Pit Your Wits Against Other Cybernauts

It was a clear day for flying. At 15,000 feet, the enemy airfield below resembled an odd patchwork of blocks. But as I lined up my World War II fighter for its first bombing run, I was "jumped" by three defending planes. They had come from above me, with the sun behind them--an old fighter trick to keep hidden until the last moment of attack. Even if I'd been fully prepared for the onslaught, 3-to-1 odds were not good. I dumped the bombs and maneuvered wildly, trying to keep them off my tail as I scooted back to home base. But my plane took several hits and was leaking oil. It looked liked I wasn't going to make it when I heard the radio cry: "Bandits! Twelve o'clock high!" It was a marvelous sight. Four fighters from my side joined the fray and took on my pursuers. The cockpit radio crackled: "We got 'em. Get that bird fixed and rejoin us!" It was going to be a long night--online at Interactive Magic's Warbirds game site.

The World Wide Web is loaded with databases and information, but it's games that are the big draw for many people. Industry watcher Jupiter Communications predicts that online gaming could become a $1 billion market within the next few years. That has a slew of companies--from startups to software makers to Internet access providers--rushing to offer a variety of entertaining fare at different prices (table, page 146E12).

While violent games such as id Software's Doom and Quake are still immensely popular among college students and males in their 20s, new, softer types of play--from parlor games to fantasy creations--are coming online. They appeal to a much wider audience of both genders. Hasbro Interactive, for example, offers online links in some of its CD-ROM versions of the board games Scrabble and Risk that allow players to compete in cyberspace. Origin's Ultima Online is a medieval world where a player can interact with others as a magician, warrior, or thief. Interactive Magic plans a role-playing combat game called Planetary Raiders in which players are spaceship pilots, vying in intergalactic battle and trade.

These online games, if played on a multimedia PC, look and sound like CD-ROM versions. The major difference is that you're competing against another person, not a computer program. Play a CD-ROM game often enough, and you can usually guess what the computer will do in a given situation. But moves made by another human can be unpredictable, so the game is guaranteed to be different every time.

BATTLING HORDES. This compelling human factor, while fun in simple parlor games, can be outrageously challenging in multiplayer games in which countless online participants are engaged simultaneously. Kesmai's Air Warrior, a World War II flight simulator, often has hundreds of virtual pilots logged onto America Online every night, flying and fighting for one of four teams. MultiPlayer BattleTech: Solaris, created by FASC, puts players at the controls of huge armed robots to fight for the honor of their clans. While trying to compete against so many others may seem chaotic, it's rarely a "you-against-the-world" situation. Teammates abound to assist a new player.

The biggest problem with online gaming is something called latency. Because the Internet is a vast, global network, there is often a lag between the time when a player makes a move and the time it is registered. Such delays can be fatal in games in which your strategy depends on what you see on-screen. If there is high latency, an opponent who was squarely in your gun sights one second may have "warped" clear across the playing field in the next, making it difficult to shoot. Some online game sites such as Mplayer try to mitigate this problem by recommending that members use a specific Internet service provider's network for a faster linkup. Others will test the speed of your connection to the Net, and limit the games you can join.

By far the easiest way to play online is through America Online. For one thing, as part of its flat fee of $19.95 a month, AOL offers simple games such as Out of Order, in which members compete to unscramble words. NTN Trivia quizzes players on all kinds of minutiae.

And for a premium price, AOL gives access to offerings developed by independent software companies. WorldPlay (formerly known as AT&T's ImagiNation Network before it was bought by AOL in 1995, and now a subsidiary of the online service's studio division) offers AOL members virtual card and board games such as gin, hearts, and backgammon. Once the software for a WorldPlay game is downloaded--about a 30-minute process with a 28.8-kbps modem--players can create a profile, listing their skill level and personal interests. Members meet in "game rooms" where they can chat, play, or watch a game in progress.

Playing on AOL can be expensive. The premium is $1.99 an hour for each WorldPlay or multiplayer game. Before signing on, players must spend as much as two hours downloading and setting up special software. AOL members can avoid some of the hassle by ordering CD-ROMs with the necessary programs from software publishers like Kesmai.

If you're not an AOL member, or want to avoid paying the premium for AOL's games, companies such as Mplayer, Total Entertainment Network, SegaSoft, and Engage (www.engagegames.com) offer multiplayer games on the World Wide Web--often free or at a flat fee. They can do that because the sites are subsidized by advertising, and in some cases by membership dues as well. Mplayer, for example, charges only for extras such as entrance into prize-studded contests. Heat.net, a new Web site being developed by SegaSoft, a division of video game maker Sega, plans to collect fees for superweapons that give players an edge.

JUST HOLLER. Most of the Web games require some software to be downloaded and added to your Web browser. Microsoft's Gaming Zone works only with Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser. So if you usually use Netscape or another browser, you'll have to know how to swap browser programs. But as more software publishers get into the act and develop online components of their games, joining the action should become much easier--and cheaper. Blizzard Entertainment, for example, offers built-in software on all its CD-ROMs that allows players to automatically connect to its free Battle.Net site. That way, those who have become addicted to Blizzard's Diablo, an adventure game set in a fantasy medieval world, can log onto Battle.Net and find other fans to continue the fun.

Moreover, technology is being developed not only to mitigate latency but to make play seem more personal. Some Web sites, such as Mplayer, allow you to chat with other players by speaking into the microphone on your PC. In multiplayer games like Warbirds, instead of typing instructions to team members, you can simply yell to your wingman to "break left" if you see an enemy fighter on his tail. Such tweaks help add to the realism of the game. So the next time I'm being pursued, I'll know that help from friendly allies is but a shout away.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.