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DAILY MAIL & GUARDIAN 29 September 1999

New World

The next world awaits

JAMAIS CASCIO advises suits and other Hollywood weasels on what could happen over the next hundred years. He worries about being called a futurist.


his November, Microsoft is poised to take over yet another market. Their preparations have garnered little attention in mainstream computing journals, even though Microsoft's product may well be the harbinger of a new paradigm in computing. Most computer experts who have heard of Microsoft's product dismiss it as a toy... but for its intended market, the new application is eagerly awaited.

The program? A game, called Asheron's Call. If it works as promised, Microsoft will have built the beginnings of an entirely new way of playing, doing business, and living together online.

Asheron's Call is Microsoft's first foray into the world of "massively multi-player role playing games" (MMRGPs), but don't let the gamer jargon confuse you -- I believe this to be Microsoft's most serious attempt yet to build the infrastructure for how we'll work together in the future. "Massively multi-player" games allow tens of thousands of people across the Internet to play together, in the same space, in a richly textured environment. People can work together, share items and ideas, and develop friendships and relationships within the confines of these worlds.

With a standard Internet connection and software running on your local PC, you connect over the net to a dedicated server somewhere else in the world. Thousands of other people are doing the same thing, and the server functions as a stage manager -- showing you what other people are doing if they're near you, and showing your actions to others. You can type messages to people, although future versions of these games will allow you to speak to other players over your computer's microphone.

There are other MMRPGs out there right now; most popular is one called EverQuest. Produced by 989 Studios and Verant (and published by Sony), EverQuest is a traditional swords and sorcery-type game, with knights, wizards, and a large assortment of mythical beasts. That's not what makes it compelling. EverQuest lets you share a world with thousands of other players, working alongside them, teaming up with them, all in a 3-D accelerated graphics environment... that is what makes it compelling.

The critical elements here are the shared environment and the immersive interface. Knowing that every single character you see running around in the virtual snow or desert or castle is another real person, somewhere else in the world, is something of an epiphany. The virtual world exists in more than your computer. You're tapping into some place else, richly detailed and persistent -- it's there, even when your machine is turned off.

If the shared existence gives it life, the 3-D accelerated graphics give it depth. Computer graphics are getting incredibly good, even on inexpensive home machines; sunrise over a mountaintop changing the color of clouds, canyon walls towering over you, a snowy haze obscuring distant hills -- all pull you in, immersing you in this other world.

As good as EverQuest is, Asheron's Call promises to be even better. Not necessarily in terms of game play -- we can leave that to the players to decide -- but in terms of creating its persistent, immersive, shared universe. With uniquely customizable characters and an advanced environmental model, Asheron's Call will demand a high performance PC -- but, in return, will unfold a startlingly realistic world.

Looking at the games, it's easy to forget this key fact: there's no reason why these technologies have to be limited to fighting dragons and monsters.

With Asheron's Call, Microsoft has an infrastructure that allows tens of thousands -- perhaps hundreds of thousands -- of people on the net to exist in the same place at the same time, talking with each other, exchanging ideas, and working together to accomplish common goals. Add in the 3-D realism and unique individual appearance and you have the core of a new paradigm in computer-mediated communication.

There are a few advances left that would be required to make it work seamlessly. Higher-speed connections need to become commonplace, even in the US. It will take much of the next decade for fast DSL or cable modems to be everywhere. Also, display technologies will need to either get larger or become truly 3-D - preferably, both should happen. In order to truly be immersive, the world has to fill one's field of vision. The servers need to be able to run reliably with hundreds of thousands of users on at once. Both voice and text should be methods of communication.

But the elements are rapidly coming into place. Together, you have the makings of a shared virtual world that, in the past, could only have existed in the pages of science fiction.

In 1992, Neal Stephenson released a novel called Snow Crash. Fitting nicely in the "cyberpunk" genre, it described a world of capitalism run amok, tribalism spinning out of control, and a pervasive, global computer system that let people immerse themselves in a new reality. This system, called the Metaverse, let people create 3D "avatars" of themselves for socializing, playing together, even conducting research and business.

These new MMRPGs make it very clear that building the Metaverse is not a question of "if", but of "when".

© Daily Mail & Guardian - 29 September 1999

* Jamais Cascio is a consultant and writer specializing in scenarios of how we may live over the next century. His clients have included mainstream corporations, film and television producers. He has written for many publications, including Wired and TIME, and is currently working on a screenplay. He is an active member of the oldest and most influential online community, The Well, and believes that new technologies are pushing people into new social, economic and political realms.

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Published weekly by the Electronic Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg, South Africa. Send email comments to the editor, Gavin Dudley