Gamers get connected

Microsoft's Xbox, Nintendo's GameCube and Sony's PlayStation 2
bring console gaming online

Video-game couch potatoes (and parents of console jockeys), take note: Those who do battle on PlayStation 2 - and soon Xbox and GameCube - can play with friends across the street, or even across the country, without heading out the door.

Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo are bringing their console systems online, and it's no wonder, considering that online multiplayer gaming has been thriving on the PC for years.

A former hardware contender, Sega, attempted to grab a foothold in the online arena when it brought its now-defunct Dreamcast system online in 2000. While that console has been discontinued, and Sega has turned itself into a major game provider, executives at the company have reconfirmed their commitment to online gaming.

Sega's premiere sports title, NFL 2K3, is among one of the first games to be supported by the Xbox Live! service. The company's Dreamcast title Phantasy Star Online is slated to arrive sometime in October for GameCube.

Unlike Dreamcast, which provided owners with Internet connectivity as an Internet service provider, PS2, GameCube and Xbox owners will have to rely on third-party service providers.

It's important to note that the vast libraries of existing titles for the various consoles will not be supported for online play. However, many video-game developers, including such notables as the aforementioned Sega as well as Electronic Arts, Ubi Soft and Infogrames, are already developing titles that can be played online.

A tale of three consoles

Sony's PlayStation 2 is the first of the current "next generation" systems to bring online gaming to North America with the release of a network adapter.

Priced at $39.99, the adapter plugs into the PS2 console and provides the option of using an Internet dial-up service, like AOL, to connect, or by connecting through cable or DSL modem. The first Sony-published title with online support, SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs, comes with a headset for in-game chat while online.

Taking a slightly different approach, Microsoft's Xbox only supports broadband access, but no extra hardware is required. The starter kit, however, which comes with its own headset as well as a one-year membership to Xbox Live!, costs $49.99. There are no announced plans on what will happen after a year or what the future cost of going online will be for Xbox owners.

With less of an overall strategic plan, Nintendo will bring the GameCube online in October with both a broadband and narrowband dial-up adapter, at about $35 each, for online games. But it has remained otherwise quiet about the issue.

While the Sega-produced Phantasy Star Online Episode I and II title will be released this year, very little else has been announced at this date. In addition, unlike Sony or Microsoft, Nintendo is not taking steps to provide network infrastructure and is relying on individual game publishers to offer online gaming services for their titles.

Getting connected & gaming

Having had a chance to get online with both the PS2 and Xbox, I am happy to report that getting connected is actually very simple. Both Sony and Microsoft deserve praise for how easy they've made their setup processes.

Both machines support dynamic and static IP addresses for broadband connections.

(Internet Protocol addresses are unique numbers used to identify computers or other devices connected to the Internet.)

The Sony PlayStation 2 network adapter plugs in and no tools are required. The manufacturer has wisely used a sticker to cover the Ethernet jack, to avoid confusion with the dial-up port. This has reportedly led to some confusion for some users who mistakenly assumed that the Ethernet connection shouldn't be used at all. Sony's online titles do require a memory card, which must be in the machine when the game is played, to store the connectivity information.

The game play in SOCOM, as well as the free title Twisted Metal: Black Online, which is available via a mail-in offer through the end of year, was exceptional in a recent test. There has been little noticeable latency, or lag, and even fewer dropouts or disconnections.

Real-time voice chat has been less reliable and often absent. For SOCOM, chat works very much like a two-way radio and limits your talk time to 10-second intervals. This is done to limit confusion in a game that has potentially more than a dozen players at one time.

Getting online with Xbox was also easy, except that a first-time initial setup option did not automatically pop up. Online connection options are saved directly to the hard drive so you won't need to re-enter IP information for each title, as required with the PS2. On Xbox, you will have a memory card that will contain your user ID information.

This allows for easier transportation of your information, should you wish to play on a different Xbox with the Live! capabilities. It is still possible to log on as a guest user without using the ID.

Because the Xbox system connects to a central system, the latency was almost nonexistent, although the free ReVolt racing title that comes with the starter kit did lock up a couple of times, and as a result the system had to be rebooted. Because Xbox has a built-in hard drive, games can be updated before you log in, and this was the case with ReVolt, with new cars offered to players. feeling insecure?

As Xbox and PS2 are essentially online without a firewall, there is an issue of security. Both companies have assured this reporter that their systems cannot be hacked. The trade-off is that users won't be able to create custom maps or character art that can be downloaded to an Xbox via a PC, but this also provides safety for gamers - both from viruses and hackers.

"The data is sent out as packets that are encrypted," explains Scott Henson, director of Xbox platform strategy at Microsoft, who stresses that the company's servers that users log on to are highly protected. "You don't have to worry about someone hacking into your Xbox hard drive."

Sony also stepped up security and used it as a way to provide protection from piracy. "Security is a fundamental component of the online PlayStation 2 experience," says Mark DeLorua, manager of developer relations at Sony Computer Entertainment of America. "We also have a secure digital-rights management system that will ensure your version of the online game is authentic."