10 Years Later: Was the Phantom Console a Good Idea?

By Matt Young | Small Business

A little over ten years ago, much ado was made about an effort to bridge the gap between the PC and the video game console.

That effort was dubbed “The Phantom,” and many millions of dollars were dumped into the project, which went down in history as one of the most notorious instances of “vaporware” to (never) rear its ugly head. It’s still a punch-line.

10 Years Later: Was the Phantom Console a Good Idea? image phantomprototype copy1 300x178Phantom Prototype

Phantom Prototype

Extensively marketed by would-be developer Infinuim Labs but ultimately never released, the Phantom aimed to “outperform the XBOX, Sony Playstation II, and GameCube,” according to a 2003 company press release. The console was to be a solution for providing a PC gaming experience in the living room, and it was supposed to be the “fastest console on the market” with the “broadest selection of preloaded games.”

The press release went on: “The Infinium Labs game console features a high tech design and offers ease of use for the variety of game players worldwide. The on-demand delivery system will appeal to hard-core gamers as well as casual users.  The unique design architecture allows for delivery of a large number of games and the ability to participate in online massive multiplayer gaming.”

If only that were true, things might have been very different for the last decade.

Instead, the Phantom never saw production, outside of prototype form at the E3 trade show in 1994. It missed multiple release dates and never achieved the $30 million capital needed to make it happen. Meanwhile, Microsoft threw money at establishing their Xbox empire and Sony set sales records with the PS2. Infinium instead settled on salvaging some of their work, releasing the keyboard peripheral they had developed for the Phantom. Perhaps to be expected, it was delivered way behind schedule.

But what if Infinuim had been able to get the funds to get the console off the ground?

If you follow gaming and technology trends to any degree, you’ve likely heard of Kickstarter. Founded in 2009, it is essentially a crowd-sourced version of venture capitalism that anyone with a credit card and a few bucks can use to give a financial push to realize projects that are in-development.

In short, prospective projects are given a limited amount of time to collect funds from the public, which are dedicated to the structured development of products once they meet their funding threshold. If they don’t meet that magic number, no funds are collected. Over $350 million has been sunk into various projects through Kickstarter, with that number expected to continue to grow as the practice becomes more commonplace, and major technology publications increasingly provide coverage for Kickstarter campaigns.

Recent projects funded by Kickstarter include a few Android-based gaming systems, such as the Ouya (pronounced “oh yeah”) and the GameStick, both of which publicly exceeded their fundraising targets. Each takes the wildly successful mobile gaming trend and one-ups the touch-screen interface with a console-style controller, providing a more familiar tactile experience and TV-output capabilities.

The Ouya made it to market after raising over $8 million, (I actually saw one at a Target store last year) but has had many challenges, including getting shut down at the 2013 E3. It looks like it’s not long for this world, and the GameStick is also on discount…

Even so, the developers of the Ouya and GameStick hoped to realize some of the same successes the Phantom aspired to.

First, they planned to transplant a gaming ethos from one realm, either PCs or the mobile space, into the living room, where gaming has traditionally found its home since its inception in the 1970s.

Second, they wanted to circumvent restrictions that come part-and-parcel with console game development and distribution: Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo all get a big chunk of change from publishers, who sink ever-larger development budgets into their titles.  Ultimately, the large amount of money required to produce modern games leads to an oligarchy with a few major players dominating the field. Indie developers are left hoping for a spot on the Xbox Arcade roster, though the Ouya welcomes them with open arms (and an open platform). Who knows where the Phantom would have taken gamers?

Infinuim Labs was also a full decade ahead of Valve Corporation, which is currently moving forward with its Steam-based console. They hoped to do what Valve wants to do now: deliver the PC gaming experience to couch potatoes with an all-in-one box that takes the guesswork out of system requirements, graphics cards, ram, and software updates. Take out that intimidation factor, and more middle-of-the-road gamers are likely to jump on the PC games bandwagon for experiences not found on other consoles.

Key differences between the Infinium Labs of 2004 and the Valve Corporation of 2014 certainly exist, however.  Valve has a long, reputable history with a proven distribution system and existing relationships with key publishers.  While Infinium certainly had some IP, with a reported 220 engineers working away at a Seattle office, lead by Ty Graham, founder of DirectX, they also had an uphill battle developing not only a console but also a distribution system from scratch, in an era where that wasn’t commonplace.  They were lucky to end up releasing a keyboard peripheral after the rubble had settled.

Maybe the Phantom was a victim of being too far ahead if its time.  Perhaps it was a matter of too-large ambitions. It was certainly an issue of money and poor management, with the Securities and Exchange Commission charging former Infinium exec Timothy Roberts of running a “pump-and-dump scheme.” Subsequent litigation was still active as of 2011.

If Kickstarter had existed, maybe Infinuim could have used their marketing budget to convince technophiles and curious people with loose wallets to hop on board, and help them meet reasonable benchmarks. They could possibly have accrued momentum, garnered credible press coverage, and snowballed the whole thing into reality, even though funding is no guarantee of success.

Either way, it’s an interesting question, and it makes you wonder: How many of today’s emerging technologies will die on the vine?

A good idea lives and dies by its execution.

This article was syndicated from Business 2 Community: 10 Years Later: Was the Phantom Console a Good Idea?

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