Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company
The Boston Globe
August 30, 2006 Wednesday
By Hiawatha Bray, Globe Staff
From Lexis Nexis
In an aggressive bid to boost its broadband Internet offerings, Verizon Communications Inc. this week is launching a free service to let online gamers meet and compete.
The new PlayLinc system will act as a hosting service for several popular online games, including Counter-Strike, Unreal Tournament 2004, Battlefield 2, and America’s Army. Gamers who now pay as much as $100 a month to rent game servers from Internet hosting companies can instead run these multiplayer war games for free.
Mitch Dornich, Verizon’s group manager for new product development, said PlayLinc is open to gamers worldwide, even if they don’t subscribe to Verizon’s broadband Internet services. “We think it gives us additional brand exposure,” said Dornich, “and additional validation of the broadband connections we make available to our customers.”
Both Verizon and rival broadband provider Comcast Corp. have already moved into online gaming. The two companies offer Games on Demand, a service that lets subscribers choose from hundreds of games. But Verizon’s move into online hosting could make the company a leader in Internet gaming, a key market for Verizon’s new FIOS high-speed fiber-optic network.
PlayLinc aims to exploit the surging popularity of online gaming. Most games for desktop computers, or consoles like the Microsoft Xbox or Sony PlayStation 2, let two or more people compete against each other. About 6.6 million people worldwide pay around $15 a month to play the online game World of Warcraft. Millions of other gamers subscribe to game hosting services that provide them with private gaming servers. These gamers can form teams or “clans,” then use their rented server to compete against each other or face off against rival clans.
The PlayLinc service, which debuted Monday, comes with software that will display advertising on the user’s computer before and after a game is played. Dornich said that revenue from the ads should offset the cost of providing free game servers.
Michael Cai, Internet analyst for Parks Associates in Dallas, said that Verizon sees online gamers as a crucial market for advanced Internet services. “The core gamer segment is known to be heavy digital media consumers,” said Cai, with a big appetite for digital music and video as well as games. This makes them likely customers for Verizon’s DSL broadband Internet service.
Gamers are also a prime target for Verizon FIOS, the company’s new residential optical fiber network. FIOS is now available to 4.5 million homes and businesses in 16 states.
The service offers up to 2,500 video-on-demand titles and dozens of digital TV channels,
as well as Internet download speeds of up to 30 million bits per second, 10 times faster than Verizon’s 3-megabit DSL service. This superfast broadband service costs $180 a month, but a 15-megabit connection is priced at $45 a month, about the same as the typical cable Internet connection but nearly twice as fast. In fast-action games, players with speedier connections have a better chance to win.
Along with free game hosting, PlayLinc offers an online chat service based on America Online’s popular AIM instant messaging service. It also includes a voice-over-Internet feature that lets players speak to each other during a match, making it easier for clan members to plot strategies.
With so many free features, Cai said Verizon’s new service could pose a threat to the many small companies that sell online game services. “If you can get free service, why are you going to pay $100 a month?” he said.
But Ray Parker, founder of VSK Gaming Servers in St. Louis, isn’t losing any sleep. Parker said that most avid online gamers modify their server software to add new virtual battlefields or weapons. “I’d say 99 percent of our clients customize their servers,” said Parker. Since the PlayLinc servers only support generic versions of the games, Parker believes his clients won’t want to use them.
Verizon officials say that PlayLinc isn’t aimed at hardcore gamers, but people who are just discovering the joys of mutual online destruction.