21st: Fellowship of the Net

In the dungeons of Diablo, cooperation is the best way to survive. That may be why it's sparking a new wave of online popularity for multiplayer gaming.

Published June 8, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

i was 13 years old the day I almost died, pin-cushioned in the back by a swarm of arrows fired by my own trusted comrades. Much as I would have loved to curse them for their treachery, I had only my own stupid impetuosity to blame.

My very first act as a battle-ax-wielding dwarf in my first-ever game of Dungeons & Dragons had been to charge headlong into a band of goblins. Meanwhile, my friends -- a raucous crew of elves, wizards and humans -- cocked their crossbows and let fly. The Dungeon Master, a k a my high school buddy Jimmy Felman, rolled the dice and shook his head. While I lay in a pool of my own blood, struck from behind, the goblins got away.

For the rest of the afternoon, my friends had to carry me in an improvised stretcher while they did battle with wave after wave of trolls and orcs, protecting me while I slowly recuperated. I was grateful -- they could have just left me to die in a ditch.

But friends don't do that, at least not on purpose. We band together because we need people to watch our backs and cover our asses. In the 1970s, the designers of the "paper-and-dice" role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons scored big by capitalizing on that principle of togetherness. Twenty years later, Blizzard Entertainment, the maker of Diablo, the hottest selling computer game in the United States, is pulling off a similar coup -- and ushering in the era of truly successful multiplayer online gaming.

Internet analysts and visionaries have long targeted multiplayer online gaming -- where computer users meet in virtual worlds to do battle, engage in fantastic quests or re-enact history -- as a commercial gold mine. One consultancy predicts breathlessly that the online gaming industry will generate revenues of as much as $1.6 billion by 2000. Proprietary networks like AOL, Prodigy, Compuserve and MSN all push online gaming, as do a handful of specialized gaming networks such as TEN, Mpath and Kesmai Aries.

Such hopes have been fueled by the success of games like id software's "first person shooter" phenoms, Doom and Quake. Three years ago, Doom, in particular, paved the way for multiplayer melees by encouraging players to link up their computers (usually on office-wide local area networks) and strive to kill each other, in addition to stomping out the normal array of monsters and demons that populate the game's recesses. It worked. As one gameplayer told me, "Multiplayer is a lot better than single player because you get to kill your co-workers."

Id's games also found fertile ground in the much vaster environment of the Internet; a mind-boggling number of Web sites are devoted to them. Id also pioneered and popularized the now-standard practice of giving away full-featured versions of its games free on the Net.

But in addition to proving to be a superb distribution and marketing network, the Net has also sparked the evolution of a rich subculture of gameplayer communities. Players group themselves into spontaneously generated clans and guilds. Tribalism flourishes, in the very face of postmodern digital ethereality.

Still, even though Doom 2 has sold some 3 million copies, such successes haven't yet translated into significant profits for the online gaming industry. Games online have mostly remained the province of the hard-core -- the players willing to queue up for "pay-per-play" systems and spend countless hours honing their nail-gun skills for "deathmatch" combat. That may finally be changing: Diablo's success -- it topped PC Data's bestseller list in January, February and March -- is a new, strong signal that online multiplayer gaming is on the verge of wide popularity beyond the dedicated-gamer fanboy.

"Diablo has taken over my life," says gameplayer Gus Kuldau, a doctor in Portland, Ore. "I should never, ever have bought it. I play five hours a stretch, no problem. It's as close to an addiction as I've ever come."

There is no shortage of reasons for Diablo mania. Graphically, Diablo compellingly evokes the Tolkienian Dungeons & Dragons grandeur that once lived only inside our heads. Elaborately rendered dungeons and catacombs and networks of caves are populated by exquisitely imagined dangers -- lightning-firing bats, magma demons, succubi and zombies. The interface is clean and simple: Players look down on labyrinthine passages from above, maneuvering easily with just a mouse and a few keystrokes (no joystick needed). A chat window is incorporated without getting in the way, so players can communicate with each other -- or scream for help when a pack of Snow Queens comes around a corner.

Technically, Blizzard Entertainment has sidestepped multiplayer interface problems by including free access to battle.net, a Blizzard-operated network that is seamlessly built into the game and accessible over a standard Internet connection.

Fans of gore and murder won't be disappointed, either. In Diablo, you can kill your co-workers, if you so desire. But that's not the point of the game. There's more happening here than just blood lust and sophisticated graphics. More than 500,000 people have logged on to battle.net in search of balrogs and skeleton kings and the dread lord of the underworld himself, Diablo, because the game satisfies the irrepressible yen for human contact and cooperation. Multiplayer Diablo encourages, indeed, demands, the same kind of social camaraderie that made paper-and-dice Dungeons & Dragons so riveting. And in so doing, Diablo capitalizes on the grass-roots power of the Net.

Two traditions are merging in Diablo -- the high production values of the commercial game industry and the tendency for online communities to imagine their own worlds and home-brew their own tribes. On the Net, multi-user domains (MUDs), in which online communities engage in role-playing interaction, have long been popular (and can trace their ancestry directly to Dungeons & Dragons -- MUD originally stood for "multi-user dungeon"). But until very recently it, MUD play was chiefly confined to an all-text, no-graphics format. Packaging the power of social interaction with shrink-wrapped gloss, Diablo has taken gameplayers to the next level.

How do I know this? Because, in the interest of full disclosure, I must acknowledge that I too have succumbed to the lure of multiplayer Diablo. And I am no hard-core gamer. First-person shooter games do not inspire me. (In fact, they make me sick to my stomach, but that's another issue.) I am unbearably bored by "sims" -- games that attempt to ultra-realistically duplicate the experience of being in command of an M1 tank or jet fighter or race car. The last thing I want to do is reenact a World War II dogfight with some Luftwaffe wannabe.

But I can't stop playing Diablo, and it's not just because I love hurling fireballs and mowing down Blood Knights. Diablo has clutched me in its fiery grip by capitalizing on my all-too-human capacity to be seduced by the joys of companionship.

"Diablo is a cooperative game," says Bill Roper, executive producer of the game. "People do things together."

I saw the truth of this the first time I ran up against the Butcher in a battle.net game. The Butcher is a nasty fellow encountered early on in the Diablo dungeons. He eats weak players for breakfast, and I was unfortunate enough to be annihilated by him several times one evening. In near despair, I asked another player who happened to be in the same game what we could do to get past the Butcher. He suggested a team strategy. While I pumped arrows into the obnoxious brute, my new friend stood behind me with a magical staff that allowed him to heal other players. As the Butcher hammered on me, my partner continually renewed my life forces.

The satisfaction derived from killing the Butcher that night overshadowed anything I had achieved in single-player mode. Since then, I have had complete strangers give me magic armor, resurrect me after I was massacred by a pack of poison spitting beasts (not once, but twice!) and advise me on the appropriate use of certain spells.

Of course, I've also been foully murdered by other players and accidentally shot down a couple of times (some things never change). But that just provides one more incentive to stick together.

Diablo's cross-breeding of the socially interactive traditions of D&D and the Net with the commercial computer multiplayer game industry is no accident. Roper says that he and the game's designers spent a lot of time playing in MUDs: "We paid a lot of attention to the fun there."

It shows -- and it augurs well for the future of the online experience. Not only does Blizzard have more games in the works, but some time this year a massive online role-playing game called Ultima Online will finally move out of a year-long beta test and into commercial release.

I'm sure I'll find a way to get myself stupidly killed there, as well. But surely someone will save my butt.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

MORE FROM Andrew Leonard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------