This article originally appeared in Pyramid #8
Given how much Americans love television, it seemed only natural that video and computer games -- games you play on TV -- would become wildly popular. From the Pong and Space Invaders of 20 years ago to today's Myst and Dark Wizard (both reviewed elsewhere in this issue), video and computer games threaten to become the dominant entertainment form. Fact: More money was spent in the U.S. last summer on Mortal Kombat II, 50 cents at a time, than was spent on Jurassic Park at $7 a pop.
David S. Moskowitz (Handhelds, Cartridges, "Censorship")
Derek Pearcy (CD-ROM, Mac, sidebars, The Net),
Fred Stanton (Amiga),
Loyd Blankenship (IBM, The Net),
and Scott Haring (The Net)
The realm of electronic gaming is ever-expanding -- every year, there are new technologies, new platforms, new publishers. And traditional adventure gamers -- roleplayers and boardgamers -- are finding that as the electronic side of gaming expands, there's something in it for them, too.
Pyramid is happy to give this brief overview of the electronic gaming scene. From the tiniest portable to the grandeur of "the net," there's something here for you, too. Check it out.
Taking a lead from the larger home machines, portable games have evolved from units that only played one game to miniature cartridge systems. Since marketing detachable joysticks -- the standard licensed accessory -- would be stupid, hardware manufacturers and a small horde of low-tech plastics companies offer accessories ranging from carrying cases to battery packs to lighted magnifying screens to television receivers to stereo headphones. In fact, fully accessorizing a portable can often more than double its size, making the unit far less portable. Anyone who maintains that these mini-cartridge systems can fit into someone's pocket must be wearing the oversized coveralls hip-hop has made popular. When contemplating a portable system, it's more important to learn what you can about the manufacturer than with the home-sized cartridge machines. This is necessary because the portables have fewer supporting licensees, making players more dependent on the system manufacturer to release a steady supply of game titles.
Atari LynxIf hardware technology alone were responsible for a system's success, the Lynx would have more licensed developers than the Game Boy and Game Gear combined. Equipped with a 16-bit processor, great graphics and sound, and a multi-player link option that works incredibly well, the Lynx is what top designers and industry journalists play during their coffee breaks. Outside of old Atari coin-op conversions and a few others (Battlewheels, Dracula the Undead, Kung Food and the still in-development Wolfenstein 3-D), the software situation is pretty sad -- although the professionals play Lynx, they don't develop very much software for it.
Two reasons to buy: 1) Successive price cuts have made it real cheap; 2) The Jaguar may inspire a surge in software development.
In spite of its black-and-puke-yellow LCD display and weak sound, the Game Boy is the king of the portables. Blessed by Nintendo's only good television commercials, more support from the Big N than the 8-bit NES receives, Atari's marketing disasters and plenty of major developers, the Game Boy has endured the derision of critics and competitors, its own liabilities, and the persistent rumors that Nintendo is about to drop the system for a new color version. Some of Nintendo's own games have used the machine so well that many feel the Game Boy might still have untapped potential. A strong Ultima RPG and some genuinely useful business software now available tend to support this theory.
Two reasons to buy: 1) The screen is easier to see than in many color system games; 2) Quite a few high-quality games designed exclusively for the platform (rather than poor watered-down versions of 8- and 16-bit games).
Sega Game GearIts creation was Sega's masterstroke: The NES had clearly beaten the Sega Master System in the American and Japanese 8-bit war, though it was holding on in Europe. Sega had to abandon the Master System to help the Genesis, so they crammed the Master System into the Game Gear, allowing American developers to use the exact same program to reach the American portable players, plus a still-sizable European market. This has provided plenty of quality Game Gear games, though some need to be tweaked a bit more when shrunk down. Since portables get minimal coverage in magazines, GG owners should check the European mags for Master System reviews.
Two reasons to buy: 1) Even if Sega is working on a new cartridge system and not so secretly thinking about writing off the Sega-CD, there's little chance of them abandoning the Game Gear anytime soon; 2) It has an attachment that will allow you to watch television on it.
TurboExpressThe only handheld with identical electronics as the manufacturer's 16-bit platform, the TurboExpress allows players to play any non-CD game designed for the TurboGrafx, TurboDuo, Duo, or whatever they call it next before NEC Japan abandons the project for good. When searching for games, follow the same guidelines as for the larger system, except you should avoid games displaying words near the screen edges, or tiny details that must be noticed for successful gameplay.
The TurboExpress is by far the most expensive of the handhelds, at one point retailing for $299. However, given its current state, any store carrying this will probably have discounted it to a competitive level. A good system to look for at swap meets.
Two reasons to buy: 1) Not having to buy separate software for the home system and the portable; 2) It has a television adaptor.
The Nintendo Entertainment SystemHaving thrashed the Sega Master System, Colecovision, the Atari 7800 and all other 8-bit systems in the American market, the NES has become the system that won't die. With millions of units already in homes by the time they introduced the SNES, Nintendo insisted that they wouldn't let such a valuable source of license income vanish. But then they proceeded to discourage further game development by refusing to lower the prices of NES cartridges, making the technically superior (at least in sound and graphics) SNES games cost only a few dollars more. In fact, some licensees concede that their Game Boy software outsold the NES titles.
Then suddenly Nintendo redesigned the console and joypads and released the new slicker looking, but technically identical, NES. No other platform boasts the volume of available software that the NES does -- in fact, with enough digging, players can find excellent games in all genres except for Street Fighter II-style fighting games. The NES is also home to a large number of surprisingly complicated but low-tech RPGs.
Because so many of the industry's top designers have been assigned to 16-bit projects, the quality of recent NES releases falls short of the potential shown earlier.
Two reasons to buy: 1) Heaps of quality bargain-bin software; 2) The lack of a zillion Street Fighter II clones.
Sega GenesisReleased long before the SNES, the Sega's 16-bit platform initially suffered from lack of software showcasing its power or any game design innovation. In fact, in Japan the Megadrive (Genesis) was received so poorly that it is a virtual non-entity in the competition there. Eventually, Sonic the Hedgehog, some excellent sports titles, and several impressive translations of computer games led to its strong position in the U.S. and Europe. The nature of the Genesis' best games has also made it the machine of choice among slightly older (late teens and up) gamers. Additionally, while Sega is now rating its software and becoming frighteningly sensitive to PR, Genesis cards are still free of the censorship plaguing Nintendo titles (see below).
Keep in mind that due to the Genesis' poor showing in Japan, many newer developers still show signs of inexperience in programming Genesis titles, so be wary of any Genesis titles that were released earlier than or simultaneous to their Nintendo versions (the notable exception being EA Sports titles, which have no such problems and are uniformly outstanding). Sega publishes many of the Genesis' best games, but their eagerness to release licensed titles, no matter how poor the developers, has blemished their record of late.
Two reasons to buy: 1) Great peripherals like the four-player adaptor; 2) Sega of America enjoys greater autonomy than the other Japanese-owned companies, making it more user-friendly in everything from dealing with Congressional panic to providing accurate information about its future.
Super Nintendo Entertainment SystemComing very late to the 16-bit market, Nintendo developed their customer base by promoting its superior graphics and creating an incredible kind of consumer awareness. Even though Sega dominates the American market in pure sales figures, Nintendo is widely considered the most popular.
While most reviews tend to stress gameplay over glitz, the SNES' capabilities are quite impressive. A large color palette, sprite rotation, and scaling (a way of simulating forward movement) make SNES version of multi-platform games the most visually impressive. In addition, scaling makes the SNES the best platform for flight simulators, dungeon crawls, driving simulators, and trippy representations of magic.
Digitized speech is surprisingly poor on all SNES titles, but the music can be stunning -- especially the classical pieces performed on the RPGs.
From the NES conversion attachment to the 32-bit CD, Nintendo is the master at getting consumers, publications and developers pathetically excited over that most famous of high-tech terms: vapor-ware. Given their habit of diving in and out of alliances with major high-tech hardware manufacturers, it's impossible to predict what they'll release next.
Two reasons to buy: 1) Its standard six-button control allows for complexity that doesn't impede gameplay; 2) Shadowrun (Data East) is a truly inspired action/adventure/RPG (though it debuts soon for the Sega Genesis).
Atari JaguarThe great 64-bit unknown. Containing the most powerful processor of any cartridge or CD-ROM based system, this $250 console (CD attachment coming for around $200) stands to bring Atari back to greatness -- if they avoid the mistakes of the Lynx. Several major developers have signed on as licensees, including Acclaim, Interplay, Id, MicroProse and Accolade. Don't expect any Electronic Arts support, given their partnership in 3DO.
Two reasons to buy: 1) In terms of hardware, the best bang for your buck; 2) The warm gushy feeling of supporting the company that started it all -- and the ability to boast about your decision if the Jaguar lives up to its potential.
NeoGeoA direct translation of the arcade system. Expect to pay $400-500 for the console and $150-250+ for the games, which are mostly sports games, shooters, and more Street Fighter II-style fighting games than even the biggest fans of the genre could want. Graphics and sound are excellent, as they should be for a 24-bit machine, but since all software is designed for coin-op use, the lack of variation is stifling.
Two reasons to buy: 1) Some of the best soccer and baseball games available on any platform; 2) The chance to calculate if buying the home system and carts really did save you any money in quarters.
The cartridge system wars have raged much more violently in recent months, most notably since it was announced that, for the first time, the home video game industry made more money than Hollywood's greatest summer, including Jurassic Park, the highest grossing movie yet.
Striving to keep their edge, game makers have poured even more development money into better graphics, finer sound and denser storage mediums... like CD-ROM.
CD-ROMs have long been a shiny promise to gamers -- near-infinite environment on cheap indestructible media -- a false promise until recently. Sure, the local accounting firm has been archiving on CDs since the mid-'80s, but it didn't have an effect on you and me, the game players, until certain people got off their butts and decided the medium wasn't the next Betamax.
There are three cartridge-based game platforms using CD-ROM technology, from Sega, Panasonic (using 3DO technology) and NEC, as well as PC and Mac-formatted CD-ROMs as well. Although development of NEC's TurboGrafx Duo system has been buried in the cold, cold ground, it still exists.
In general, CD-ROM games allow a much more realistic gaming experience, or at least a much different one, over cartridge-based games. They scroll more smoothly and look more realistic, rather than being stuck in the flat, brightly colored world of a traditional video game. Some even incorporate moving video, though roughly.
Unlike Mac and PC games, which tend to be more complex and graphically superior to anything on the home-unit platforms, this new generation of CD-ROM gamers must cater to the fast-firing audience that plays cartridge-based games, and no downtime is allowed. This audience doesn't like to wait for a screen to load, and the corners were cut around the CD-ROM drives' speed to accommodate them.
Bearing that in mind, here's an overview of the major players in the home-unit category.
SegaSega is, today, the crowned king of the home-unit wars, and their CD-ROM has certainly helped that. For under $300, you can get a complete Sega CD system, and a game or two. At many major video stores you can rent both systems and games for several nights at reasonable rates ($20 or so, much less than taking a group of people to a movie).
Sega owns the majority of the home-unit market, and is currently the sweetheart of the companies who develop cartridge-based games. It's no surprise that many of the CD-ROM games (like Bram Stoker's Dracula, a quasi-lucrative license of last year's movie by the same name) are just cartridge games in shiny new clothing. Fortunately there are others (like the recently controversial Night Trap) that really explore the boundary of what a game is with truly bizarre interfaces and interactive films.
Sega has the best bang for the buck, and is a colossal power for innovation in the growing gaming field.
It's not the craze for CD-ROMs that made it this week's most-talked about storage medium, it's that CD-ROMs are finally cheap enough to rationalize getting one.
The Medium is the Market
Some companies, most notably Nintendo, are staying out of the CD-ROM market in the hopes that the price of raw memory (hundreds of times faster than a CD-ROM) will drop dramatically in the near future, but we'll see.
NECNot much. As far as anyone can tell, development has stopped completely on the TurboGrafx platform... but that doesn't mean you can't find good games for it.
The inspired game buyer might suddenly get the idea to check out import Japanese game magazines, since NEC's platform got its start there. There is a plethora of strange games, not all of which would require you to know Japanese to be able to play, if you stay away from what is obviously a complicated RPG or female-aimed teenage erotica (or not).
Check out your local pawn shops. Chances are you can get a set for very little, with a bunch of pretty decent games. Just don't spend too much money -- as far as we can tell, the TurboGrafx is an evolutionary dead end.
NintendoNothing. There is no word, official or no, about a Nintendo CD-ROM unit. The officials in the company grumble about wanting to do it right, but some sources laughingly suggest that the once-giant of the cartridge games has lost this battle of the entertainment war. The jury will remain out until next year, when the fruits of their deal with 3-D wunderkind Silicon Graphics begin to show.
Panasonic (3DO)Here's where the "hot news" is right now. The first 3DO Multiplayers just shipped, and at roughly $700 for the basic unit you would hope it would be amazing. It is. Today's premier gaming experience is on the 3DO. Faster screen redraws, faster scrolls, faster everything -- we at Pyramid love the 3DO. It can play our audio CDs, our (admittedly small) collection of PhotoCDs and it even works as a double-speed CD-ROM for our desktop machines. Last but not least, the 3DO has an expansion slot for a modem, an MPEG decompression board for full-screen full-motion video -- and who knows what else in development. But love is not blind. It's still pretty expensive, and there are only a few games out for it, though 3DO promises a whole slew of titles by the end of 1994. Go down to your local Babbages or Electronic Boutique and get their promotional flyer.
Also, other people will be putting out game boxes with 3DO compatible technologies, and the price will drop a good distance merely from improved competition. But if you can't wait, here's where the best game in town is hiding, waiting to take over your TV today, and eventually your phone line and your brain.
What's Coming Up
There are two major developments in the home-unit realm of CD-ROM gaming: 3DO and Atari's Jaguar.
Only one vendor, Panasonic, is currently shipping a 3DO "Multiplayer," but more licensees of the technology are expected to start popping out of the woodworks, from cable TV service providers to modem-based interactive gaming networks. 3DO and friends are pushing their tech to the top. Atari is pulling out their corporate image and giving it a quick dust-off, and they're putting all their hopes on the Jaguar, a new cartridge-based system mentioned above. The initial offering of games, like the 3DO, will be few in number, but everyone is anticipating the games designed for its CD-ROM add-on, taking gaming to "the next level."
Meanwhile, we'll all stand here in reality nursing our sore trigger thumbs, wishing merely for faster chips, more memory, and shorter to-ship dates. That, or you can spend even more money on a desktop machine...
The games pictured here are prime examples of the current directions in interface design today: representative versus illustrative. The first two, Journeyman Project and Iron Helix, pretend to be a true representation of an actual interface (the first is a first-person view through fictional head-gear, the second is a control pad of a remote probe) while Myst (not shown) and games of its kind ignore interface guidelines by integrating it into the environment it hopes to immerse you in.
Both are accurate ways of putting players into plausible fantasy situations, but the Perfect Interface has yet to appear . . . maybe next year.
At its cutting edge, the PC gaming field is dominated by two necessities -- processor speed and storage space. Origin Systems pioneered this revolution, constantly releasing games that pushed the envelope. When Wing Commander was released, many critics thought it, or any game requiring a fast 386 processor, was doomed because not enough people had the hardware to support it. Instead, the game became the impetus for many people to upgrade their computer systems. With such offerings as Strike Commander (which will run on a 386, but only slowly -- you need a 486 to really appreciate it), Origins has continued to up the ante in the processor wars. We're probably less than 2 years away from a game that really requires a Pentium or Power PC chip to run "fast enough."
In addition to worrying about how fast your computer is, you have to consider how big your hard disk is. The days when a 120-meg drive was plenty big enough are long gone. Some games take upwards of 30 megabytes to store. Others are so large that they're shipped on CD-ROM.
CD-ROM is an extremely fast-growing retail category -- some software stores say CD-ROM sales in 1993 doubled or tripled over 1992 levels, and the growth shows no sign of slowing down. If you don't have a CD-ROM drive yet, put one on your list for 1994 -- you'll need it. Companies are also viewing CD-ROMs as possible salvation from the ravages of software pirates. Today, at least, it isn't practical to trade "warez" when the ware in question is 350 megs. It doesn't mean it doesn't happen -- but it's a lot more rare than the widespread trading that happens with disk-based titles.
The biggest complaint about CD-ROMs is their slow access time. But double speed units are now available for around $300, and prices are dropping all the time. Still, some people with enormous fixed disks opt to just eat up 400-500 megs and install the CD-ROM game onto their main disk. With 1.2 gigabyte half-height drives dropping into the $750 price range, this brute-force solution will become more palatable.
The future of PC-based gaming is bright. As recently as 3 or 4 years ago, the lowly PC ranked far behind machines such as the Amiga (and even the C-64) in terms of game selection and quality. Plummeting PC prices reversed that trend -- the PC is the de facto platform for 90% of the new games released in the U.S. (The situation is somewhat different in Europe, where the Amiga still enjoys widespread popularity and support.)
More and more games are offering modem-to-modem play, or play over a network. In Spectrum Holobyte's Falcon 3.0, everyone on your office Novell network can hop into the cockpit and fly a linked mission over hostile territory. In Apogee's red-hot shareware game Doom, networkers can work together to defeat the demons, or slice each other to bits in a chainsaw-wielding frenzy.
As the much-hyped "data superhighway" becomes a reality, it will be more difficult to differentiate between net games and PC games -- in effect, the PC will become the smart front end that allows you to play games against opponents all over the world.
In recent months - years, really - a great deal of effort has gone into distinguishing games and platforms by how many "bits" they utilize; 8-bit is fairly standard, though 16- and 24-bit games are fairly common today. Some people are claiming to use 64 bits in their system, to further confuse the issue.
Bits: 8 versus 24
The "bit issue" breaks down into two different definitions. The first deals with how much data the machine itself can crunch at a time, that is, how wide its internal data highways are (also referred to as the "bandwidth" of the processor). When talking about "bits" (8, 16, 32, etc.) on a home unit, this is the definition people are using. In general, the higher the bit count, the faster the machine - because it can inherently suck in, chew up, and spit out more data than something with a lower "bandwidth."
The other way that computer companies use bits as a catagorization is when referring to how many colors any given image can represent. An "8-bit" image can show 256 different colors - and while that's alot, it's not photorealistic. A 16-bit image, capable of displaying thousands of colors, is better, but 24-bit imaging can display millions of colors and carries enough subtlties to convince your eye that what you're seeing is "real." Of course, the downside is the incredible amount of storage that 24- and even 16-bit images require.
So while the computer on your desk is a "16-bit" machine, it may only display "8-bit" images; the same with your cartridge-based home unit. Only recently have games with 16- or 24-bit graphics become available, but with newer, denser storage technology (like CD-ROM), things will only get better.
AmigaIn October 1985, the first Amiga Computer was produced. With its blazing fast graphics and digital stereo sound, it became the premier machine for computer gamers for years to come. Later, the Video Toaster made the Amiga a high-end graphics workstation. Its work these days can be seen on the TV shows Seaquest DSV and Babylon 5. But the advantage was lost through Commodore's incompetent handling of their product. For seven years, they made no improvement in the Amiga beyond adding expansion slots. As a result, many of today's best games are found on PCs, once notorious for grindingly slow graphics.
This is what happened: By 1987, Macs and PCs were more colorful than the Amiga, if slower. The following year, the first 386 machines appeared, with more speed. After that came the 486, which should match the Amiga 3000 in graphics speed, and suddenly those who had PCs had the ideal game platform.
But don't write off the Amiga: a renaissance is underway. In the fall of 1992, the Amiga 4000 was released. The old graphics chips have been replaced with a new, faster chip set. The Motorola 68040 processor gives it graphics speed matched only by Pentium at a much lower cost. Another improvement to Amiga's graphics is planned for 1995.
So what is there in Amiga games today? With Commodore's history, why would anyone in their right mind play games on an Amiga?
From the very beginning, Amiga games have had a unique style matched only by the most ambitious PC game creators. MicroIllusions published in 1986 The FaeryTale Adventure, which became an instant classic. Rather like the Ultima games, it featured an angled-down perspective on your lone adventurer as he makes his way across (and under) a world filled with bandits and undead, searching for clues. It was the first game to fuse graphics and sound to create a fun and beautiful game.
By far the most aesthetically pleasing games on Amiga are routinely released by the British company Psygnosis, like Menace, Shadow of the Beast,The Killing Game Show, and Lemmings -- which was such a colossal hit for Amiga owners that it was quickly ported over to the PC and the Mac, where it went gold, platinum and plutonium in no time at all.
There is a downside. Commodore's lackadaisical attitude toward improving their machine caused it to fall behind in game capability for a year or two, which meant less incentive for Amiga versions of games to be done well. Amiga Civilization plays just as well as the PC version, but the graphics are cheesy EGA quality at best.
What is the Amiga to the gamer of today? For one thing, it's cheap; $400 gets an Amiga 1200, which graphically can keep up with some of the slower 486s. That's good for students or people who want to experiment with graphics. For another thing, these games have a style all their own; many of them are complete artistic experiences that make PC games seem rather one-dimensional. Amiga has made a nice comeback, and the games people play on these machines are better than ever.
MacintoshWhen Apple introduced their Macintosh line 10 years ago, they wanted to set it apart from their other computers. "The Apple II-family is our game machine," Apple pointed, but as developers left it for the more-widely accepted IBM PC and its clones, they tried to push to market a few games for the IIgs' new cousin. Loderunner, Ultima III, Ogre -- the classics, really, but nothing extremely innovative.
With the advent of the CD-ROM, some renegade game designers began making innovative games for the much-maligned Macintosh platform, including The Manhole and Cosmic Osmo, by Cyan. But it was the development of QuickTime, Apple's standard for displaying moving video, that started the rush of incredible titles, from Spaceship Warlock and The Journeyman Project, to Iron Helix and Myst. Recently, some of the best Mac titles have made the move to the IBM-PC platform, but it'll take the Power PC (see below) before IBM will have reached "cool environment game" status with the Mac.
The games you can expect to play on the Mac are mostly in clear color, with sampled sounds and strong original soundtracks. The scrolling is smooth, thanks to many programmer hours spent working around the Mac Toolbox, rather than with it -- what this means is, even though the games look nice, so many games that work fine on one Mac generally won't run well on newer models (one disadvantage over Intel machines).
A decent Mac -- color, at least 80 MB hard drive, at least 4 MB RAM -- will cost you about $700 to $1,500, depending on what you settle for. I suggest a Quadra 605, because it has an upgrade path to the Power PC, and if you're enrolled in or working at a university, you can get the CPU for well under a grand.
Now, there are several arcade-like games (Crystal Quest, Creepy Castle) and roleplaying (environment-oriented) games that could justify using a Mac as a game machine -- but not exclusively so. Buy a Mac if you have real work to do with it, but want to play great games on the side.
What's coming up? In one word: PowerPC.
The first of the next generation of computers has been released, based around IBM and Motorola's Power PC chip. Since the chip will have both MS-DOS and Mac compatible environments for it, you can play your PC games and your Mac games on the same computer. Upgrades for current models, like the newer Quadras, are running under $700, and a whole Power PC box runs just over $1,500. And if nothing else, Apple just announced a new Quadra card that'll add a 486 to your Mac for under $500, so you can run both environments at the same time, with the same terminal on the same monitor.
In the future, maybe, there'll just be the one platform, running whatever operating system, and all the games in the world run on it. Until then, Macs are cool, but... not the best game machine.
And who knows? Maybe in the future, what computer you're playing a game on will matter little more than where that computer is -- that is, if our next subject takes off like its advocates say it will. We give you... the Net.
The Internet is one of the hottest topics in the media right now. Hardly a day goes by when you don't read an article about the "information highway" or "cyberspace." All buzzwords aside, the Internet (or just "the net," as it's called by many of its inhabitants) has doubled in number of users every six months since 1988. Even conservative estimates put the number of users in the millions. Its anarchic nature makes a true count an impossibility.
This proves fertile ground for gaming, however.
The first true "net" games were probably play-by-email versions of pencil-and-paper games -- online Diplomacy, or various RPGs. Participants communicate through email, custom mailing lists and sometimes even newsgroups.
In addition, there are multi-player games such as Empire that use the ASCII text characters to represent the playing field, allowing a crude representation of a gameboard to be transmitted. One step of from these are client/server games.
Because bandwidth is still relatively low on the net, machines can't transmit the vast quantities of graphic data needed for a real-time game. Instead, users run a client program -- a program that knows how to display the required graphics and/or sounds for a game in response to brief commands from over the net. These commands are generated by a central server program. If the game requires a charging orc to be drawn on a screen, the server doesn't have to transmit the whole orc picture. Instead, it can just send a command to "DRAW ORC AT POSITION X,Y".
By far the most popular games on the net right now are MUDs -- Multi-User Dungeons. These "text-based virtual realities" hearken back to the days of the old Infocom games -- no graphics, no sound, just rich descriptive text. They've been taken a step further, though, in that now the player can interact with other users from all around the world. There are dozens of MUD variants. Some, such as ColdMUD and MOO, allow the players to build their own complexes of rooms, objects, tricks and traps.
Where is this going to lead us in the future? That question depends on three factors: bandwidth, bandwidth and bandwidth. Cyberspace optimists foresee a future of wide-band fiber optic communication -- a fire hose of data compared with today's leaky faucet.
Real-time video and audio combined with virtual reality. While today's computers aren't fast enough to provide real-time photorealistic rendering of a virtual world, it's a safe bet that within 5-10 years they will be. Maybe faster. With high-bandwidth transfer protocols such as ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network), these rendered worlds can be fed into your TV -- or into your VR goggles -- so fast that it seems real.
Where this will differ from the by-then run-of-the-mill PC game is in the interactivity. As the disgustingly-cute girl in the MCI commercial says, "There will be no there. Everything will be here." A gaming group will no longer need to be on the same continent. Everyone can gather around the virtual gaming table and roll virtual dice. Further down the line, the GM might have good enough world-building tools that the players actually see and experience the sights and sounds of the campaign world, all via network. And you thought you lost a lot of hours to your college Dungeons & Dragons campaign! The gaming aficionado of the future may face a very real problem of Net Gaming Addiction. Cases of this type are already cropping up on today's MOOs and MUDs, and on chat services such as IRC. In some instances, users have spent as many as 80 hours per week in a text-based virtual world, neglecting friends, family and grades in the process. (For those interested in a growth industry for a future career, try cyber-psychology!)
The net may also revolutionize the way that PC-based games are distributed. Apogee Software has gone from being a relatively obscure shareware game company to a hot property thanks to their shareware game Wolfenstein 3-D. This 3-dimensional, smooth-scrolling shoot-em-up blew people away with its fast rendering and gruesome graphics. When Apogee recently released Doom, a sequel of sorts, net traffic was noticeably slowed for the first 24 hours it was made available as nearly everyone transferred a copy of the new game to their own machine. Only the first level of Doom is available through the net, though. The rest must be ordered from Apogee directly. More and more companies are releasing "demo" versions of their games in this manner, using the net's enormous user base to generate sales they might not have seen otherwise.
What can a gamer find online today? While the Internet is full of potential (the dreaded "p" word), the MUDs and MOOs are currently only as good as the people who "live" there, building new attractions and programming new experiences. And most of these pioneers are doing it for experience and for love. The day somebody figures out how to get rich running a MOO is the day they'll get really good. That day is not that far off, but it's not here.
For right here, right now, the best games are available on the commercial services -- America Online, GEnie, CompuServe, Prodigy, Sierra Online and others. These services all use client/server interfaces that must be downloaded first and installed on your home computer; once they're up and running, you can participate in some amazing games against live opponents across the country. America Online has AD&D Neverwinter Nights, a fantasy RPG that uses the SSI computer game interface. GEnie has some hot flight simulators that let you dogfight live opponents, as well as a killer BattleTech game. And there's lots, lots more.
Will all this spell the end of pencil-and-paper, face-to-face gaming? Hardly. The paper gamers have found some great uses for the net as well.
They're called newsgroups, bulletin boards where people with common interests exchange ideas. On Illuminati Online alone, there are nearly 100 newsgroups dealing with paper games, from Earthdawn to Magic: The Gathering to Killer and everywhere in between. Similar sets of message boards, covering wargames, play-by-mail, roleplaying, strategy boardgames, miniatures, and even other computer games, are part of every commercial online service. Players swap stories, share rules variants, answer each other's rules questions, look for opponents, and sometimes even play online.
Most commercial services have a "chat" area, where subscribers can talk (via keyboard) live to any number of other people. These chat areas have been home for "live" roleplaying events (with typed messages substituting for verbal communication) for years. (See Scott Haring's "Cthulhu Sucked My Brains Over The Modem," in Pyramid #5.)
The frontier days of the electronic superhighway are far from over, and there's plenty of time to get on board. The potential for gaming is unlimited -- better games, easier to play, with a wider variety of opponents, anytime you want. Don't be left behind.
Those gamers with memories of Custer's Revenge (an adults-only cartridge for the Atari 2600 in which players shot Native Americans - or Indians, as they were known back then - and then raped their women) can be sure nothing like that will appear in any quantity. Atari lacked the legal muscle to shut down the unlicensed developer before 1,000 units reached consumers; the Sega or Nintendo legal departments would have stopped the developers before the project got past the storyboards.
What's This About Censorship?
By David Moskowitz
Sometimes, control from the licensor (the nice version of the word "censorship") is necessary because the sexual humor is inappropriate for the younger American game player, or because of portrayals of Black and Latino Americans derived solely from stereotypes and imported films. But that type of control is generally handled in-house, with Nintendo being the most sensitive about offending delicate American tastes.
Now everyone too stupid, bored or insecure to know better is getting all over the industry for violence - primarily in Mortal Kombat (a vicious fighting game) and the CD game Night Trap. Face it, your average issue of Cosmopolitan does more to pervert perceptions of women than the standard "monster gets screaming teenage girl in lingerie" scene in Night Trap. Count the number of kids in the audience of any R-rated slasher flick - everyone's seen worse. Additionally, the critics are incapable of understanding that the gory scenes do not constitute every second of game play.
To make matters worse, Nintendo's Howard Lincoln is intent on portraying the Big N as completely innocent (anybody check out the blood in SNES' Street Fighter II?) while serving the back-stabbed remains of his competition to Congress.
When I used to cover the coin-op industry, I was the first to interview the designers of Time Killers and Mortal Kombat. These particularly bloody coin-ops had dip-switches allowing arcade owners to tone down the violence if they wanted. None of them could even conceive that their games, especially in the fuzzy home-console versions, would cause such controversy, nor was it their intention to turn their players into decapitating spine-shattering psychopaths in real life.
Look, I live 1/2 mile away from one of the escalating Los Angeles gang wars, and I'll be happy to drive anyone through the neighborhood so they can see these kids aren't fighting over humiliating losses in coin-op arcades (which tend to move out of violent neighborhoods anyway) or who achieved a "fatality" in corner Game Gear wars. Missing, dead and non-supportive parents, wretched economic futures, abuse at home, too many weapons, and "community activists" more eager to affix blame and promote themselves and racial separatism than actually helping the kids - that's why there's so much violence.
Sega has begun voluntarily rating their games for retailers and consumers. Let's hope this is sufficient - remember it's taken over 30 years for the comics industry to fully recover from their encounter with Congress.
We were going to put a screen-shot of Doom here to show you how cool it is, but thought we'd help you out instead by telling you how to get a copy of it for free! (You have to be moderately net-literate to get this to work, so get a friend to help if you have to.)
The site we know of is ftp.uwp.edu; look in /pub/games/id for the public-domain version of Doom. Also, buried in various sub-folders, are all sorts of other Doom-related hacks and such. Have fun!
Question: What's the difference between a table RPG and a virtual environment?
GM Aries says, "Okay, so when you get to the bottom of the stairs, what do you do?"Answer: Not much, but as in real-life, it varies depending on how interesting the players are.
You say, "Check for secret doors."
GM Aries laughs.
GM Aries says, "Nope. Try again."
You whisper to Zaraquel, "no there aren't any or no we didn't find any?"
Zaraquel says, "Hmph. Well, at least we can't drop dice on the floor, here."
GM Aries hits Zaraquel onna head.
For those of you with some net-access who'd like to dip their toes into virtual digital worlds, here are a few staff favorites:
BattleTech von-neuman.info.polymtl.ca 3026
Discworld tom.compulink.co.uk 4242
Forbidden Lands queen.mcs.drexel.edu 2150
Ivory Tower marvin.macc.wisc.edu 2000
LambdaMOO lambda.xerox.com 8888
Metaverse (of course!) metaverse.io.com 7777
The Land nora.gih.no 4000
Realm of Magic P107.informatik.uni-bremen.de 2150
This is the tiniest fraction of what's out there! Also, check out rec.games.mud.announce. For a complete list, send E-Mail to email@example.com.
Bandwidth: The measurement of how much data can be transferred across a network connection at one time. To transmit live video (a "dense" signal) requires a high-bandwidth connection. Simple text requires a much lower bandwidth.
Real Time: In gaming, refers to something happening at a natural speed without delays or pauses. In real time, opponents keep moving, fighting, etc. even if your character just sits there.
Photorealistic Rendering: The ability to generate graphics at high enough resolution, with lights casting shadows and objects capable of showing transparancy, with enough colors that the eye thinks the scene is "real." Can represent roughly 16 million colors, or 24-bit.
Article publication date: August 1, 1994
Copyright © 1994 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved. Pyramid subscribers are permitted to read this article online, or download it and print out a single hardcopy for personal use. Copying this text to any other online system or BBS, or making more than one hardcopy, is strictly prohibited. So please don't. And if you encounter copies of this article elsewhere on the web, please report it to firstname.lastname@example.org.