Online Games Take OffThanks to the Internet, gamers can compete with people down the street, across the country, or around the world. Some use PCs, others play on consoles. How can you get in on the game?
Michael Desmond is an avid gamer with limited skills. A flight-simulation junkie, Desmond is currently battling an addiction to Ubisoft's Lock On: Modern Air Combat. In his spare time, he runs Content Foundry, which provides written services to high-tech publishers and companies.
Do you love video games but get tired of sitting in your basement and crushing the same neighbors who show up at your door, eat your food, and wilt under your domination of Madden 2004? Do you think you'd have more fun playing a role-playing game against a flesh-and-blood opponent? Maybe you don't currently play video games but think doing so might be a fun way of relieving a little stress, only to learn your significant other doesn't share your point of view.
Well, now you can match gaming wits with anyone, anywhere--online.
Online games raked in $960 million in 2003, according to research firm The Themis Group. And Themis expects that number to hit $1.3 billion this year, thanks in part to the growing adoption of fast, broadband connections, which accelerate online game play. Also feeding the surge: a growing selection of online-enabled titles that represent virtually every conceivable game genre, from racing and flight simulators, to sports, to first-person shooters, to massive multiplayer role-playing games. Whether you want to shoot, run, drive, fly, punch, kick, talk, act, scheme, build, or grapple, you can do it all online.
There's just one problem: You face so many choices that it can be difficult to make sure you're getting the most out of your online gaming experience.
The biggest decision most people face is whether to buy games for their computer or to purchase a console system like the Sony PlayStation 2 or Microsoft Xbox. A few years ago there was no question: If you wanted to play online, you had to do it on a PC. But the latest versions of PS2 and Xbox have changed all that. Both offer network ports for high-speed Internet access, and both feature subscription services that let you find online gaming environments, keep track of friends, and download game updates. The Xbox requires a broadband connection, however; so if you want to play games over an analog modem connection, the Sony PS2 is for you. (Note: The Nintendo Gamecube does not offer a viable online gaming option. The company sells broadband and dial-up adapters for its GameCube console, but those adapters work only with one game and don't allow true Internet access.)
Are consoles a slam-dunk decision for online gamers? Not hardly, says Jon Chagnon, an avid online gamer who plays on both a cutting-edge PC and a PS2 console. Chagnon says consoles are great for sports and combat titles, in which players can make full use of the molded, handheld controllers that come with the systems. But for keyboard-friendly fare--first-person shooters like Quake and role-playing games that need lots of input--PCs tend to be best.
But Chagnon says the decision to play via console or PC really starts with the individual. "Are they a computer person or not?" he asks. "If they aren't that savvy about computers, I tell them to go the console route. No headaches, no hassles. You put your disk in, and you're gaming. But for the cutting edge, I don't think a console is ever going to touch a PC." More on that later.
If you go with a console, consider the costs of online services: For starters, you should expect to shell out $40 or more to add a network adapter. Microsoft charges $70 for the Xbox Live Starter Kit. The kit includes a headset for chatting online and a one-year subscription to the Live service, which costs $40 per year thereafter. Sony's PS2 Network service is not as fully featured, but you pay only a one-time $40 fee for the Internet connection kit; there is no annual fee.
In the Truly Disturbing Development Department, Microsoft has announced that it is charging Xbox owners of the Links 2004 golf game $5 to download a new add-on course. The move breaks ranks with the industry practice of providing free downloadable updates, and could spell a move toward pay-for-play updates by other game makers.
When choosing a console, you may want to look for one that offers a wide selection of optional controllers--say, a digital pistol or even an optional keyboard. Microsoft is pitching its Xbox as a do-it-all device that can double as a karaoke machine, a digital photo center, and a DVD video player. It's this kind of stuff that blurs the line between PCs and consoles. Knowing what appeals to you could help you decide which console to buy.
At the end of the day, your decision boils down to one issue: What games do you want to play? Once you know that, you can do your homework. Check vendors' Web sites to get the latest list of games released for each console. Read reviews from gaming sites, forums, and magazines to learn how well titles are supported on each console. And keep your ear to the ground so you know which console has the best buzz. Title support is a moving target, and what may be a hot console platform today could be a dead end two years from now.
PCs Have the Advantage
Ultimately, a computer may be your best bet for playing on- or offline. PCs offer more flexibility than any console can hope to provide, with broader title selection, better graphics and input options, and myriad upgrade opportunities. No surprise, they're also a lot more complex and expensive, so all that flexibility comes at a price.
PC games can also enjoy longer useful lives, thanks to downloadable updates that range from simple graphics tweaks to comprehensive "mods" that add new capabilities and elements to a game. The Urban Terror mod for Quake III, for instance, transforms the classic man versus monsters game into a taut shoot-out among human opponents. In some cases, mods can turn a struggling title into a gaming legend. Microprose's ambitious but bug-ridden Falcon 4.0 combat flight simulator comes to mind. Over the past three years, the user community has stepped up with a series of innovative patches, fixes, mods, and updates that have turned Falcon 4.0 into the most complete combat flight simulation ever made.
Of course, none of this means spit if you don't have the hardware to handle today's games. If you enjoy flex-twitch fare like Quake, Unreal, or any other fast-paced simulation, you have a lot of decisions to make. Figure on investing in a PC with a processor running above 3 GHz, outfitted with no less than 512MB of RAM, and packing a fast hard disk rated at 7200 rpm. And don't scrimp on graphics. Get a cutting-edge card that offers at least 128MB of RAM to support highly detailed 3D scenes (the ATI Radeon 9800 line is hot right now, for example).
David Spohn, guide for the Internet Games site on the About.com network, says that while consoles have improved greatly in the online area over the past couple years, they are not yet a match for PCs. Spohn says there are simply more and better online gaming options for the PC today than for any console. So ask yourself: Does the thought of plumbing the Windows Registry or searching for driver updates terrify you? If so, by all means get a console. Otherwise, you may be best off with a fast PC.