's house to play, traded around and loaned out. Sometimes they're traded in to stores like Gamestop and Gamecrazy to upgrade to newer titles.

With no physical media, you can't drag your favorite sports game to a friend's place to play. You can't loan them that cool new platform shooter you just finished. 

You can't trade a completed game in for a newer title.

The Infinium people tout this as a feature, but really, I don't imagine that many gamers going for it. We LIKE our media, and the more contemporary a title is, the more we like it, the emulation community notwithstanding.

Part VI: Pay-Per-Play ideas.

Honestly, this is one idea I have a hard time wrapping my head around. If the download times were shorter, then sure, people might enjoy the idea of "Renting" a game for the weekend via download. As it stands right now, however, people do fine with game rentals or, as mentioned previously, the revolving door of used game trade-ins at stores like Gamestop and Gamecrazy.

It's a nifty concept in some respects. At the end of the day, though, it's hard to pare down. It's like having a copy of one of those old TV units that had 6-8 SNES games inside them, but you had to pay to play by the hour, at your hotel room. Not a happy picture.

Part VII: Monthly subscription fee.

Monthly subscription fees are how EVERYONE seems to think they're gonna make money these days. The hard part is convincing people your fee is worth paying.

Online MMORPG's have it easy. You're paying for access to the content on servers, and for the storage space for YOUR character on the server. Your money every month feeds the servers, gets upgrades for the servers, pays the programmers who are constantly putting out bug fixes and working on the next update. It makes sense.

In the same way, Cable TV and satellite TV are worth it. They deliver a higher number of channels and shows compared to standard rabbit ears.

Microsoft's Xbox Live service, ostensibly, is worth it to the players - and at $50/year, it's pretty low too. It gets you rankings, availability status for others to challenge you to a game, and connectivity for any number of titles to play against others.

Tivo... well, theirs is a bit dicier, but still explainable. What you wind up paying for on Tivo is their recommendations feature and the service that actually identifies when your show is on. Given that it only works with cable or TV, and has to be calibrated accordingly, it's more of an "extra feature" for one's cable or satellite system, and the choice is slightly dubious but still valid. Most importantly, you're paying for the convenience of not having to track your show's timeslot; they do that for you. It's roughly equivalent to paying someone to do your taxes or mow your lawn, something you COULD do yourself but don't want to spend the time on.

On the Phantom, however, it's a mixed bag. Nobody in their right mind would agre to pay a $10 fee each month for their shoes after they bought them for full retail price. Nobody in their right mind would pay a $10 fee each month just to be able to put their Playstation 2's game discs into the PS2.

Likewise, the Phantom's subscription setup is not trivial. People are shelling out $300+ for the system. Then they're shelling out $50/game. Then they're asked to pay out $10/month even on single-player titles , in addition to the cost of their DSL/Cable modem, merely to be able to access said games.

I can't see it. It just piles up too damned fast. It's not like combining HBO and Tivo, because HBO provides NEW content each month and Tivo is the ability to preserve that content that you might not be around to see. While it could be claimed that the $10 goes to Phantom's providing an "opportunity" to buy and use new games each month, what are we really talking about here? That's right, we're talking about Gamestop or Gamecrazy or Best Buy charging you a "viewers' fee" at the door just to SEE what's in their store, then charging you again to take it home, then charging you a monthly fee or they'll send someone around to take it back.

Sorry, but I can't get into that sort of a business model. It makes me, the customer, look like a fool.

The Final Word

Actually, I think I've put it all pretty well up there. The bottom line is, the technology of broadband connections doesn't quite work as they hoped, and their pay-every-month-for-something-you-"bought" business model is something that I don't see console gamers adopting, ever.

As always, emails, flaming and otherwise, are more than welcome. If I get a good set of responses there will be a follow-up article printing them.

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Infinium Labs - Why the Phantom won't succeed.

Added:  Wednesday, March 03, 2004
Reviewer:  Michael Ahlf


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