Review by Tim Eller
If one keeps in mind that the console industry has done pretty well for itself based upon the games that are available for play on the various systems, the PC market can easily compete on the same statistical terms, citing title numbers and diversity of games. The Great Divide between the console and PC industries has always been the medium in which they’re played; consoles have become a de facto living room staple for the casual gamer, and the ostensibly esoteric PC gamer has been relegated largely to offices, dens or whatever corner of the house the resident computer happens to be in.
DISCover, along with a list of big name hardware partners, is trying to bridge that PC-to-living room crossover with its software base for the home entertainment center. Digital Interactive Systems Corporation (DISC) has put together, and patented, a clever interface that allows for what they term “Drop & Play”, featuring the ability to play PC games on hardware that includes the embedded DISCover engine. Although it’s not immediately identifiable as a revolutionary step for PC gamers, the significance of this versatility in a home entertainment market that’s becoming more obsessed with the “set top box” by the minute is monumental.
DISCover’s engine works a little something like this: Each time a game disc is placed in the machine, it is identified by a key derived from the disc itself. The key is then used to get the appropriate setup information from a Drop & Play database, which in turn provides the console with installation and execution scripts. Behind the scenes, games installed on the console hard drive will be evaluated for the amount of recent usage. If the drive is running low on space during a new install (25% of the drive is always left empty), games with the least amount of usage are removed to make room for new ones. This keeps load times to the most played games to a very respectable nil, while maintaining the space the console needs for caching or possible new installs.
I was shown around the DISCover booth by Curtis Kaiser, a representative from DISCover itself, and what he showed me was much more than a few simple examples of their interface on a singular family room component. While there were only a few console pieces shown that are actually close to production, the array of partnerships exhibited at the booth showed that the industry at large was listening to the possibilities, including names such as TEAC, Onkyo, ABS, and Alienware. Each had actual running machines, playing normal PC games set in mock livingroom/bedroom settings to emphasize the extraction of PC gaming diversity and experience from the presentational limitations of the average computer room.
The feather in DISCover’s hat right now is a machine built in cooperation with Apex, called the ApeXtreme (pronounced “Apex Extreme” – make sure you don’t refer to it as the “Ape”). This consumer-priced all-in-one may become the definitive example of home entertainment equipment in the future, considering its ample power and versatility. The price point for the ApeXtreme is set currently at $499, which seems a bit steep, but comes down to a reasonable expectation when the console aspect is included with DVD/CD functionality and TiVo-esque capabilities. The ApeXtreme is a great example of how the many facets of home entertainment can come together, adhered by a singular software base. While the normal functions of a DVD player are represented with standard equipment, there will also be industry leaders in video and processors, like NVIDIA and AMD respectively. Onboard Ethernet and modem connectivity looks like it might become a standard for the other consoles that house DISCover’s engine, which will open the living room up to a much wider world of MMORPGs, many of which were only available on the PC.
Bringing PC gamers to the living room might be the biggest challenge of all those faced by DISCover and its hardware affiliates, but there’s a much greater number of home theater-philes with PC game interests that will be able to appreciate the wide range of functional possibilities of a DISCover console. Console gamers may even appreciate the business model DISCover employs, releasing a newer, more powerful console on a much shorter period than the five-year cycles of PlayStation or Gamecube. That kind of choice could be crucial for those that may want to upgrade their unit a bit more often to something more powerful, and have more control over exactly when they want to do it.
The idea of making PC gaming available to the console market, or simply appealing to the average couch potato, may seem like a natural progression of the technology and the entertainment environment in which we all live. Having said that, I still think this is an exciting evolution for PC games, from the general confines of the PC to the practical and functional gray area of the home theater. The most recent addition of the DVR may have pushed back the release date a bit, set for the general public in Q3 of 2004, but it’s further evidence that these consoles are shooting for an uber-diversity not yet seen in home entertainment gear, especially