How much bigger can the video game industry get?
That's a question at the heart of a new partnership between game maker Electronic Arts and cable giant Comcast. The pair announced on Tuesday a "beta" test period for a new project that enables cable customers to play games through their set-top boxes using smartphones or tablets as controllers.
Customers who have an Xfinity X1 set-top box from Comcast can begin playing games by selecting an app called Xfinity Games. Once there, they surf to a website on their mobile device, enter a code, and then select and control video games by swiping and tapping on their device screen while images are displayed on the television set.
It may seem convoluted, particularly to gamers used to playing games on consoles like Microsoft's Xbox One, Sony's PlayStation 4 or Nintendo's Wii U using a specialized handheld controller with built-in joysticks and a complement of buttons. But EA and Comcast assert that using a smartphone or tablet can make games easy to play.
For it all work, EA and Comcast use streaming technology to send commands from a player's mobile device to EA's data center, which runs the game code on a specialized computer. The game's images are then sent from that computer, via the Internet, to the player's television screen, all within fractions of a second. It's like Netflix, but for interactive games.
"There's no downloads, no hardware and you don't use a physical controller to play your games," said Bryan Witkowski, who works on new business efforts for Comcast.
For EA and Comcast, this could be a glimpse of the future. Streaming has become somewhat of a holy grail within the video game industry, enticing both startups like OnLive and titans like Sony to spend millions of dollars to create services with the hopes of offering gamers an easier way to play. Movie and television streaming, after all, turned Netflix into one of the world's most powerful entertainment companies. Could game streaming do the same?
The answer so far is "kinda." Xbox One maker Microsoft investigated the technology but hasn't brought it to market. Another company, Big Fish Games, attempted its own form of streaming but shuttered it a year later. And OnLive faced financial struggles, eventually selling its business to Sony.
The PlayStation maker has been able to attract customers to its PlayStation Now streaming service, but some complain of its cost, limited catalog and demands for high-speed Internet.
For Comcast, the project with EA helps bolster its X1 set-top boxes, which have become its flagship technology for cable customers. They've been praised for offering apps for tracking weather and traffic, as well as on-demand video and voice commands to help customers more easily navigate its service. Comcast refers to it as a "platform," a technology to attract customers and partners alike -- partners like EA.
The two companies began quietly testing this streaming technology two years ago, using all manner of games, including high-end titles like the sci-fi thriller shooting game Dead Space. But people testing the service found it difficult to navigate that title's comparatively intricate controls using a mobile device, forcing a rethink about the types of games that would be offered.
The testing began focusing on titles that are easier to manipulate. The result are games like Real Racing, which turns a player's tablet into a steering wheel that they can turn side to side. "Each game has been tailored for this experience," said Katrina Strafford, a vice president of marketing at EA.
EA and Comcast said they've chosen to aim the feature at people who don't already own a video game console. Though the companies declined to disclose pricing details, they did say the service will likely be built using subscription plans instead of asking customers to buy games individually. EA has experience with subscription services, having launched its EA Access service on the Xbox last year.
Currently, there are about 20 games available to Comcast customers, including an NBA-branded basketball game, a PGA-branded golf title and the tongue-in-cheek strategy game Plants vs. Zombies. The catalog will change depending on customers' responses, the companies said, and might even include games created by other companies in the future.