One of the ubiquitous topics of E3 this year was online gaming. Specifically, online gaming for consoles was in the air and not since Sega announced SegaNet has there been more interest in the topic. Of course, SegaNet taught us quite a few things ? most importantly that it is possible and enjoyable to play console titles online. It also taught us that a lot can be done with a 56.6 Kb connection and that it is essential to allow groups of local players to take on groups of remote players. SegaNet gave us so much, and many of us Dreamcast fanboys felt more than a twinge of sadness at the death of the system, which didn't wither into old age, but was rather sacrificed for the greater good of the parent company. I can picture the Dreamcast kneeling before a row of Sega execs, knife poised at his chest, "I am sorry I have failed to bring Sega out of the pit it had dug well before I was conceived. Forgiveness, please..."
But what is gone is gone, and this year the hype around online gaming for consoles feels like SegaNet never did exist. Everyone is talking about breaking new ground and bold innovation with regards to their online plans. Give me a break ? Chu Chu Rocket and NFL 2k2 broke new ground. Shenmue was innovative. Madden NFL online is just the same thing we had taken away from us. Nintendo is the only company to point out that the online realm for console games may not satisfy the fiscal desires of these companies, as well as the fact that it has been tried over and over again. At the Nintendo press conference they proudly displayed an image of the Japanese SNES, complete with modem and online gaming service. Of course nobody ever mentions Sega's earlier attempts at online gaming and games distributed through cable channels, both of which they experimented with in the early 1980s. Why did neither of these things catch on? Online gaming isn't that easy to sell.
In the PC world, online gaming has been popular for ages and ages. In the midst of graphically incredible MMORPGs and even more graphically impressive multiplayer first person shooters, it's easy to forget that people have been playing text-based games online for literally decades. And those text-based MUDs, MOOs, and whatnot have not gone away ? people look for many different things in their gaming experiences, and some folks like that stuff. Space War, often called the first videogame ever, was even an online game, although it required a supercomputer of the day to play. But the fact that online gaming is and pretty much always has been a major part of the PC world is not enough to insure success on the consoles.
PCs and consoles are different. And while they are not different in many of the ways people like to claim they are, especially since the current generation of hardware is very similar between the two types of platforms, it is worthwhile to nail down these differences. For example, PC games are typically played alone. The vast majority of console gamers play with friends. Even when PC gamers get multiplayer going, each of the players has his or her own screen, whereas splitscreen is a way of life for console gamers. Because of the solitary nature of each PC box, networked multiplayer (whether online or over a LAN) is essential. Without it we'd all be hotseating Heroes of Might and Magic rather than participating in huge deathmatches or assaults on enemy lands in real time. So in many ways it was not a matter of choice for PC gamers to go online ? it was simply the way things had to be done in order to involve more gamers in a better play experience. Consoles, whether implementing splitscreen or not, have accomodated up to four gamers at a time with no problem, so there is not nearly as much of an impetus for console gamers to go online.
Another difference between PC and console gamers is essential for recognizing the wild popularity of online gaming on the PC. PC gamers are often tech junkies. They like to fiddle with their boxes, take great pride in pumping up their video resolution until their graphics card screams and begs for mercy, and they like to share and show off their knowledge. This lends itself really well to the occasionally buggy and often frustrating world of online gaming. Don't get me wrong ? at this point in time, most of the basics have been figured out and simplified, so you don't have to be a technological genius to play online games on the PC. But the reason things have gotten so much easier in recent years is because there were and are so many PC gamers who worked on the problem. This mentality has been a huge boon to PC gaming online.
Console gamers, on the other hand, take their PlayStation 2s to the local videogame store to pay 15 bucks for some counterjockey to blow out the dust so the machine will quit skipping. Console gamers just don't want to be that bothered with the technology ? they don't want to install patches, tweak settings, or work to play the game. Consoles are made to be powered up and played with little to no hassle. In fact, one of the first ways people disparaged the Xbox was by starting rumors that Microsoft's games would be so buggy they would require patch downloads, and that's why they added the hard drive in. This, of course, is just a vicious rumor, and there have been plenty of them about the Xbox, many of which stem from the comparison between computers running Microsoft's operating system (which often require tweaking as so many PC applications do) and the Xbox (which has never crashed on me or scratched a disc).
At any rate, consoles are jumping into the online fray, and as I stated earlier, it's not necessarily going to be a doom and gloom kind of thing. Remember SegaNet because we'll come back to it. Let's make it clear up front that my distinctions between the PC and console gamer I made in the past few paragraphs are not meant to be hard and fast divisions. The overlap of mentalities is illustrated best by the fact that you can already play both the Xbox and PS2 online, but neither of the methods is incredibly easy. For the Xbox you must download GameSpy Arcade and GameSpy Tunnel, install them on a PC plugged into your broadband network, and then plug your Xbox into your router or hub. The PC will find the Xbox and negotiate the connection with GameSpy. This is a stop-gap solution for playing online, and GameSpy will be a major player in the Xbox online strategy. The system is tough to work, especially if you're behind a firewall or don't have a beefy computer network in your home. The PS2 uses a USB network adapter to make THPS3 work online, and because Neversoft put so much effort into making it a handy system, it works pretty well and isn't too tough to get running. Of course, you still need a handful of third party hardware and a broadband connection.
The trickiness of these methods of online play pretty much excludes the vast majority of the console gaming audience. Fortunately, the corporate sponsored procedures for online console play will simplify things considerably. Sony will be the first to the online market, launching their broadband/narrowband adapter and SOCOM on August 27. So far their plans sound very similar to what they announced last year ? SOCOM will kick things off and a string of games scheduled for Fall 2002, including Frequency, THPS4, TimeSplitters 2 and Madden, will support online gaming. The network adapter supports both broadband (cable or DSL) and narrowband (dial-up), although some of the games, such as SOCOM, will require a broadband connection. The network adapter should retail for $39.99 when it is released. Sony also plans to release a hard disc drive for the PS2, but it will not be available before 2003.
sbg-communicator-0001.jpg (4024 bytes)Microsoft will also enter the online arena this year. Xbox Live will launch this fall, and Microsoft has huge plans. Xbox Live is an all-out online gaming service, similar to SegaNet, but not as free. This could be a detriment, although high enough quality, enough perks, and ease of use could overcome the price tag. When Xbox Live launches, you will be able to buy a year's subscription, a sweet headset/microphone that plugs into your Xbox controller, and a copy of Acclaim's online racer ReVolt for $49.95. That's not such a bad deal, and a bundle including both hardware and software might just be the thing to get gamers to give it a shot. It's also crucial for console games to have the support of a network like SegaNet to faciliate gameplay. One reason the Dreamcast played online games so easily is because of the centrally located servers and the ease with which one could find a game to get into. Microsoft has not only consulted with SegaNet in building Xbox Live, but is also working with GameSpy to make online gaming as easy as possible for console gamers.
There are a load of games supporting Xbox Live from third party publishers including: Unreal Championship, XIII, Ghost Recon, NFL 2k3, NBA 2k3, Star Wars Galaxies, Counterstrike, and Phantasy Star Online. Microsoft is also developing some first party titles to take advantage of online play including: MechAssault, Whacked!, NFL Fever 2003, and Midtown Madness 3. Microsoft is also working on sequels to HALO, RalliSport Challenge, Project Gotham Racing, and Amped which will take advantage of online play.
The fee you pay to subscribe to Xbox Live facilitates some more substantial support than Sony has mentioned for their online endeavours. The Xbox Live network will be centered around four major server centers: two in Washington state, one in London, and one in Tokyo. Xbox Live also supports some services you won't find on other systems. Each Xbox Live subscriber is assigned a "Gamertag" which will be a unique name used in any game you play. The Gamertag allows Xbox Live to offer handy services so you can keep a list of your friends and easily find them regardless of what game or server they are playing. The Xbox Communicator (that headset and mic you get when you sign up) allows realtime voice chat with your gaming pals, so you have a reason to find them when you go online. And, of course, Microsoft is trying hard to leverage the hard drive in the Xbox and has pledged to provide a lot of content downloads for Xbox owners. These downloads will both be free and pay enhancements, allowing publishers to explore different ways of keeping their games alive on the Xbox.
Both Sony and Microsoft have pretty ambitious plans about their online approach. Both companies expect the online gaming arena to be crucial to dominating the marketplace. Although Sony haughtily declared the console wars over (as if they hadn't read about their significant loss of market share in Europe), there is no doubt that the online arena is important to both companies. The reason is easy to see ? neither Sony nor Microsoft simply want to deliver great gaming to us online. They want to deliver everything to us online ? films, music, television, shopping, etc. Sony has been vocal about this since 1999, when they characterized the audience for their PS2 as "imaginators," people who enjoy film, music, and games. This is a not-so-subtle way for Sony to dominate the online marketplace, and they have the content to back their attempts. Sony puts out a huge chunk of the motion pictures, albums and games we see each year, so it is no problem for them to cut out the projectionist or store clerk and get these things to us directly. Microsoft maintains that they are not interested in making the Xbox a portal to entertainment media and shopping, but that their online service will strictly be game-oriented.
gamecubebroadband.jpg (17342 bytes)Nintendo will enter the online gaming arena, but in a much more subdued way. Nintendo is old enough that they have tried a lot (and they have even tried online gaming as mentioned earlier), and they do not believe that online games will be profitable in the near future. Still, they recognize that many gamers want to play online, so they will release both a modem and a broadband adapter for the Gamecube this fall. Both enhancements will cost $34.99 and either of them will allow you to play Phantasy Star Online, the only game announced so far for Gamecube that will support online play. Nintendo affirms it's commitment to quality gaming experiences and they will try to encourage developers to experiment with online gameplay by not charging any royalties if a publisher makes their online play free for the gamer.
We should see a lot more games supporting online play on all systems over the next year. All three of the console companies are doing their best to encourage online development, and developers looking to create an online game can get additional support from the companies. In the end it is difficult to see if any of the console giants will be able to turn a profit on online gaming, but for awhile at least we should be able to bask in the glory of being able to whoop-up on old friends who live far away. It would be sad to take another step backward as the whole industry did after the Dreamcast, but until the bottom line is satisfactory to these companies, it is impossible to say just how successful online console gaming will be.