The Hall of the set-top box King

I'll tell you a story. When I got Sky Digital a number of days ago, it came with a nice digital decoder set-top box, made by Amstrad. This was initially impressive because it meant I could flick around the channels quickly, and see what programmes would be on for the day.

Soon enough, I discovered the 'Open' section of Sky Digital. Open is the much derided interactive section of Sky Digital, with information about weather, films, travel, and online shopping available. All of it looks extremely pretty, but I'm not won over (yet). I still use the Internet.

<digression> What was cool was that Woolworths were selling 'A Call to Arms' on video, and had transcribed its blurb. Even cooler was the fact that while it was for sale, no Star Trek videos were. You're goin' down, Trek boys! </digression>

What has won me over are the games on Open, specifically Buzzland Bee (or whatever it is), an identical clone to 'Puzzle-bobble' and 'Bust-a-move'. What you have to do is to shoot bubbles to the top of the screen and match up three of the same coloured bubbles, thus eliminating all on the screen before space runs out. It's as addictive as Tetris.

And so, over the last few days, I reckon I've played at least two hours of this game. It's not sophisticated. It doesn't have good music, or graphics. It only has 14 levels. It's not multiplayer. Okay, it's addictive, but so are the other games I've got on my PC, and on my N64. According to Edge, or any other magazine you'd care to consult, the games I have on my PC and N64 are far better than this Puzzle-bobble clone.

So why have I stopped using my N64 and PC for games? There's a simple answer.


Or, perhaps more accurately, laziness.

Compare the amount of effort it takes to press a button on the remote, and wait a few seconds, with having to get up and turn on your console, put the cartridge in, get the controllers out, wait for it to load up, wade through the options menu and finally start the game. Or even worse, getting up, walking upstairs, turning on the PC, waiting a few minutes, putting the game CD in, hoping the computer doesn't crash, and finally starting the game.

Damn the better games on my other computers, it's far easier for me to not get up at all and just press a button on the remote.

So what? you say. Soon, we'll have the 'Instantly-On' option for PCs, which will be able to turn on the PC in a matter of seconds. Then where will your so-called laziness factor be then, Mars-boy?

A few things. PCs will not win the battle of couch-bound gamers for some time. Why?

a) You have to get up to go to the PC. This matters.
b) PCs crash. Very often. Even more often, with this 'Instantly-On' option, according to PC Magazine.
c) The PC is synonymous with work. You probably spend more time at the TV than you do at the PC (if you've got Sky, that is. This is not the case if you only have five channels).
d) PCs are hard to use. TVs are not.
e) PCs are expensive. Ditto consoles. Sky is not.

The imminent dominion of the set-top box

I thought about the possibilities of set-top boxes for a while, imagining the possible riches. You could probably fit an N64, or heaven forbid, the outdated-but-still-ridiculously-playable SNES, into a set-top box for less than £50, especially if you integrated the components. Sony is releasing a set-top box for Sky Digital - I reckon they could fit a Playstation inside for little money indeed.

Then what do you do? You give the set-top box a big hard drive. Let's say 1 gigabyte. That bumps up the cost a little, right? So what? Hard drive prices are piecemeal these days.

Okay, you've got a PSX/N64/SNES in your set-top box. But you want to make it as easy as imaginably possible to use it, so you don't use cartridges or CDs. You use exactly the same system as Open does now - you access the constantly streamed material that is tagged on top of other Sky Digital channels. This must come at quite a rate, it must a fair number of megabits per second. You set-top box accesses this streamed material and stores it on the hard drive, for quick use. It's updated every, say, hour.

And now, at the touch of a button, no less, you can access dozens of good games (don't come to me saying that PSX games are 600MB+, when you know perfectly well that N64 and SNES games are a fraction of that, and just as playable) and all you've done is pay a few dozen quid more. I will bet a large sum of money that Sony is planning this as we speak.

It's hard to believe. I wasn't sure myself, until one of my friends over for the Poker Night was found playing it for half an hour, almost catatonically. Afterwards, another person took over to play a clone of Connect-4. After two games, he threw the remote away in disgust, reviled that he was playing Connect-4 during a Poker Night.

Alas, the power of the set-top box was confirmed. Why play amazing games on the PC when you can play rubbish cloned yet addictive games at the touch of a button on the TV? You don't even have to get up from your semi-conscious slouch on the sofa.

All I say is God help me when Sky Digital starts the Trivial Pursuits, Mastermind and Boggle games. Will I ever see the light of day again? Probably not, unless it's on TV…