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Tanaka, Jennifer. Log on and shoot. (online action game networks). In
Newsweek August 12 1996, v128, n7, p58(2).
New online networks let you blast foes in the next house--or the next
WENDY METZLER, A 23-YEAR-old homemaker in Benicia, Calif., was a
computer-game widow. Her husband was a "beta tester"--or trial
customer--for a company called the Total Entertainment Network (TEN)
and had become addicted to a game called Duke Nukem 3D. For a month,
he played it almost every night until morning. "I told him I was
tired of sitting alone in bed," she says. Finally, two months ago, he
persuaded Wendy to try logging on. Did she like it? "I haven't got
off the thing yet," she whispers, sounding a bit embarrassed.
Now, once dinner is over and her 5-year-old daughter is in bed, Wendy
sits down to her PC with enough Ho Ho's and chips to last her till
dawn. Why the fascination? For Metzler, it's not just that Duke Nukem
3D, a gruesome shoot-'em-up where players navigate post-apocalyptic
Los Angeles hunting down aliens, is fun. It's also that TEN links her
with people through the Internet; that means Metzler (a.k.a.
Daisy-Duke) can spend her nights meeting friends and new opponents.
With screen names like Chen, Javamamma and HellKnight, her playmates
challenge opponents who have logged in from places like Beaumont,
Texas, and Short Hills, N.J. "Everyone knows me," she says.
Since coming online in recent months, TEN and its chief rivals (Mpath
Interactive, Engage and Dwango) have been introducing hard-core
gamers to something totally new. Until recently, game fanatics played
shoot-'em-ups either alone on a PC or head to head with friends on TV
consoles made by the likes of Nintendo and Sony. Now gaming
companies, and the major online services, are marrying the two by
creating networks that allow trigger-happy users to play against
human opponents who live down the street--or as far away as the
global Internet reaches. Analysts estimate that "multiplayer online
gaming" will be a $1 billion industry by the year 2000. Americans
spent more than $6 billion on computer games bought off store shelves
last year, according to technology-research firm Dataquest. Companies
from Sega to CompuServe are betting that you will pay even more money
to play these games online--either through the Internet or on private
networks. The networks will most likely charge by the minute, though
some are toying with flat-rate pricing. Whatever the billing scheme,
executives are confident. "This," says Jack Heistand, CEO of TEN, "is
going to be huge."
That's big talk for a business that by most accounts is unproven. A
few well-funded start-ups are testing the waters by offering online
versions of the most popular computer games--Air Warrior, an air
combat game; DOOM, the highly addictive 3-D world of gore and
destruction, and SimCity, the best-selling simulation game. Their
hope is that the titles themselves will lure audiences to try this
new way to play them. TEN, scheduled to debut officially in early
September, will allow hundreds of people to play simultaneously. The
Cupertino, Calif.-based Mpath Interactive hopes to launch at the same
The commercial online services are right in step. Click on America
Online's games channel and you'll find connections to 46 games in
eight different categories. In 1995 Prodigy had no games but will
have more than a dozen by year's end. CompuServe recently revamped an
old games area, now called New Game City. It offers a variety of
fast-action fun. And earlier this summer, Microsoft acquired Electric
Gravity Inc., already known on the Net for its Internet Gaming Zone,
a multiplayer Web site devoted to classic board and card games.
People have played interactive games over the Internet for years, but
the choices were largely limited to the slow-moving, text-based world
of MUDs (multiuser dungeons) or turn-based games like chess. The
trick now is to create "social worlds" rich in graphics for games of
all kinds, featuring chat spaces where players can boast to one
another, commiserate over a defeat or just pass the time of day.
Mpath allows players with microphones on their computers to talk to
each other--convenient for yelling "DIE]" while obliterating an
Moving these graphic-rich "twitch" games to the Internet isn't easy.
The biggest obstacle to playing fast-action games over the Net is
"latency"--the amount of time between, say, when you push the fire
button on your keyboard and when the bullet shows up on your
opponents' screens. Most twitch games require split-second responses,
and that's difficult to achieve with consistency over the Internet, a
collection of networks whose performance is impossible to predict.
The Internet-based services have each concocted strategies--software
"fixes," partnerships, games customized for Net play--to combat the
latency problem. TEN, for example, won't let users play fast-action
games if its network software detects that their connections are bad.
The beta tests haven't inspired confidence: games often freeze in
midaction. Some services, such as AOL, CompuServe, Dwango and the
forthcoming Wireplay network by MCI, will avoid the problem entirely
by using private, "proprietary" networks where regular Internet
traffic doesn't slow you down. Despite technical glitches, online
gaming already appears to be the stuff of addiction. Even calmer
diversions such as hearts and bridge are turning into virtual
parties. On Prodigy, for example, checkers has a separate chat screen
next to the board. The game itself is often overshadowed by the
conversation that starts up. A game that might ordinarily take 10
minutes stretches to an hour. "We're learning that something as
simple as checkers is more than checkers," says Josh Grotstein,
Prodigy's senior vice president of content. "What it turns out to be
is like sitting on the porch talking to someone."
Which is exactly what the emerging gaming networks have in mind. "The
fact that it's a social environment is what makes it the killer app
of the online medium," says Lawrence Schick, AOL's general manager
for games. Virgin Interactive's Subspace, a Net-based multiplayer
rendition of Asteroids now in beta test, has inspired a unique social
order, complete with codes of conduct, a hierarchy based on scores
and nightly tournaments of 200 players where that hierarchy is
constantly tested. One player, 17-year-old Kevin Jarrett of
Grandbury, Texas, wakes up at 7 a.m. every day to hang out with
friends he originally met in an Internet Relay Chat channel. "It was
a chance to blow them up," he says. "It's become a community."
For now, online gaming is a niche market catering to a devoted
clientele. As beta testers, gamers can go on 15-hour binges, and, if
they're dialing locally into the game service, it's all free. The
true test will come when the gaming services go fully commercial.
Metzler doesn't plan to stop playing once TEN starts billing her.
Anyway, she says, "it's my husband's credit card."
COPYRIGHT Newsweek Inc. 1996