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Perspective: An online gamer's dilemma

CNET News.com's David Becker writes that the future of video games has arrived in his home--but it's a wonder nobody's broken any bones yet. Chalk it up to what gaming wags are calling the "last five feet" problem.

The future of video games has arrived in my home, but it's a wonder nobody's broken any bones yet.

That would be from tripping over the 50 feet of Category 5 networking cable needed to stretch the broadband connection in our home office into the living room, where the PlayStation 2 and Xbox consoles that keep my wife's teeth on edge reside.

Here we have what some gaming wags are calling the "last five feet" problem. The last-mile problem was all about getting broadband Internet access from trunk lines into your home. Now that an increasing number of homes are plugged in to broadband, the challenge becomes sharing the connection with other devices in the home that might benefit from it.

In this case, it's game consoles, at the beginning of what is likely to be a slow, arduous drive to tap into the Internet. Sony started the race last month with the release of a network adapter for its PlayStation 2 game console. I was happily screwing one into the back of my PS2 shortly after the device's release, around the same time Microsoft invited me into the beta testing process for Xbox Live, the upcoming online service for its game machine.

Both required getting the DSL connection from our home office to where the game machines were. In the Microsoft-certified home of the future, that might be a simple process of tapping into the numerous network nodes conveniently located throughout the house. In the here and now, though, my options were to tear up a fair amount of drywall and run cables for a home network (wireless networking support in current game consoles is slim to nil), or roll and unroll those 50 feet of bright blue Cat 5 wire whenever I wanted to connect the game machines.

Sloth being the greater part of wisdom in some cases, I opted for the latter, a practical choice in our compact San Francisco cottage and one sure to at least provide some entertainment for our cat every time I wound up the cable.

Once the physical considerations were out of the way, it was a surprisingly simple process to get going. Both the Xbox and the PS2 recognized the DSL connection promptly and had me set up after a few screens of creating user profiles and setting passwords. In a matter of minutes, I was ready to start losing at football in a whole new way.

In a matter of minutes, I was ready to start losing at football in a whole new way.
The primary differences between the two services include voice capability--Microsoft intends to have it in every Xbox game; so far, PlayStation 2 supports it only in one Sony-published shooting game.

My initial experience with Xbox Live started me off as a firm believer in the virtues of voice. I was paired up in "NFL Fever" with a kindly Texas gentleman who took great pity on my ineptitude. He was quickly suggesting which plays to run, coaching me to throw my passes earlier and providing other assistance that allowed me to lose by an honorable margin.

This, I marveled, was the true revelation of online gaming: the capability for true interaction with another human being, to have a brief but rewarding relationship that otherwise wouldn't have happened.

Yet subsequent experiences with Xbox Live showed that, while you can lead a horse to a microphone, you can't make him talk. Opponents in other games I played ignored my opening greetings and remained silent for the duration of the game, all the better, apparently, to concentrate on running up the score against me.

The in-game experience was about the same as playing the PlayStation2 version of Sega's "NFL2K3," which doesn't support voice interaction. Talking in that first Xbox Live game made it feel substantially different. Games without any voice input were a more subtle change from playing against the CPU, characterized mainly by in-game choices more varied than what the game's logic would dictate. But there's still no excuse for going for it on 4th-and-19 just so you can win by five touchdowns instead of four.

Another substantial difference between the two systems is that Xbox Live only supports broadband Internet connections, while most PlayStation 2 online titles will work with dial-up connections.

I sympathize with the gamers opining in online discussions that "56k lamerz shuld go die!"
The difference was obvious the first time I tried to play online football via the PS2 and spent 40 minutes looking for a game that could keep a usable connection alive for more than a minute. I'm sure I'd feel differently if I lived in an area where broadband wasn't available, but for now I sympathize with the gamers opining in online discussions that "56k lamerz shuld go die!"

The biggest surprise was that I actually came to enjoy online gaming, despite the physical hassles of having to snake out the big blue cable every time I wanted to play and the near certainty of losing once I did get connected.

Playing against the CPU, you can always ratchet down the difficulty setting to the point where even the most inept player, me being Exhibit A, can squeeze out a victory. Online, your only hopes are being really good or finding another player of similar incompetence, a nearly impossible task for me given the thin population for online console games now and the tendency for skilled players to spend more time online.

Yet even as I march to an 0-and-whatever record, I find I'd rather play against real people. Every goal feels like an accomplishment when facing an opponent far more skilled and less predictable than I'd ever allow the CPU to get.

All in all, it's compelling enough for me to unwind Mr. Ethernet once a week or so, but close enough to the same old thing that our walls and floorboards are safe for now.