by Katie Hafner, with Jennifer Tanaka and Brad Stone in New York and Deborah Branscum in San Francisco
"Log On and Shoot"
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. DaisyDuke) 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 heat 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 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 towing 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, and 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 time.
The commercial online services are right in step. Click on American 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 opponent.
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 your keyboard and when the bullet shows up on your opponent's 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 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."
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