Digital Interactive Systems Corp. and DISCover PC Game Consoles
I had a chance to sit down with Loren Kaiser, Vice President of Operations for Digital Interactive Systems Corp. (DISC) and see some prototypes of DISCover game consoles. DISC provides technology to companies so they can build console-like units that play PC games on a television set. I realize you've had a lot of questions about this product – read on to find out a bit more about the company, its product, and playing PC games on the TV.
Individual manufacturers will have a lot of leeway in deciding how to equip a console using DISC's technology, but there will be a few universal elements. At the moment, all such units will use a Pentium-class processor, Windows XP Embedded, modem and Ethernet plugs. The hardware must be sufficiently powerful that games will run "satisfactorily." Most of all, the unit must not look like a typical PC – it should look like something that fits in with a home entertainment center.
Each unit will also include a custom BIOS chip and the DISCover Drop & Play software. Essentially, the console uses a database that contains information on all the games that have gone through DISC's registration process. As long as the game you drop in the drive tray is included in the database, the console will install and configure the title automatically. The unit will do as much as it possibly can automatically (you'll see the install screens flash by quickly), but may need the user's input briefly to input a key code or agree to an End User License Agreement. If you drop in a title that isn't in the database, you will be given a message to the effect that you should contact the publisher to ask them to work with DISC to add the game. The console will be able to recognize and play media, including video, music and DVDs, but isn't intended to run all manner of software – just the registered games.
To DISC's credit, it was genuinely difficult to think, offhand, of recent titles that were not supported. Fortunately for end users, the process of registering a game is simple, and the DISC team can add a title quickly, even if they have to grab it off a retail shelf. That said, plenty of publishers seem to be cooperating, as the process requires minimal effort on their part. The same database of scripts that manage the installation process will keep track of patching. Once a patch is released, DISC (or its agent) will determine if the patch is critical (given the known configuration of DISCover machines). If it is, that patch will be flagged for download to connected consoles. Consoles connected by an always-on broadband connection will probably simply download the patch. The exact mechanisms for patching are being finalized, so for dial-up connections, the console may connect late at night when not in use, or just on demand. DISC's goal is to keep the console as up-to-date as possible for the current top 100 games (in case you grab one of those on an impulse), with other titles patched when the console recognizes a need (such as when you install the game).
Fundamentally, the question is: How do the games look and play? They look at least as good, if not better, than they do on a console. Because the innards of the DISCover consoles are mostly PC components, it will depend on the manufacturer and the type of displays your PC supports. Games that are already ports of console games, such as Need for Speed: Underground and Spider-Man: The Movie look great. A game pad can plug right into the USB ports on the front of the console, and (after a slightly longer install than you might experience on a conventional console), the games run great. In a world where so many PC games are already ports of console games, you might expect such games to run well on PC hardware at TV resolutions. Current console gamers may get exclusives unavailable to DISCover gamers. Conversely, DISCover owners will be able to play games only available as PC software.
The real question concerns games typically only found on PCs. The USB ports can be used equally well for keyboard and mouse, and Loren Kaiser took the time to show off Command & Conquer: Generals. A real-time strategy (RTS) game seemed a good test, and the game looked as good as you would expect at television resolutions. For genres such as RTS, you can expect that the action will look good, but the interface may look slightly awkward if optimized for higher resolutions. Importantly, the game is playable, and interface differences are only of concern to the hardcore PC audience (not the target audience for DISCover consoles). DISC is in constant contact with publishers, and if the technology catches on, some publishers have expressed a willingness to make sure interfaces support TV-type resolutions. Of course, for people with really high-end televisions, this is not nearly as much of an issue.
One obvious question people ask about the DISCover consoles concerns other console-like devices that play PC games. DISC prominently mentions its patent (no. 5,721,951) for "a home entertainment system for playing software designed for play in home computers." So how does the much publicized Phantom fit in? DISC's patent is for playing unmodified PC games, while Infinium Labs (the folks behind the Phantom) plan on delivering game content over the proprietary PhantomNet Virtual Private Gaming Network. In other words, both companies can happily go about their own business.
DISCover powered consoles are clearly desirable from the perspective of a game publisher or electronics manufacturer. Publishers need change no practices, as the console runs unmodified PC games, and can only increase the market for PC games by bringing those titles into the TV room. It lets hardware manufacturers build a game console without having to build the infrastructure that Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony have already created. All that remains is to demonstrate consumer demand for the console.
At present, Apex Digital is planning on releasing the ApeXtreme Game Console using the DISCover technology, and currently expects a late spring launch. The ApeXtreme will include the gaming technologies, as well as a DVD player, 5.1 channel sound and a remote control) . That unit is expected to launch for just under $400. Alienware is also planning to launch a DISCover console, probably with more capabilities, higher-end software and a higher price tag. Given the variety of configurations and manufacturers it's hard to pin down an exact feature set, but $400 seems a likely low-end price. Higher prices might add other capabilities such as TiVo-like digital video recording as well as fancier hardware. As such, the DISCover-equipped consoles seem designed for consumers with considerable disposable income, interested in a high-end entertainment center that can play video games on the television.
Clearly, DISCover isn't aimed at hardcore PC gaming enthusiasts who covet good frame rates at high resolutions, and are comfortable patching and tweaking hardware. At the same time, it isn't aimed at bargain hunters who get the PlayStation 2 for its combined ability to play games and DVDs. Even if you factor in the cost of the broadband adaptor for the PlayStation 2 or Xbox Live for the Xbox, the console is considerably cheaper. The price difference between the DISCover machine and a regular console will purchase a lot of games, despite the fact that the average PC game is sold for $23 (while console games tend to cost more). The ideal situation is that the release of DISCover consoles brings new gamers into the fold, increasing the bounty for everyone, rather than wooing gamers away from other platforms.
From a consumer perspective, the main problem with the DISCover console is that (unlike the current major gaming consoles) there is no one to subsidize the cost of the hardware. DISC doesn't make consoles themselves – they only license the technology. Manufacturers only make the hardware. Publishers retain the revenues from games sold, so hardware manufacturers can't afford to deeply subsidize the cost of the hardware itself. At least there is much less peril in being an early adopter of the DISCover technology. With other consoles, if the company stops backing the system or goes out of business, there will be no more games. With DISCover consoles, the unit will always run games currently in the library. Of course, adding new titles and patches requires ongoing support from DISC, so early adoption is not entirely without peril.
Based on what FI saw, DISCover consoles clearly deliver on everything they promise. The console runs PC games on a television set, with seemingly no fuss. Such consoles may also replace other mainstays of the home entertainment center, such as the CD or DVD player. The main, obvious obstruction to widespread acceptance of such devices is the price. As soon as this spring, we will all discover whether the masses are crying out for what these consoles can deliver.