Online Gaming Services – A Brief History

The Bulletin Board System (BBS) is the precursor to the Internet forum. More importantly, it is one of the earliest forms of the online gaming service. The BBS was invented in 1973, during the early infancy stages of the Internet. Furthermore, the world wide web was virtually non-existent during this time. Because of this, internet connection mediums such as broadband did not exist–both the user and the server were reliant on early dial-up modems, requiring to dial in, via phone line, directly to the BBS. The BBS’ popularity peaked in the 90s, when PC gaming became increasingly mainstream. The BBS can arguably be considered an early form of social networking–It provided much of the basic functionality provided by contemporary internet networks. This includes the ability to communicate, via text messages, with individuals; online chat, etc.. More importantly, it also served as a medium for early online games. One prime example of a videogame which supported the BBS for online gaming is One Must Fall 2097, a PC fighting game developed by Rob Elam which could be played online, via BBS Link. Another particular example is Kesmai Corporation’s GEnie service, which supported popular multiplayer games (at the time) such as Multiplayer BattleTech and Air Warrior. Other examples include Neverwinter Nights, one of the first graphical MMOs, which relied largely on AOL’s online service to play. By 1996, however, as the world wide web became more commonplace, the BBS soon became obsolete, being replaced with more contemporary internet solutions.

Initially, however, online gaming did not advance well. Multiplayer games such as Doom (and eventually Quake) became exceedingly popular, but until the late 90s, support for online connectivity would be nothing more than a simple TCP/IP connection. A more common case, however, was that games would only support Local Area Network and modem play. The solution to this was the online gaming network, the next step from the BBS. As with early forms of internet gaming, these systems provided the bare essentials, except with a largely improved infrastructure and new features. These features included full-fledged support for online gaming with specific titles, hosting rooms, lobbies, the ability to create a friends list, send instant messages, etc.. Examples of these include what used to be Microsoft’s Zone.com, Sega’s Heat.net, Mplayer, Kali, and so forth. Some of these are still active today, but do not have the peak popularity of mainstream online gaming.

Meanwhile, id Software’s Quake took a rather different approach to online gaming. Because Quake, as a multiplayer game, relied on low-latency gameplay over a Local Area Network, internet play was never seriously factored into the equation. As a result, Quake, for the most part, fared rather poorly on aforementioned multiplayer gaming services, as well as direct TCP/IP play. To address these problems, QuakeWorld was created. Rather than rely on a lobby and room system as with most online gaming services, QuakeWorld was in essence a network of “dedicated” servers, linked to a central master server which provided the user with the locations of these dedicated servers. Unlike rooms, dedicated servers had no active host–instead, the server was under the control of an administrator, who monitored and regulated the game experience as required. The basic system behind QuakeWorld is still used in the majority of PC games with online support, especially in the majority of id Software’s games, as well as Valve’s Steam service.

Today, the increasing popularity of videogame consoles led to the integration of internet connectivity between a videogame console and the internet. The console is a computer–much like a personal computer, except streamlined. This has made contemporary consoles a more viable choice over PC gaming, as the console is far more accessible to the user than a PC would be. Aside from Steam, today’s online gaming services include PlayStation Network, a dedicated free-to-play online service for the PlayStation 3 and the PSP; and XBox Live, a membership-based subscription online service for the XBox 360. These services, for the most part, take advantage of the features included in earlier PC gaming services–however, because of their brand name and their respective accessibility, PSN and XBox Live are by far much more popular than any online service to date.


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