Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Massively online through the ages… or not.

I’ve seen it all

Well, if I haven’t actually seen it all, I’ve at the very least mostly heard about it. And more-or-less at the time it was happening. 

What am I on about this time? 
Multi User On-Line gaming of course, what else?


  The very first exposure I had to on-line gaming wasn’t actually on-line at all. It wasn’t even on a computer. It was whilst reading an article about CompuServe’s MUD, the Multi-User Dungeon, in a very early edition of Computer and Video Games, and the article immediately caught my imagination...

If you don’t know already, MUD on CompuServe was probably the very first time an on-line multi-user computer game was available to the general public. Sure, the boffins with their mainframe and mini computer access had been hacking and slashing their way through reams of text for a fair while by this point. And there were some rather obscure BBS (Bulletin Board Systems) running versions of it, but finally this strange new concept for an adventure game was available to the rest of us.
Looking at the simple text-screens of MUD toady it’s hard to believe just how important a milestone this really was. At the time it was viewed by most as a bit of an elitist novelty. Then again, they say hindsight always comes with 20/20 vision…

Even though simple text-based MUD-type on-line games continued to grow in popularity through bulletin-board systems, the fledgling Web, and its forerunners. This type of multi-user gaming only ever managed to gain something of a cult status.

The simple online adventure games slowly merged with single-player RPGs, which gave way to some neo-mythic on-line RPG games, but to most normal gamers that’s exactly what they were ‘neo-mythic’ almost a myth, because it was mostly someone else, a friend of a friend, who was playing them.
At this point most gamers were firmly off-line and it would stay like that for quite a while.
With the PC becoming more user-friendly and affordable and modems becoming more common it wasn’t long before more and more people were discovering the strange new world of MMO (Massively Multi-player On-line) gaming.
The somewhat misty and mysterious world of the MMORPG (Massively Multi-player On-line Role-Play Game) wasn’t the only party in town however. More and more people were turning to the readily accessible LAN networked games which were becoming steadily more popular and mainstream.
I think, at least for most people with a PC, this trend more-or-less started with the release of Doom... I know it did for me, and for most other people I personally knew. A new phrase was formed in geek-speek, and the ‘LAN Party’ was born.  I worked in a college at the time and I remember people bringing their machines to work during the summer-break (technical staff didn’t get as much time off as everyone else) and hooking them all up to play Doom, and later Quake.

LAN gaming started to take-off with the advent of the plug-in network adapter for the Playstation 2, and especially with the inclusion of the built-in adapter on the later slim-line version. Then came the Xbox, also released with a LAN network adapter. Suddenly people were linking these machines into their networks and playing multi-player games. Most weren’t massively multi-player games, but the ethos of ‘not playing with yourself’ was definitely taking route, and that step to massively multi-player internet gaming didn’t seem half as big or daunting a task to many people.

As time passed more and more games also came with Internet Play options as well as the LAN mode. Now, with the aid of an Internet connected phone-line, these consoles could (theoretically at least) let you play with anyone on the planet. And suddenly those mysterious MMORPG, like ‘EverQuest Online Adventures’ for the PS2 (sadly now discontinued in the UK), were within the reach of practically anyone. Well, anyone who could afford to pay the monumental phone-bill and often the subscription charges as well, that is.

But hold on a minute. It wasn’t the PS2 and Xbox that started this on-line console trend. Sega was already dreaming of an Internet-enabled multi-player future with the release of the Dreamcast, the first Console with a standard modem connection out-of-the-box.
Although it eventually flopped, the Dreamcast actually did have a deacent launch, before the PS2. SAGA's flagship game offering for this new on-line age was the mighty ‘Phantasy Star On-line.’ Unfortunately it wasn’t long before it was mightily hacked, and the modders moved in big-time. Although patches were made available and the fantasy stayed alive for more years than most people think. Making it’s own contribution to the creeping mainstreaming of the MMORPG.

However, the Internet  was far from stagnant between the time of the first massively multi-player games arriving and the mainstreaming of on-line co-operative gaming...
And one of the major players in bringing MMORGPs to the masses was a simple little browser based Java game that originally arrived to little fan-faire on the 4th January 2001. This game was ‘Runescape’ and it’s rise to notoriety even rivalled the mighty ‘World of Warcraft’ franchise.

Other older style franchises, like the ‘Ultima Online’ system, which had been around since September 24th 1997 have since folded, whilst some like ‘Eve-Online’ have flourished. Whatever the fate of the MMORPGs now it looks like massive on-line gaming and the more social-based virtual-worlds (like ‘Second Life’) are set to continue well into the future.
Games like Runscape, and the subsequent flood of free client based MMORPGs have opened up your browser and Internet enabled computer to easily accessible massively multiplier role-play gaming, and the dirt-road of MUD has become a very well-travelled path indeed.

The old console systems haven’t entirely given up yet however. It is now possible to play the old ‘On-Line forever’ LAN games through third party Internet routing (or enabling) service provider, like the XLinkKa sytem. This lets you set up a PC as a sort of virtual LAN gateway to other users located anywhere over the Internet. Essentially giving you a world-wide-lan. I would just like to add that this service is free. It is in no way illegal, and you do not need to hardware modify your console in any way to use it.
Last time I checked there was a thriving online community following for the Halo 2 Xbox game, and the ‘Star Wars Clone Wars 2’ game on the PS2, although you can find people playing others on occasion. The PS2 also has some of the original official multi-player servers still running, should you wish to use the official Internet enabled route to playing these games.

Of course we have now had a generation of consoles for several years that were born to be not just on-line compatible, or on-line ready, but which were actually intended to be on-line enabled in order to utilise a lot of their core functionality. The PS3 and Xbox 360 machines and the latest generation of their users were born into and Internet enabled world and they are all children of the Internet generation. It’s very different world from when CompuServe were playing around in the MUD.

And that was that....
Exept things have taken a bit of a turn lately.
With services like OnLive we seem to be going ‘back to the future’ somewhat. What do I mean?
Well the basic premise of OnLive uses the same old client-server type structure of yesteryear to implement a brave new world of server based gaming. With OnLive you don’t download anything.
You play the game remotely on their servers.
The host takes care of any and all multi-player interaction for you. Your personal system, regardless of what type of hardware it is, simply receives the video-stream of what is happening in your game.
Your keyboard, mouse, or controller information is sent back to the central server in order to tell the game what you want it to do next.
But don’t panic. It really does all happen fairly seamlessly. So all you have to do is play the game. Just like you would any other.
Using this model all games may one day be totally massively multi-player, in the truest sense of the word. With there being no local gaming at all.

So what is the shape of things to come?
Brave new world, or dystopian nightmare? What do you think?

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