Allow me to set the scene for you:
A new company emerges practically out of nowhere, attracting media and popular attention with bold promises of a brand new kind of game system. Something created “by gamers for gamers” that is going to revolutionize the way we play games. A brave new video game world is on the horizon, and we are going to see it happen.
This article is the second installment in my two-part series on what history can tell us about the OUYA by paying special attention to two similar video game systems. Last week, I examined the Bally Professional Arcade, the open-source game system of its time, and the fanbase of homebrew developers, hackers, and modders it cultivated. This week I’m turning the focus in a different direction to examine a game system that arrived on the scene with a great deal of hype that ultimately never panned out.
I am of course referring to the quintessential vaporware system: the Infinium Phantom.
In the summer of 2003, Infinium Labs grabbed headlines when it announced plans to release a home game system, dubbed Phantom. The system allegedly ran on a subscription-based service whereby customers were able to digitally download and play games through the Phantom system. An ambitious project, the Phantom and its subscription service could theoretically have access to as many games as there were digital copies. A slick promotional video introduced the Phantom as “the world’s first console built by gamers for gamers” with access to “more games than any other console” in addition to the standard game system boastings of superior control and graphics.Promoters touted it as a new delivery service for games: publishers could now bypass retailers and no longer worry about their game being shut out for lack of shelf space; for consumers it theoretically meant more games available at a lower price, albeit with a monthly fee. Infinium president Kevin Bachus promised a 100+ game library by the system’s anticipated November 2004 release. The company also displayed a prototype at E3 2004.
Almost immediately, the announcement of the upstart digital-based system prompted a firestorm of discussion. Numerous critics questioned the veracity of Infinium’s claims, some going so far as to denounce the Phantom as a hoax. A September 2003 report by Steve Lynch of HARDOCP was especially damning of Infinuim Labs and CEO Timothy Roberts. A close inspection of Roberts’ resume found that Roberts had headed numerous failed companies, some were merely startups founded either by him or members of his family. Lynch also found that the address for Infinium’s offices belonged to a vacant store front in a Florida strip mall.
Infinium and Roberts retaliated Lynch’s charges with a lawsuit, but their later activity (or more appropriately inactivity) did little to refute Lynch’s ultimate message of “buyer beware.”
In September 2004 Infinium revealed the Phantom would not meet the November release date. The deadline continued to float through 2005, and by the time E3 2005 rolled around, it had nothing to show for it. Teetering on bankruptcy, the company offered vague promises of an eventual release of the Phantom, citing a lack of capital as the reason for the delay. In December 2005, an Infinium Labs desperately strapped for cash officially scrapped its spectral game system, vowing to instead release a specialized keyboard designed for gamers. Over the next few years Infinium–which along the way was rechristened Phantom Entertainment–attempted to release the “Phantom Lapboard,” deftly dodging creditors as it promised an eventual release. A 2007 report that goes into detail regarding Phantom Entertainment’s (nee Infinium Labs’) financial wheelings and dealings observed the company had lost over $73 million; Roberts meanwhile found himself under indictment by the Securities and Exchange Commission for an insider trading scam.
In spite of all this Phantom Entertainment still managed to find people willing to invest money in their operation; perhaps even more surprising is that the “Phantom Lapboard” eventually saw commercial daylight, releasing in 2008 and bringing an end to Infinium’s five-year farce.
As ridiculous as the Phantom fiasco was, the proposed system itself was fairly ahead of its time. The subscription-based game model is similar to the OnLive cloud-based gaming system, released in 2010. Moreover, the digital distribution of games, an unheard-of practice in 2003 (critics mocked the Phantom’s legitimacy by pointing out its lack of a CD-drive) is commonplace today with distribution systems such as Valve’s Steam and EA’s Origin services. The greatest legacy of the Phantom, it could therefore be argued, is the idea of a system like the Phantom.
So let’s wrap things up. Will the OUYA end up another Phantom as some have suggested? Unlike Phantom, the makers of OUYA have managed to secure the support of some movers and shakers in the entertainment industry, such as OnLive, ClearChannel’s iHeartRadio, and Square Enix. In that regard, they have a leg up on the Phantom. However, a lot can happen between now and whenever the “early 2013” date announced on their website (as of this writing) actually arrives. Whether OUYA ends up like the Bally, the Phantom, or something else entirely, only time will tell.
$8.6 million talks; let’s see how Ouya answers. And revolution or hoax, I’m eager to see how it all plays out.