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January 26, 1996

Virtual Monsters Vanquished,
Net Warriors Twitch Each Other

It took only a few months for Jonathan Lurie, a 37-year-old health club trainer in Manhattan, to turn his daily patrol through the corridors of Doom into a ho-hum massacre of Hell Knights, Cacodemons and Spider Masterminds. Even the toughest monsters eventually became predictable and boring.

But as he tired of routine Mancubus fighting, he discovered another whole world of Doom that was evolving in the on-line world. With his modem he could connect to a game server in New York City run by The Dial-up Wide Area Network Gaming Operation, better known as Dwango, and battle as many as four other human beings whose armor-clad avatars ran, shot and screamed past in the closest approximation to the cyberpunk novelist William Gibson's vision of cyberspace that the on-line world has yet to offer.

"It is the variable of playing people that makes this interesting," said Lurie, who is logged onto the game server three or four hours a night on average. "This is where I get my adrenaline rush."

Lurie, like thousands of other players, stumbled onto a phenomenon that has begun to transform the nature of computer gaming - real-time, multi-player competition.

"There will always be monsters, but they will be around just for practice," said Robert E. Huntley, head of the Dwango network, which now has 23 servers in the United States with more on the way in Germany and Japan.

Action game players have long been able to compete against each other over modems or serial cables, but they were generally restricted to playing only one other person. Later generations of games included local area network support, which allowed more people to compete but did not allow them to play anyone outside their network.

A new generation of game servers for many popular three-dimensional action games has managed to break through both barriers, allowing multiple players to battle each other no matter where they are located.

Over the past year, hundreds of servers have sprouted around the world, including the Dwango network and bulletin boards that use Sirius Software's Game Connection software. Most charge about $2 an hour to play.

id Software, the creators of Doom, have banked on multi-player games as the wave of the future and now include a copy of the Dwango client software with all of their games.

The servers are still largely regional affairs since many players have to pay long-distance phone charges to connect.

But designers have already begun focusing on the next holy grail of gaming - widespread support within game software for TCP/IP, the data protocol used by the Internet. Besides avoiding long-distance charges, the jump to the Internet will add a new dimension to playing as competition goes global.

"Everyone is looking toward the Internet," said Jay Cotton, a University of Georgia programmer who has created a program called Kali that allows certain games to be played over the Internet. "Playing people all over the world adds something that is totally unique."

Multi-player gaming, even in its early state of development, is an addicting pastime that offers a level of interactivity that that average web surfer can only dream of.

With Dwango and other systems, players can chat in electronic lobbies, form teams and verbally snipe at each other while they roam the three-dimensional worlds of a variety of games, including Doom II, Ultimate Doom, Heretic, Hexen, Terminal Velocity and the multi-player versions of MechWarrior 2 and Tekwar.

Interactivity has helped to create a new culture that has made gaming the competitive sport of the on-line world. Some players have already achieved a level of stardom for their mastery of hand-eye-coordination twitch games, like Doom and Descent.

Dennis Fong, an 18-year-old Doom player from Los Altos, Calif., who goes by the handle of Thresh, recently won the first Dwango national championship, which was held in Seattle in September under the sponsorship of Microsoft Corporation.

Since then, he has been pursued by dozens of players seeking to prove themselves against him, like latter-day rowdy cowboys looking for a piece of some famed gunslinger. Many post their challenges on the Internet newsgroup or call him directly to arrange a one-one-one game via modem. He has been playing two or three challengers a day.

"Everyone wants to beat the champion," said Mr. Fong, a student at De Anza College in Cupertino, Calif., "I mean, I get a million e-mail messages." (Click here to read an interview with Fong.)

He often signs on to Dwango just to talk with other players, who have formed a subculture as tight as the real world's weekend softball leagues.

The challenge in expanding the world of on-line play lies in the amount of data that must be constantly exchanged to keep players synchronized. The limited bandwidth available with a modem restricts most games to about four players.

Emigrating to the Internet raises the additional challenge of network latency - erratic delays in data transfers. For example, on-line players of Descent, one of the few action games already played over the Internet, complain that they are sometimes out of synch with each other.

Designers are confident, however, that the problems will be overcome as the interconnectivity of game software improves and emerging technologies increase bandwidth.

Quake, the eagerly awaited next game from id Software, the creator of Doom, is among the first programs that is being designed with Internet play as a top priority.

Related Sites
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  • Dwango Home Page. Dwango, the Dial-up Wide Area Network Gaming Operation, a subsidiary of Interactive Visual Systems Corp. offers 24-hour access to multi-player games on line.
  • Kali action games over the internet
  • Game Connection
  • The Gamer's Ledge
  • Multiplayer Games and Simulations

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