Multiplayer gaming is a logical interactive television (ITV) application, and an attractive way to extend return on investment in the two-way capabilities of the modern cable plant. Yet by some accounts, acceptance in the United States seems to trail other parts of the world. In England, for example, some level of gaming is offered as part of most cable systems’ basic service, though the types of games offered are not particularly technologically sophisticated.

So how do you incorporate gaming as a recurring revenue stream for your cable operation? That requires an understanding of how gaming works with the modern cable plant and the current crop of digital set-top boxes—because if your system’s not ready, nothing else matters.

The good news is there’s tremendous support in the industry, and interactive gaming seems poised to be a dominant money-earner for operators as early as 2004.

GAMES AND BANDWIDTH

There are two approaches to delivering interactive online gaming via cable. One is effectively a narrowband approach, such as the multiplayer trivia contests offered by Carlsbad, Calif.-based Buzztime. The second is broadband, the kind of "fast twitch" console-style gaming typified by Microsoft’s Xbox Live.

Less bandwidth-intensive games like Buzztime’s are accessed by the user from the digital set-top box; the games themselves are stored in a server at the headend. Xbox Live is a more ambitious approach, using retail outlets to provide the interactive Xbox console product to consumers, who then run the games through their broadband provider, whether cable or telephone.

According to Tyrone Lam, president and COO of Buzztime, Susquehanna Communications’ York, Penn., system introduced the Buzztime service last year. (See Communications Technology, April 2002.) A small server resides at the headend to host the application; players at home use their cable remote controls to select Buzztime from the interactive programming guide. The application is delivered to a Scientific-Atlanta digital set-top. All six categories of trivia games are available 24 hours a day, every quarter hour.

"Buzztime uses the return path for scores, ranking and competition," explains Lam. Over the next several years, the company plans to make the games work across cable operations, with national competitive leader board postings.

Lam concedes that Buzztime games are inherently low-bandwidth. "The color palette is the most bandwidth-intensive portion of the game," he says. However, Lam adds, "as set-top boxes become more sophisticated, you’ll see the richness of the user interface expand."

Regardless, Dan Templin, vice president of marketing and programming for Susquehanna, views the service a success. Susquehanna launched Buzztime in June 2002 with 17,000 digital homes in York. The cable operator included the package as part of digital basic service.

"We couldn’t be happier," says Templin. "We’ve seen a reduction in churn, and we’re getting deeper into our customers’ homes: getting more digital terminals into homes and more of the terminals into those homes."

Research conducted by Susquehanna in October ’02 showed that churn among Buzztime homes was 38 percent lower than homes that were not Buzztime registered, Templin explains. Nearly 50 percent of digital customers in York have registered for Buzztime, and hundreds of players participate every day.

"That level of participation—around the clock—is very impressive," Templin notes.

THE THICK AND THIN OF DIGITAL SET-TOPS

Still, it can’t be denied that U.S. operators are in a mode of experimentation when it comes to gaming. It may be that MSOs are looking to first maximize the return on investment in so-called "thin" first-generation digital cable set-top boxes, which have limited capabilities for advanced service offerings. (In fact, when it comes to creating games for cable, an entire industry has grown up around "middleware" vendors that essentially provide an enabling environment for developers to create games optimized for thin set-tops.)

Buzztime’s Lam believes he has noticed an imperative among cable operators to build on the capabilities of current set-top boxes. To create compelling games accessible through these boxes, gaming companies have had to employ middleware companies like Liberate, OpenTV and ICTV. Buzztime, Lam notes, bypassed the middleware solution, and has written its games directly with Scientific-Atlanta for the PowerTV platform.

Once middleware is more widely deployed, Lam predicts, you’ll see more companies writing games with the technology in mind. Buzztime already has written some prototype games with Liberate middleware, and plans to roll these games out in 2003 with at least one MSO.

Even before middleware has fully caught on in the cable industry, a new generation of technology has made its entrance. In June, ICTV introduced HeadendWare, reported Ed Forman, senior vice president of marketing at the Los Gatos, Calif.-based company. HeadendWare is a platform that resides in the cable headend and hosts games, which are then accessed through the consumer’s set-top box. Content producers use standard Web-based tools to produce gaming titles in the headend environment. Intel-based processors at the headend run sessions on behalf of users with thin set-tops. The only requirements, according to Forman, are that set-top boxes must be able to decode a moving pictures experts group (MPEG)-2 stream and deliver a real-time return back to the headend.

Disney is an ICTV client, says Mitch Askenas, vice president of advanced product. Disney Blast games run primarily on Flash and Shockwave over the Internet. The company is using ICTV’s HeadendWare to optimize the content for TV.

BROADBAND ACCEPTANCE TAKES OFF

But some gaming companies look askance at these examples. Paul Newson, a program manager for Microsoft’s Xbox Live, characterizes the player experience as "telephone-grade." For him, the challenge is bringing the game console experience to the online world.

In October 2002, Microsoft announced that Xbox’s live online gaming service would be supported by 10 U.S. and three Canadian broadband service providers (for the record, Bell Canada, BellSouth, Charter Communications, Comcast, Cox Communications, EarthLink, MSN, Qwest Communications, Rogers Cable, SBC Communications, Telus, Time Warner Cable’s Road Runner service and Verizon Communications).

These 13 companies are selling an appropriate level of broadband access for the service via an "Xbox; Compatible" designation in their marketing materials. Users buy the console product at a retail outlet and are responsible for coordinating with the service provider in their area.

Newson was enthusiastic about reception of the service. In early January, Microsoft announced that, some 60 days after the product was introduced, more than 250,000 starter kits had been sold—double its original sales expectations. Xbox Live Starter Kits outsold by 86 percent the number of PlayStation 2 Network Adapters Sony sold in its first month, according to Microsoft.

IS ACCEPTANCE SLOW?

So what of the view that gaming is better developed in England? While strategies for marketing gaming may be further along outside the United States, most of those contacted for this article believe that the technology is ready to accommodate dramatic domestic growth.

In fact, Microsoft’s Newson questions whether there is an acceptance lag at all. "I haven’t noticed any difference in the level of interest in interactive gaming in the U.S. and European markets."

Others acknowledge a marketing lag, but with an explanation. Buzztime’s Lam notes, "in Europe, almost all games are one-way, with a telephone dial-up return path." Much content is satellite distributed, pushed to the set-top box. He also maintains that the games are not typically multiuser. "You may actually be playing the game by yourself, and post the score back to the game manufacturer, for a fee, to compete for prizes," he explains.

Lam contends that European systems did not have to be overhauled to provide two-way service, as have systems in the United States. "Satellite delivery and digital set-top box capabilities in England have taken leaps over the U.S. systems," says Lam. "It may look as though the UK has a lead on gaming, but you’ll find that by 2004, cable companies will have leapfrogged the UK in true two-way digital interactive gaming."

ICTV’s Askenas concurs. "England’s operators have second-generation ‘thick’ set-top boxes," he says, which has enabled games to be written specifically for them. Despite this head start, Askenas says it’s unclear as to whether any revenue has been generated through these games.

For the fast-action, broadband-oriented multiuser games such as those provided through Xbox Live consoles, ICTV’s Forman suggests that game developers have not seen a compelling argument for return on investment. The thin set-tops used in many U.S. operations are an inadequate development platform, and penetration is too low to make it a profitable pursuit.

Jeff Tate, senior vice president of engineering and technology for Susquehanna, notes that current set-top platforms even have some limitations for the less technically demanding interactive games such as those available through Buzztime. Susquehanna is working with Scientific-Atlanta to overcome problems such as lag time in posting winners on a leader board, Tate says.

TECHNOLOGY HURDLES

Lag time is indicative of a problem identified by most of those interviewed for this article and beyond the limitations of first-generation digital set-tops. That problem is the inherent latency of the return path. Commands simply are not received in real time.

Microsoft’s Newson disputes this, claiming that most game makers are developing console-style games with latency as a design consideration. Others are not so generous.

To take the next step in gaming, ICTV’s Forman suggests that operators need to address their return path issues, making the return compliant with Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS) standards. He predicts that from 2004, "every new set-top will have a DOCSIS return path, because DOCSIS modems are so cheap."

Susquehanna’s Jeff Tate agrees that the future of gaming will take off with greater availability of DOCSIS-compliant hardware, although the industry seems to be a bit away from that right now. His colleague Dan Templin predicts that, "the integration of computer and console technology is when we’ll see the explosion of gaming in this country."

With these technology concerns addressed, online gaming via cable is indeed poised for dramatic growth, if it’s a priority for the particular operator. Buzztime’s Lam views speed of future adoption as a business decision. "A comparatively small number of decision makers—maybe two to five individuals at each of the top MSOs—literally control the destiny of interactive TV by cable.

"They get a hundred calls a week about (ITV)," Lam says. "Gaming is just one of those calls."


Partnerships Essentials

Michael Hale, director of data engineering for Atlanta’s Cox Communications, is perhaps more knowledgeable than many operators in network requirements for console-style online gaming. As one of Microsoft’s Xbox Live broadband carrier partners, Hale says the key to success is assessing your network’s capabilities in the context of game requirements

"We started by obtaining knowledge about the game services," Hale says. "Understanding the bandwidth capabilities, protocols used, traffic patterns, server capacities and server locations of the games and services is the first step." According to Hale, evaluation and bandwidth calculation exercises between the game service and the MSO broadband Internet service can identify possible compatibility issues.

It seems that without a solid relationship with the game system provider, you can’t guarantee success. Among issues to address, Hale says, "how the consoles are provisioned and enabled on the MSO network is crucial data. How to validate, troubleshoot and escalate technical issues with game consoles are also important to understand. A cross-functional relationship between the MSOs and the console vendors is paramount to success."

Hale stresses that a variable to consider is the broadband cable subscriber take rate on game services. "MSOs need to keep a close eye on the growth and utilization trends of gaming services. High take rates in a small geographic area could yield upstream congestion and customer care phone calls."


BOTTOMLINE

LET’S PLAY A GAME

Considering online gaming as a revenue stream? Early tests are encouraging. Operators have noticed a reduction in churn and deeper penetration in each home, with more digital terminals placed in homes with online gaming service.

But before you commit resources to this venture, make sure your network hardware and architecture accept online gaming.

Your set-top: If your system uses first-generation digital set-tops, you may not be ready for console-style game offerings. Consider low-bandwidth games, such as online trivia contests.

Consider middleware: Vendors offer different middleware solutions to make interactive games easier to access by a cable system’s customers.

Latency: Nothing puts a wet blanket over online gaming like lag time in receiving commands. Set-tops employing DOCSIS-compliant returns will help, and optimizing your return path must be at the top of your to-do list.

Success causes bandwidth problems: If your take rate gets too high in test markets, your own success could lead to congestion issues and a flood of customer service calls. Make sure you plan your network to accommodate spikes in demand.

Alex Zavistovich is a contributing editor to "Communications Technology." Email him at positivespin@comcast.net.

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