Published Aug 01, 2002We are done with television and movies. These archaic forms of entertainment dominated the 20th century, but are passive, linear, and devoid of real interpersonal relationships. Today's entertainment puts power in the audience's hands, turning passive viewers into active participants. Internet-based multi-player computer games are going places film and television cannot, opening a dialog not only between the audience and their entertainment, but virtually amongst real people in real time around the globe. Gaming continues to drive technological advances: first in computing and communications technologies, now in online play, resulting in faster, less expensive computers, more expansive and more capable networks.
Before the internet became a mainstream institution, basement nerds largely played computer games without interacting with other human players. They soon discovered that playing with themselves had limited charm. Although devoid of graphics, since 1979 text-based "Multi-User Dungeons" satisfied the urge to socialise, allowing real people to simultaneously chat with each other in the roles of fantasy characters. The personal connection provides a human element of unpredictability and fallibility that pre-programmed computer play simply doesn't offer.
It was probably the original Quake (released 1996), a fast-paced 3D war game that widely popularised the idea of going online for multi-player action. Not only was the game itself a blast, but a free, limited version of Quake meant you didn't have to buy the whole game to play online. Games like Quake involved dozens of players at a time, but Ultima Online (1997) was the first so-called "Massively Multi-player Online Game," or MMOG. Open to thousands of simultaneous players, the world of Ultima Online was "persistent," meaning that even though you went to bed at 6 a.m., Ultima Online kept going along without you. A new breed of compulsive players logged on to share their fantasies and adventures with other humans around the clock, forming alliances, guilds, and rabbles. While Ultima Online introduced the world to gaming on a massive scale, it was usurped by Everquest, with nearly 100,000 players online daily. Everquest is now the most popular (and populated) multi-player online game in history.
It is not advances in computer technology that feed the gaming industry it is the demands of that multi-billion dollar industry that drive the computer advances forward. Telecommunications technologists and internet service providers have the game industry to thank for pushing sales first of modems, then of access packages that included high-speed cable modems and DSL kits. Gamers are never satisfied with the status quo in technology, nor with mediocre online experiences. Other entertainment experiences movies, tv, comics, books are themselves feeling the influence of gaming pull, no longer the other way around. The personal computer might be the most obvious platform for delivery of multi-player games, but console games are not yet out of the race. Though consoles (the big three: Playstation, X-Box, Gamecube) have the advantage of greater playability, they've fallen behind personal computers in the land of multi-player gaming. Talk of multi-gaming progress for consoles has so far amounted to just that: their potential remains as unrealised as high-definition TV.
The online world of the future will also look remarkably like recent film visions like a cross between Blade Runner and the personalised ads in Minority Report. With budgets in the tens of millions, the most successful of the next wave of massively multi-player games will be backed exclusively by mega-corporations. A slew of MMOG titles are now in development, most of which are based on sure-fire hits (Star Wars, The Matrix) and gaming franchises (Asheron's Call 2, Everquest 2, The Sims Online). With a captive audience of millions (and growing), advertisers are quickly getting into the game. Product placement and sponsorships will be commonplace: the upcoming Sims Online, for example, provides subscribers with in-game Nokia cell-phones. Gamers are becoming as wide an audience as moviegoers or television watchers, and since there is more involvement between gamers and their entertainment than movies or TV, brands can claim the "mindshare" of gamers in ways 20th century advertisers could only fantasise about.
Multi-player games have worked their way into pop-culture into living rooms, schools, and offices. So powerful is the engine of multi-player gaming that it has changed not only the face of entertainment, but is pushing technology to new heights like no other medium before it. The 20th century belonged to movies and TV, but the 21st century belongs to massively multi-player online gaming.