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?

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
Life and Style
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

    £18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

    £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

    Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

    £28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own