Online Gaming - Is this really the future?
Originally published November 1999.
Historical note: Wow things have really changed since I wrote this column. In the intervening years I have spent an extraordinary amount of time playing MMORPGs like Dark Age of Camelot and World of Warcraft. I have also made many new friends through those games.
I had never succumbed to the allure of online multiplayer gaming. All night mind-numbing frag-fests playing Quake, Unreal or any other first-person-shooter bore me to tears. I want to be stimulated not lobotomized. The very idea of high-speed, kill or get killed, twitch marathons makes be yawn. Yet for most, this is what online multiplayer gaming is all about.
At the other end of the spectrum are the role playing online games like Diablo, Ultima Online and EverQuest. The concept of creating alter egos in an alternative universe, where you spin your wheels trying to gain skill and wealth, has never appealed to me. On the other hand, I can appreciate the concept’s appeal to others. For me, I think I spend enough time spinning my wheels in meat-space. I want a break when I venture online to play a game.
So, you ask, why are you writing a column about online gaming and the services that make it possible? Well, it’s simple, really. Within the past few months, there has been a marked change in the way online multiplayer gaming is conducted. High-speed Internet access has brought increasing numbers of “real people” to the online gaming community. (I use the term “real people” loosely). By that I mean hard-core, anti-social, sophomoric gamers are not the only ones playing online anymore.
This new found wealth of real people, with real lives, who just want to play games, makes online multiplayer gaming a pleasure and not a tribulation. The inhabitants of this budding gaming community can carry on an intelligent conversation over a hand of bridge or poker. They understand the finer aspects of strategy in Alpha Centauri. For the first time, I get the sensation that I am really interacting with other people and not just their unseemly caricatures.
Defining Online Multiplayer Games
These days, online multiplayer games generally fall into one of three categories: 1. Traditional games like chess, checkers, card games or board games, 2. Retail games that have multiplayer capability, or 3. Online only games designed from the ground up to be multiplayer.
Of these categories, the traditional games present the least barriers to actually playing the game itself. Yahoo is an excellent place to start. Yahoo offers several traditional board and card games using java-based programs. The beauty of this approach is that all you need is an up-to-date web browser. When players open an account they are given 1,000 points to use for wagering in those games that require it. However, in the end, the points really mean very little. I often play poker with players who have “earned” significant negative points.
Besides poker, Yahoo offers backgammon, blackjack, checkers, reversi, mahjong, go fish, and pinochle, just to name a few. All of the games are completely free of charge. The only catch is that you may have to view some advertising between hands.
Retail games available for online play besides the first-person shooters include Heavy Gear II, Close Combat III, Panzer General I, II, and III, and Civilization. Of course this is just the short list. Dozens of retail games have online multiplayer capability, with more being released each week. To play these games you need to have the retail version installed on you PC. I also recommend that you have a fast Internet connection, especially for those first-person melees.
The last major category is the online only games, which consist mainly of EverQuest, Diablo II, and Ultima Online. All of these are role-playing games set in a cyber-universe with a fantasy or mystic theme. This category is very popular (just not with yours truly) and that popularity has not gone unnoticed by game company executives. Several new games of this type are on the horizon, including one featuring space exploration.
In addition to those already mentioned, there are other services that cater to the online multiplayer. These services specialize in multiplayer gaming and for the most part do it very well. Mplayer.com, Heat.net and Microsoft Gaming Zone all serve as matching services that provide would-be players the means to meet, set up games and then play. The meeting takes place in chat rooms, often called lobbies, where players with a similar game interest can meet, get acquainted and agree on game parameters. I found that most lobbies on the Mplayer.com service were inhabited by well-behaved game players, all looking to establish a gaming community.
These player-matching services earn their living through advertising. Although the advertising is constant until you actually enter a game, it doesn’t really interfere or intrude with the main business at hand. However, if you have an aversion to advertising you can often find an online multiplayer game server without it. The game companies provide most of these servers themselves.
Activision is a prime example. Activision provides server access for players of Quake II, and other games they publish. Most recently they have established a server for multiplayer Heavy Gear II. These servers are absolutely free and can be accessed over the Internet through the user interface in the games.
The user interfaces of all online multiplayer services are functional and most have been around long enough for the bugs to be squashed. MPlayer in particular does a good job of automatically updating not only their proprietary software, but also the software of the retail games when needed.
Get in the Game
Online multiplayer gaming has finally arrived. The maturity of the technology and more importantly the maturity of the game players, have, for the first time in my mind, made online multiplayer gaming a viable reality. If you have been hesitant to play online, like I was, now is the time to give it a try. While there are still some rogue hard-core gamers online, they do not dominate the services like they did before. Because there is no money involved and because the danger of being embarrassed by a prepubescent sociopath has been almost completely neutralized, there is no reason not to join the fun.
All of the multiplayer services mentioned do what they do competently. I am partial to Mplayer.com, but all of the services work just as well. Mplayer.com was just the first one I tried. Once again, I implore you not to be the old curmudgeon I was; get online and get in the game.