Gaming online

September 2011

Boy playing gameA group congregates at the entrance to what looks like an ancient building. They are a mixture of races, some human, some not, and are all dressed in clothes that were last in fashion around 700 years ago. Welcome to the world of internet gaming. Henry Tucker MBCS logs on.

The group is planning its moves methodically. Their leader gives instructions and details exactly what he’s going to do. He even asks one of his party to calculate the odds of them coming out of this mission unscathed. They aren’t good, but not as bad as is usually the case.

After all this careful planning one of the group, the now-famous Leeroy Jenkins, ignores everything that’s been said and simply charges through the doorway to take on the beasts that lie within. The rest of the group follow and are soon all wiped out. (http://bit.ly/ogEjEB *warning* - the clip contains language some may find offensive).

This scene of orcs, goblins, elves and dwarfs is the stereotypical image many have for those who play games online; teenage boys in their bedrooms playing games late into the night, but that’s not (always) the case.

Games such as World of Warcraft are an example of how online games often used to be. You would buy the game in a shop, install it and then pay a subscription to then play it online.

Although this model still exists, (World of Warcraft still has over 11 million subscribers), there is a new trend with online games where you don’t buy the game, you don’t have to pay anything to play them and in some cases you stream directly them to your HDTV.

Micro-transactions

This may sound like the moves of small independent game developers and publishers, but it is in fact being led by one of the industry’s biggest names; Electronic Arts (EA).

‘At the end of [2011], the digital business is bigger than the packaged goods business, full stop,’ said John Riccitiello, EA’s CEO. ‘No questions in my mind. Then, you know, I think that we’ll find ways to even sell our packaged goods content in chunks and in pieces and subscriptions and micro-transactions.’

EA’s emphasis, so far, appears to be on that last statement; micro-transactions. The company has been in the ‘free to play’ area for some time with its Battlefield Heroes game, a low-res, online-only game, but has recently branched out with its Battlefield Play4Free.

The game itself is based on the older Battlefield 2 game, but uses a lot of items from newer games such as Battlefield Bad Company 2 and also from Battlefield Heroes. The idea is that you have your soldier and you earn points in the game, which you can then use to customise your character to make them unique to you. However, if you don’t have much time in which to do this, you can buy upgrades using real money to help you progress faster.

Oskar Berman, General Manager for Easy Studios, who have developed the game, said ‘if you don’t have so much time you can spend money to buy stuff. Time-rich players versus cash-rich players, that’s something that’s happening in the free-to-play games and it really works.’

The big difference between Battlefield Heroes and Battlefield Play4Free is that the latter doesn’t look that dissimilar from a console game from only a few years ago. Heroes has much more of a cartoony look to it with equally unbelievable gameplay, whereas Play4Free is very much your standard first person shooter.

Buying things in the game is very easy. Instead of having to enter your credit card details every time you want to buy something, you buy credits, which you then use to buy items. These can be new weapons, extras such as spanners for fixing vehicles or customisation items to make your character stand out.

This amount of personalisation is only possible through these micro-transactions performed using secure websites or money transfer systems such as PayPal. The latter is of particular importance to gamers because a large percentage of them are under 18 and so don’t have access to credit or debit cards.

Pricing starts at only £4.49 for 700 points, which is a lot less than games you can buy from a shop or online.

Steam-powered

Another development for gaming is the expansion of a service called Steam, where you can buy and download even the latest games. Steam is run by games developer Valve, the people behind the hugely popular Half-Life and Counter-Strike games.

It started out as its vehicle for bringing new additions for these games, and others, but has now developed into a store and community tool for all manner of PC games and more recently for PS3 gamers.

With Steam you can buy games directly from the service, but also link games that you have purchased from shops. This means that the game is always linked to your account and isn’t transferable, which game publishers like, but also means that if you upgrade your PC or buy a new one you can re-download your games without losing anything or even having to keep the original install discs.

What Steam also does is manage friends you want to play with online and also automatically download any updates or patches for games linked to it.

The latest addition to Steam has been the move to the PS3. This was added earlier this year with the release of Portal 2. Anyone who bought the PS3 version could play against PC gamers as well as other PS3 gamers, a first for online multiplayer games.

The biggest development in internet-enabled gaming though is a system called OnLive. As with Steam, OnLive means that you don’t own a physical copy of a game, however, unlike Steam you don’t need to download the games as they are streamed directly to your device.

When OnLive was first announced it was initially designed to run on a set top box, that looks a lot like a standard digibox, with its own proprietary controller. As the service has evolved in the US it is now available on PCs and also on Android tablets and the iPad.

Cloud gaming

OnLive isn’t just offering complete games though, you will also be able to play demos, as you can with both the PlayStation Network (PSN) and Xbox Live. However, with PSN and Xbox Live you still have to download the game demos, which takes time and space on your console’s hard disk.

The developers of OnLive describe it as cloud gaming as it works in much the same way as other cloud computing services. Just as with online video and music you don’t download anything, but stream it from OnLive’s servers that do all the work. The only thing that will hold you back will be the speed of your internet connection. The service has until now been limited to the US, but as of 22 September it will be available in the UK too.

OnLive doesn’t intend to stop at just proprietary hardware, PCs and mobile devices. It also has plans to embed the service in other consumer electronic devices such as Blu-ray players.

OnLive CEO Steve Perlman told games industry magazine MCV that ‘they [Blu-ray player manufacturers] see OnLive in a similar way to LoveFilm, only without the physical media element. It’s an extra service to offer.’

As for how you pay for the games this is done through a variety of different subscription options. You can buy games or you can rent a selection of games for a variety of lengths of time, much like you can with services like LoveFilm.

Playing games off a server so that you don’t have to invest in expensive software does sound, on paper, to be a good thing. However, it is dependent on you having a fast internet connection. If you are playing on a tablet, then you can do this wherever you have a connection; the same is true if you use a laptop.

OnLive hasn’t said how much the hardware for playing games on a TV will cost yet, in the US it cost $99. The PC, Mac and tablet software is free and it is free to sign up for the service.

Renting games instead of buying them is a great way to keep the cost of gaming down when you consider that new releases retail for around £50 each. By renting a game until you finish it you will undoubtedly save money; we can only hope that gamer’s internet connections can take the strain. OnLive hasn’t said what the minimum required internet connection should be to run the service, but it is thought that gamers will need at least a 1Mb connection.

Fancy a game?

Despite the moves to create new ways of playing games online, the existing methods are still there and going strong.

Modern games consoles and the internet make for the perfect bed fellows. The high speed internet connections that many of us already take for granted have become a great way to link up gamers from all across the world.

Although in some instances setting up a game can be a little clunky, many games are starting to make the internet and collaborative gaming a central part of the experience. One of the best examples of this is the wonderfully eclectic LittleBigPlanet (LBP) series.

Whenever you start a game and load up a level, whether that be one of supplied levels or a community made-one, you have the option to play it with other gamers. Now this may not appeal to many gamers, but it does make things very interesting to those who take it up.

The beauty of LBP is that at various points there are special sections where you can win extra stuff if there are two of you.

Now this could be another player sitting next to you, but if you don’t have that option then an internet companion is the next best thing.

Another game from Sony, InFamous 2, includes a feature where you can opt to attempt missions that have been created by other players without having to pause your current game. It is this community feel that helps engage with gamers and lengthen the lifespan of individual titles.

When MMOs go wrong

All Points Bulletin (APB) was billed by many as potential rival to World of Warcraft (WoW), but ended up shooting itself in the foot instead.

Game developer Dave Jones, up until APB, had an impressive gaming CV. The co-creator of the highly successful and controversial Grand Theft Auto series and Crackdown was seen as the perfect person to make APB succeed.

However, after years of development and many millions of dollars of investment the game launched in 2010 and lasted only three months before developer Realtime Worlds went into administration.

The game had become burdened with expectation and huge development costs and unfortunately the end product wasn’t good enough to pay to keep it running, let alone recoup the investment money.

In November 2010, just five months after its launch, the game was bought for a paltry £1.5 million by the online games company K2 Network that said it would relaunch the game as a free-to-play game, rather than a subscription one, as Realtime Worlds had initially done.

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