An online game is a game played over some forms of computer network. At the present, this almost always means the Internet or equivalent technology; but games have always used whatever technology was current: modems before the internet, and hard wired terminals before modems. The expansion of online gaming has reflected the overall expansion of computer networks from small local networks to the Internet and the growth of Internet access itself. Online games can range from simple text based games to games incorporating complex graphics and virtual worlds populated by many players simultaneously. Many online games have associated online communities, making online games a form of social activity beyond single player games.
The rising popularity of Flash and Java led to an Internet revolution where websites could utilize streaming video, audio, and a whole new set of user interactivity. When Microsoft began packaging Flash as a pre-installed component of IE, the Internet began to shift from a data/information spectrum to also offer on-demand entertainment. This revolution paved the way for sites to offer games to web surfers. Most online games like World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy XI and Lineage II charge a monthly fee to subscribe to their services, while games such as Guild Wars offer an alternative no monthly fee scheme. Many other sites relied on advertising revenues from on-site sponsors, while others, like RuneScape, the games made by Artix Entertainment and Mabinogi, let people play for free while leaving the players the option of paying, unlocking new content for the members.
After the dot-com bubble burst in 2001, many sites solely relying on advertising revenue dollars faced extreme adversity. Despite the decreasing profitability of online gaming websites, some sites have survived the fluctuating ad market by offsetting the advertising revenue loss by using the content as a cross-promotion tool for driving web visitors to other websites that the company owns.
"Online gaming is a technology rather than a genre; a mechanism for connecting players together rather than a particular pattern of gameplay." Online games are played over some form of computer network, now typically on the Internet. One advantage of online games is the ability to connect to multiplayer games, although single-player online games are quite common as well.
First-person shooter games
During the 1990s, online games started to move from a wide variety of LAN protocols (such as IPX) and onto the Internet using the TCP/IP protocol. Doom popularized the concept of deathmatch, where multiple players battle each other head-to-head, as a new form of online game. Since Doom, many first-person shooter games contain online components to allow deathmatch or arena style play.
Real-time strategy games
Early real-time strategy games often allowed multiplayer play over a modem or local network. As the Internet started to grow during the 1990s, software was developed that would allow players to tunnel the LAN protocols used by the games over the Internet. By the late 1990s, most RTS games had native Internet support, allowing players from all over the globe to play with each other. Services were created to allow players to be automatically matched against another player wishing to play or lobbies were formed where people could meet in so called game rooms. An example was the MSN Gaming Zone where online game communities were formed by active players for games, such as Age of Empires and Microsoft Ants.
Cross-platform online play
As consoles are becoming more like computers, online gameplay is expanding. The first online game console was the Super Famicom, which offered an online service with the Satellaview. This service was however offered only in Japan. Once online games started crowding the market, open source networks, such as the PlayStation 2, Dreamcast, Xbox and Nintendo GameCube took advantage of online functionality with its PC game counterpart. Games such as Phantasy Star Online have private servers that function on multiple consoles. Dreamcast, PC, Macintosh and GameCube players are able to share one server. Earlier games, like 4x4 Evolution, Quake III and Need for Speed: Underground also have a similar function with consoles able to interact with PC users using the same server. Usually, a company like Electronic Arts or Sega runs the servers until it becomes inactive, in which private servers with their own DNS number can function. This form of open source networking has a small advantage over the new generation of Sony and Microsoft consoles which customize their servers to the consumer.
The development of web-based graphics technologies such as Flash and Java allowed browser games to become more complex. These games, also known by their related technology as "Flash games" or "Java games", became increasingly popular. Many games originally released in the 1980s, such as Pac-Man and Frogger, were recreated as games played using the Flash plugin on a webpage. Most browser games have limited multiplayer play, often being single player games with a high score list shared amongst all players.
Browser-based pet games are also very popular amongst the younger generation of online gamers. These games range from gigantic games with millions of users, such as Neopets, to smaller and more community-based pet games.
More recent browser-based games use web technologies like Ajax to make more complicated multiplayer interactions possible.
Massively multiplayer online games (MMOG)
Massively multiplayer online games were made possible with the growth of broadband Internet access in many developed countries, using the Internet to allow hundreds of thousands of players to play the same game together. Many different styles of massively multiplayer games are available, such as:
- MMORPG (Massively multiplayer online role-playing game)
- MMORTS (Massively multiplayer online real-time strategy)
- MMOFPS (Massively multiplayer online first-person shooter)
- MMOSG (Massively multiplayer online social game)
Online game governance
With growing numbers of players, it becomes more difficult to maintain social order in online games due to the large amounts of information and freedom that are given to the players. Even though there are many online rules that are already established, wherever there are people, there are conflicts.
More specifically, the advancement of technology allows online games to imitate the complex ecological, sociological, economical, and political dynamics of real life societies. Unpredictable societal dynamics such as hygiene, safety, and pollution require the society to form some type of organized regulation. Andrew Barry wrote, "Regulation is often intended to protect and enhance the health and security of firms, cities and individuals." Like societies in real life, online games can warrant societal complexities and need some type of organized governance.
Popular online games are commonly bound by an End User License Agreement (EULA), which establishes a limited yet definitive social order deemed necessary by the creators of the game. The consequences of breaking the agreement vary according to the contract; however range significantly from warnings to termination, such as in the 3D immersive world Second Life where a breach of contract will append the player warnings, suspension and termination depending on the offense. Enforcing the EULA is difficult, due to high economic costs of human intervention and low returns back to the firm. Only in large scale games is it profitable for the firm to enforce its EULA.
Edward Castronova writes that "there are issues of ownership and governance that wrinkle the affairs of state significantly". He has divided the online governance into "good governance" and "strange governance". Whereas people actually want to have governance but strangely, democracy still cannot be found in synthetic world. Castronova also mentions that synthetic worlds are good ways to test for government and management.