Doom with a stranger: online gaming booms

In raw technical terms, the Nintendo 64 is streets ahead of the rest. But it cannot, yet, compete with PCs in one of the major games growth areas - online gaming with a modem.

There are rumours that eventually a modem will be built for the Nintendo to allow multi-player games over the Internet, but these are very vague rumours even by the standards of the computer games industry.

Sega is working on a NetLink modem for its Saturn console, but that leaves the PC as the only player in most of the burgeoning online sites, with Mac users having to wait a year or two, if they are lucky, for the best games to appear on their platform.

With market research suggesting that online gaming is set to grow at 95 per cent a year and be worth $1.6 billion in three years' time, it is a good field in which to establish yourself as the major player.

The eerie appeal of playing against another person rather than against the machine is universally acknowledged by players and games designers alike - artificial intelligence may be impressive, but it is not a patch on the real thing. However, the old stand-by of linking two machines with a serial cable for enhanced fun is very limiting - you either need several machines under one roof or else have an opponent who doesn't mind lugging his PC across town.

Networks are an obvious answer. As a Sony spokesman, whose crystal ball was obviously fogged, put it at an Internet conference a year ago: "I don't think it's about all of these people in their bedrooms playing against other people who are thousands of miles away. Online gaming ... is about staying late at the office and playing against your friends."

When Doom was released, its network capabilities meant that people could play against each other across office networks - until their IT administrators stepped in. Although Doom was not intended for playing over the Internet, a program called Kali appeared that fooled the program into thinking that the Internet was really an office network. Kali is still around (www.kali.co.uk) and is still used for playing in places such as Cybercents Arcade (www.cybercents.com).

Increasingly, PC games have Internet support built into them, but until recently it has not been easy to play online, unless you're in America where commercial services have been running for years. They are supposed to be on the way to Britain, but are proving slow at crossing the Atlantic.

Quake is one of the mainstays of online gaming and it can be played outside of the umbrella of commercial services. Programs such as QuakeSpy (which is doing the rounds on PC game magazine cover disks or can be found at www.panix.com/sheaslip/qspy) make it easy to dial up your Internet account and search the Net for servers with games under way that you can join in. It is the work of seconds to get online.

That level of ease is built into even newer games such as Blizzard's role-playing game, Diablo. Here a menu option in the main program connects through your Internet account to the online games on battle.net - a free server run by Blizzard that will be expanded to host other titles. Playing online, the game runs almost as quickly as on a single machine.

Although it was launched only last month, already more than 117,000 people have tried it out - an average of 40,000 a day, each spending three hours online. Access figures like that make you wonder whether a certain Sony spokesman is ready to eat his words.

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