Network: Who'd pay to play Doom with someone in Dallas?

The information superhighway has the potential to be an enriching, empowering communication medium. But we also know that, first and foremost, it offers tantalising possibilities in the zombie killing department. Tim Green looks at the future of online game play.

Online gaming is widely tipped to be the Trojan horse which eases the general public into the idea of a wired future. Received wisdom has it that people won't buy expensive equipment just so they can order cardigans or check their bank balance. But they will invest time and money to drive virtual sports cars against virtual opponents hundreds of miles away.

The only trouble is, hardly anyone is playing. Hook into any of the dedicated games sites and you will be lucky to be one among 500 online. In a global Internet community numbering millions that's nothing to e-mail home about.

But this, according to insiders, misses the point. Online gaming will succeed because ultimately gamers would rather play other gamers than play against their machines. Colin Duffy, head of games at Wireplay, believes the market will obey the same rules as any new consumer entertainment medium.

"It's like TV, video or the CD. It will take years for the mass market to catch on - at the moment we're very much at the beginning of the graph," he says.

Wireplay is one of the major players in the game. Set up by BT just over a year ago, it is a closed network which takes advantage of the multiplay option built into many "boxed" games available on the high street, a trend started by the 3D shoot-em-up Doom.

Wireplay allows any user with a PC, modem and BT's free software to play around 30 such games with opponents across the UK. It's a dial up service (as opposed to Internet-based) so players are routed straight into the server when they click on their Wireplay software. It costs up to 6p a minute.

The alternative to a closed network such as Wireplay is playing on the Internet itself. Easily the biggest Internet game so far is Quake, which grew after publisher, id Software, made network code freely available to fans, inviting them to set up their own servers. Today there are over 2,000 active Quake World "clans".

But Quake's popularity cannot disguise its essential drawback, namely "latency" or "lag" - the games equivalent of lip-sync problems on TV. The problem with a fast game like Quake is that it is unplayable unless pressing the joystick produces immediate results on screen.

Factors such as modem speeds, dodgy connections and even the speed of light make lag an insoluable problem for Net gaming as it is now. Another flaw is more sociological than technical; bullying. While it's fun thrashing opponents it's no fun being thrashed. Richard Bartle, of Muse, thinks this is a major drawback. "You must be able to play an online game at your own pace ... for as little or as long as you like," he says.

Bartle is entitled to strong views. He is widely credited as having invented the first online games genre - the Multi User Dungeon. MUDs invite players to join a fantasy world where the rules and adventures are decided by the whole community of players. Play is text-based so commands are typed. It sounds weird and it is. However, there are around 800 active MUDs out there in cyberspace (Bartle's is available on Wireplay) and players commit hundreds of hours to them.

But MUDs, with their anorakish appeal, also have their critics. Bruce Onder, of developer Digital Arcana, says: "MUDs will never be popular to a mass audience. Not everyone wants the mass market, so that's fine. But we have to look elsewhere for the future of online gameplay."

Whatever this model online game is, no one's seen it yet. Steve Cooke, who runs games developer Ogalala, is among those working towards it. Like Bartle he thinks traditional games are totally unsuited to wired play and believes a more appropriate model is something organic and communal - almost like a soap opera. He also suggests voice recognition could play a key role.

"People are happy with text but they don't necessarily like typing. That's why voice recognition might be important," he says.

But then, there are others who believe fast, arcade-style games can be made workable on the Net despite latency. Edgeware-based developer Argonaut is currently completing a game called Spy V Spy which, according to the company's founder, Jez San, proves it.

He says: "Most `Net ready' games you see now are actually developed for a LAN which is why you get lag. We thought about the problems of the Net right from the start. So, for instance, there's no gunfire in Spy V Spy. Instead you drop bombs because there's necessarily a delay there. And during [the lag] the server can synchronise all the clients."

But who will bankroll these experiments? Existing publishers are understandably focused on boxed games. And why should they devote valuable development staff to an uncertain new genre when boxed games can be, in the words of one senior publisher, "more profitable than anything except hard drugs"?

Maybe it needs one "killer app" to make money flow into the sector. The wait is on for the online equivalent of Tetris. Or should that be The Archers?

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