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Multiplayer games head for Net

Apple and Microsoft will next week act to help developers of multiplayer video games move their products from proprietary networks to the Internet.

Apple, Microsoft, and other vendors will this week act to help developers of multiplayer video games move their products from proprietary networks to the Internet.

Multiplayer games for wide networks let gamers everywhere join to kill villains or solve mysteries, adding an element of social interaction to what would otherwise be a solitary experience. Currently, most multiplayer games are only available through proprietary dial-up networks, such as Dwango and the Xband Network. But the two PC heavyweights and other vendors are trying to help developers gain a wider audience by making their games available on the Net.

At this week's Computer Game Developer's Conference in Santa Clara, California, Microsoft will announce that it is extending its DirectX gaming technology to support multiplayer interaction on the Internet, according to sources close to the company. With DirectX, game developers will not have to rewrite video games to add Internet support, a fact that may significantly increase the number of multiplayer games on the Net, Microsoft officials said.

Microsoft will provide alpha versions of its new DirectX Software Development Kit to developers this week; final versions of the SDK are expected to ship in August. To show that it works, the company will demonstrate a version of Activision's MechWarrior with multiple people playing over the Internet next week.

Apple isn't snoozing while its rival hawks its technology to game developers. The company last week announced Apple Game Sprockets, an SDK for creating Internet-ready games for the Macintosh. The SDK will allow all existing and new Mac games to incorporate Internet connections, as well as real-time 3D graphics, 3D sound, speech recognition, and joystick control. To push the new capabilities, Apple has posted the SDK available free of royalties to developers on its Web site.

Neither Microsoft nor Apple was the first to think of the idea. Xband began beta-testing a version of its service, called Xband for PCs, which allows users to play games through standard Internet connections instead of proprietary online services.

Nor will the two companies remain unchallenged by smaller but more experienced game vendors. Mpath Interactive and Origin Systems, a division of Electronic Arts, are also trying to bring multiplayer games to the Net.

Mpath Interactive announced today that it has completed the first round of testing on its Mplayer service offering game playing, real-time two-way voice conversations, and chat sessions over the Internet. Origin Systems announced that it has launched a trial for Ultima Online Test, a multiplayer role-playing game that the company expects will involve more than 3,000 participants.

All of these developers will have to contend with one issue that still promises to slow the acceptance of multiplayer gaming on the Net: latency, or delays in the transmission of data. To perform acceptably over 14.4-kbps Internet connections, vendors including Microsoft and Xband are working with Internet service providers to offer enhanced service for games, but the results are still unknown.

Microsoft does have a head start, though. It partly owns national Net access service UUNet Technologies, which will unsurprisingly announce support for Microsoft's new DirectX SDK this week.