Creating a Gaming Habit

Slowly but surely, cable’s king of subscription packaging, Cablevision Systems Corp., looks like it has another hit on its hands.

A scant six months after launch, and without much marketing, Cablevision has generated 14,000 subscriptions across 10,000 homes for the four gaming packages on its Interactive Optimum (iO) platform.

The MSO launched its first subscription gaming package in May, a natural evolution to the rudimentary free games that have always been part of the iO platform, which is available to Cablevision’s 1.3 million digital subscribers. Throughout the summer and fall, it added both games and new packages to its lineup. The MSO now offers four separate packages — Casino, Variety, Arcade and Word Games — each with eight to 10 games for $4.95 a month.

“We’ve just started marketing activity in the last three months,” said Patrick Donoghue, vice president of interactive-television development and operations at Cablevision. Despite the late marketing start, “since June, the subscriber count has tripled, and total households have doubled since July,” he said.

There were 1 million individual game plays in October, he said. That number, divided by the 10,000 active homes, puts the number of games played per home per month at 100 — a figure that underscores the popularity of games and their importance to keeping digital subscribers happy.

The casino package includes poker, BlackJack, slots and roulette games. “It’s very convenient and very easy to use,” Donoghue said, adding that the early slot machine game was so successful, Cablevision added five more, creating an entire slots room.

“The slots are part of the casino package,” he said, “and just like a real casino, people can take winnings from one game to the next.” Cablevision has added the wildly popular Texas Hold ’Em poker game to the mix, Donoghue said.

The Variety package includes word games like Word Nerd, Road Trip and Speed Spell. “The word games are very successful and appeal to everyone,” he said. “Variety is our most successful package in sheer number of subscribers.” To keep those games fresh, Cablevision rotates the content, building gaming questions around the holidays, for example, or, earlier this summer, around the Olympics.

The Logic section includes Checkers and other puzzle games. “They are simple in execution but quite complex to play,” he said.

Arcade includes Alien Battlecraft Arena, Krakout and Super Cooper. “They are faster-paced games for the younger crowd,” Donoghue said. “They are much more twitch oriented, with lots of sound and animation.” Twitch games are fast-paced games requiring dexterity with one’s fingers.

Gamers can see their scores posted on television on channel 610 and compare their achievements against other players across the network. “Every single game has a demo version, and any iO subscriber can go to channel 610 and sample every game on the system. Five thousand demos are being played per day by subscribers,” said Donoghue.

The games work on both the Sony and Scientific-Atlanta boxes, and are broadcast from a carousel at Cablevision’s headend to the DOCSIS modem in the set-top. Games are sent in the out-of-band channel. Schematic developed the portal application for the games. Each gaming application takes up about 500 to 600 kilobits of bandwidth.

Donoghue said Cablevision has just begun more extensive marketing of the gaming packages. The gaming portal on channel 610 is the main attraction, where gaming packages are listed and information on updates and new games are available. Game information is also part of iO’s main menu.

“It’s very, very graphically rich,” Donoghue said. “We use game art everywhere. The front screen is updated weekly, with new game artwork and 'New This Week’ features.”

The recent software addition that allows subscribers to sign up for SVOD packages using their remote has boosted subscriptions — just as it did for SVOD services like HBO On Demand.

“It’s a great success story,” Donoghue said. “When we added that capability, our sales went up by a factor of five. The ability to upgrade on-screen has completely changed the business model.” That technology was supplied by Cauldron Solutions.

Looking ahead, Donoghue said he’s interested in adding a kids package designed for the three- to seven-year-old demographic. He’s also looking at adding multiplayer games, such as bingo.

Adding a daily pay-per-play feature, which could be popular with gamers who like Tetris or Slingo, is also under investigation, he said. Another idea is to sell $10 gaming credits and allow users to purchase 25-cent single plays. He’s also looking at providing gaming controllers for subscribers, because the remote isn’t the most hand-friendly device for gamers to use.

There’s no doubt that Cablevision is fulfilling an audience need, Donoghue said, and generating cash from it. Some new games are launched in the middle of the night, and by 6 a.m., Donoghue said, he’ll see that hundreds of people have already played the game. “The top scorers can play 45 minutes or more, and some guys play a couple of hours,” Donoghue said.