GameSpot may receive revenue from affiliate and advertising partnerships for sharing this content and from purchases through links.

QOTW: What Makes an Online Game Successful?

Online computer gaming is increasing in popularity, and online games are enjoying the spotlight. Some games have been more financially and critically successful than others. So what makes an online game successful? The editors discuss the important factors.

Comments

   


A compelling and original concept
Player support and community
Great graphics and environmental diversity
Good customer service
Fun gameplay
Add-on and mod support
Built-in player-game matching service
Content additions and refinements
Ease of player interaction
Accessibility
Developer support of player feedback
Control of cheating


 

   

Take me to the Question of the Week Archive According to an IDC press release published in February, 40 million households will play online games by 2004, up 25 million from 2000. Online gaming has definitely caught on, and it's become synonymous with multiplayer gaming. As with other Internet-based activities, online gaming spans international boundaries, age, class, and gender. Across the world, players log on to their favorite games or services to seek out others for a battle of wits and strategy or to cooperatively defeat other teams of players or dangerous monsters. Although much of online gaming communication is conducted in English, some of the most successful games aren't even English-language games. Lineage: The Blood Pledge, a Korean online role-playing game developed by NCsoft, boasts 2 million active accounts and as many as 180,000 simultaneous users, which ostensibly makes it the most successful online game in history. Other extremely popular online games include Sony's 3D online RPG EverQuest; Counter-Strike, which is undoubtedly the most popular online shooter today; Tribes 2; and Diablo II.

The success of these and similar games has been a very sweet temptation for developers wanting a slice of the pie. An incredible number of massively multiplayer games or online persistent-world games have been announced in the last two years--not a month seems to pass without another announcement. But is there a place for all these "me too" games? Some strong contenders like Funcom's Anarchy Online will soon be ready to test the market, while developers closely watch the incumbents. So what makes an online game successful? This week we tackle the question along with special guest writer and Ultima Online designer Starr Long.

Lineage is to date the most successful online game.
Lineage is to date the most successful online game.

If you have an opinion, please vote in our Instant Poll. If you'd like to tell us how wrong we are or add your opinion, please send us an e-mail. Your letter could appear in next week's feature. We're also posting reader letters from last week's question, "Which strategy game are you most looking forward to this year?" If you have a burning question about games or the game industry, send in your question today! Your question could be selected as our next Question of the Week!

First: Starr Long ranks the crucial features

 
Starr Long
Associate Producer and Director, Ultima Online and Producer, Destination Games

There are many factors that make an online game successful. Obviously when you start to read my list, you will see that many of the "successful" online games out there do not meet all these criteria (including, of course, products I helped create). I am not saying these products are not successful, merely that they could be even more successful. Also, I am saying that as this market starts to become crowded with more products, each game will need to come close to achieving most of the goals on this list to grab a decent share.

I have ranked them according to their relative importance.

Performance: Most importantly, the game should be a stable and responsive platform. Downtime, especially server-side, should be extremely rare. The game should respond well to latency, density of users, and increased intensity of game activity (that is, everyone firing off spells at once).

Ultima Online, the game that ushered in massively multiplayer RPGs
Ultima Online, the game that ushered in massively multiplayer RPGs

Accessibility: The game should be easy to get into and easy to use. This means minimizing confusing choices at the beginning, offering entertaining instruction in how to use the game, making the game setting familiar enough (that is, not too alien), and--most importantly--giving the user direction at the beginning (that is, go do this thing now, then do this thing, and so on). It also means making the interface as intuitive as possible. Modeling it after Windows is one example of not forcing the user to learn a "new" interface.

Fun: This seems incredibly obvious, but it is sometimes very hard to achieve. Basically, I think of this as minimizing repetitive actions that feel more like work than gameplay (like mining for ore or camping spawns). It also means minimizing downtime (that is, finding your corpse, camping to heal, running for one hour to get to the dungeon entrance, and so on) between multiple "fun" activities. A player should feel like a hero, not a glorified exterminator and/or long-distance runner.

EverQuest players understand and face extremely risky encounters.
EverQuest players understand and face extremely risky encounters.

Consent: No player should have anything happen to him or her without his or her explicit consent. No risk should be taken without the player understanding what that risk is. This includes leaving the safety of a city to hunt monsters that can kill you or going to a part of the game that allows player killing.

Social Interaction: The game should actively encourage and support social interaction. This can take the form of requiring players to group together to complete certain activities (like slay the dragon) and/or creating economic avenues of gameplay like player-run businesses.

Customization: Each character should be customizable in some form. This can be physical in nature (appearance) or skill-based. Either way, a character should feel like an individual and not just the same as every other character playing the game.

Expandability: The game should regularly and easily expand its content without any disruption in normal gameplay.

Third Dawn is the latest expansion to Ultima Online.
Third Dawn is the latest expansion to Ultima Online.

There are plenty more, of course (like player property, pets, global awareness, and so on), but these are what I consider the most important and what I am striving for in our next product. I firmly believe that these simple rules can provide the framework to make online games that can achieve even greater success than we have already seen to date. This market still has so much potential that we are just beginning to realize.

Next: The community factor

 
Trey Walker
News Editor

The element that makes online games successful in the long run is the player community that grows around the game. For an online game to be fun, it must have a large active base of players, because the primary reason people play games online is to compete or interact with other players. In many ways, the success of an online game is self-propelled--the more players a game has (assuming the servers can handle the load), the more fun it will be for new players. Similarly, for subscription-based games, more players means more money to support maintenance and development of the game. If an online game fails to reach a critical mass of players, it doesn't matter much how well designed the game is. For an example, just look at Allegiance, an excellent game from Microsoft that failed to attract enough of a player community to make the game a success.

A new character model from The Shadows of Luclin
A new character model from The Shadows of Luclin

It's not enough for an online game to have enough players, though; developers must keep the game from aging through patches and expansions. Verant has followed this practice religiously by continually patching its online role-playing game Asheron's Call have enjoyed regular expansions and updates; though Ultima Online is showing its age, Origin continues to release expansions and promises to continue its support of the game, and Asheron's Call features monthly events that improve the game and add new features.

Funcom's Anarchy Online
Funcom's Anarchy Online

It will be interesting to see how all the upcoming massively multiplayer games measure up to EverQuest, Asheron's Call, and Ultima Online. Strategy First's Anarchy Online, Funcom's massively multiplayer role-playing game, will launch at the end of this month. Whether it can woo enough players from the other online games remains to be seen--it offers a new sci-fi world, better graphics, and a number of tempting improvements on its competitors, but many players may have invested too much time in the other games to make the switch.

In a galaxy far, far away...
In a galaxy far, far away...

Other upcoming online games will have an even tougher time succeeding. Though online games are gaining popularity, there is a finite number of players available with a finite amount of time to devote to such games. The tendency of many players to devote large amounts of time to a single game in order to gain levels and power generates a high level of loyalty. Convincing players with middle- and high-level characters to begin again as a low-level character in another game will be difficult unless the new game has a specific appeal that can't be matched by the other available games. One upcoming online game with built-in appeal is Star Wars Galaxies, since the Star Wars property already has such a large fan base.

Another online game with built-in appeal that will soon be making waves in North America is Lineage: The Blood Pledge. Unlike Star Wars Galaxies, Lineage's setting isn't what makes it appealing--it's the game's already huge community that sets it apart from other online games. Lineage was launched in South Korea a few years ago, and NCsoft, the game's developer, claims it has more than 2 million active accounts worldwide. That makes the game more popular than EverQuest, Asheron's Call, and Ultima Online combined, and this fact alone is sure to attract some attention from North American gamers.

Next: Two core features

 
Greg Kasavin
Executive Editor

The recent publication of World War II Online by Strategy First and Cornered Rat is a perfect example of what to do and what not to do with an online game. On the one hand, many prospective players were extremely excited by the release of World War II Online. As an anecdotal case, one of my colleagues, who's primarily a video game player and has never bought a PC game before, went out and bought World War II Online the day it came out. On the other hand, days after its release, World War II Online remained virtually unplayable and obviously unfinished. Though Strategy First quickly tried to make amends by extending a free trial to registered users, the fact is, all those people who bought World War II Online when it came out completely wasted the $40 they paid up front, not to mention a whole lot of time spent trying to log in to the game in vain, in spite of downloading a 70MB patch. By comparison, literally burning two $20 bills would at least have generated heat for a short time. The box containing World War II Online just takes up space.

World War II Online
World War II Online

What happened? World War II Online has a great original concept: It lets you take part in a virtual war. It's a brand-new game, but even before its release, it already had a well-established fan community, which was spurred on by active support from the game's developers. The gameplay of World War II Online promises to let players engage in many different activities, including commandeering planes and tanks. The game promises to follow the actual course of the war to remain historically authentic. In light of all this, it's safe to call World War II Online the single most highly anticipated wargame of all time. It's also probably the most ambitious.

In the battlefield in World War II Online
In the battlefield in World War II Online

This is all for naught, for the foreseeable future. Follow-through is essential--promises are empty until they're fulfilled, and World War II Online has yet to fulfill any of the promises it made. Regardless of the explanation for this, the actual circumstances--that people paid real money for a game they couldn't play--are completely unacceptable. I'm glad that online publications, including GameSpot, were able to be so quick about disseminating the news about the game's problematic launch, so as to discourage many prospective players from purchasing the game when it was released.

In light of this, as well as of the turmoil from earlier this year over the premature release of Tribes 2, I think any truly successful online game needs to be two things: At its core, it needs to be an interesting game with an original or proven concept. And in its implementation, it needs to be fully functional. That's it.

Unique creatures are found in online persistent worlds.
Unique creatures are found in online persistent worlds.

I think most online games now in development will fail because their ideas aren't interesting enough on their own. A lot of these games are being designed to improve upon the ideas of highly successful online games like EverQuest--but it'll take a lot more than some simple refinement to pull EverQuest players away from their favorite game. Some online games currently in production wisely recognize that most people don't have huge amounts of spare time to devote to gaming every day. Still, these and all the rest must also be fully functional as advertised once they're released. That may be easier said than done as far as the developers are concerned, but it's the least that anyone should expect. Later this month, another major online game--Funcom's massively multiplayer RPG, Anarchy Online--will be released. I sincerely hope the launch of this promising game will go more smoothly than that of World War II Online.

Next: Cheaters need not apply

 
Craig Beers
Downloads and Media Editor

The most obvious way to make online games successful is to keep the players happy. There are several ways to do this, and we've already seen a fair share of examples of what works and what doesn't in the past.

Allegiance, a good game that hardly anyone played
Allegiance, a good game that hardly anyone played

The first thing a company needs to do is hype the game. Without a certain amount of hype, a game can suffer from a vicious circle: If hardly anyone buys the game when it's launched, and very few people play it, that will cause even fewer people to buy it. Take a look at Allegiance, a good game that not many people played. If you look at Microsoft's Zone.com service, the game isn't even listed prominently on the site now. Barely a year after its release, fewer than a hundred people are playing this multiplayer-only game. Even older games like MechWarrior III have more people playing it online.

Therefore, companies need to get the name out there. For example, I remember hearing someone talking about Tribes before it was released. I couldn't afford to buy too many games back then, so I had to carefully choose what I wanted. I hadn't planned on getting Tribes, but then my friend sent me a link at Sierra where you could sign up to get the game for free. See, all you had to do was say that you were going to run a server, enter your specs, and they would send you the game. I thought it was the greatest thing, although I had no intention of running a server. When I started playing the game, though, I really enjoyed it. I even ran a server when I was at class or out at night. That was a great way to market the game because you would see so many servers running at once.

The ever-popular Counter-Strike
The ever-popular Counter-Strike

Another issue game companies need to deal with is cheating. Cheating is the main thing that makes me stop playing an online game. In some games like Team Fortress (or Quake), I could deal with the cheating, because I was pretty good at the game and none of the cheats truly altered the game. But I quit Diablo because of the cheating, and I have recently stopped playing Counter-Strike. I can't stand the wall hacks that are out there or scripts that eliminate the gun recoil. There's always going to be cheating, but companies need to eliminate it quickly. Even Diablo II, which was supposed to be cheat-free since the characters are stored on the server instead of locally, has seen its fair share of cheats and hacks.

Readers voted Diablo II the second best multiplayer game of all time.
Readers voted Diablo II the second best multiplayer game of all time.

Continuous support and updates are also necessary. Sometimes you may find that units or skills become so disproportionately powerful that something needs to be done. Once again using Diablo II as an example, the necromancer has a spell, corpse explosion, that was originally incredibly strong. It got to the point where everyone chose the necromancer because they could journey into the toughest areas alone. Lots of people complained when Blizzard reduced its strength, but I agree with what they did--it makes the game fair for everyone. I also liked how Ensemble Studios tweaked the building costs for town centers in Age of Empires II. When I played that game almost every day, I was so sick of people using town center rushes to win the game. I saw people take out opponents without building a single military unit. While it's a perfectly viable strategy, it wasn't something the developers intended to include in the game, and it isn't very fun. I think as long as companies listen to the needs of the players and fix what needs to be fixed, then that would keep people playing.

Next: Variety is the spice of online life

 
Giancarlo Varanini
Assistant Previews Editor

If anyone really knew the answer to this question, there wouldn't be so many online games that have fallen flat due to lack of interest from fans. But personally, I think there are a few things developers can do to hold my interest in an online game, though it largely depends on the genre involved. In the case of an online RPG, visual diversity has a direct impact on a player's initial impressions of a game--if everything around you looks the same, then chances are you're going to become bored with the game much quicker. EverQuest does a fairly reasonable job of offering variety right away, with large towns surrounded by sprawling plains and forests populated with plenty of people trying to gain experience for their characters.

After you advance in some online RPGs like EverQuest, new and exotic monsters become available.
After you advance in some online RPGs like EverQuest, new and exotic monsters become available.

Where EverQuest tends to weaken is the lack of diversity in the monsters in the starting areas. The first few days after EverQuest's release, some were branding the game as a rat-killing simulator and, understandably, leaving the game simply because they grew tired of repeatedly killing the same monsters. However, once you passed the throngs of rats and diminutive orcs--or similar types of creatures in other regions--more types of creatures appeared, proving that the world of EverQuest was filled with much more than rats. In fact, seeing what types of creatures there were provided a surprising amount of motivation to explore different areas. Some of my personal favorite monsters from EverQuest are the enormous badgers, the giant mushroom creatures, and the various types of giants--all of them illustrate the diversity of Norrath's inhabitants.

DM2 from the original Quake
DM2 from the original Quake

For multiplayer first-person shooters, an entertaining experience depends much more on level design. To this day, one of my all-time favorite levels is DM2 from the original EverQuest , which featured a floating platform and a hidden lava pit within the same room. From the Quake test to long after the game was released, DM2 was the map of choice because it flowed so well and had items that were placed perfectly--the grenade launcher on the second level was a nice touch. Other maps weren't nearly as entertaining to play. The same applies to other first-person shooters like EverQuest , where maps like Dust and Italy seem to be much more fun to play than the others because you can always expect an intense firefight at specific points on the map.

Weapon balance is also a key factor in creating a fun multiplayer first-person shooter experience. Obviously, the powerful weapons should have some drawbacks that make them somewhat difficult to use, while the lower-end weapons--though much less powerful--should have much better accuracy and be much easier to use in a tight situation. It's a basic formula that most developers have nailed down already.

There are a number of different things that go into making a good online game, but again, most of it depends on the type of genre. If you're playing an online RPG, a diverse monster population and unique scenery are important since you spend a lot of time in the same area. But for first-person shooters, strategy games, or puzzle games, it's going to be something different.

Next: Making a connection

 
Sam Parker
Hardware Editor

At the risk of stating the obvious, I'll say straight off that every online game should make the most out of the player interaction made possible by the online medium. Whether an online game is competitive or cooperative in nature, it's essential for it to make it easy to meet up and talk with other players, measure relative rank or ability, and make long-term success in the game depend on working with or against other players. If players are going to invest the sort of time that's typical for online games, there has to be some payoff.

Camping in first-person shooters can be a problem.
Camping in first-person shooters can be a problem.

Technical problems and poorly designed or tested gameworlds can quickly make online play a frustrating experience. Too many games quickly demonstrate pernicious problems like lag, cheating, or instability. Why invest weeks or months in building up a character if there's the chance that server problems could delete precious items? It's also disappointing to see hacks crop up that let less scrupulous players break the game's rules without consequence. Why play legitimately when everyone is cheating? There's a lot of work that goes into making a persistent world a consistent experience, and it's increasingly necessary for developers to execute on this well and iron out most of these problems.

It's a comparatively easier task to host a player matching and ranking system for conventional sorts of action and strategy games. Games like Half-Life, have been so expandable as to remove the incentive for some serious players to buy new retail games as regularly as they might otherwise.

PlanetSide has a persistent world and character advancement options.
PlanetSide has a persistent world and character advancement options.

PlanetSide will differ enough to be worth a monthly fee. The major difference, of course, is the persistent world that Verant's game has to offer, but the character-building element will also change the focus of the game from personal-skill building to stats development. It will be interesting to see how well Verant's experience with EverQuest translates into an action game. In one sense, Tribes 2's community features are gravy. The fundamental mechanics make it a good multiplayer shooter first and foremost. With so much innovation taking place in online games, there are bound to be as many bad ideas as good ones. As more conventional genres move online, we'll get a better idea of what translates and what doesn't.

Next: Active players drive the game

 
Jennifer Ho
Features Editor

If I knew the answer to the question, I'd be out there creating a really fun online game in hopes of entertaining the masses and making a few dollars as well. I think that ultimately hitting the right combination of features, support, and marketing muscle is the answer, but it's pretty hard to break down the exact formula, yet there are a few important factors to keep in mind.

Beta testers of Dark Age of Camelot give their input on the game.
Beta testers of Dark Age of Camelot give their input on the game.

Know your audience and listen to feedback. You definitely want to keep existing players happy with the product, and your reputation will be based on what they tell their friends and family. Word of mouth can help or hinder your sales. If you are trying to attract more new players (which company wouldn't want to?), a solid reputation for customer satisfaction will help player retention, especially in pay-to-play gaming services. Often it seems that companies don't listen to player feedback as much as they could, so maybe staying in touch with your biggest fans and harshest critics should be a more important part of the development process.

Intense player activity like spellcasting can sometimes mean latency.
Intense player activity like spellcasting can sometimes mean latency.

Ship a bug-free product. This seems pretty obvious, but often there is some kind of rush to ship a product out the door before it's gone through extensive testing. Having a great-performing game is just as important for single-player games, but in online games, problems with basic things like a stable server connection and the networking code can make playing impossible. Server downtime is also a problem. Some developers offer their own proprietary gaming service such as Battle.net and Bungie.net, and when you can't even connect to a server, you can't play that game online at all, which leads to utter frustration, whereas with Counter-Strike and other shooters, you can play on any available server. In addition, server load can be a big problem. Developers conduct stress tests before shipping an online game, but sometimes a game becomes too popular for the server's capacity. For example, at one point, one particular EverQuest server had more than 2,800 players logged on in the game, and the stress on the server resulted in zone crashes, huge latency, and the inability to connect to the server at all.

Sony expands the EverQuest gameworld.
Sony expands the EverQuest gameworld.

Continually support your game. Whether this involves patches to add content or improve gameplay, over the life of a product, such refinements and improvements are really important to player satisfaction--the game has to present increasing challenges over time. In fact, multiplayer games like Unreal Tournament were created with expandability in mind, and this is where the player community comes in.

As Craig said earlier, a strong and avid player following is important to an online game's longevity. It's really hard to say what drives fans to a particular game--there isn't some fixed recipe of thematic and gameplay ingredients--but with the right quality of gameplay and subsequent fan support, games, such as Total Annihilation, can last a very long time. With easy-to-use editors and such, players can make their own maps and games, and they can share these on fan sites. Some developers feature player-made maps of the week, and other sites even review and rate mods and maps. Even a game like EverQuest, which doesn't allow you to modify the gameworld or gameplay in any way, has a tremendous fan following, and the players are actually the best source of information about the game.

Next: Testing, testing

 
Andrew Park
Managing Editor

You could say that an online game has a three-part life cycle: prerelease, release, and postrelease. At each of these points in time, an online game benefits greatly from certain crucial factors and tends to suffer without them.

Dark Age of Camelot is currently in extensive testing before its release this year.
Dark Age of Camelot is currently in extensive testing before its release this year.

Before an online game is released, it's imperative that its developer does at least these three things: take stock of the competition, establish a player community, and test extensively. For starters, game development teams need to make sure they know what they're up against, so they can make sure that their game is at least as attractive and as enjoyable as the competition and that they don't wind up producing something that's more or less identical to what their competitors released two months ago. Developers should also be sure to establish a player community; we've seen developers do this by holding contests and by making sure they've got representatives who are in touch with prospective players via message boards and mailing lists. These days, players have to spend lots of time playing online games to get anything out of them, especially massively multiplayer games with persistent worlds. By establishing a community around their upcoming games, developers can ensure that there will be at least some group of people who know about the game and will want to play it. It's almost unreasonable to release a complex online game to the public--especially if it's very time-consuming--and expect people who have never heard of it to not only buy the game but also to play it online for months. And establishing a player community is also crucial for the purposes of prerelease testing. Unless a developer happens to have a big enough budget to support a huge group of paid, in-house testers, it's usually best to solicit testers from the player community. Public beta testing is basically a win-win situation: Developers can essentially get free QA testing, while devoted players can provide direct input into the game's development.

World War II Online suffered from stability problems at launch.
World War II Online suffered from stability problems at launch.

Once an online game is released, it's imperative that it be both technically stable and accessible to new players. Unfortunately, many online-only games have had technical problems at launch. Most recently, Strategy First's ambitious EverQuest had technical problems at launch, but those games were released over two years ago. It's not really acceptable for a game to have serious technical problems at release anymore if for no other reason than the fact that these days players can just go back to the online games--like Ultima Online or EverQuest--they were playing before. And in addition to being technically sound, a new online game must be easy to get into. Though a good online game should be able to rely on its community for some support, a successful one has to go beyond the community and appeal to other players. To that end, developers should make sure that a new player's experience is as painless as possible, and most smart ones have made sure that online play is freely available for players on company-run servers--in the case of subscription-service games, for the first month, at least. What's more, the game's interface should be simple and uncluttered, and its controls should be easy to use and easy to learn. Online games can be incredibly immersive, but it's difficult to capture a player's imagination when he's fumbling with the interface or just trying to get the game to work on his computer.

Asheron's Call hosts regular world-changing events to keep players interested.
Asheron's Call hosts regular world-changing events to keep players interested.

Finally, once an online game has been released, it's up to the developer to keep its players involved in the game by introducing continual improvements and additions to the game over time. First and foremost, the developer should make sure to issue patches to fix bugs or other technical problems; most online games have an auto-updater built into them that lets players obtain patches with relative ease. Of course, it's best to fix any technical problems in a game before release--it's no fun for players to sit through a lengthy patch download--but it's better to fix anything that's broken. Likewise, developers should constantly be on the lookout for gameplay imbalances and iron these out with regular updates. Finally, online game developers should take advantage of their games' online format (and the implied fact that their players have regular Internet connections to download updates) by releasing continual content updates and additions that keep the game interesting over time. Shooters like Asheron's Call can continually challenge players with new monsters to fight and new quests to undertake.

Of course, there are many other factors that can affect an online game's success, but I feel these are probably the most important.

Next: That old Internet thing

 
Bruce Geryk
Contributing Editor

Before I answer this question, I should preface my answer by admitting that I have never played an online game. Except maybe when my friends and I played D&D over the phone that one time. I was an elf cleric. But that wasn't a computer game--it was just one where my friend was the dungeon master and we all had characters and stuff. Right now I don't even have a phone. So it's pretty hard for me to imagine what kinds of things you need in an online game to make it great, like that movie where everybody is kind of online all the time (but everyone's body is asleep) and fights the aliens with their mind.

Still, this is the America of today, and thanks to the advanced powers of saving throws and mathematics, I was able to deduce in a very logical manner what it takes to have a good online game. A long time ago I learned that if you throw a rock into the air, calculus can tell you where it landed even if you get distracted and go off to play D&D and didn't see where it came down. Since calculus is a kind of math (a really hard kind) it can tell you how to predict stuff that never happened but will happen sometime. So that's how I know about online games. Here is my list for the best kind of features:

Online games need to have some way to connect to the Internet. Back when we played D&D on the phone, my friend who was the dungeon master had a cool thing called conference calling because his dad was an important business guy for a big company and had to talk to a lot of people all at once for business reasons. So we didn't need the Internet since you can't do a conference call on the Internet, because that's just for computers and not for clerics. Right now, if you're not on the Internet, people will call you an "LPB," which is a bad word for not having a way to get on the Internet. So you need to get a phone and one of those cards that give you a network number. Then you are all set.

There has to be some way to share your playlist. You know how a lot of the time, people start talking online about games but then that gets boring because it's all just like how many points you scored in Banjo Tooie and someone says, "Dude, what are you listening to because I heard this song by a band called Asia from 1984 which sucked back then but now it's old and cool plus Depeche Mode has a new album?" Or maybe you liked Moby when no one knew who he was and he hated people who ate animals and fish. So now he's on the radio and you want to make sure the dungeon master knows who liked Moby a long time ago. But those message boxes only let you say one line at a time, so halfway through your playlist someone else types "CAMPER!!!" and it looks like one of your songs is by Camper Van Beethoven even though they suck. If you could make a message that was ten lines at once then you could give ten songs that you like. Playlists have to have ten songs or they are just suggestions and not really lists of the songs you are listening to today.

You need to have a way to win. A lot of online games just have you get more and more levels until the game makes you stop and you have to wait for the new expansion to get more levels. Think if you went to a football game and both teams scored the maximum points they could but then the game made them stop and not score any more because that was how many points the game would let you have? Then everyone would be stuck in the stadium until the expansion came out and you could have overtime. I would probably get bored and go home to play D&D because in D&D you can get as many levels as you want and not have to buy the expansion. Plus we made up a way to win in D&D because otherwise you have to get that book with all the gods in it and fight them. I actually really like Camper Van Beethoven.

Next: Community inside and outside the game

 
Amer Ajami
Senior Editor

Clans, guilds, and orders are minicommunities within the game.
Clans, guilds, and orders are minicommunities within the game.

I think one of the most important determinants of a successful online game is whether or not that game allows for a strong sense of community. Some of the most popular online games available right now--Counter-Strike--all have minicommunities that exist both within and outside the game. EverQuest, for example, literally has hundreds of guilds--groups of players that band together under a common goal--that travel and adventure together online, and then share their experiences on their Web sites and message boards. It's this feeling of belonging to a part of something larger than just a game that makes good online games so successful. EverQuest is a good example, because the player base doesn't only form guilds. Outside the game, each role-playing class has an information site, and players maintain message boards for each server. In addition, on sites like EQ Vault, fans can find player fiction, player art, editorials, and comics, all of which are designed to carry the experience of EverQuest beyond the game itself.

Players have reputations for better or worse in Ultima Online.
Players have reputations for better or worse in Ultima Online.

This sense of community also carries over into the game itself. While I never followed the community outside of Ultima Online, I was deeply entrenched in the game. One of my friends had a character who was a proficient weapons dealer. After a while, he began to have a reputation among the other players on his server for stocking extremely rare weapons, and as a result, he often received favorable treatment from the higher-level players... someone once gave my a friend a tour of a private castle. Personally, one of my best memories of Ultima Online was adventuring across Britannia with a friend on horseback and pillaging houses that were built far from towns. Attacking other human characters in town would draw the swift punishment of the guards, but outside the town, all is fair. And in the early days of the game, player-built houses had a small bug that, when exploited properly, would let you clip through the northwest corner just enough to steal from any treasure chests that were stored up against the house walls. There were times when you could even pickpocket the house key from an unsuspecting player who was standing too close to the wall, and then surprise them by entering the house through the front door.

Star Wars Galaxies represents the next generation of massively multiplayer online role-playing games.
Star Wars Galaxies represents the next generation of massively multiplayer online role-playing games.

These things wouldn't have been possible in an offline game, and it's difficult to draw the same sense of belonging from a lot of online games either. It takes an intangible quality to draw players in, and give them a sense of camaraderie with the other players around them, who would otherwise be total strangers to each other. I should note that for these reasons alone, it almost goes without saying that Verant's upcoming Star Wars Galaxies will automatically be a success, unless the developer does something horribly wrong. The Star Wars universe already has a diehard following that's created its own community thanks to nearly 15 years of fandom. Add that to an already potentially huge fan base, as shown by the number of EverQuest players, and the effects on peoples' lives when the game is released will be scary indeed.

Next: Readers want to play these strategy games this year

Reader Letters


Which Strategy Game Are You Most Looking Forward to?

Warcraft III
Warcraft III

I am looking forward to Warcraft III not only because the first two Warcrafts were incredibly fun and addictive to play, but also because there will be role-playing elements mixed with real-time strategy. The RTS genre has shown how pleasing it is for gamers to strategize about crushing their enemies through superior planning and execution. Now fuse the addictive character development and improvement features of an RPG, and I think the combination will be explosive.
--Greg Shepherd

Combat Mission
Combat Mission

You guys missed the one strategy game that I am waiting for: Combat Mission 2. Maybe you think that Combat Mission would not appeal to gamers, but I think it can. You see, I was never into any of the hardcore World War II strategy games. But somehow I gave Combat Mission a try. And once I got the interface under control, I found it to be the best wargame around. Watching tanks shoot it out while German infantry try to land a Panzershriek hit before allied bombers send them to a fiery grave is awesome. I don't know anything about historical accuracy or realism, and Combat Mission claims to have tons of those elements--but the only element I can attest to is that it's fun. I was looking forward to Battle for Dune or Warcraft III, but not anymore. Trying to retake Paris block by block is more fun, and I expect the killing fields of Stalingrad will be great. I think Combat Mission 2 is great for gamers and wargamers alike--I made the change, and anyone who does not give it a shot will really be missing out.
--Ian Slutz

Heroes of Might and Magic IV is for people who like games that have no time pressure but are still fairly quick and strategic. Such players are a good crowd to be with; they have nothing to prove and just want to enjoy themselves. Games like Warcraft II and Starcraft are strategic and very challenging, but they require too much work. You feel quite frustrated at times, and there's no time to socialize with your opponent. The entire series of Heroes games supports a nice, family-type atmosphere, not one dominated by those with the swiftest muscles and no social skills.
--David

Real War
Real War

Real War, designed by Rival Interactive and published by Simon & Schuster, is a real-time strategy game that uses a 2D landscape and 3D units, a unique feature among the fully 3D RTS games. Not dealing with fantasy or science-fiction themes, it will give us the true feeling of commanding real modern warfare units on the battlefield.

O.R.B., the acronym for Off-World Resource Base, is a 3D real-time strategy game that allows you to command a large fleet of ships in the void of space. A stunning, fully 3D graphic masterpiece in the tradition of Homeworld, O.R.B. gives you full freedom of movement in all directions while keeping you busy with two playable races, unique campaigns, strategies, and technology trees.
--Francois Sauvageot

Question of the Week Archive

Got a news tip or want to contact us directly? Email news@gamespot.com

Join the conversation
There are no comments about this story