Go on, make that call ... it's good to play

BT aims to cash in on the video games market with its own network, Wireplay. By Tim Green

Monday 08 January 1996 00:02

At the Live 95 show last year, few stands were as popular with younger visitors as the one marked BT. Were the nation's youngsters showing a bizarre fascination for telephony? No. They just wanted to play video games. And BT gave them plenty.

Live 95 offered the public its first taste of Wireplay, the "big idea" that the telecoms giant hopes will grab it a share of the video games market. Wireplay is BT's very own "games network", a virtual arena into which players with a PC and a modem can dial when they want to challenge other games fans.

At present, remote multiplayer gaming like this is rare. There are fanatics who make contact on Internet noticeboards and then play by dialling straight into each other's modems. A number of new CD-Rom games have an "Internet option", which means they can be played across the network. But the only multiplayer game to have any sort of mass market so far is the violent Doom, which can be played on office networks.

Most industry insiders, however, recognise that online gaming will be huge when it becomes easier. Brad Silverberg, Microsoft's senior vice- president of personal systems, says: "It's the next wave for games. There is absolutely no question about that."

Hence Wireplay. Colin Duffy, BT's business development manager for games, believes it is a vast improvement on existing online initiatives. "There are three barriers to playing games on the Net," he says. "First, it's hard. You have to be a dedicated Net surfer to get to grips with it. Second, it's expensive. And, third, it's under-publicised. There must be thousands of players who don't know much about it."

Wireplay lets the players, rather than the network, choose which game they play. When the service is launched next summer players will simply buy games that have Wireplay capability built into them. The introductory screen will include a Wireplay button. When the player clicks it, he or she will be dialled into the network. Once online, players are free to challenge other callers to a contest.

Meanwhile, costs will be made competitive with a new "per second" tariff (most calls will be to a local server), and awareness will be generated with a huge advertising and publicity campaign.

BT has plenty of ideas to encourage participation. League tables along the lines of squash ladders could give serious players an idea of their standing. Soccer games could be played by 22 participants. Wireplay will also ask participants to provide a name and phone number so the network can call them offline when another player wants to issue a challenge. The area is rich with possibilities. And BT is also keen to bring in older players. Bridge and chess are just as suited to Wireplay as flight simulators and soccer.

So far the games industry has responded enthusiastically. BT is collaborating with some of the biggest developers on original Wireplay titles while many other publishers are making existing releases "Wireplay ready".

Some experts predict that online games will bring more than new commercial opportunities for publishers. Steve Cooke, whose company Myelin is working on Wireplay games, foresees new types of games emerging. "Online gaming constitutes live entertainment," he says. "You could argue it's closer to music, soap opera or street theatre than it is to offline games. The area will be totally market-driven. If players decide they want a game to include a rock-style soundtrack, suppliers will have to make provision for that."

Unresolved technical issues remain. Developers are already mulling over complications such as competing players using machines with different processing speeds. Speed of response may not matter in chess simulation but any delay in a fighting game would make it unplayable. Then there are social questions. Peter Molyneux, managing director of Bullfrog, says: "A big challenge could be policing a new kind of online bullying. I can imagine it being like the school playground where players with less ability are muscled out."

Such issues should be ironed out when online gaming crosses into the mainstream. It's just a question of how fast that happens. And here is where Wireplay could be important. As Mr Molyneux says: "People buy PCs with the best will in the world and end up just playing games. I can see Wireplay becoming the reason to buy a modem."

Between now and next summer BT will test Wireplay with 1,500 carefully chosen games fans. But if Live 95 was any indication, its future looks promising. When I typed "gotta go" to my invisible opponent after two frames of Virtual Pool, the reply was a frantic "Oh, come on", followed by "Somebody. Pleeease ..."

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