Spank a Friend
Words & captures by Allen Collins.
Online gaming is absolutely thriving. Industry pundits and forecasters pontificate yearly whether the whole sha-bang is a fad that won't last another month, or if it's actually the future of computer gaming. Meanwhile gaming software companies as well as gamers themselves continue to propel this side of gaming ever forward. One thing is for certain: there is no going back; online gaming is and will be a huge part of the future of computer gaming.
Most compelling, is the proliferation of online only or online mostly games. Notably, the big three massively multiplayer (MMP) role playing games: Ultima Online, Everquest and Asheron's Call; and the big three shooters: Starsiege Tribes, Unreal Tournament and Quake III Arena. These six games are of great significance in the travels of online gaming. They represent that online gaming is no longer an infant.
Demand from gamers, new hardware and new code, in that order, are obviously responsible for this maturing. In the past, online support code did not need to be of exceptional quality, as the internet simply could not produce the bandwidth necessary to fully play most graphics intensive games online. But with high speed connection moving toward standard has followed new and online intensive game code that allows a marvelous graphic spectacle that is Unreal Tournament to run like butter over the net. Online support used to be thought of as a minor added feature (no matter how poorly added). Times are definitely a changing. Unreal Tournament has an added feature: a single player element.
What is most significant about the "big six" is that each of them, in their own way, harbor elements of game play only possible in an online environment. We are not talking the obvious chatting and death-matching here. Unreal Tournament has introduced new game styles that demand organized co-op play. For example, Assault calls for a team to attack an objective being defended by another team. There are a number of smaller objectives to complete before the primary can be attempted. Try hijacking a U.S. Navy frigate, destroying the boiler that provides power for the locked hatch to the bridge, and gaining control of the ships guns to blow a way thru the harbor doors. And do it with defenders placed strategically in halls and stairways. Oh, did I mention the deck mounted machine guns and the 5-minute time limit? What? You don't like to play on a team? Uh! There is this game called Doom�.
An entire article could be written (and a few have) about the innovative multiplayer experience of Ultima Online. Nowhere else on the internet have so many varied and fascinating elements of cyber space been pumped at me. I'm talking a depth of human interaction via computers that has blurred the line between what is real and what is game. I can hear it now. "You have been sipping at the silly sauce again. Get out from in front of that computer and go for a hike in the mountains." That's not a bad suggestion, but I digress. To those who don't believe that the line is being blurred I would submit a simple fact: a UO tower (not the largest structure attainable) can be bought and are being bought for the price of good used car on Ebay. As distressing, confusing and uncomfortable as this notion may be to some, it is not a new phenomenon. This is now a thriving and mature market. Money, murder, marriage, mayhem �all these (and many more) real and cyber elements make UO one for the books for future anthropologist. Anytime you gather 100,000+ people together for anything, by that very fact the line between virtual and real has been, in the least, blurred some. I would also submit that, despite outsiders shaking their heads in disgust, the great majority of this mass of UO folk are quite normal (whatever that is), fine people having a great time playing together. After all online gaming is about people and little else.
Then there is the venerable Grand Prix Legends. A fine, player run website called Virtual Online Racers Connection or VROC (http://gpl.gamestats.com/vroc/) makes a painless go of connecting to a chat room that is never empty, and a listing of races in various stages, (waiting to be joined, 5 laps to go etc.). You may then join a race consisting of an average of 7 other drivers. As many as 20 is not unheard of. Leagues using VROC are in full seasons, commonly running 20 drivers through the entire season. You simply download a small free front-end program from the site called, oddly, VROC, do a little bit of easy setup and you are hauling the groceries. Did I mention that the program was free?
UO, GPL, the rest of the big six and others are responsible for yet another internet aberration: the online gaming community. I suggest that this is the finest and most fascinating element of all. My own dear mom is of the mind that all these people sitting in front of their computers could not be more antisocial. On the other hand, if I spend time talking on the phone, she doesn't consider me an isolated, socially challenged geek. So how does she respond to the fact that on any given night I can be found interacting with my 50 guild- mates? Funny thing is, my absolute favorite thing to do is to get on a three-way call with some local guild-mates and go raise some hell. I don't know what my mother thinks of this because my line is always busy.
Yes the people are by all means the very best (and sometimes the very worst) elements that online gaming has to offer. The online gaming community is indeed fascinating when you consider that not only do these groups of people get together at all hours of the day and night to play, but you can now find them in countless chat rooms, yakking away about they're respective games. The people who are doing this are hardly sitting about taunting each other for hours. They are trading notes on how better to play the game; they are discussing how to improve the game; best of all many are actually actively improving the games they play.
The number of programmers out there that are game fans and willing to use their skills to improve a game they love is staggering and wonderful. Player modifications (mods), add-ons and utilities abound. The days of simply releasing a new dungeon level or perhaps a different colored hat are long gone. We are talking mods that could stand on their own legs and take off at a trot. One example is the proliferation of mods for the outstanding Half Life; in particular Counter Strike, a free player created mod that could easily have been sold as a separate game by itself. Another example is the utilities available for UO. There is one simple map add-on utility that improves upon the standard map of the game so much that all but probably two UO players use it. You catching my drift? 100,000+ people using this little program. How much does the author charge per map? Zippo, goose eggs, bubkus. One begins to acquire a sense of the afore mentioned gaming community when he considers these examples.
Don't be mislead. I'm warning you that we are not talking paradise here. The caveats still remain, and it is the same as it ever was. Obnoxious teenagers, flexing their new use of obscenity, still have to be tolerated. And many people do not have high-speed access available to them so lag can be a problem. Odd online behavior and random disconnects are still common. But many companies including Microsoft have dedicated servers running, for the sole purpose of online gaming, that have removed incredible amounts of pain from the experience. There are also a number player run servers for particular games that take the headache out of the online configuration woes. So if you haven't done so yet, there is no better time to get connected and frag a buddy, shoot down a human bogie or sink the eagle that puts your boss in his place. By the way, Microsoft has recently launched an online golf tournament using Links with a grand prize of $100,000. Still don't think the line between virtual and real is being blurred?