Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 134 / OCTOBER 1991 / PAGE 73

Reach out and play with someone. (online computer games) (Special Anniversary Issue)
by Denny Atkin

You sigh with frustration. "Honey, Stephanie is still tying up the phone. Won't she ever tell her friends good-bye and come down and visit the rest of the family?"

"You're right. She should hang up and come down here and watch Married with Children with the rest of us. It's important that she spend time doing wholesome, family things like this," your wife responds. "Stephanie Ann! Get off the phone and get down here right now!"

"But moth-er!" she cries. "Only a few more minutes! Dave and I have three orcs cornered, and we're only two dungeon levels away from finding the Great Ark!"

"She's playing Dungeon Monger again with that boy from North Dakota. Why can't she just talk to her local friends like I did when I was a teenager?"

That's right, folks. A new excuse for your teenagers to tie up the phone - online games. The biggest inconvenience might not be the important business calls you miss, but the fact that while they're tying up the phone line and the computer, you can't get online and play the games yourself!

Online gaming has really taken off in the past couple of years. In the early eighties, online gamers on networks such as CompuServe and the Source could play versions of the original mainframe games, including such venerable titles as Colossal Cave Adventure and Star Trek. While these games were fun, they were generally single-player games, and the only real advantage in playing them online, rather than playing a version on your personal computer, was that the games were larger in scope than the common 64K machines could handle.

As personal computers became more powerful and the IBM PC replaced CP/M computers and C64s as the de facto BBS platform, online games grew in sophistication. Instead of calling up a national network to play Adventure all by yourself, you could just dial your local BBS and challenge a number of other players to games like TradeWars, a multiplayer space game. Most of these boards still only supported one user at a time, so players would have to take turns making their moves. Still, it was much nicer to have a human opponent.

The late 1980s saw an online gaming renaissance. The biggest networks, CompuServe and GEnie, began to expand their online gaming areas. As the old single-player adventure games dropped in popularity, the networks began to implement multiplayer games that took advantage of the unique features of online services. You could log on and explore dungeons or destroy space armadas with people from around the country. And unlike most of the BBS games, you could interact with several different players at the same time.

The games became more sophisticated. The text-based games grew - GEnie's Gemstone III adventure game is larger in scope and more complex than any of the disk-based text adventures. Perhaps the biggest groundbreaker was Air Warrior, a multiplayer World War II air combat game. No longer were online games trapped in the realm of text-based interfaces.

Even when you're not online, Air Warrior is a superb flight simulator, with speedy polygon graphics and a realistic flight model. But when you log on, the real fund begins. You're suddenly a WWII pilot fighting for one of three countries, in your choice of aircraft. There may be up to 50 other players from around the country sharing the sky with you - or trying to knock you out of it. The newest version adds both European and Pacific theaters of operation, as well as WWII and Korean-eera aircraft. Air Warrior is a far cry from the early BASIC games that used to be popular on BBS systems.

The newest entry into the online gaming fraternity is the Sierra Network (TSN). At the moment it's fairly limited service, offering games such as backgammon, cribbage, checkers, and bride. But this flat-rate service, currently available in California, plans to expand to offer more sophisticated games in the coming SierraLand and adult-oriented LarryLand extensions. New games should come online as the service moves to national availability.

Interestingly, TSN is a combination of the mainframe and BBS gaming techniques. When you call TSN, you're actually calling the host computer closest to your geographic area. If you want to play a game with someone across the country, you can, as TSN computers are networked using the same Tymnet network used by major online services. Your local TSN computer simply hooks up with your friend's local node, and you can still play across the country without incurring long-distance charges. TSN is still in its infancy, but it may portend what we can expect from online gaming in the future.

What are your favorite online games? Drop me an E-mail note at 75500,3602 on CIS, DENNYA on BIX and GEnie, or DENNY on Pink.