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After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail


I'm the laziest man on Earth.

No, it's true. I try to work as little as possible and have as much fun as I can. (Now, admittedly, some of the things I classify as "fun" drive ordinary folks right around the bend, but I try not to let their prejudices ruin my good times.)

I've tried not just to blur the line between what I do for pleasure and what I do for a living, but to erase it altogether. And, the closer I get to being paid to simply enjoy myself, the more successful I consider myself to be. Oddly enough, the closer I get to being paid to do what I would happily do for free, the more productive I seem to be, too.

That feedback loop prompted me to formulate what I call Stark's Law:

"If it isn't fun, the hell with it."

Now, of course, there are certain things I revel in for which I have yet to figure out how to charge. Barbeque, for example.

I love to barbeque. I do it year-round. When he and I were putting up campaign signs last year, one of my neighbors remarked, "I thought I was a hard-core barbequer..but you're the only person I've ever known who 'ques in the RAIN!"

What the heck--I figure rain is why they make grills with lids on them.

In fact, there's nothing I like better than spending a Saturday afternoon with three or four friends cooking up a mess of designer sausages (or swordfish or salmon or ribs or..well, you get the idea) and then sitting down to spend the evening quaffing hearty brews, eating junk food, making up bad song parodies and playing games.

I really like games, too.

Board games, for instance. Not boring games like Monotony, mind you, but games that require strategy, cunning and diplomacy, instead of blind luck and stamina. Steve Jackson's Illuminati is one of my perennial faves, as is the railroading game 1830 and its Continental cousin, Eurorails. I'll play WizWar in a heartbeat or commit to longer, hex-grid games almost as quickly. I also enjoy card games of all kinds and I'm equally happy as a referee or a player character in role-playing games--particularly the campaign-style games that permit more subtle actions than simply killing things and looting their bodies.

You Can All Join In

In the past few years, nearly every type of game I enjoy--from card and dice games to classic board games, from shoot-'em-ups and strategic warfare simulations to role-playing campaigns--has been adapted for the Internet environment. Ever since the advent of the now-classic Doom, a multi-player networked mode has become a required feature for all new commercial game releases, too, and Kali allows the play of even IPX-specific games over the Net.

But Doom wasn't the first multi-player Netgame, by a long way. For that honor, you have to reach back into the MUDs.

MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons or Multi-User Dimensions) and their cousins--MOOs, MUSHes and the like--are essentially virtual communities. Like the Ur-computer game Adventure from which they sprang, MUDs, etc. consist of a series of described "spaces" within which users pretend to be characters who interact with each other and (sometimes) with non-human, non-player artifacts of the MUD's database.

Some of them are combat-oriented or acquisition-oriented. In those, rank and power are acquired through adventure and survival. Others are purely social in nature. In those worlds, other than among the wizards who look after the plumbing, rank is a more fluid thing, based in part on seniority and in larger part on the subtleties of individual players' creativity, humor, ethics, intelligence and style.

Essentially, they're a combination of collective storytelling and persistent chat room and they're very, very addictive, despite their determinedly low-tech interfaces. For some users, MUDing can be an all-consuming passion--an opportunity to spend hours at a time inhabiting another person's skin, spinning the threads of a hero's tale. For others--such as LamdaMOO's infamous virtual rapist, Mr. Bungle--they can be a mechanism that frees them to act out their darkest impulses.

The original MUD was developed by Roy Trubshaw, Richard Bartle, and others at Essex University in and around 1978. At first, it wasn't very sophisticated, very large or very easy to use. Over time, it grew more sophisticated, much larger and even harder to use. It also became insanely popular and it launched a bestiary of text-based virtual communities that persists to this day.

The current direct successor to that original MUD is Bartle's MUD2, "a game of exploration and discovery; of friendship and treachery; of fighting and death." Its unofficial motto is "You haven't lived until you've died in MUD2!" For Netscapes' or Microsoft's version 4.x browsers, there's a Java-based front end that consists of some buttons and graphics framing an otherwise suspiciously telnet-like command line interface.

MUD2 costs 20 U.S. dollars per month and you must subscribe in order to play, but those who prefer not to pay as they go for membership in a virtual community need not despair--they have plenty of choices.

Yahoo's list of MOOs, MUSHes and MUDs, for instance, includes hundreds of MUDs--and well over 300 other links to MUSHes, MOOs, MUXes, MUSEs and sundry other "talkers" (virtual environments with no game-play component).

But interactive communities aren't everyone's cup of latte. Some folks prefer other kinds of games--and there are certainly plenty of choices available. For instance, Happy Puppy maintains an extremely large set of links to all kinds of Webgames--games you can play using only a modern browser (some may require you install a plug-in, such as Macromedia's Shockwave, though most don't). Their British competitor, Games Domain offers Java-based games designed by their own staff, including Flea Circus, a fiendishly complex Lemmings tribute that's profoundly addictive--believe me.

Games writen in Java are becoming increasingly popular among Webgamers, by the way.

Both sites offer links to commercial games and gaming networks, reviews, walkthroughs, cheat codes and demos. And they both get a bazillion visits a day.

Play It All Night Long

So, why should you care?

Because the market for online games of all kinds is HUGE. Although I'm always inclined to take "expert" market projections with a barrel or two of salt, last year Forester Research estimated that there were 6.9 million online game enthusiasts and it projects that number will increase to over 18 million by 2001. Likewise, Jupiter Communications predicts that consumer spending for Web-based games will hit $1.6 billion by the year 2000, whereas Cowles/Simba Information, in its "Interactive Entertainment 1998: Sizing The Market For Games & Recreation" report, forecasts it to hit a mere $670 million by 2001.

Hey, a billion here, a billion there--who's counting? The point is that your customers are ready to fork over large quantities of legal tender to while away their time gaming over the connection that you're providing. And you should be making it easy for them, because the customer, damnit, is ALWAYS right.

Certainly the folks at Yahoo! have figured that out. They host free Java-based board and card games for all comers, complete with chat.

Are they doing so out of the kindness of their big, warm, fuzzy hearts?

Of course not. They're doing it to keep users at Yahoo!, where they will see the banner ads that help keep Yahoo! profitable. They're doing it to deliver to their advertisers what the movie industry quaintly calls "butts in seats".

Yahoo!'s is one model. There are others in use throughout the Net. One old standby is charging for time usage. Registered players pay via credit card and get dinged by the minute, the hour, or for a block of time to be used at their discretion.

Yahoo!'s free service includes a crude, self-selecting version of what's known as skill matching. Players get to choose at what level they want to play and, theoretically, at least, are matched against other players at a comparable skill level. Unfortunately, since there's no penalty (other than losing) for choosing to compete at higher skill levels, nobody plays at the kiddie end of the pool--even though a lot of them should. In a pay-for-service model, skill matching is more important--after all, if you're going to have to pay to play, you're going to want to win.

There's also the challenge paradigm. It works a lot like it did back when I was putting up quarters for pinball games--the loser pays for the privilege of playing the winner. This one appeals most to highly-skilled players, of course.

One rarely-implemented scheme is the notion of tiered service levels. Much like the quality of service models so widely touted (and so poorly implemented) for IP services, this approach could offer paying players preferred access to a popular game, or to higher levels or "cooler" implementations, while freebie players have to compete for just a few slots, have time limits placed on their play, or simply don't get to play the advanced version. The problem here is to make the freebie access compelling enough to incent players to pay for the really good stuff.

It's kind of the neighborhood heroin dealer approach--the first taste is free, but you cut them off once they get a hankering for it. The main problem is that it requires a killer game that players just can't get elsewhere--and that's a tall order.

If you can make the right alliances, you might try using promotional incentives, instead. Strike deals with game vendors or related advertisers to give players on your system discounts on the purchase of their games or the ability to access special game features, such as additional levels, cool weapons and so on.

Regardless, you should focus on how to entice your users into wanting to spend time on your site--and games are an excellent way to go about it. There are a dozen or more MUD, MOO and MUSH servers that have very low resource requirement and are available for free. Get one, recruit some computer science students to set it up and run it in exchange for comped accounts and watch your system become a destination, instead of just a point of departure.

Look around for Java games you can host for your users--once they've downloaded the .class, image and sound files, all the action happens on their CPU, not yours. That's the very definition of a "no-brainer". You can grab game applets at one of the many archives available around the Web, such as the Java™ Boutique or Javapowered.com, and set up a page of games.

Or do both.

Heck, hold contests! Offer free time or tee shirts to winners. Create a buzz that makes your users want to tell their friends about how cool your service is--while your competitors simply provide a pipe and a POP server. Or, at the least, run your own Kali server, so the IPX gamers can hold their deathmatches without leaving home. Use your imagination.

Add value.

Now's the time. It's the holiday season and everyone (except you, of course) has plenty of leisure time--or will, very shortly. Your window of opportunity won't be open forever.

Meanwhile, as soon as I finish this game of Euchre, I'm going to go barbeque.

Hey..it's Christmas, after all.

(Copyright© 1998 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)