I Only Have I's For Gaming

Bill Jahnel, Senior Editor

There are very few things more satisfying than a truly addictive game. I've been lost in Quest for Glory 5 now for the last few days, and before that was caught on the hook of multiplayer Diablo with some friends from Florida, Fort Worth, Texas, and Arizona. The key to making great games is evoking that ephemeral quality of "addictiveness." If compulsion to play is our Holy Grail of game creation, then I can only hope that the launching of MacReactor succeeds in creating a similar compulsion. We hope that you'll have the overwhelming desire to check back regularly to find the latest and greatest information on the Mac gaming world.

That said, wouldn't it be lovely if we had a formula to make games addictive? Lacking the magic formula for a single for excellence, there are some important qualities that can make a game engaging. Some of these are classic rules of design, but others are being affected by rapidly changing technological considerations. I'd like to dedicate a short series of editorials examining those elements of strong game design that can lead to excellence and note where new technologies may enhance or detract from them. Sounding for a moment like an egocentric, let's suggest that you could group these elements into the five "I"s of Gaming: Interactivity, Immersion, Innovation, Interface, and Intrigue. Each will be subject to a separate treatment per editorial, thereby allowing me to treat each element at some length and also pacifying the editor above me that I shall not run dry of topics throughout the next month.

I made the observation in a feature article in 1995 that internet gaming would be a powerful "next big thing," since the most dangerous intelligence in a game to play against is that of another human. Zooming ahead four years where real-time strategy and first-person shooters flood the market, it seems that everyone wants to make their games "multiplayer over the internet," even when such capacity seems superfluous and unnecessary. (I await eagerly the Multiplayer Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.)

Being able to play games interactively with folks from all corners of the globe can be a powerful thing. One early morning five months ago I ended up playing in a Diablo game with some kids from Australia. A world away, and yet we were slugging and spelling it out: shared experiences on the opposite ends of the globe herald a powerful technology and a powerful exercise in virtual
community. But once novelty has worn the edges off of net competition, we are left with some gaping holes in the technology. While great strides have been made to decrease latency and ping, those devils of a phone system that was never meant to be handling 21st century information demands, there are some fundamental design problems in current games that make them difficult to really share in an online community.

Oh, there are things that can be done: Message boards, chat rooms and fan webpages bind people together in a virtual community. Rankings and tournaments (known online as ladders) can create a healthy feel of friendly (or not so friendly) competition. But these are leisure activities perused outside the context of the game experience itself. There still are key elements of truly gauging your opponent while in a game that decreases a sense of interaction.

If you doubt my word, consider only the continuing and growing popularity of game parties, where everyone schleps over their computer, sets up an Ethernet network, and plays deathmatches, Diablo, or even just crowds around one computer for a round of rudeness with You Don't Know Jack. You Don't Know Jack, in fact, is probably the epitome of the success story for a multiplayer interactive environment: a party environment where you can curse at each other freely when your friends beat you to the answers. The continuing trend of built-in fast Ethernet ports and portability (and here the iMac's 10/100 base T Ethernet and carrying handle come to mind) will only increase the attraction to in-home computer fests. Firewire should push this trend further: the elegant solution of hotswappable devices also will work in daisy-chaining computers as hot swap devices. While Apple has no announced intention of addressing a network protocol down firewire, the medium is supremely adaptable to a TCP/IP protocol solution. Expect to see some company to announce a firewire network protocol solution some time in late 1999 or early 2000 as firewire devices and ports become ubiquitous.

And while 1999 is being billed as the year of faster Internet connections (ASDL and cable modems should roll out in most major cities by mid-year to year's end), lower latency is not the real Grail of multiplayer interactivity. One of the biggest problems is that people often confuse connectivity with community; what makes it fun to play with or against other opponents is not the speed of their play or even just their inherent challenge, but their humanness. We need games where we can interface with others faster and more efficiently than quick, typewritten notes that flash by. One leader in such a technology is the 1998 PC game, FireTeam, by Multitude, Inc. While not my cup of tea in terms of a type of game I might play, FireTeam came up with a technology they call TeamTalk. Each copy of FireTeam comes with a set of headphones that allows players to communicate with each other while they play. What would be wonderful would be seeing Mac Game Developers working on a standard that would support an internet phone- like standard for multiplayer internet games. Imagine how nice it would be to coordinate attacks with your allies, scream for help in real time, or give your opponent a good taunting as you make a particularly brilliant move (and then hear them laugh at you when you find out that brilliant move was the trap she had set for you all along!)

The real beneficiary won't just be in action titles on the net, but when voice communication technology can be applied to the so-called massively multiplayer titles (which are sadly lacking in their appearance on the Mac platform. . . oh hell, let Wintel kids be beta testers for us.) There are none too few of us with role-playing backgrounds that find the charm of a game in the personality we impute to our characters. Imagine walking into an Ultima Online Inn where you can hear the murmur of voices over your headphones and positional audio actually could take into account your relative distance from other speakers. . . theif types could try and listen in on backroom corner bar deals; "clariaudience" spells would let you tap into a communication between two players as they discussed the dragon hoard they were planning to take over, NPCs would have doorways you could listen into and hear back feedback in a compressed format (like MP3 or RealAudio) which would be nothing more than ambiance or important quest clues.

We already have parts of what makes an online interactive experience better; not dropping out in the middle of a game due to better connectivity will be part of the ongoing community revolution. But until I can be cussed out in real-time by an Orc playing in Australia, we'll still be falling shy of the mark of a truly interactive community experience.

 
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