Online gaming is very much a zero billion dollar business, but it continues to cast a spell on many in the software fraternity. The most bewitched swapped opinions and occasionally threw insults at the recent Online Games conference in London. TIM GREEN - always interested in a good ruck - joined them...

To be at Online Games '97 was to be at one of the information age's very own Klondike saloon bars. Everyone inside was excited. They all agree that gold is somewhere out there. And they all basically share a sense of wanting to help each other find it. They just argue so fiercely about where it's buried.

One group says: "We've found a little bit of gold already, let's keep mining it with better equipment and turn it into a huge seam we can build communities around." These are the MUD guys, teams which have found success already running text-based online games. They want everyone to recognise this and fund them to spread the word.

Another group disagrees. They say: "Your gold is finite, you'll never hit the big stuff mining there. Instead, let's all get together and use the equipment we've got here. It's very hi-tech and we've got loads more money to make it better." These are the so-called aggregators, companies like Wireplay, TEN, Engage and Thrust World who believe the only way to progress is to build fast multi-game networks with their own brand identities.

But there's another more shadowy group in the background with an even more contentious agenda. They're saying: "Who needs all these prospectors? We've already spent loads on the existing mining network. Let's just stick with the gold we've got and use any reserves we open up here to support the stocks we can count on." These are the software publishers and they don't actually say this but it's what everyone thinks their opinion is anyway. Bugger online, let's keep stuff in boxes.

Such schism made for a very entertaining conference indeed. There's nothing so agreeable for the non-aligned observer than wild disagreement. Of course, the reason delegates were so animated is the notion that, if there is to be a domestic online future, then it will be opened up by games - the same way the domestic PC market has been opened up by entertainment software.

As it is we're very much where the PC market was 10 years ago, where video was 20 years ago and where TV was 40 years ago. That is, hardly anyone's making money and no one knows for certain which way the market will shake out. As if to remind everyone of this thin ice, the conference took place in the week during which E-On went to the wall.

It all makes market analyst Datamonitor's recent prediction that the market would be worth £600 million across Europe by 2002 pretty fanciful (and last year's prediction that it would be worth £900 million in 2000 utterly outrageous). Still, various players are manoeuvring now. Here's how they shape up:

The MUDs

Started as a concept over 10 years ago by Essex University, a Multi-User Dungeon is a tricky concept to grasp when you've never played one. Mostly text-based, they invite players to enter fantasy worlds with their own rules and communities.

The ability of the player to enjoy the MUD world increases on his immersion in it. Play for hundreds of hours and you'll live longer and do more. This is just what people do, of course. There are said to be around 800 MUDs on the Internet and many operators, including Online Plc, Avalon arld Interactive Broadcasting, make money.

The Aggregators

This was a term used by Avalon's Daniel James to describe companies which seek to bring together online games - whether bespoke efforts like MUDs or boxed titles with multi-play like Quake - in one dial-in network. In the UK this means BT Wireplay, newcomer Thrust World and (imminently) DWANGO, which is currently running a test server available to developers. In the US there is also Engage, Ten and MPath - but all three are suffering and have cut staff recently.

Internet Service Providers

When online gaming takes the Internet as opposed to the dial-in route then ISPs become strategic players. Many statistics were bandied about by online games publishers to show that games sites are the most popular and their users the most devoted of any on an ISP's service. The ISPs were also widely condemned for not offering more cash for games and changing their remuneration models without consultation. However, the belief that ISPs will soon be lunch to the telcos was virtually a given among delegates.

The Software Publishers

The dark horses of the conference. Software publishers, of course, have the cash to bankroll online games and they also employ the talent to make them happen. Their reluctance to do so - with EA's

Ultima Online

a noted exception - was noted and lamented.

Malcontents muttered about the publishers' myopic focus on retail and their use of online merely to bolster sales of boxed products.

The overriding point about all the above is that, whatever their respective successes, online games providers serve a minuscule consumer group.

Whenever a MUD operator talked of having 500 paying customers you felt like breaking mto spontaneous applause. A figure of 200,000 was put on the membership of Microsoft's Internet Games Zone but, when you hook in, the number playing is generally closer to 200.

Again, this is not a criticism - online is in its infancy. It's just worth remembering that while there are so few players no one can claim a superior answer to the question; how can we get the market going?

Didn't stop people trying, of course.



What's more important - content or pipes?

Not hard to answer when you look to historical precedent. One speaker talked of the paper industry, saying no one values Random House and HarperCollins for their ability to print a book. Instead it's their ability to find, edit and market content which counts.

But we're not at this level of commercial maturity yet. So today's internet giants are indeed the people who malke the pipes. Clement Chambers of Online Plc described pipe giant Cisco a five times bigger in revenue terms than all the ISPs put together.

Right now content is queen, he said. Yet time will change this. Chambers wants service providers to lose their obsession with wires. He said: "In 1991 with a server less powerful than an ST my company turned over "1 million. We did it because the content was great. Content is a franchise. Users love it and when they do they stay."

Obviously not everyone agreed with thls. Those seeking to wave the flag for the online future of boxed fun like Quake saw it differently. Which moves us on to the next point.

Is latency all that important?

Latency, ping, lag - call it what you will - excites great debate in the online game community. To the text-based boys it's a side alley away from the main issue of how to reinvent games for the new medium. But for those networks built on the appeal of playing Quake and Age of Empires against virtual opponents hundreds ofmiles away, it's paramount.

BT's Colin Duffy believes 100 miliseconds must be the target for all networks. "That's the standard in telephony. Any higher and you get echo and lipsynch problems," he said, using this to indicate why pipes and wires are so important right now. However, Thrust World begged to differ, saying that 200 milliseconds is fast enough to make any game playable.

The other key issue on latency is whether the solutions to it are scalable. In other words, if 100 milliseconds can be achieved with 10 users can it be sustained for 1,000? Here even DWANGO conceded that Wireplay was probably ahead.

Do tbe software publishers give a stuff?

Most think not. Obviously the 'aggregators' rely on publishers for their content and are diplomatic. However one delegate said privately: "The publishers don't understand online and they don't want to. They're solely interested in the retail market and only pay attention to online when it can give exposure to offline games. But maybe it's not surprising. Online games publishing and conventional games publishing are about as similar as movie making and sheep farming."

However, the presence of delegates representing Psygnosis, Eidos and others indicated that there is some genuine interest in the emerging market from publishers.

Text or pics?

The MUDs were keen to remind the conference of the power of text on the Internet. Chat and games were described as the "killer apps" of the Web with one speaker calling chat sites as "MUDs without plots". Meanwhile Steve Cooke, of Ogalala, raved about text's inclusiveness. "Show non-gamers an arcade game and they have all kinds of preconceptions. They don't with text. And if you can persuade them to play for five minutes they get hooked. With voice recognition as good as it is now text has the potential to define a lot of online gaming in the future."

Richard Bartle, inventor of the MUD and now head of MUSE Ltd, also put the case for a new kind of gameplay. "Thrashing all-comers at Duke Nukem is fantastic but only if you're doing the thrashing. For everyone else it's awful. That's why an online game must be open-ended and allow people to drift in and out yet still get something out of it," he said.

Subs or pay-per-play?

One of the drier subjects but important nonetheless. Here, both arguments had definite merits. If you ask for subs you prevent clock watching, make collection easier and allow users to budget accordingly. Alternatively pay-per-play is fairer and doesn't alienate new and uncertain gamers. Not surprisingly the MUDs and Thrust World with their committed members preferred subs. Wireplay, more focused on making inroads with casual users, favoured pay-per-play.

So arguments there may have been. But arguments prove people care - and that was the real point of the Online Games conference. Proof indeed that the subject is worth shouting about.

Richard A. Bartle (
21st January 1999: ctwnov97.htm