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Crispin Boyer

Oh, how easy it was to sneer at Infinium Labs, the Florida-based start-up that—since announcing its Phantom game console last year—has been accused of everything from hoaxery to hucksterism. But laugh at this: Infinium announced a price for its PC-games-playing system, which launches Nov. 18. It’s free.

There’s a catch, of course. “We’re not selling a console,” says Kevin Bachus, a key player in the launch of Xbox and now head guy at Infinium. “We’re selling a subscription service, the idea that gamers are ready for games to come to them.” Here’s the deal: You get a free Phantom if you commit to two years of Infinium’s games-on-demand service for $30 a month (you’ll need your own broadband-Net connection). It’s not a new idea—Sega rebated the price of its fizzling Dreamcast to anyone who signed up for its online-gaming plan. But the Infinium service itself is a first. The basic subscription gives access to a shifting library of older, low-profile PC games (we’re talking Deer Hunter–caliber titles). “Think of it as basic cable,” says Bachus. You can then pay extra fees for premium content, such as the top three first-person shooters or strategy games. “That’s more like premium cable, like HBO,” he says.

But the biggest perk—included in the basic subscription—is the ability to try demos, rent games (for an estimated $5 for three days, provided publishers allow it), or outright buy them. Titles are available the same day they hit stores, downloaded to your Phantom, and installed automatically. That’s great for subscribers, but will stores want to sell a system that lets gamers shop from home? “It seems unlikely that [retailers] would embrace a platform that sees as its endgame a way to undermine their business,” says Hal Halpin, president of the Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association, “but I understand [Infinium’s] looking for ways to belay that.” In particular, the company will cut participating retailers in on subscription profits.

Bachus says Infinium’s own studies show that gamers are clamoring for the system’s convenience, even if biz watchers aren’t so optimistic. “It’ll be hard to grab the attention of the 30 million gamers already out there,” says Richard Ow, senior analyst at industry-tracker NPD Funworld. “Half of them are under 18, so you not only have to get them to buy in, but their parents as well.”

Not an issue, says Bachus, who claims the Phantom isn’t for kids (you must pass a credit check to get the thing). “We’re aiming for PC gamers who’ve become disenchanted with gaming since they joined the work force and started families,” he says. “They still love games but don’t have time to be a gamer. The Phantom will give them that opportunity again.”

Figuring Out Phantom

Subscribe

Sign up for a two-year commitment to Phantom’s $30-a-month service. (That’s $720 total.) Enlist at participating stores and cable providers or at infiniumlabs.com.

Get the Free Unit

Once you’ve done the deal, you get the console. Afraid of commitment (or fail the credit check)? You can outright buy the Phantom for $199 and just subscribe on a month-to-month basis.

Connect the Box

That $30-per-month contract does not include Internet service or a cable or DSL modem, so you’ll need to jack your Phantom into your own broadband Net connection. The console doesn’t support slow-ass dial-up, either.

Go Play

The basic subscription entitles you to a limited number of PC budget games and older software, plus the option to download free demos, rent new PC games, or buy them. You can also sign up for pricier premium content.

Copyright © 2004 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in Electronic Gaming Monthly.





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