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The New Wave in Gaming Web Sites (6/2000)
by Douglas Dixon
The Internet brings a whole new dimension to gaming: the ability to interact online with literally a whole world of other players. No matter where you are, or what time it is, you can find people online who share your passion, whether it is blowing away aliens, exploring a massive virtual kingdom, or playing cards.
But what is your vision of online video games? Perhaps your image is games like Doom, "where you buy a CD-ROM, connect on the Internet, and then play blood and guts," as described by Garry Kitchen, president of Hackensack-based Skyworks Technologies. But, "it's really a different model now," says Kitchen, "the games are in the browser, and free."
The development of new technologies like Java and Macromedia Shockwave, and the continued steady increase in connection speeds, have made online gaming a true interactive multimedia experience, whether you enjoy the action of blowing away monsters, the challenge of conquering a huge virtual world, or the simpler family fun of classic games of skill and chance.
"This is the new wave," says Louis Del Prete, president of Slingo Inc. in Englewood Cliffs, "games that are family oriented, with a sense of community, in a very relaxing environment, with no time commitment. It's such a different experience, not violent, not a brain tease. It's a whole new genre of family-style entertainment."
No matter what kind of entertainment you enjoy, there are Web sites with games and other players waiting for you. So log in and join the fun as we take a tour of examples of this wide variety of Internet game sites.
Dedicated Action and Fantasy Sites
Of course, there a still many places online to play "traditional" video games, from action to role-playing.
If you are already a fan of retail CD-ROM games, these developers are hosting sites that let you play networked games online in intense engagements. Others sites host similar Web-only multiplayer games in a shared "persistent" environment with tens or even hundreds of thousands of players participating in an ongoing game. However, like the rest of the developing Internet, these games sites are still searching for the right kind of business model. Some of these sites are free, supported by retail sales or by advertisers. Others are subscription-based, at least for their "premium" games
Battle.net (www.battle.net) is a free site run by Blizzard Entertainment as an extension of their top-selling retail games, StarCraft and Diablo, permitting players to network their games together online. Last year the combined sales of StarCraft and Brood War expansion set broke the million units mark The next sequel, Diablo II, is due this summer. It is four times as large as the original and provides multiplayer options for up to eight players over Battle.net. It is also moving to a client-server so that the game world is maintained and kept consistent on the server, which should reduce the widespread cheating and hacking which have plagues these kinds of games.
EverQuest (www.everquest.com) is a subscription site for the very popular role-playing game (RPG), with a monthly subscription fee of $9.89. The attraction of these games is that they provide a real community, where you are part of an ongoing and developing game that can last for days or weeks or months. The downside is just like the real world, where a group of terrorists can go around killing and pillaging for the sport of it, or hackers can cheat to amass great riches or power. After the first six months in October 1999, EverQuest had sold 225,000 units and had an active subscriber base of more than 150,000 players. EverQuest is part of The Station@sony.com (www.station.sony.com), a game aggregator site with more than 4.6 million registered members.
For something different in role-playing games, try Sissyfight 2000 (www.sissyfight.com). Created by the staff of New York-based Word (www.word.com), Sissyfight is an "intensely social multiplayer online game with a twisted sense of humor" that puts you in the frightening role of a little girl on the grade school playground. In a group of 3 to 6 players, you must chat or die, threatening and teasing opponents, forming tenuous alliances and bitter rivalries to plot and struggle to rule the schoolyard. Sissyfight is played over the Web using Macromedia's Shockwave plug-in. In the first month after the game opened in February 2000, over 40,000 people registered to play.
Aggregation / Subscription Sites
Then there are portal or "aggregation" sites that collect a wide variety of games in different gendres, so you can find your favorite games, and other people ready to play them. Typically, they offer different kinds of services, including a variety of classic games for free, a player-matching service for retail CD-ROM games, and exclusive subscription games.
Heat.Net (www.heat.net) from Sega offers over 120 games, including Action, Role Playing, Simulation, Sports, Strategy, and Arcade. Frequent players can earn points, called Degrees, and redeem them for discounts on merchandise at the Heat Store. A premium subscription, at $15.99 for 3 months, provides access to 10SIX, billed as "the world's first million player game," an ongoing game to establish, develop, and defend your land claim, with in-game chat and the ability to buy, sell, own, and trade weapons and equipment. The multiplayer games are accessed by downloading the Heat client software. Heat claims a membership of 2.4 million.
Microsoft MSN Gaming Zone (www.zone.com) claims to be "the #1 multiplayer gaming destination on the Internet." It offers 135 games with three kinds of services: traditional card and board games for free, a matching service for retail games, and exclusive "premium" (subscription) games including "Fighter Ace" and the "Asheron's Call" RPG.
Other Web portal sites are adding games to their services. Yahoo Games (games.yahoo.com) offers a large collection of free games, including Board, Tile, Card, Single Player, and Sports games, as well as Yahooligans! Games for kids.
The attraction of these aggregation sites is the variety of games and potential opponents, available whenever you are ready to play. Two N.J. college students, Evan Hopkins and Carl Sebestyen, enjoy Won.net (World Opponent Network) from Sierra for its mix of free games.
"I play Action Half Life from Serria, mostly multiplayer over the Internet," says Sebestyen, now at Drexel. "I mostly play multiplayer shoot'em up type of games that range from realistic to just crazy fun shooting. I also play Wordox on the same site which is a multiplayer type of Scrabble with a few different rules."
"Recently my online gaming has been restricted to the CounterStrike Mod for Half-life," says Hopkins, now at Cornell. "I play action games mostly, sometimes strategy games or racing, for an hour or so, with random people, whoever's willing to play. (CounterStrike is big in the US and Germany)."
With online games, Sebestyen can play "at any hour of the day, basically after about 4 PM and as late as 2 or 3 AM. I normally play for an hour at least. I play with anyone I can find online and usually get to know that players after a few days if I see them on the same servers or I play with my friends in my dorms."
Hopkins plays for "quick pickup, fun, very stress relieving (that and we're good at it). They continue to be updated every couple months with new options. I got most of my wing addicted to CounterStrike." Sebestyen says he "plays the shoot'em up games mostly for the skill. Wordox is a slower paced game that makes you think."
Family Game Sites
However, the big trend in Internet game sites is towards the mass market of family games. This was demonstrated most strongly by the transformation last fall of TEN.net, a hardcore action game site, into pogo.com (www.pogo.com), a family site with "Games for Everyone." Pogo offers card games, word games, puzzle games, trivia games, board games, bingo games, no-risk casino games, and classic arcade games for the entire family. To enhance the games and increase its "stickyness," Pogo also provides chat and free prizes and jackpots. As of January 2000, Pogo averages 70 minutes per unique visitor, and has 6 million registered members. It claims to reach almost 70% of the U.S. web audience each month through partners including @Home, About.com, AltaVista, CNET, Excite, the GO Network (Infoseek), iWon.com, Netscape.com, Snap.com, Sony, and SegaSoft.
A further validation of family game sites is the purchase of Gamesville (www.gamesville.com) by Lycos last November. Gamesville, proudly "wasting your time since 1996," basically shares part of its advertising revenues through prizes, over $90,000 per month. As of May 2000, counters on the Gamesville home page showed $1.2 million in cash prizes won, 4 million members, and 1.3 billion "total minutes wasted." The Gamesville attractions include Bingo, Sports (Office pools), Cards (Poker, Blackjack), Showbizville (Sweepstakes, Trivia Games), Quick Cash (Slots), and Classics (with no prizes). Besides chat for public and private messages, Gamesville also provides a handy "Boss" Panic Button to quickly display a new window with business-looking content.
Skyworks: NabiscoWorld & LifeSavers Candystand
Another business model for online games is sponsored game sites, which go beyond banner ads to have the entire site set up and sponsored by a single company, and the advertising integrated as part of the individual games. A New Jersey company, Skyworks Technologies (www.skyworkstech.com), has developed several of these "theme park" sponsored game sites using Shockwave technology.
NabiscoWorld (www.nabiscoworld.com) is a "free interactive amusement park with games and contests for the entire family." It includes 6 areas, Adventure Land, Boardwalk, Creation Station, Fun Zone, Resort, and Sports Land. The 14 games, all sponsored by Nabisco crackers and cookies, include Oreo Dunk 'N Slam , Chips Ahoy! Chipulator , and The Great Teddy Grahams Hunt.
LifeSavers Candystand (www.candystand.com), also a Nabisco site, offers a broad gender of around 30 games, including Bubble Yum Bullpen Blast, Breath Savers Road Rally, Gummi Savers Rock & Skate, Fruit Stripe Photo Safari, and Gummi Bunnies Egg Hunt. According to Nabisco, Candystand gets about 800,000 unique visitors a week, with over one million games per month played.
"It's really a different model now," says Garry Kitchen, president and co-founder of Skyworks, "the games are in the browser, and free. This is sponsored entertainment, where the games carry the branding. It's not just a couple of disjointed games, it's the whole metaphor of a theme park."
Kitchen has a long history in the video game industry, back to the Atari 2600, Coleco, and Commodore 64, and founded Absolute Entertainment in 1986. "The Internet is about interactive content," he says. "We've been working in the traditional game space for many years, and have brought it to the new technology." For cross-platform Internet development, Skyworks tends to do more Shockwave than Java, he says. "It was developed with multimedia in mind, with superior capabilities for audio and animation." This year they will add more multi-player games and steaming media.
AOL & Slingo
Finally, no survey of family-oriented Internet sites could omit America Online. The AOL Games Channel offers both free and premium games that you can play against your friends or against people from all over the world. The free Game Shows Online includes game shows and word games, as well as games that take place in chat rooms on AOL, such as Games Paradise. The premium Games Parlor costs $0.99 per hour, and contains card games like Bridge, Blackjack, and Poker, board games like Backgammon and Chess, and other games like Jack Nicklaus Online Golf Tour, Online Casino, Splatterball, and Virtual Pool. The premium Xtreme Games area costs $1.99 per hour, and includes World War II air simulations like Air Warrior III; roleplaying games like Dragon's Gate and Legends of Kesmai; action games like Multiplayer BattleTech and Starship Troopers; and strategy games such as Warcraft II.
But the most popular game on AOL is Slingo, a combination of slots and bingo from an Englewood Cliffs-based company, Slingo Inc. (www.slingo.com). To play, you pull the handle and spin the reels, then match card and reel numbers for points, and fill a row to make a "Slingo."
Slingo was originally designed by Sal Falciglia as a TV game show concept, who then joined with Louis Del Prete to form Slingo Inc. They sold the idea as an online game to AOL in 1966. The game design is "unique and compelling, and works well in many mediums." It has since expanded into a hand-held game from Tiger Electronics and a CD-ROM from Hasbro Interactive, and is again being developed into a TV game show.
Slingo was carefully designed and tuned says Del Prete, president of Slingo, Inc., to be "simple but effective, such a compelling and obsessive gameplay experience. You get into the rhythm of the game, with the sound and graphics." Sling is "the most popular online game in the world," with more than 2 million unique players on AOL and up to 6 million hours of usage a month.
The attraction of these online games is that you're not just playing against a computer program. Your opponents are humans, who can be smart, fast, intuitive, and tricky. You can find partners, form cooperating teams, and then even break alliances, just like the real world.
"It takes some amount of effort to become good enough to stand your ground against people around the globe," says Sebestyen. "I like being challenged to compete against people I don't know, and that are for the most part better then me."