Charter, Digeo Hit Play Button on ITV Games

The games have begun on the interactive TV service fielded by Digeo Inc. and Charter Communications Inc. for some 650,000 digital-cable users.

Called i-Games, the addition to the i-Channel interactive lineup lets viewers play games through their Scientific-Atlanta Inc. Explorer 2100 boxes using their remote control as the joystick.

The companies plan to extend the service to customers using Motorola Inc. DCT-2000 set-tops by the end of the year.

The first game on the playlist was "Picnic Antics," a puzzle game that requires players to fend off ants invading a picnic.

"Deal With It," a poker game that challenges players to build a winning hand before time runs out, debuted just last week.

While the rollout is still in its first few weeks, initial results are encouraging, according to Digeo's director of basic ITV Aaron Sheedy.

With very little promotion, the game channel with its lone offering "went straight to second place with the first week it launched, with about 250,000 screen views," Sheedy said. "About three or four weeks later it broke the 400,000 mark and surpassed Weather as the number-one channel. And that's just with one game — and one game that we consider to be a relatively simple, more child-focused game for kids."

Digeo and Charter plan to unveil more well-known board and casino games such as checkers and Battleship
in the coming months, along with a tally of local and national high scorers, according to Digeo director of programming for games Matt Dahlin. A year from now developers hope to have between six and eight games available on the channel.

Digeo is a privately held company controlled by Charter chairman and principal shareholder Paul Allen.

Multiplaying soon

Down the road, Digeo also plans to add multiplayer capabilities to the games channel, most likely starting with a trivia game offering.

"That will happen early next year when we can get real-time functionality on the box," Sheedy said. "That means that the set-top box communicates in near-real-time with the headend server. At that point you can have two sessions — one on one box and one on another — and you can connect the two."

For now, the basic games will be offered free as part of Charter's digital platform. But in the future, the door is open for pay-to-play offerings particularly with more sophisticated multiplayer games on the multimedia gateway boxes, Sheedy said.

Despite the plans to expand the games channel, there will be some inherent limitations. First, the basic S-A and Motorola boxes now deployed are only able to support games with somewhat simple graphics.

Digeo's upcoming Moxi home gateway boxes, in contrast, run off a PC-like operating system and have more to offer the ardent gamer.

And even with a multimedia gateway box, the biggest limitation to expanding the i-Games offering is in depending on the remote as the game controller, Dahlin said.

"You need to focus on games that are very simple and you can play with up, down, left and right," he said.