While Sony's online gaming experiment is only a few weeks old, PlayStation 2 gamers are already finding it helps to have a tolerance for foul play.
Players who exploit holes in games and generally annoy other players--variously known as "cheese players" or "griefers"--are demonstrating the multiple aspects of playing against human opponents rather than a game machine's processor. Live opponents make games more exciting and unpredictable, but they can also be a pain.
Take "pausers" and "quitters," a small but irritating phenomenon in the football games "NFL2K3" and "Madden NFL," among the first online titles for the PlayStation 2. Such players take advantage of features in the games that allow players to pause the action to attend to real-life distractions such as the bathroom or the fridge.
Unscrupulous players can use the feature put a game in limbo 10 seconds before they're about to lose. In many cases, the first player to disconnect is credited with the loss, an intolerable insult for honest players protective of their online ranking.
Andy Matheson, a "Madden" player from Denton, Texas, said there are numerous ways unscrupulous players can try to rob an opponent of a victory. "'Madden' has timers on the pause screen and 'play select' screen, so that people can't simply pause the game all night or
not pick a play," he said. "But on kickoffs they can simply sit there and make you wait...or they can unplug their controllers, which has the same effect."
Matheson said such stunts force players to be more selective in who they play online.
"I wouldn't say it really spoils the appeal of online play," he said. "You just learn to deal with it. It doesn't really matter what game you log onto and what system it's from, there are cheese players and cheaters everywhere."
Fans of online PC games--where cheating can run rampant and ruin the game experience--are used to bad behavior.
Outright cheating is much tougher in console games, where the software resides on hack-proof disc. But there's still room for exploiting game glitches, abusing fellow players and general bad sportsmanship--behavior players getting their first taste of online play via the PlayStation 2 or Microsoft's upcoming Xbox Live are unlikely to be prepared for.
"It's an issue for anyone launching an online game," said Schelley Olhava, an analyst for research firm IDC. "How do you deal with human nature and maintain an environment that people feel is fun and fair?
"If I'm playing football against somebody, I don?t want them to use some trick and mess up my rankings," Olhava said. "It kind of comes down to sportsmanship. How do you encourage good manners?"
Sony is obviously aware of the issue and does what it can to encourage good sportsmanship. One of the first messages PlayStation 2 owners see when they connect their console to the Internet is an admonition to, "Be respectful of your fellow players."
Still, Sony is finding how difficult it can be to ensure everyone plays fair. Player of "SOCOM," Sony's new online shooting game, have complained about players with dial-up Internet connections sneaking into the game, which is supposed to be accessible only to those with high-speed broadband connections. The dial-up players (known as "laggers") can turn a good game into a mess by slowing down server traffic, said Jason, a "SOCOM" player who declined to give his full name
"Players will stand still, run in place, automatically get booted," he said. "Or, if you see the laggers on the opposite team, you can shoot at them all you want but they continue to run in place...People often fall down and die for no apparent reason. It just completely disrupts the flow of the game and makes it hard to play."
A Sony representative did not respond to requests for comment.
David Cole, president of research firm DFC Intelligence, said players are likely to sort out fair play issues themselves as the online gaming audience grows.
"I think it's something that can be worked out," he said. "People get frustrated with the troublemakers, but they eventually find someone they trust. In the short term, it's going to take a while for people to get comfortable playing online. But eventually you're going to see people fall into little groups of other players they know and trust."
Players looking for fair games are already starting to police themselves, creating online leagues with detailed anti-cheese policies.
And most agree that the benefits of online gaming outweigh the frustrations. "The computer's AI (artificial intelligence), although good, is nothing compared to having a human opponent that can do things the computer would never do," wrote one poster in an online "Madden" forum. "The competition online is fierce, and that's why I keep coming back for more."