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


January 20, 2000 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next
 

The Story So Far

Life, evolution and survival of the fittest - games that nature's been playing for quite a long time now. And true to life, modern society is into games too, namely survival, war, and empire building, although the latter two tend to be restricted to players with deep pockets. For those without such good fortune, there's chess, undoubtedly one if the greatest games of the last millenium.

Only in the last century have the larger scale games begun to creak the board at its seams. The Great War was perhaps not so great after all, and the one after that made us realize that we might be in danger of ruining the board itself. What we've learned is that more sophisticated weapons create the need for a greater understanding of war itself, if wars are indeed to continue.

But battlefield simulation require more than a chess board, more even than counters and a scale model…. "Hey Babbage! You couldn't help figure out how to calculate missile trajectories, could you?". "Great!" And like that, the technology for military simulations began to evolve faster than the weapons themselves.

Do I hear complaints that games, like checkers or twister, are fun family pasttimes, whereas war is horrible and real and certainly not a game? The distinction is probably more a matter of ethics than simply whether counters are used instead of people. But, up until now I have used the term 'game' in its broadest sense, meaning any activity involving rules and objectives (implicit or deliberate) - and war is one of mankind's key such activities, whether or not you'd like to ban it.

So, from now on I'll revert to the cuter variation and use "game" to mean any simulation of a rule-based activity, whether from the real world or an abstract one. Yup, from now on games are indeed just dice and counters. What they represent we'll leave to the anthropologists, though I expect it'll still be hard to avoid noticing the strange coincidence that so many games have a warfare aspect to them.…

The last century has seen board games reach the limitations of cardboard and plastic: Scrabble, Risk, Monopoly, Mouse Trap, Haunted House, Operation, etc. Even pinball games have reached their ceiling in terms of sophistication with Williams' Revenge From Mars and Star Wars: Episode I pinball machines.

But back to the computer which, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, is leading all games onto the ultimate, flexible platform that is the PC (OK, console too). We've seen them evolve over the last few decades from Hunt the Wumpus to Quake, Night Driver to Wipeout, Adventure to Asheron's Call, and Empire to Age of Empires. And there are of course the myriad of entirely original computer games which have no lineage, but are always difficult to cite unless you believe their publicity blurb. I won't risk any citations here… (oh, OK, Marble Madness? Tetris?).

Just where gaming - or more specifically, interactive entertainment - is going is one of the fundamental questions I shall be attempting to examine in this article - though there'll be a lot of tangential discussion too, no doubt.

The Quest

I remember how computer games used to work in the last century. Those were the bad old days when they were single player by default. And even when there were multi-player games, few people ever had the time, let alone the technology, to link up to a multiplayer session. Sure, there were places on the high street, cyber cafés, etc. where you could play Quake and other LAN optimized multiplayer games. But multiplayer games seemed to be the preserve of people with time and equipment on their hands: kids, students, and staff in games companies (only the play-testers though ;-) ).

It was only in the very last years of the twentieth century that Internet based multiplayer games showed the slightest hint of becoming the primary form of entertainment for the 21st century.

But, you can't beat a good movie, and no-one will have time for multiplayer games, let alone a single player one… right? Bunch of hogwash!

Yeah, it'll be just more of the same over the next century. Better movies, high definition TVs for home viewing of HD-DVDs. Multiplayer games stabilize at around the thirty-two player mark. Diablo, Ultima Online, Asheron's Call, EverQuest, etc. gradually decline in popularity once thirty-two player games become competitive team sports and end up in the Olympics.

Aw, come on, you don't really believe that do you?

Check out "The Matrix." This movie's premise was a computer simulating reality so well, that the millions of players held by it didn't realize they were playing a game. Now if we ignore the fact that a few characters were trying to undermine the game (go Keanu!), all those players that were unaware they were held by 'the Matrix' didn't seem to find the game that abhorrent. Because they didn't know any better! OK, OK. My point is that here is an example of a game that billions of players are spending their entire lives playing.

OK it's only a movie - it means nothing. But how do we know we're not playing it now? Real life could be a game, and I think you'd agree that even if you were told it was a game, you'd probably opt to continue playing it. The only people that get bored of this game are those who commit suicide and quit the game of life early. So, as games go, it's pretty popular, even if you do get dealt a lousy hand. Ooops! I said I'd stick to games being dice and counters, didn't I?

So when we talk about 'Multiplayer', are we talking thirty-two players, or are we talking four billion? Perhaps it's somewhere in between, like sixty-four thousand? Who knows? Who cares? The answer is: we don't know. But, if I were you I wouldn't join the ranks of those who doubt we'll ever need more than five computers world-wide, or that human beings can tolerate speeds faster than 29 miles an hour, or that anyone needs more than 640K RAM. Dare I mention IPv6?


Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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