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Online gaming: the state of the Net

Part Two: The Best Game Networks

By Marc Saltzman

February 12, 1998
Web posted at: 2:15 PM EST (1415 GMT)

In this story:

(CNN) -- With literally dozens of competent Internet gaming networks, it's hard to choose only a select few as the cream of the crop. However, these following renowned companies have achieved the success thus far based on either their selection of games, free gaming, speed of gameplay, and ease of setup -- or a combination of all of the above.

Sympathizing with players who are already shelling out $50 for a computer game and monthly Internet time, ( decided to drop their pricing plan in February of 1997.

With almost 50 games and game variations (including the popular "Total Annihilation," "Heavy Gear," "Links LS '98," "Quake II," "Risk," and "Panzer General"), has one of the largest assortment of games and game genres out of the bunch. software is extremely easy to use to find other players, chat, alter the settings of the game, and begin a match. Along with their new colorful channel-based interface, other noteworthy features of include voice-chat capabilities through a standard microphone, a virtual chalkboard so players can map out their plan of attack, plus news, contests, events, insider tips and strategies, player ratings and rankings, and more.

For $39.95 a year (or $24.95 per year if players sign up for two years), offers a premium Mplayer Plus membership. Special games, exclusive tournaments, and plenty of promotional prizes are awarded to these members. boasts over 400,000 registered players on the entire network, averaging over 800,000 hours of gameplay each month. Individual members average about 15 sessions per month at roughly 35 minutes per session.

With an additional 25+ games adding to their lineup in the first half of this year, it looks like will continue to draw players looking to play their beloved CD-ROM games as well as some dedicated online exclusives.

Internet Gaming Zone

Microsoft's Internet Gaming Zone ( has also made strides since its inception nearly two years ago, attracting more than 600,000 gamers to date. And considering it only takes "four clicks" to start any one game, the Zone is suitable for both casual and hard-core players.

There are a number of types of games offered, from seven classic online-only games (bridge, checkers, go, reversi, hearts, chess, and spades), to exclusive support for Microsoft, LucasArts, and Hasbro Interactive retail titles, to premium dedicated online games such as "Fighter Ace" and "Asheron's Call." "Fighter Ace" is a 3D-accelerated WWII simulation currently in beta testing, while "Asheron's Call" is a large multiplayer role-playing game in development set for a fall 1998 release. These two titles are the only pay-to-play games at the Zone, at $1.95 per day or $19.95 per month. In addition, access to DWANGO is $.99 per hour, offering low-latency local dial-up service to Zone members.

All other games are completely free, as long as gamers have purchased the retail CD-ROM versions first. Some of the more well-received titles played over the Zone include LucasArts' Star Wars-based "X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter" and "Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II," Hasbro Interactive's "Battleship" and "Pictionary" computer incarnations, and Microsoft's "Close Combat 2: A Bridge Too Far" and "Age of Empires" -- an epic real-time strategy game that has already sold close to a million copies in 55 countries since October 1997.

What's the catch with the Zone? There isn't one, unless you consider forcing players to use the Microsoft Internet Explorer browser in order to join in on the fun.


The latest trend in online gaming involves the computer game developers and/or publishers offering free Internet support for their own titles on their own servers. Blizzard Entertainment has served as a leading example to the rest of the gaming community with their wildly successful Battle.Net (, later followed by Bungie's Bungie.Net, Sierra On-Line's Won.Net and Activision's Active.Net (working title).

In January of 1997, and in conjunction with the release of the role-playing action game sensation "Diablo," Blizzard Entertainment launched a multiplayer network that was fully integrated into the product. Players itching for online gameplay did not have to download and install special software, nor did they have to dig into their pockets. It was one of the first times in computer game history where gamers could simply connect to their ISP, start a game and choose to play via the Internet from the multiplayer option screen. That's it.

By using Windows 95's TCP/IP support with the retail or shareware version of "Diablo," Battle.Net quickly became the largest Internet gaming network with this sole title, totaling 1.5 million unique users (separate computers) playing aver 30 million games to date. As of the first week in February 1998, more than a year after "Diablo's" release, an average of 35,000 games are stilled played each day in total.

Various servers littered around the United States, Australia and the Pacific Rim countries have been handling this immense traffic, but "serious negotiations" are under way to add Canada and European countries for more bandwidth.

Paul Sams, director of business development at Blizzard Entertainment, maintains Battle.Net keeps its head afloat since the costs to run the free service are embedded in the retail CD-ROM price (plus selling a million copies of the game doesn't hurt), along with banner advertising and special promotions to make up the difference. Unlike Blizzard's upcoming real-time strategy title "Starcraft," scheduled to be playable only through Battle.Net, "Diablo" also brought in extra revenues from licensing deals with other major online networks such as the Total Entertainment Network (TEN),, Engage Games and others.

Besides "Starcraft," Blizzard is also hard a work on "The Warcraft Adventures" and of course, "Diablo 2," to be released in December 1998.

With these extraordinary games and services, covering all game genres and the majority of them absolutely free, computer gamers really can't afford not to get involved in this explosive craze. And as modem speeds climb, with ISDN, Cable, and ADSL becoming the new speed standards in the short years ahead, it looks like this next generation of "multiplayer gaming" will continue to soar well into the next century. Let the games begin.

Part One: Top Games

Marc Saltzman is the author of the new book "G@mer's Web Directory: Sites, Cheats & Secrets" (QUE/BradyGAMES).


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