Computer fans log on to next generation of games

Getting Wired

Posted: Sunday, February 16, 2003

Suddenly, you appear at the bottom of some war-scarred hill, assault laser rifle in hand, ready for action. The crimson sky above, charred craters all over the ground, shattered, lifeless trees in your periphery and obvious human remains scattered here and there remind you of the post-apocalyptic nightmare you've stepped into.

But you've got a job to do. Your mission is to protect your team's red flag and capture the opposing blue team's pennant, returning it to headquarters. Along the way, you get to kick some blue team butt with extreme prejudice.

Simple enough, right?

Wrong.

First, your team of late 21st century warriors must locate the enemy banner somewhere deep inside a heavily armed labyrinth crawling with soldiers itching to do you in. In the meantime, you've got to take out anybody gunning for your colors and keep it at home.

While processing all of this information, two royal blue-clad soldiers rush over the top of the hill you face, guns blazing as they bear down on you. But, before you can make a move, you hear several of the "fyooh" sounds laser rifles make coming from behind you, as two quick blasts of light flash over both your shoulders and explode into your assailants, literally ripping them to pieces.

Two of your teammates rush past you and up the hill, armed to the teeth with rifles, rocket launchers, pistols and grenades, and one admonishes you: "Pay attention."

You follow and see them crest the hill, then hear their blood-curdling screams and know they've been eliminated.

You fire your translator, which sends a projectile into the air and far over the hill. When it lands, you are teleported to the other side of the hill. You reappear behind the soldiers who took out your compatriots, surprising them with two quick bursts from your laser pistol.

Their deaths are signified by more chilling, lingering retorts of pain and confusion, and more flying body parts.

As your enemies fall at your feet, you get a message saying the home front has been infiltrated and a blue bandit has made off with your flag.

Turning around a complete 180 degrees, you see your objective: a concrete fortress built into the side of a hill. An observation deck reveals the prize you seek, and it's maybe only a half-mile away. If you get close enough, you can teleport onto the deck and take the flag.

Then you catch a flash of blue at one corner of the deck. You pull up your rifle to take aim and eliminate the foe and clear a path to the enemy flag. A look into the sniper scope, however, reveals this enemy peering back at you through identical optical enhancement.

You realize he got the drop on you when you see a flash from the muzzle of his rifle, followed by an explosion of light and your own blood much closer.

 

Loyd Messer, in orange shirt, plays Counter-Strike against Delmar Neeley, Chris Fulton and other gamers. To Messer's right are Billy Ogle, Gabe Thompson, Brandon Fortney and Damon Oldham. To Fulton's right is his brother Joshua Fulton. Messer hosted a LAN, or local area network party in the basement of his Kenai home earlier this month.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

Game over.

This was neither some over-indulged violent dream, nor a scene from an up-and-coming sci-fi action feature film.

It was real. Or rather, real time.

The scenario described just one "life" Soldotna resident Lars Winston used while playing the first-person shooter computer game called Unreal Tournament 2003 on the Internet with a collection of online players from throughout Alaska, or possibly from all over the world. Five were on his team and four were on the opposing side, including one player of artificial intelligence generated by the server they were all dialed into, but the number of players can climb into double digits.

"I got owned!" he excitedly said of his untimely demise, before loading up to start another round. "But I won't be surprised again."

By day, the 22-year-old former Kenai Central High School student is the store manager at the new Alaska Computer Brokers in Soldotna. But when he closes the store and goes home, he said he's "a beast" on a host of multi-user computer games designed to be played with other people, either over the Web or through local area network connections between computers in the same building.

"Sometimes, I might play between four or five hours," Winston said. "I've gone for 12-hour increments before. I'll go home after a stressful day and kill some people online. It really helps relieve stress."

Unreal, and many similar online games, depict graphic violence and, as such, are rated by the Entertainment Software Rating Board as "Mature." The rating suggests that the game be reserved for persons aged 17 and older.

Winston said he doesn't think the game has any particular influence over the way people behave after playing it.

"All that says to me is people are blame shifting," he said. "Games and TV shows might show really effective methods of doing violent or bad things, but I believe people decide what they do."

Winston just moved into his apartment in December and said he got his high-speed Internet connection put in before he had the home phone installed.

"I barely even watch TV anymore," he said.

When playing, he lets his emotions freely respond to what is happening to his character, Pulsar (Winston's pseudonym whenever he is gaming), hurling loud threats and curses over misfortune and at the characters that cause it, and laughing and celebrating his own great moves. All this could be heard from just outside his home.

"It's a good thing I live where I do," Winston said of his garage loft off Echo Lake Road, where the closest neighbor is half a football field away. "My landlord would have all sorts of complaints and have to kick me out."

Winston is just one of millions of people who play online games everyday, all over the world. There is no real way to quantify how many people each hour are playing the online strategy, shooter or role-playing games available, but a 1998 report from Media Matrix can begin to conjure up an idea.

The report said that just one site, Microsoft's Internet Gaming Zone at www.zone.com, was then home to more than 2 million registered customers who logged more than 4.5 million hours playing on the site in one month's time.

Players purchase first-person shooter games that project the gamer's point of view on the monitor, like Unreal, Half-Life, Battlefield 1942 and Quake. These games cost anywhere from $20 to $50. To get real-time action, they have to dial in to a network server, the closest of which is in Anchorage.

The closer a gamer is to a server and the faster the online connection, the quicker the computer can respond to the gamer's directions. For the Kenai Peninsula, it helps to have either DSL or cable connections. The connection to the server, called a ping, is all-important to good play, Winston said.

He said when he began playing five years ago after graduating from Service High in Anchorage, his computer wasn't up to the task of his first real-time strategy game called Tribes, which mimics war-room strategy sessions.

"Tribes was my first foray into gaming," he said. "But the computer didn't have enough memory to play, and the screen was too small."

So he built his own computer to accommodate the hefty memory capabilities needed to handle big-time graphics and programs where computer-generated characters imitate limited independent thought. Many of these games require enormous computer processors of 133 megahertz or more to handle the animation requirements and to communicate with distant servers.

But playing online isn't the only way to get live competition. Bring enough able-bodied computers together with compatible network connections and a powerhouse machine to act as the server, add some eager gamers, and there is enough for a party. A LAN party.

A common occasion in Anchorage, Winston said he didn't know if anyone was having such local network gatherings anywhere on the peninsula. He took it upon himself to initiate one.

"When I worked at the Alaska Computer Brokers in Anchorage, at least 10 guys I worked with, and probably 40 or 50 customers were gamers," he said. "Somebody would throw a LAN party all the time. I intend to throw some here. I'm hoping friends from Anchorage will come down or that I can meet more people here."

In his quest to meet like-minded people after moving back to the peninsula last fall, Winston set out to advertise at Kenai Peninsula College.

"I ran into my buddy Loyd when I went to put up some flyers at KPC," Winston said. "And the rest is history."

KPC student Loyd Messer went to school with Winston at Kenai Central and said he was more than happy to help organize the LAN party. The first weekend in February, they had more than 10 computers hooked up in the basement of Messer's house with area gamers coming and going throughout the weekend to play Counter Strike, a modification of Half-Life that pits teams posing as terrorists with modern-day weaponry against counter terrorist teams.

The 22-year-old Messer lives in Kenai and said he wanted to have the gathering because it added to the social options in what he considers to be an otherwise ho-hum community.

"There's just nothing to do in this little town," he said. "Especially in the winter. I'm in school, so I'm broke and I've got limits on what I can do."

The festivities started that Saturday afternoon and Messer provided food. There were as many as 12 gamers at one point. Not as many people showed as he invited, but he said there would be more parties in the future.

"This was a test run to see how many people would show," Messer said. "I invited about 20 people."

Although he spent much of the weekend trying to recruit more players, he said, many came and stayed overnight, playing until sun-up the next day.

"We played until 9 this morning," he said on the phone, trying to invite another friend to join those still at the house early that Sunday evening. "Come on over. The more the merrier."

Some of the attendees didn't get into the full spirit of the event, however, blaming inadequate equipment.

"A lot of people don't have computers that can run these games," Messer said. "Two of my buddies brought their machines and they couldn't handle the graphics."

One of those two friends, 20-year-old Spencer East, said he came, he saw, and he spent a lot of time just watching. Not only was his computer's processor too slow for the 133 megahertz Counter Strike required, but he admitted that he wasn't all that good at the game because he'd never played before.

"I've been getting killed," he said. "I don't really play computer games. I was just playing for the hell of it."

Others said they really enjoyed themselves. Twenty-seven-year-old Delmar Neely said he lucked out on a chance to have fun on what would have been a routine business trip.

"I came down to Soldotna with the company I'm working with, Custom CPU," he said. "I used to buy stuff from Lars in Anchorage. He said there was a LAN party so I borrowed a computer from the Soldotna store and came. This is probably the best weekend I've had this year."

KPC student Gabe Thompson said he was glad to have had a chance to get to compete with new people and find out who was into computer gaming.

"I'm surprised as many people showed up," the 23-year-old Kenai resident said. "It keeps us out of trouble."

Josh Fulton, 22, served as one of the unofficial technical consultants for the weekend, setting up the server and connecting all of the computers present. He also spent time trying to troubleshoot problems as they arose, while still taking time to enjoy the game.

Winston said he wanted to throw the party so that he and others like him could overcome the low ping problems that distance from the closest servers -- Anchorage and Seattle -- can create. Fulton said that problem is compounded by the minimal bandwidth that exists in online connections here and the way signals are often routed to servers.

"It's horrible trying to play online," Fulton said. "If you wanted to play online in Kenai, many times a signal is sent to Anchorage, then to Seattle, back to Anchorage, and back here."

He said this is one of the reasons he isn't a big gamer. Another attendee, Damon Oldham, said he doesn't play very often because the games eat up a lot of time.

"There are other things I'm more interested in," he said. "Like tai-chi."

Everyone contended that Winston was probably the biggest game "freak" at the party.

"Lars is the biggest nerd," Messer said. "Ever since I've known Lars, he's been into Nintendo."

Winston agreed with Messer, saying the lifelong affinity for computers has served him well.

"OK. I'm a geek, a nerd, a dork," he said. "I don't care what people say. It means I can probably do more with my computer than most. I became interested in computers when I was 8 and I've developed a career because of it."

Winston scoffed at the idea that playing online so much could be detrimental to his health, but admitted he probably goes overboard sometimes.

"I probably spend way too much time for my own good," he said. "But I feel healthy. To each his own."

Learn the lingo

Playing well with others online could be enhanced by knowing the lingo: what the rest of the gamers are saying. Here are some basic definitions.

Action games: Any real-time game that emphasizes reflexes, coordination and speed over complex planning, strategy and logistics. The vast majority of first-person shooter games such as Quake, Half-Life and Unreal fall into this category.

Death match: As the term implies, a death match is a fight to the finish for everyone playing. The central concept is that the last one alive wins. This is the default multiplayer mode in most first-person shooter games and differs considerably from team play.

FPS: First-person shooter: A game played from the first-person point of view. This means that you typically see what is around you, but you do not see yourself, except perhaps for the barrel of your gun. Quake and Half-Life are popular examples of FPS games.

Frag: When you kill someone in an action game like Quake, it's referred to as a frag. The term dates back to the Vietnam War, when it was associated with killing one's commanding officer. The first game to use it regularly was Doom.

HPB: High ping bastard. A good Internet connection, which will give you a lower ping, is a definite advantage in most real-time online games. High pings are common among dial-up users and will almost inevitably be used as an excuse for poor game play. It also greatly improves your bragging rights if you perform well despite being an HPB.

Lag: When the action in an online game slows down due to a poor Internet connection, it is referred to as lag. Lag can result from an inherently slow connection (such as dial-up), Internet traffic, distance between you and the server, server performance or all of these things combined, making it the scourge of online gamers everywhere. When lag is at its most severe, game action becomes so choppy that it is sometimes called a "slide show."

LPB: Low ping bastard. A good Internet connection, which will give you a lower ping, is a definite advantage in most real-time online games. Low pings are common among users with high bandwidth Internet connections, particularly if they are in relatively close proximity to the game server. A low ping will almost inevitably result in a player having an inflated ego about their game play abilities. On the other hand, if their game play is extraordinary, other players will almost inevitability attribute it to a low ping.

MMORPG: Massively multi-user online role-playing game. An online role playing game in which hundreds or even thousands of players participate simultaneously. This sort of game typically includes a persistent virtual world and users must play a monthly fee to play. EverQuest and Asheron's Call are two of the more popular MMORPGs.

Mod: Modification. Many games are now designed so that users can alter them to the extent that they are scarcely recognizable. This commonly involves tweaks to the engine, customized graphics and sounds, user-made maps, and unique storylines. Sometimes the mod becomes more popular than the original game, as is the case with Counter-Strike, which began as a modification for Half-Life.

MUD: Multi-user dungeon. Very similar in nature are MUSHs (multiuser shared hallucinations) and MUSEs (multiuser shared experiences), the multiuser dungeon has a rich tradition in gaming that started long before personal computers became available. MUDs are text-based, turn-based adventures in which large numbers of players can participate simultaneously. Now MUDs are commonly played through Telnet or MUD clients designed specifically for this task.

PBM/PBE: Play by e-mail. Games where moves are exchanged through an online correspondence are called play by e-mail games. The expression applies whether the exchange takes place using e-mail, a Web site, or FTP (file transfer protocol).

Ping: Technically speaking, ping is the time it takes for a request to reach the server and travel back to the client, expressed in milliseconds. A low ping results in faster online game play and gives some players a serious advantage over others. High bandwidth Internet connections such as cable and DSL typically provide lower pings than standard dial-up connections

Respawn: Respawning is essentially rejoining the game at a designated location on the map after being killed. In most FPS games, weapons also reappear again a certain length of time after being picked up by players, so that the match isn't reduced to fist-o-cuffs.



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