For many years, online gaming has been the next big thing. It was the next big thing in 1983, when Richard Bartle's Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) was thrilling hundreds of home microcomputer owners at 300 bits per second. It was the next big thing in 1993, as the Internet escaped from the laboratory and infected the PC at the same time as Doom's cacophony of monsters introduced us all to the idea of slaughtering our workmates. And in 2003? A quick count puts the number of online, shared environment multiplayer games due to debut this year or next at more than 30 -- broadband and top-notch PC graphics alongside very capable consoles have got everyone excited again.
Understandably, the idea that anything online could be new, exciting and -- please, oh dark lords of the market -- profitable is thrilling the pants off the companies concerned. But there's something curiously in common among all the online games: see if you can spot it in a short list of contenders. Dragon Empires, Shadowbane, Darkfall, The Rubies Of Eventide, Star Wars Galaxies, Black Moon Chronicles. None of the above would look at all out of place on the cover of a lurid science-fiction or fantasy romp book, and neither would the contents.
Not that there's anything wrong with hard-core science fiction, with its healthy ethos of galactic empires, death-spewing beams coruscating into the darkness, and alien sex. (Swords and sorcery style fantasy, on the other hand, is so clearly wrong that no more need be said). But thirty games? It's dawning on some of their creators that the world's supply of geeky white adolescent males may not be sufficient for the task, especially as one can only sensibly -- if that's the word -- get immersed in one of these games at a time.
There is one glowing exception to this, The Sims Online, which takes the phenomenally successful Sims world on your PC -- already populated by loads of artificial people -- and throws the doors open. What will happen is perhaps wisely being largely left up to the players, but the games developers are trying to optimise the returns people get on their creativity. Sims fans are getting very excited by the idea, and with some six million copies of the stand-alone game out there that's not a bad start. But even assuming The Sims is a stunning success and one or two of the other games does well that's not enough to save the whole idea of online gaming from acquiring the stigma of failure.
Which is a crying shame. Many people spend ages online in their own strange games in chat rooms -- no, not like that -- because online is such a good way to find and interact with people of similar interests. It's not the huge universes or mystic realms, magic powers or sinewy avatars that attract players and keep them online, it's the others, and any online game that will succeed will need to concentrate entirely on the social side of things, taking what we do en masse anyway and making it better.
And that means talking, learning, entertaining each other, forming social structures -- which can be as competitive as they are in the real world -- and finding things that repay our time. I'm particularly excited by the idea of learning in games: it's true that most of us have learned to shun 'educational games' as most of them appear to be aversion therapy, but that doesn't alter the fact that humans learn most through play. Sim City was fun, but what if you had to pick some of the parameters for the engineering of the power station? Electrical theory is dead dull: dealing with kilovolts and megawatts in the middle of a crowded city is much more like it. And if you can catch your friends in the resulting fireball? Perfect. Sign me up.
And as for the problem of a sufficiently engaging game excluding all others -- we're online. Games that interact with other games, letting people move seamlessly through worlds, tasks, pleasures and places, will ensure the growth of the whole genre. Telephones wouldn't have got anywhere if you could only phone your friends.
There is no doubt that today's computers can be immense fun, and tomorrow's versions with cinematographic video and high quality AI will be even more so. Today's online experience is great fun too, and again that'll get much better when we all have broadband -- please, oh dark lords of the telcos. The two together will be dynamite -- but only if sparked with imagination and input from places other than the gaming community. Otherwise I'm going to have to write the same article again in 2013, and where's the fun in that?