Ever since the days of Nolan Bushnell’s 1971 bat and ball phenomenon that was Pong, co-operative gaming has added a social element to a medium which has otherwise been man vs. machine. In recent years, publishers have embraced the shift towards online games, first by PC and now second generation consoles, and developers have in turn sought ways to deliver a fast, streamlined multiplayer experience.
Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOG’s) have already proven an alternative form of revenue stream for publishers. EverQuest, Sony’s fantasy online world, has around 500,000 subscribers, each paying €10 a month, while Star Wars Galaxies and Dark Age of Camelot have 300,000 customers. Free to play games like Counter-Strike remain the most popular multiplayer choices – their global fan base numbering tens of millions.
With the introduction of broadband, an increasing amount of publishers are demanding network technology from their developers. Xbox Live has proved that keyboards can be successfully bypassed in favour of voice communication and Sony is likely to pull a few technical rabbits from its hat with its online services. Networked gaming’s online community is its biggest appeal and, even though hardcore gamers devote 10+ hours a week to their favourite MMOG, transient gamers are likely to become multiplayer’s biggest cash cow.
“We’re also on the verge of seeing a huge uptake in multiplayer gaming on mobiles,” says John Cahill, CEO of U.S./Irish mobile game developer Stadeon. “The mobile space is crying out for a new interactive application of some sort. Nobody expected that SMS’s would become so ubiquitous and that ring-tone downloads would become so popular. The next logical move is fully interactive applications and, from my perspective, the most immediate result of those is multiplayer games. A phone handset is one of the most personal devices people have. It’s become part of peoples’ culture.”
Beyond Microsoft’s successful foray into the online medium (Xbox Live), publishers are still trying to figure out the best solutions for on-line gaming and developers are busily refining the technology. Problems arise when, a few months before release, the publisher requests that their game be enabled for on-line play. This nightmarish 11th hour challenge for developers can only be alleviated by either a superb in-house team or outsourced middleware.
Just as Havok proved that a ready-made physics engine has the ability to relieve a developer of time and expertise constraints, so Dublin-based demonWare provide network technology allowing developers to hit the ground running. This company was formed when Dylan Collins (whose background was in game development) and Sean Blanchfield (a specialist in distributed networks) began investigating the technical aspects of multiplayer gaming and recognised a shortage in real-time network software to provide functionality for online games.
“Development of low-level network stuff is pretty tricky and takes a long time to get right but we figured that we could build something genuinely useful for game developers,” says Collins. “Our BitDemon product provides state synchronization for games. This keeps all the players in a virtual game world in harmony with each other, ensuring that any action which one player takes on his computer or console, moving a cup for example, is consistent in all the other players’ game worlds. Managing that information flow through the Internet, with all of its latency issues, is a tough challenge.”
demonWare will be demoing the second version of its technology at March 2004’s Games Developers Conference in the United States. “2.0” provides multi-server networking, allowing additional players to join a game without the platform/server having to increase online infrastructure. “This is technology that the likes of Microsoft are interested in because every time they set up a game on Xbox Live it costs them bandwidth money. Our technology reduces the cost and increases the dimensions of the game,” notes Collins.
The company, established in 2003, will be announcing its first clients in the coming months and contends that developer interest in their software has been phenomenal. As is the case with Havok, demonWare’s biggest competition comes not from rival middleware companies, but from developers themselves (creating this technology in-house). However, demonWare is at a further disadvantage: while Havok can impress with demos of their physics in action, network software is less of a “sexy” physical entity. Still, the surge in online gaming and BitDemon’s ability to reduce development time and costs should make them winners.
Surveys reveal that around ¾ of all games currently played on the net are old staples like chess, checkers and jigsaws. Also, the players are slightly older than the average console gamer, are split 50/50 male and female, and play for a shorter time each day. If casual gaming is the future of multiplayer, then the mobile market is an ideal playground. Until now, the number of consumers with decent handsets were few but new technologies and platforms are aligning to make mobile multiplayer gaming a serious reality.
Stadeon’s John Cahill has an impressive background in multiplayer development, having built the first online PC network in 1997 for SegaSoft (a subsidiary R&D lab for Sega) he helped convince Sega’s hardware team to install a modem in the Dreamcast and subsequently constructed a network for the console. Carousel, Stadeon’s platform, enables service providers, operators and publishers to quickly develop and deploy multiplayer cross-platform games. In short, it offers developers all the tools and billing environments to write a multiplayer mobile game.
“We pitch software development kits to game developers in a language they understand. We give them the programming API’s, a well-documented software development kit, and show them how their games can be employed on a GPRS or a 3G network. We give them traffic management tools, help them cut down on bandwidth and create a superb gaming experience. That frees up game developers to do what they do best, which is writing games.”
Some mobile developers have bypassed middleware in favour of forging multiplayer technology themselves. Currently, Irish developer Speirtech has two multiplayer games on the market (poker and chess), both of which store the game’s progression on a server, allowing players to revisit the game whenever they choose.
“The system is designed to link with PC’s,” adds Speirtech’s Paul Savage, who has secured releases of his games in the U.S. and UK. “We had a great game of poker the other day with one player on interactive TV, one on the mobile and the other on the PC. At the moment we’re trying to add video streaming to our games to create a better user experience but that’s a tough challenge on such a small screen.”
The challenges in creating a multiplayer game for mobile phones are staggering, not least because there are so many different platforms on the market, says John Cahill. “Handsets today are about as smart as a game console from the early 90’s, like the Sega Saturn. Many have constraints in terms of memory, display and device. Even though most infrastructure has been upgraded you have to assume that there’s a fairly slow network and you must guarantee that there’ll be enough network bandwidth to allow the game to operate.”
Just as mobile entertainment is increasingly co-operative, so on-line gaming is becoming a mass-market priority for publishers; the quality of service, especially in console games, must be finely chiselled. If the developer delivers a product which isn’t technically sufficient and does not match its off-line experience, then the gamer will walk away. No company can afford that: average networking must be replaced by superb networking.
“The future?” asks demonWare’s Dylan Collins. “A lot of platforms and publishers are still wondering how money can be made from multiplayer gaming, especially when the biggest online games in the world, like Counter-Strike, are free. Billing is likely to come to the fore in the immediate future. Also, protecting kids online is going to become a major issue. No one is talking about it yet, but I guarantee in 18 months they will. For middleware developers like us, the challenge is to get network technology in games up to the standard and priority of graphics… I believe that’s going to happen.”
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