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Plug and play

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[Times art: Teresanne Cossetta]

By ROBB GUIDO

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 10, 2001


Connect a computer to the Internet, then let the games begin. From chess to strategy to shooters, online games are connecting players next door and around the world.

Online gaming has many faces these days.

Mike Balan fits the stereotype of a typical player. He's 18 and hooked on the mystery-thriller Majestic.

Mark Muncy is older at 29, but friends join him for rounds of World War II Online, an action-packed war simulation game. Then there's 59-year-old John Robertson, who is into the popular fantasy adventure EverQuest.

"It's an escape," Robertson said. "It helps me get away from whatever is going on for the day."

The choices for games played over the Internet range from a friendly game of cards to tough strategy and shoot-'em-up games. Some are free and some are pay-to-play. And they're attracting people of all ages. About 35-million people played online games last year, according to research company Jupiter Media Metrix, a number that is expected to swell over the next few years.

Computer games once were a solitary pursuit, with a computer the only opponent a player had to contend with. Today, more programs incorporate multiplayer features, and players are hopping online, connecting with others and discovering the challenge and social aspects of competition.

"As smart as they make the computer, they're not nearly as tough as the guy at the other end of the phone," said Muncy of St. Petersburg, who also got his wife into online games. "He wants to win just as bad as you."
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[Times photo: Mike Pease]
“Online gaming is the future of PC gaming,” says Mike Balan, 18, of Tampa. “That’s what computers do: They connect people to other people.”
You don't have to be a gaming junkie to play. In fact, most online gamers play for less than a half-hour a week, according to Jupiter. These players can log onto a popular gaming site, such as Microsoft's Gaming Zone, Electronic Art's EA.com or Sony's Station, and within minutes reel off a game of poker or checkers.

Most of the games on those popular Web sites are free, and it's easy to get started. Players simply go to a site, register and click the game of their choice. Free online games are usually quick and simple, requiring little or no downloading. They just pop up like a regular Web page.

Depending on the game, players can pick a virtual room to play in. These rooms match opponents of the same skill level, and players can usually find familiar opponents by entering a particular room, like friends who meet at a favorite pub.

Jupiter analyst Billy Pidgeon said the Web sites offer the free games as bait to attract players, hoping to persuade them later to sign up for pay games. He said online gaming is often referred to as "sticky entertainment, in that people probably don't have the intention of spending half an hour or an hour on the game site, but do so because they find the activity so engaging."

Unlike free games, pay games generally require a gamer to buy the CD-ROM version from a retailer, install it on a home computer, and then go online. A CD-ROM is necessary because of the memory these more elaborate games take up on computers.

One of the most popular pay games is Sony's EverQuest. For the $29.99 cost of the CD plus a subscription of $9.89 a month, players are transported to a mythical world, where they assume the roles of elves, ogres and barbarians, among other characters. Players chat and interact with others, join groups, sightsee or go on quests to check out the mythical world.

Fans of EverQuest haven't reached Star Trek proportions, but they do occasionally gather for costumed events, and many players comment on the addictive quality of the game. Sony reports about 400,000 EverQuest subscribers, including John Robertson of Orlando.

Robertson is an Air Force veteran who got started with games as a teenager with chess and Risk. Later, the avid science fiction reader moved on to Dungeons & Dragons.

Today, Robertson spends 10 to 12 hours a week playing EverQuest, often with one of his two live-at-home adult sons. Robertson says wandering around the EverQuest world helps him relax.

Robertson explores EverQuest with several characters, which he speaks of affectionately. He has trained a lizardman in the fine art of kung fu and has developed a druid who can teleport about the EverQuest map.

Robertson says he has made a few close friends playing the game, including a director at a Christian college in Georgia. Robertson revealed to the director that his wife was ill.

"He has his whole office praying for her," Robertson said.

Many CD-ROM games can be bought and played over the Internet with others for free. But Scott McDaniel of Sony Online said players such as Robertson are willing to pay a monthly subscription fee for games like EverQuest because they offer something other games don't: a huge community of players and an elaborate, constantly growing world to play in. McDaniel compares it to premium cable channels such as HBO.

"We offer an online, perpetual world that is entertaining, exciting, compelling and enjoyable to be in," said McDaniel, Sony's vice president of marketing. "That's the real difference between free online games and subscription online games."

Revenues from online games, including ads and subscriptions, are just $180-million of the $7-billion-a-year video game industry, but companies such as EA and Sony are attempting to attract more players.

And not all games involve obscure mythical characters or historic war games. Sony recently unveiled online versions of Star Wars and the Dating Game to go with its Jeopardy! Online game. EA recently launched a game that doesn't require gamers to buy a copy from a store. For $9.95 a month, players can participate in the mystery-thriller Majestic, which offers clues by e-mail, fax, telephone and instant message. Players essentially live out the game, one episode at a time.

"You know it's a good game when you're worried about the next thing they're going to send," Mike Balan, 18, of Tampa, said of Majestic, "when you're thinking about it when you're not playing."

To go mainstream, online gaming will have to overcome some nagging technical barriers. For example, WWII Online was criticized for bugs that caused the game to crash, and Internet connections, even high-speed services, can fail.

Also overwhelming can be the price of online gaming, which requires a powerful computer with a fast processor (such as a Pentium 4), lots of random access memory (at least 128 megabytes) and, ideally, a high-speed cable or DSL Internet connection. This could change as the newest home video game consoles, such as Sony's PlayStation 2 and Microsoft's Xbox, allow online competition.

For now, online gaming is more of a computer thing, and it's only going to get more popular.

"Online gaming is the future of PC gaming," Balan said. "That's what computers do: They connect people to other people."

- Robb Guido is an avid gamer who lives in Tampa.

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