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Cyberspace in the 21st Century: Part One, Mapping the Future of Multiplayer Games
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Cyberspace in the 21st Century: Part One, Mapping the Future of Multiplayer Games

January 20, 2000 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 5 Next

Terms of Reference

Cyberspace is effectively the Internet, and it's continuously evolving (as if you didn't know already). It's where information is stored, exchanged, produced, and presented in a useful fashion to those interested in viewing and manipulating it. Alongside communication and reference, one of its key uses is entertainment. This is in either a passive form or an interactive one. More familiar terms for these are 'movie' and 'game'. (Of course, the former requires no more from the audience than to veg out in their armchairs, whereas the latter requires some brain-ache and repetitive strain injury.) The audiences have typically been large and co-located for movies and small (if not singular) and distributed across several locations for games. How the audience tends to manifest itself is largely irrelevant; the more important thing is the nature of the story.

In movies the story has been predefined. In games, only the setting has been defined, and the story is determined by the players' actions. A game, therefore, pulls the audience away from its 'fly on the wall' perspective and immerses it into the virtual world being presented. And as you know, a virtual world, or more properly a virtual universe, has to have its laws encoded into the game code, and not just the author's mind (but maybe one day). Computers have enabled us to define a virtual universe that can cope with unpredictable human nature. Though we must still limit the player to a set of actions to which we have encoded a universal response, at least until such time as a 'true AI' emerges to make the author's life a little easier.

There should be nothing radical or special about multiplayer games. Indeed, it is the game that supports only a single player which is the oddity. However, I'm not saying that playing a game alone is odd, just that the familiarity with the single player experience has really arisen from technical limitations and the hitherto poor connectivity of computers. Although it's not a very good analogy; in terms of sophistication, you could consider the virtual universe as being to the single player game, what the movie is to the book.

So, we come down to seeing that limitations of scale arise only out of technical limitations, and not those of the imagination. If a movie entertains ten people, then why not ten thousand? If a game works with a hundred players, why not a hundred thousand? For interactive entertainment to reach large audiences, it must overcome the technical scalability problems.

Perhaps I need an example here? OK, think Elite. But instead of one player, a hundred thousand players, each trading alien artefacts, outwitting the stellar police, and zapping Thargoids from one end of the galaxy to the other. (Police and Thargoids can be human controlled too.) The biggest problem is not the concept but the implementation - scaling the engine up…

The nature of stories and games is really just a reflection of our own and other people's lives. They depict and represent alternate lives, but concentrated down to the more entertaining essentials, with all the banalities of real life removed. Just as soap operas don't show hours of actors sleeping in darkness, so games dispense with a large degree of tedium. No-one wants to wait real-time timescales when it comes to their castle being built in their RTS game. Nevertheless, stories and games, however abstract, can be thought of as models of alternate lives. In this sense real-life is the ultimate game, in which we are all interacting and hopefully, entertained (getting back to the Matrix there). Similar to the resonance between 'life' and 'game', the notions of 'living' and 'playing' are also essentially the same thing, it's just that one has consequences in the real world and one doesn't.

Yes, perhaps one day, there will be a VR game so entertaining that its audience will be happy for it to operate in the same timescale as real life, banalities included. Though before then we'll have to come to terms with whether we really should end up with a dystopia such as presented in "The Matrix." Bored with that one already? How about ExistenZ? Hmmn, not such a good comparison.

So in the early part of this millennium at least, we'll have enough on our plate simply producing the concentrated forms of alternative lives. This means developing pieces of interactive entertainment that allow arbitrarily sized audiences to play around in a virtual playpen, with an inevitably restricted set of actions available.

This is not ten thousand games of Monopoly, nor thousand player Quake, but ten thousand planets, in a Star Trek universe, each of which is running ten thousand player games of Age of Empires, StarCraft, X-Wing vs Tie Fighter, etc. Well, not exactly, but you get the idea. Persistent virtual universes, where it is the players that rise and fall, not the game that begins and ends. You see, on the other side of the looking glass it is the worlds that are the true constants, and the players that are ephemeral. But, why persistent? Well, when you scale a virtual world up to cater for an unlimited number of simultaneous players then there simply isn't time to start and stop it. Don't believe me? Have a go at suspending the Web for maintenance - see how far you get.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 5 Next

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