A Look At The Future Of Online Games
Kathy Yakal, Assistant Features Editor
Online gaming, or telegaming, has for years been a feature of many bulletin board systems (BBSs) and computerized news and information services. Ranging from versions of simple board games like checkers to the complex world of CompuServe's MegaWars, the offerings from this electronic service give players the opportunity to compete with opponents across the country. Recently, QuantumLink and LucasFilm Games announced a new online feature for Commodore 64 owners: Habitat—a unique, animated game that encourages interaction, not competition, among users.
Electronic interaction—the online, realtime socializing done in conference areas of BBSs and online news and information services—is one of the most popular consumer applications for telecommunications today. Though many home computer owners use their modems for doing job-related work, downloading programs, doing research, and trading technical information, many prefer to use them for play. People make new friends online, often extending those relationships into written correspondence, telephone calls, and face-to-face meetings.
For example, CB'ers on CompuServe, a major telecommunications service, hold regular conventions, arriving at a central location from all over the country to see the faces behind the "handles" they use on the system. Some electronic correspondents have even developed online relationships that have led to marriage.
Online relationships are dependent on the common threads that people find and follow in their conversations. People may discover that they once lived in the same city, or like the same obscure movies or books, or have similar jobs. When they meet again online, they recognize each other, and have a common starting ground for conversation.
Telegaming is a more focused way of interacting with people online. There's no fumbling around, trying to find something to talk about. You're there to participate in a game. For some people, that's interaction enough. But some go further, moving into conference areas to talk about the game they've just played, and to see what other interests they share.
Habitat is an intriguing combination of telegaming and straight online chatting. It's an outgrowth of QuantumLink's People Connection, the service's online chat area. Instead of communicating through words alone, you create a character to represent yourself, and move around through the many "rooms" in Habitat, meeting other characters and joining them on adventures. Habitat, unique to this point in the history of computer entertainment, is an early version of the kind of entertainment often predicted by industry futurists: the interactive motion picture.
Colorful And Key-Controlled
Since its introduction a year ago, QuantumLink has attracted thousands of subscribers in the Commodore community. QuantumLink (Q-Link) is an online news and information service with a slightly different focus from that of other services. It was designed to be an event-oriented system solely for Commodore 64 users—a gathering place for people with common interests that go beyond technical concerns. To fulfill that, sysops (system operators) and guest speakers with widely varied backgrounds have been enlisted to host special events and be available online to interact with users.
The Q-Link system is menu-driven, and all commands are issued using only the function keys. The service contains many of the elements we've grown accustomed to seeing in online services and major BBSs: electronic mail, online shopping, message boards, downloadable software and software previews, and online conferencing.
Since the system uses color and graphics, it's necessarily limited to owners of one specific machine—the Commodore 64—and was designed to take advantage of that computer's color and graphics capabilities. So it can't be accessed from a normal terminal program; subscribers must obtain a special Q-Link disk.
But that same limitation is exactly what gives Habitat broader possibilities. While other online services must keep their graphics generic and simple enough to be understood by the variety of microcomputers connecting to it, Q-Link's use of color and graphics is limited only by the boundaries of the Commodore 64.
An Imaginary World
Just as motion pictures use celluloid strips to create worlds that exist only while someone is watching them, Habitat depends on a mainframe computer to create a world that exists only while users participate in the game. Instead of sitting together in a theater somewhere watching the film, participants are seated at home computer terminals all across the country. And unlike movies, Habitat offers interactive, not passive, entertainment.
This online world that Lucas-Film created has a rich environment all its own. According to its fictional storyline, Habitat is populated by Avatars, people who were great adventurers in earlier days. But left to themselves, Avatars are a gentle, lazy bunch—happy to sit around all day and read books or eat junk food. The Oracle, who reigns over the world, is hopeful that by his giving Q-Link subscribers access to this world, the Avatars will once again become the interesting bunch they once were.
Once you've entered the world of Habitat, your first task is to create a character to represent yourself. This is done with a kind of character construction set. You decide what you want to look like and how you want your "turf" (home base) to be decorated. If you'd like, you can even have a pet. Then it's off to meet the other inhabitants of the world.
Your Avatar is controlled by commands entered via the joystick. You can Go, Do, Get, and Put—and, of course, Talk to other Avatars. The first four commands are used for moving from room to room and manipulating objects you find there.
Communication with other Avatars can be accomplished by letter, by phone, or just by talking directly to them, if you're in the same room. It's similar to the three ways in which you normally communicate with another user on Q-Link: E-Mail, online messages, or joining a conference in the People Connection area. Unlike People Connection—where your words appear next to your name after you've typed them and pressed RETURN—Habitat shows your words in a little bubble above your character's head, as in a cartoon.
If at any point you get lost in this world, there is help available. You can look at maps or visit the Hall of Records. And the Oracle is always around for guidance.
Some DOs And DON'Ts
In the course of your adventures in Habitat, you'll discover some cultural norms, just as in the real world.
- Make new friends.
- Buy things, using tokens or credit cards.
- TelePort (transport yourself to other rooms too far to walk to).
- Hang out at the Oracle, the place to see and be seen. In Avatar slang, you head down to the O.
- Make phone calls.
- Go on adventures.
- Participate in organized sports. Avatars just want to have fun, and don't like having someone tell them how to do it.
- Play cards (for the same reasons listed above).
- Watch television. Enough said.
- Drive vehicles. Walking and teleporting are the preferred modes of transportation, unless you happen upon a skateboard.
- Be materialistic. You're an Avatar, not a Yuppie.
- Overextend your Avatar's hospitality. Only six people to a room at any one time.
With computers in more than 10 percent of American homes, entertainment developers can afford to try different things, hoping to capture the interest of even a small percentage of them.
Which segment of the home computing population Habitat appeals to remains to be seen. There's certainly room for it: Traditionally, telegaming has had a rather limited audience, though its small following is devoted. Habitat is an innovative new addition to the growing world of online gaming.
The monthly fee for QuantumLink is $9.95 for unlimited use, with a $3.60 charge for some special services. At this writing, the hourly charge for Habitat has not been determined. For more information, write to Quantum Computer Services, 8620 Westwood Center Dr., Vienna, VA 22180; or call (800)392-8200.