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Online Gaming: From Avatars to Wizards

Christopher Harz explains how to get started in the new world of cyberspace.

Quake II. © Activision.

Online gaming is a huge and rapidly growing business, employing thousands of animators and entertaining, and sometimes educating, millions the world over. Gaming fans range from the true addict with zombie-white skin to the white collar worker who sneaks an occasional game to relax.

Proponents state that multiplayer games can challenge and develop the imagination, teach history and culture, and develop teaming and leadership skills. Opponents claim games can be too violent and lead to hermit-like unsociability. One thing that cannot be disputed is that online gaming is growing like wildfire. Total gaming industry sales are estimated by Infotech to be over $15 billion in 1997, and a large part of that involves games that can be played online, a market segment that Infotech calculates is growing at 70% per year. In fact, at the recent E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) show in Atlanta, there were few solo (non-multiplayer) games visible, and a panel of venture capital executives stated flatly that they "would not even look at" games that were not playable online.

Some Definitions

To understand the genre, we should review a few basics. An online game is one that allows a gamer to be connected with others playing the same game, either via a LAN (local area network many game stations such as the Sony PlayStations permit this), by modems connected directly over a phone line, or by a WAN (wide area network, such as the Internet). Game speeds vary from turn-based games (such as chess, where one player makes a move and waits for the response) to real-time games (such as Quake 2, which can have non-stop action).

Games may be Internet-only (playable only via the Internet), Internet-compatible (playable with or without online connection) or hybrid (involving mostly local storage and content with some interaction over the net). Hybrid games have the advantage that they already contain most of the game data stored on a CD-ROM or DVD-ROM, and it therefore does not have to be downloaded; since some games contain gigabytes of terrain, rules and character data, this can be a huge advantage. Hybrid games tend to be richer in detail and action, and put less processing strain on the server and the network.

In a game, a player may be represented by an animated, human or non-human figure called an "avatar," a computer term derived for the Hindu word for a god that appears on earth in human or animal form ("ava," down, "tarati," he travels). Game figures such as orks, soldiers, dinosaurs and so on, that are not driven directly by a player are called "bots." They may be driven by AI or, "artificial intelligence," software that makes them respond unpredictably, "learning" or adapting as the game progresses. A "wizard" is a term for software that helps guide a player through a game. [Although many games feature wizards of the Merlin type, as well as knights, orcs, and magical spells, since they are based on the original D&D (Dungeons and Dragons) game.] A primary problem in online game play is keeping new players or "newbies" from being squashed by experienced, predatory "rogue" players.

Jedi Knight. © LucasArts.

Some of the types of games are strategic (such as Panzer General or Warcraft, chess-type games usually played from a bird's-eye view in 2-D or "2 1/2 -D," the latter allowing some level of perspective viewing), simulation or "sim," (such as WarBirds or Armored Fist 2, action games primarily focused on racing a high-resolution vehicle such as a plane, tank or car), RPG (Role Playing Game such as Oddworld or Mechwarrior, where the player takes on a personality with strengths and weaknesses and must confront a content-rich world demanding problem solving and possible combat), action (such as Doom, Quake or Duke Nukem, primarily fast combat games involving an avatar or simulated vehicle taking on all comers sometimes referred to as a "twitch" game), adventure (such as 7th Guest or Under the Killing Moon, which involve extensive story lines and problem solving), edutainment (such as SimCity, which has a strong educational component), as well as sports and adult games.

Game Environments

There are several different game environments:

Fee-Based Online Gaming Services (OGSs) or Game Sites. Dedicated game sites such as TEN (The Entertainment Network) or Mpath provide a web site where gamers can log on, choose a game and a difficulty level, be assigned to a gaming area, and then go for it. Joining such an OGS normally involves a monthly or per-hour fee. Many OGSs provide a variety of games for you to download and play, which may require scads of time and hard disk storage space. Some games, especially hybrids, require that you buy the game package in a store. Although hybrids cost money (typically U.S. $30-$50), they offer high-resolution game play without permanently taking up much hard drive space.

Free Online Gaming Service Sites. An increasing number of OGS sites offer free gaming to users. Many sites are supported by sponsorships, advertising in the form of banner ads, merchandising and other promotional tie-ins. Others are supported by the manufacturers of a CD-ROM game, which offer the site to facilitate online play.

Promotional Web sites. Many sites go up each month to promote films, television shows, entertainment events, or the multimedia firms that created them. Such sites offer a variety of free short games or "gamelets" that are related to the entertainment they promote. For instance, the recent film Spawn has a 3-D game on its web site that lets a player roam the streets as the main character from the film, shooting secret agents and tackling the evil Clown. Increasingly, such sites are 3-D, use the new Java and VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) programming tools, and require a very short download time, perhaps a minute or so. They also have very simple game rules, as they are oriented toward the casual user rather than the hard-core gamer.

Military Gaming. The U.S. Armed Forces and its allies play huge war games with hundreds of full-crew simulators representing tanks, helicopters, aircraft and other weapon platforms. Civilians cannot (legally) access this part of the Internet which is behind security barriers or "fire walls." However, thousands of digital animators/programmers work on such online games as SIMNET (Simulation Network), funded with billions of dollars from sources such as DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which invented the Internet in the first place.

Netstorm. © Activision

Cool, Current Games

What are the hot games right now? Here are some of the hits from the E3 show:

Dominion, by 7th Level, is a real-time strategy game in a sci-fi setting. Players are challenged by over 40 missions on many planets, with multiple vehicle and combat unit types to choose from. Monday Night Football '98, by ABC Interactive, is a sports game featuring real teams and players with roster updates via the Internet. You need a decent computer and graphics card to render this game in its full glory. Links LS '98, from Access, is a game for the indoor golfer that features authentic grass and sand textures and very realistic ball flight. Up to eight players can compete before heading to the club house. Redline, by Accolade, is an action game where the player joins an alliance (gamespeak for "a gang") and wages war on rival groups, in vehicles or on foot. Up to 15 fans of this death-match genre can slug it out together. Dark Reign: The Future of War, from Activision, is a real-time strategy game with 3-D terrain, gorgeous graphics and player-controllable AI. It was designed from the ground up for Internet multiplay, and is thus "native" instead of merely "repurposed." Quake II, also from Activision, is one of the most famous of the mad mayhem games, rivaling the infamous Doom. It's game engine is also used in a similar Activision game, Hexen II, which presents richly detailed ancient and medieval settings in which to kill everything in sight.

Jedi Knight, by LucasArts, is an RPG that pits the player, light saber in hand, against seven dark Jedi who are trying to exploit the power of the Dark Side. This is an opportunity for Star Wars fans to become Jedi masters. Politika, by Red Storm and based on the Tom Clancy novel, pits the player against factions like the Russian military, secret police and mafia. The player will learn much about real-world facts and data as he negotiates through the political intrigue of modern Russia. F1 Racing Simulation, Ubisoft's new racing sim, features 22 cars and 16 detailed race tracks. Eight players can scorch their tires as they vie for the checkered flag over the Internet.

The Online Gaming Starter Kit, a book and CD-ROM by Ed Dille is available from Ventana Publishing.

Time To Get Started

What's the best way to get started in online gaming? Start slowly, on a game with simple rules, and practice against the computer until you're comfortable before venturing into a multiplayer world. The Online Gaming Starter Kit, available for about $30 from MacMillan Digital, is an inexpensive way to get started. It includes games such as Chess, Bridge, Trivial Pursuit, and Microsoft Golf, and allows the user to try online games and services for a free, trial period. For the more action-oriented, the same company also has the Netwarrior package for $30, which permits fans of Quake, Duke Nukem and Diablo to wage havoc via the Internet against opponents worldwide. This package has fully functioning editions of the famous Air Warrior aircraft sim, and offers hundreds of dollars of free online game play.

There are a growing number of web sites devoted to online gaming, such as www.ten.net, www.icigames.com, www.vr1.com and www.mpath.com.

If you want to join a game network, consider the Concentric Network, a huge online gaming service that groups many smaller gaming networks together for billing convenience. It is available via www.gamegateway.com. Another such megaservice, The Arena from Earthlink Network, includes Kesmai and Engage Games Online, among others. It is reachable at www.earthlink.net/thearena/. Interactive Magic has started iMagic Online, a service with chat rooms and classic multiplayer games such as WarBirds (an aircraft sim) and Planetary Raiders. They are planning "lite" versions of detailed games such as Raider Wars and Tank Wars. They're at www.icigames.com. Mpath is one of the best-known gaming sites, with over 100,000 members. Their games include iM1A2 Abrams (one of the best combat tank games), Monopoly and Star General. They have virtual lobbies to lounge in and helpful tools to get started at www.mplayer.com. TEN (The Entertainment Network) is one of the largest and oldest of the gaming services. It's games include Quake, Myth, and Shadow Warriors, and offers helpful services for forming into teams, at www.ten.net. VR-1 offers VR-1 Crossroads, a Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) type game that requires cooperation and socializing between the players, making it an alternative to the slash-and-burn Doom genre, at www.vr1.com. Finally, the Internet Gaming Zone offers Microsoft Fighter Ace, one of the popular WWII flight sim games (gamers prefer the age before air-to-air missiles made combat "impersonal"), with many levels of play so newbies can feel comfortable, and Asheron's Call, a popular RPG that can support thousands of players at one time, at www.zone.com. If you are running these games on a PC, make sure you have a good accelerator card, such as the 3Dfx Voodoo,in order to avoid muddy graphics, and a good joystick controller, such as the Thrustmaster Millennium 3D,as many games will not work with just a mouse. Driving games are best played with steering wheel controls, and the Thrustmaster Force Feedback Racing Wheel is a joy to use for this, with instant feedback to your hands from cornering to acceleration or in case you hit another car. Good luck, and enjoy gaming in cyberspace!

Christopher Harz is a multimedia consultant in online simulation and gaming. He helped develop the military's massive-scale online war games, and is now working on 3-D multiplayer websites.

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