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Hot on the Web

No one kind of 'online' gaming

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on June 29, 2007
(Issue 2526, All-in-OneTelevision/Internet/Phone)

It's only been a few years since you could reasonably use the phrase "online gaming" and expect people to know what you mean.

But with the growing normalcy of broadband Internet connections (DSL and cable) in the home, nearly all kinds of online gaming are possible. From the massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORGs) like "World of Warcraft" in which tens of thousands of people are online at any one time to online first-person shooters like "Battlefield 2," "Quake 4" and "Counter-Strike" in which a couple dozen are fighting it out on a single map to online gaming sites that offer chess, backgammon and cribbage in which two people are playing vs. each other, the world of online gaming is as diffuse and broad as computer gaming in general.

In fact, the next-generation gaming consoles are also increasingly moving to multiplayer online gaming.

A bit of history

Computer gaming goes back to the early 1960s, when students at MIT created the first computer game, "Spacewar!" on a Digital Electronics Corp. PDP-1. It was a simple game in which two players controlled images of space ships circling a sun, while shooting at each other.

While the PDP-1 was classified as a "mini-computer" and was not as powerful as the many mainframes of the age (IBM, Univac, etc.), it had something many mainframes of that era did not: a video monitor. Kind of hard to play a real-time arcade game with batch cards and a printer.

Which isn't to say there weren't any games written for non-monitor computers; I remember writing a states capitols game in Tiny BASIC on my dad's KIM-I clone computer where a Teletype was the only input/output device.

Still, the advent of home game consoles in the early 1970s (Mattel's Odyssey and Atari's PONG) shaped the future of computer gaming. The arrival of relatively low-cost home computers at the end of that decade only deepened the digital gaming experience.

When affordable modems came out in the late 1970s, the stage was set for the next great evolution in digital gaming: Online gaming.

While modems allowed two computer to connect to one another, the development of BBS (bulletin board system) software allowed for online multiplayer games. Generally turn-based text games, with one move per player allowed in any 24-hour period, these online BBS games simulated space commerce ("Trade Wars") and military conquest ("Barren Realms Elite").

Even chess.

(Of course, people had been playing remote chess games for centuries by mail – sending their move to their opponent, and then when they received their opponent's move, marking it on their board. The result was two chessboards in different parts of the world each tied up months on end in a very slow game.)

In 1987, a game was released that again changed the dynamic: "MidiMaze" for the Atari ST 16-bit computers allowed up to 16 computers to be networked via the ST's midi port. Each player was represented by a giant smiley face in a maze – a primitive first-person shooter (which went back to the 1980 arcade tank simulation, "Battlezone"), but the first with network capability.

That same year, the flight simulation game "Falcon" game out from Spectrum Holobyte – that allowed any two personal computers to hook up via null modem for head-to-head play.

And during that same time frame, CompuServe, the dial-up online service, offered an online flight combat game for users of DOS computers.

Plus, Cox Cable (and presumably other cable companies) had been offering an early online community since the early 1980s that allowed customers of certain banks to do online banking, read the news – and play games.

The Internet

So even before Congress opened the Internet up to the general public in the late '80s, people were already engaged in online gaming.

Popular DOS and Windows games like "Doom," "Quake" and "Half-Life" only furthered the popularity of playing multiplayer games against your friends over a local area network; as broadband Internet connections became affordable in the late 1990s, it became possible to play these high-bandwidth games not only in a LAN, but over the 'Net.

"Ultima Online," although not the first server-based massively multiplayer online game, was the breakthrough game that showed such subscription-based games were economically viable. "World of Warcraft" today has more than 8 million global subscribers, making it the most-played online game.

But there are all kinds of online games today, not just those with gorgeous graphics and massive (virtual) playing areas.

Yahoo Games is now alligned with GameTap (which offers hundreds of vintage 8- and 16-bit computer and console games for a subscription), but also still offers Java-based online games – chess, backgammon and cribbage are favorites of mine. All free, too, by the way.

Pogo Games, now owned by EA, has free games, mostly Flash- and Shockwave-based. Word Whomper holds my attention – kind of a cross between Scrabble and Boggle. But there are dozens of free games there, from poker and solitaire to puzzles. And some are head-to-head multiplayer, too.

And also has dozens of colorful Shockwave games, mostly arcade and sports-themed. All free, and if you get a high score, you get your name posted.

So the idea of "online gaming" as being a specific experience clearly no longer holds true (if it ever did). From card games to combat, there are as many variations of online gaming as there are computer games.