Online Gaming For The Masses
How consoles will change the online gaming world
With the worldwide release of the Dreamcast last year, the new generation of consoles was born.
Although it already looks underpowered compared to current PC hardware, and there is still something of a shortage of good games, the Dreamcast is cheap, easy to use, and has a built-in internet connection. And as consoles like the Dreamcast and Sony's Playstation 2 take off over the next year, for the first time ever console users will be able to play online with literally millions of other people around the world.
Including PC owners...
Epic have already revealed that the Unreal Tournament engine is being ported to the Playstation 2, and it's possible that console gamers will soon get to try out one of 1999's best games for themselves.
Meanwhile, rumours are emerging that Quake III Arena is being ported to the Dreamcast by Sega. Given that previous id games such as Doom and Quake II have been ported to pretty much every console system under the sun, this is certainly a strong possibility.
And the best part is that console gamers should be able to play these games alongside their PC and Mac owning friends. What this means is potentially millions of players will soon be joining the online gaming revolution. In fact, it's likely that there will soon be more console gamers playing online than PC gamers, and such an influx of new (and mostly inexperienced) players is obviously going to have a big impact on our little community.
The grizzled veteran deathmatchers may well find themselves flooded by console toting newbies, and the entire online gaming world is going to be forced to adapt. Whether the changes will be for better or worse remains to be seen, but probably the reality is going to be a mix of both...
For example, consider game servers, the most basic part of the online gaming community, without which we wouldn't exist. At the moment the majority of first person shooter servers run mods - the popular Half-Life mod Counter Strike actually has more servers and players than Unreal Tournament and Quake III Arena combined most days!
But what happens when the relative handful of PC owners are swamped by hundreds of thousands of console gamers who are unable to use third party mods and maps? Will we see all the servers switching to run standard game modes to cater for them? Will there be enough servers to handle the vast numbers of console gamers at all?
After all, you won't be able to run a dedicated server on a console. Most server ops are running their servers on Linux or Windows NT as a hobby. Will they have the resources and the inclination to run servers for the hordes of newbie console players? Or will we see the online gaming services like MPlayer and HEAT.net adapting to serve the needs of console gamers?
And what happens when a multi-platform game is patched? After all, you can't easily patch a console game, and publishers are unlikely to be willing to ship new cartridges or CDs to thousands of players around the world. Will the console gamers find themselves locked out of servers that are being run for PC players? More to the point, will we find ourselves stuck in a small ghetto of servers being run on a volunteer basis for the PC owning minority, while thousands of commercial servers cater for the bigger and more lucrative console market?
Although the arrival of console gamers on the internet has the potential to massively increase the size of the online gaming community, unless developers abandon their "release now, patch later" mentality, they could find that console and PC gamers are being kept apart by incompatible game versions.
Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life
At the same time though, the sudden expansion of the online gaming community should bring benefits for everyone involved.
It means more sales for the developers and publishers, which should help increase the quality of future releases. Assuming they don't just plough the money into bigger bonuses for their directors and bigger dividends for their shareholders, of course.
It means more potential contestants for multiplayer gaming leagues and tournaments, which in turn will bring more funding and media interest, resulting in bigger and better run competitions with more prizes for more players.
It means more people to play with online, so you should never have a problem finding populated servers for your favourite games. At least, as long as you don't mind playing the standard game modes and maps that is.
And it's only a matter of time before a massively multiplayer RPG is released that will allow both computer and console gamers to play together in a single online world. When that happens the MMRPG will finally have come of age, and games like Ultima Online and Everquest will seem tiny by comparison.
The arrival of cheap internet-ready consoles is going to revolutionize the online gaming community. Whether it turns out to be for better or worse is largely down to us though.
I don't know about other games, but certainly the Quake community suffers from rampant elitism at times, and if the hordes of console newbies are treated as badly as new players often have been in the past it could be a disaster for online gaming. Every time a new player hops on to a server for his / her first real deathmatch, only to be greeted by a torrent of abuse and indifference, that's one less player who is likely to play a part in the online gaming community in the future.
Games with built-in computer controlled deathmatch opponents like Unreal Tournament and Age Of Empires are a step in the right direction, allowing newbies to practice offline before playing on the net. But even the best AI is no substitute for a real human opponent.
Special "newbie servers" where inexperienced players (from whatever platform) can "learn the ropes" would be helpful then. After all, there's nothing more frustrating and demoralising than going online for the first time and having your ass handed to you on a silver plate by someone who has been playing online for years...
At the end of the day, we are going to need to bring the console gamers into our little community, expanding and adapting as necessary. If we can do that then the future is bright.
But if we act snobbishly and try to ignore and avoid them, setting up PC-only cliques and ghettos, the chances are we will end up being sidelined as console gamers start to outnumber us a year or two down the line.
Whether you like it or not, console gamers are going to be an important part of the online gaming community within a couple of years, and if we don't embrace the changes we are liable to be swept away by them.
John "Gestalt" Bye
Online Gamers Association article