Welcome to "Thought Processing", a new feature here at GameCritics.com. The goal of this series is to raise issues, start discussion and hopefully get you thinking in new ways about topics relevant to today’s gamers. It will also give you, the reader, a glimpse of insight into the mental processes and (occasionally) logical workings of the mysterious animal known as the "Game Critic". If you have an opinion or some comments on the things we’ll be discussing, join the conversation in the GameCritics.com forums. To kick things off, our inaugural subject will be:

Consoles Online: Yea or Nay?

Thought Processing - Halo 2 (Xbox)

Very soon, all three major consoles will have the ability to go where consoles have only infrequently gone before – online. However, it remains to be seen whether this push for connectivity will be the next big thing, a flash in the pan or a part of some insidious scheme to finally bring the oft-loathed "set-top box" concept to fruition. We’ve asked some of our resident critics to weigh in and share their opinions with us on this burning issue.

Is going online the next step in gaming?

Brad Gallaway: I’m not sure if "next step" is the right term. I think it’s definitely going to be something different, but I’m not convinced that it’s going to be the wave of the future that all games will be riding. I don’t think every new game will need to be online, or incorporate an online feature, for example. My gut tells me that it will become its own genre, rather than the new standard for all games. In Thought Processing - SOCOM: U.S. Navy Seals (PS2) (top), Phantasy Star Online (GCN) (bottom) general, I certainly believe that single-player or couch-buddy co-op are always going to remain the most attractive draws for console gamers.

Mike Doolittle: It’s a step, not the step. There are obviously some major obstacles—not everyone has multiple online connections in the home (i.e., one for the home office and another for the game room), and in the case of Microsoft, even fewer have broadband to begin with. Until broadband is ubiquitous, I think that most people who want to play online will still find it easier to do on their PCs. I also have to confess that Sony and Microsoft are making me uneasy with underhanded talk of "convergence" devices. I do not want my Xbox or Playstation to be a vessel for multimedia applications.

Peter Skerritt: I don’t necessarily think that online is the next step, but it certainly appears as though Sony and Microsoft are looking to make it so. It’s become a "buzz term", and I really don’t see why. To me, it’s simple—if you want to play online games, use your PC. Consoles, from the beginning, have been built for gaming purposes only. I don’t need to surf the Internet, or find other people to play games with (who’ll probably drop out if they’re on the short end of a contest). I just want to play games. Why complicate things?

Thom Moyles: It’s the next big concept, but I don’t think it will represent a major change for gaming in general. PC games have been online for quite some time, and I don’t think that we’ve seen an essential change in how games are designed because of this. Of course, console games have always been a little more varied than PC games, so it’s possible that we may see new online structures that will provide an interesting and unique experience. Still, I feel that single-player games are going to remain the bread and butter of the industry for quite a while. Even with PCs’ ubiquitous network connections, we haven’t seen a very high adoption rate in terms of online gaming.

Sigmund Shen: I guess the way to call this depends on how much you envision the Internet taking over the world, rather than just gaming. To an Thought Processing - ATV Offroad Fury 2 (PS2) extent it has already happened, and it’s not just the American hegemony pushing things along. I read that about half of Japan uses the net, and in South Korea people can actually make a living in the online tournament circuit. Since gaming is only a part of this changing world, the proliferation of online gaming is a natural step. Although, I do share the reservations that have been expressed here because I’ve never played a networked game and I’m not interested. But, five or ten years down the line- wouldn’t I rather race real people or frag real opponents?

Have you ever experienced online gaming before? If so, describe your experience.

Brad: My experience with it has been limited to some PC FPS games and the Dreamcast. It was interesting to meet new people as well as friends I already knew in a virtual setting, but once we were there the games weren’t involving enough to keep me coming back. Cheating also became an issue surprisingly quickly, and that was another reason for me to stay away. If online console games can be hacked as quickly as PC titles, forget about it.

Mike Bracken: I spent 500 hours on Phantasy Star Online, so what does that tell you? I’d have spent more, if Sega could have stopped the rampant cheating. PSO is a fine example of both what appeals to me about online gaming and what annoys me as well. I liked playing with people who I didn’t know and working as a team to get through certain areas of the game, but I hated the cheating. For online gaming to truly flourish, developers will almost assuredly have to figure out a way to block the hackers. I’m not sure that they can do that effectively, though.

Thom: I’ve played quite a bit online with my PC, and I think that who you play with really defines how much fun you’ll have. Finding a good Thought Processing - Final Fantasy XI (PS2) (top), Auto Modellista (PS2) (bottom) group of people online is a real challenge. If people are presented with a situation where they can be antisocial and destructive without consequences, they’re going to abuse that situation. That sort of attitude effectively ruins 90% of all random online experiences. It’s much better to play with a small group of people that you already know. I think this might be a roadblock to the online console experience being a truly pleasurable one.

Jon Cadoche: Online games aren’t an area of expertise for me. There were always cheaters (especially in Half-Life) who made the experience deplorable for newbies such as myself. If going online works, great. If it doesn’t really take off, too bad. I’m not one of those gamers who depend on a connection to enjoy a game.

Peter: I went online with my Dreamcast to play sports games. Since broadband wasn’t supported at the time, I used a dial-up connection. The main problem that I ran into was that opponents would drop out, either because of technical problems (read: disconnects) or because they were losing. There was some lag every now and again, but it really didn’t damage the integrity of the gameplay too much except with NBA2K1, where lag made gameplay nearly impossible for me.

Mike D.: I got maniacally addicted to Quake III (PC) online. I played it over broadband, so I could generally hold my own and even won a few large melees. I took the Dreamcast online, and boy did it stink. I was always being disconnected and the connection was so choppy that large frames of character animation were often lost in the shuffle. It’s been a while since I’ve played online, and I’m mainly just looking forward to playing with some gaming buddies who are moving away.

Thought Processing - NFL2K3 (Xbox)

Are you looking forward to taking your console online?

Brad: Not at this point. I haven’t seen online titles on any of the systems that have me excited right now, and I’m not eager to spend money on peripherals when I could be buying new OFF-line games instead. I might be more inclined to take a console online if there were special features or extra characters to download, but that opens up the question of bugs and patches (not to mention viruses) that I really don’t want to deal with at all.

Mike D.: Oh yeah, baby. I’ve got broadband, and I’ll be first in line for Unreal Championship on the Xbox. I’m not looking forward to paying lots of fees, though, so there had better be a steady flow of quality games to keep me hooked. On the other hand, I also think that playing a game online can really stretch the replay value.

Peter: I can’t say that I’m looking forward to doing so. For the money that I would spend on the PlayStation 2 network adapter and hard drive peripheral, I could be getting other games. Since I’m working off of a narrowband connection, lag and random disconnect issues would also hamper any online gameplay, just as it did when I tried online gaming with my Dreamcast a couple of years back. Broadband is an expensive luxury, and I’d rather use a Thought Processing - MechAssault (Xbox) (top), Star Wars Galaxies (PS2) (bottom) broadband connection for my PC rather than having to set up a mini-network with a console, as well.

Mike B.: Depends on which console we’re talking about. I’m not too thrilled about the PlayStation 2, primarily because I have to go out and buy a network adapter and then get it all to work. I know just trying to get my dial-up ISP running with the Dreamcast was an exercise in aggravation—and that system already had the modem in it! On the other hand, I’m really looking forward to Xbox Live. I’ve got DSL, the card’s already in it, and it seems like it’s going to be pretty easy to get up and running. I’ll eventually get the PlayStation 2 going as well (I want to play Final Fantasy XI), but it’s going to take more than SOCOM and Twisted Metal Online to get me to adopt the network adapter so soon.

Thom: I don’t have a list of games that I’ll be buying for the express purpose of going online. Rather, I’ll be happy if the games that I would normally buy wind up having an online component. Currently, the titles that most interest me in terms of online play are the sports games, and I’m looking forward to a few titles that will wind up having Xbox Live functionality. As for the MMORPGs and shooting games, I’ve already done that on my PC, and I don’t anticipate them being more interesting on a console.

Jon: I’m not really sure yet. I’m one of those people for whom video games and online games are still two distinct concepts. I’ve managed to get by, considering the total amount of time spent playing online games in my life is equal to three or four hours. I am still curious to see what certain types of games will be like online on a console, such as RPGs, but I certainly won’t be one of the first in line to purchase the broadband adapter when it’ll be released.

Which system (if any) do you feel has the best online formula?

Brad: Well, I’m not convinced that Online is going to take the game world by storm, but if I had to pick between the three consoles I’d say that Sony looks to be in the best position to make it work initially. Broadband is not yet available everywhere, and their inclusion of 56K modem access will be an asset. While it may become the eventual standard, I think Microsoft’s Broadband-only stance is going to exclude a lot of people from the get-go. Nintendo’s feeble effort with only one online game (Phantasy Star Online, originally seen on the Dreamcast) and no master plan says to me that they’re not at all serious about making it work. I foresee them taking a "wait-and-see" stance before coming up with anything substantial.

Mike D.: Microsoft is taking a bit of gamble with their broadband-only approach, which is sort of a relic from when they were sure that everyone and their dog would have high-speed connections in the near future. Obviously it hasn’t turned out that way. Still, MS has the most going for them for three reasons: one, they are establishing their own network, while Sony and Nintendo are not. Two, the necessary hardware is already included with the console Thought Processing - NFL Fever 2003 (Xbox) (top), Final Fantasy XI (PS2) (bottom) without making people buy expensive peripherals. Finally, MS has been the most forthcoming about their fees: a start-up kit, followed by a monthly payment—none of this "pay-per-play" nonsense that Sony and Nintendo have been tossing around. Nintendo seems pretty reluctant to jump on the bandwagon, which is probably a wise business decision but not the best move for gamers.

Mike B.: MS definitely seems to have the best online plan, but like everyone else, I think the broadband only approach is going to keep a lot of people offline. Honestly, Nintendo’s wait and see stance is fairly interesting—they’re going to watch everyone else screw up then swoop in and try to avoid those mistakes.

Thom: I think Microsoft probably has the edge in this category for now, if only because they’ve got more of a definite plan than either Sony or Nintendo. Broadband-only might seriously limit their user base, but Microsoft seems willing to take a loss when establishing a foothold in a new area. But, if online console gaming goes completely down the crapper, then Nintendo will have had the best plan since they are investing the least amount of time and money in their online strategy. Of course, this also means that they’ll really have to scramble in order to present a realistic challenge to Sony and MS after such a late start. As for Sony, I’d be a lot more optimistic about their chances if they weren’t relying on people buying an expensive peripheral to get online. It will be very interesting to see how much of a stumbling block that turns into.

Jon: I’ll admit I’m not a fan of Microsoft and its Xbox but in this case, I’ll have to side with them. The way I see it, the Xbox is the only system where online gaming has been kept a priority from the start since every unit ships with the required hardware. If Sony or Nintendo had online gaming as one of their top objectives, the equipment would have been released on launch date or even integrated within their respective consoles.

Final Comments

Peter: For the record, I don’t think that online gaming is a totally bad idea, but seeing game companies putting almost all of their eggs in this one basket is a bit surprising. I’m also disappointed that Square decided to take Final Fantasy (a series which has always been a solo experience) to an Everquest-like state. For the first time ever, I’ll be passing on a Final Fantasy title. The end simply does not justify the means in this case.

Mike B.: I’m excited about the arrival of online console gaming. I think there’s a huge amount of potential for developers to reinvent the console gaming experience. Will any of this potential be realized? It’s hard to say. Am I going to be there Thought Processing - Auto Modellista (PS2) (top), Everquest (PS2) (bottom) playing games like Final Fantasy XI and experiencing the evolution of online console gaming firsthand? You bet.

Thom: Some of the other critics have mentioned this above, but I wanted to go into it in more detail. One of the biggest problems that the Big Three are going to have to face in terms of online gaming is cheating. I don’t believe that they’re going to be able to fix all the loopholes in the games before they’re released. Of course, cheating on a console is going to be more difficult than cheating on a PC, but people will find a way to do it, and it’s going to be much harder to fix on a console platform. The companies will have to figure out a method to weed out cheaters who abuse the systems. The company that manages to implement anti-cheater methods in the most effective manner is going to have a big leg up on the other two, regardless of the games available.

Jon: Online gaming is just the first step in a massive conspiracy led by an evil artificial intelligence to draw us into a virtual world while it drains our energy like we’re nothing more than batteries!! Oh wait… I’ve got to lay off movies for a while.

Sigmund: I was reading an article about a recent Ultima convention and how a whole culture has sprung up around this game. Honestly, it sounded like fun. When that whole world gets cheap and convenient, I’ll be in. Until that happens, leave me to my single-player RPGs and junk food.

This brings us to the end of the first installment to Thought Processing. We hope you’ve read a few things to think about, and perhaps your opinion is different now than it was before you read this article.

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