Ghosts in the Machine

It began by promising a new era in PC gaming and ended in a US government investigation for fraud. Pavel Barter investigates the ghostly apparition that was the Phantom games console

The plane bounced back and forth in hurricane-force winds as it hit the Florida runway at high speed. Although the two passengers were comfortably accommodated in first class, this was hardly the season or state to be travelling. Shaken, they disembarked, collected their rental car and proceeded to drive hundreds of miles to their destination: Sarasota City and Infinium Labs, purveyors of the infamous Phantom console.

"We basically travelled all this way to attend a steak and lobster dinner, at which point they informed us that they had spent $40,000 on an illuminated sign for their office," alleges Jake (not his real name - he asked to remain anonymous), a former Seattle-based Infinium employee.

"There were people in my office who hadn't got a pay cheque in a month and they were giving us these bullshit excuses as to why they couldn't pay us. It was clear that they were blowing money left, right and centre on ridiculous things."

Shrouded by a veil of hearsay, the story behind the Phantom is perhaps the most controversial to ever engulf the world of PC gaming. In August 2006, its creators removed all reference to the console from their website (www.phantom.net), effectively consigning it to the vapourware dustbin of history, but questions persist. Was this device real? Could it really have changed the world of PC gaming? What exactly did it do?

According to Ryan Lane, Infinium's former creative director, the Phantom was: "A PC designed for the living room with one dedicated function: playing PC games. The system was Windows-embedded, the traditional Windows shell replaced with a custom user interface that was focused on buying and playing games. It was always on and online, sort of like TiVo, and had a hard drive but no CD, DVD or other removable data."

Games would be purchased online and then streamed to the system. Lane continues: "Think iTunes, but for games. The streaming was the big difference - we optimised the game package to download the bits you needed in order to start playing right away. This worked very well with linear level-based games because you wouldn't have to wait for a whole 4GB file to download."

Infinium Labs announced their arrival in 2002 with a prediction that their console would make $35 million within its first year of release. 'Either you guys are sporting weighty cojones or you're seriously delusional', responded the games community. Websites took the piss every other day, and rumours abounded that the company (which went public through a reverse merger) was a stock scam.

In late 2003, website HardOCP.com conducted an investigation into Infinium's founder and CEO, Timothy M Roberts, alleging a history of failed businesses, and "high profile bankruptcies" that cost investors "millions and millions of dollars". The site also sent a photographer to Infinium's 'headquarters' address in Florida, where he reportedly found a shopping mall. The investigation concluded with a message for potential investors: "Personally, we think this is a prime case of 'Buyer Beware'."

Despite the barrage of cynicism, Phantom seemed a genuine prospect throughout 2004. Infinium hired Kevin Bacchus, a former Microsoft executive who helped launch Xbox, and the company set up an office in Seattle that was filled with highly qualified employees - graduates from Amazon, Real and the like.

Alice Marwick, initially hired to work on Phantom's community features, explains: "We had a decent-sized team of about 35 people. Kevin was a really smart guy and the development team was fantastic. I've worked in the Seattle tech industry for eight years and the technical prowess of this team was among the best I'd ever experienced. The experience, skill, knowledge and enthusiasm were all far above average, even for a start-up. I was working with a team of developers that were coding on a daily basis and we had a product that was ready to launch."

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