The Cyber Space

When you think of 'on-line communities,' the first thing that springs to mind are sites like AOL and Geocities, areas that encourage bonding and sharing. Often neglected are multiplayer game environments (MGEs), which is really a shame because they've become quite...
January 1, 1999

When you think of ‘on-line communities,’ the first thing that springs to mind are sites like AOL and Geocities, areas that encourage bonding and sharing. Often neglected are multiplayer game environments (MGEs), which is really a shame because they’ve become quite adept at developing highly interactive societies. This month, we check out the secrets behind the success of MPlayer, the biggest multiplayer gaming environment around.

MGEs are very straightforward in terms of concept-they are on-line arenas containing a vast array of games and hosting an infinite number of gamers (whereas console games limit the maximum number of players to four). The popularity of these sites stems from their ability to combine incredibly challenging and competitive play opps with anonymity (or widespread notoriety for the highly-skilled, whose achievements are trumpeted loudly).

Lately, MGEs have made revolutionary leaps in refinement, offering highly advanced communication tools that focus on fostering interaction and building a sense of community. MPlayer and its sister site, MPath Foundation (www. and, are constantly pushing the envelope to nurture these on-line nations at a time when most site developers are merely paying lip service to the concept of cybercommunity.

To date, chat has been the method of choice in cultivating interaction between individual Internet users, but chat’s delayed response time and insular nature make it a poor community-builder. What I really like about MPlayer is that it possesses the high-tech tools necessary tools for constructing true interaction:

* voice chat-that’s right, chat that you can hear. The great thing about this feature is that it takes on-line interaction a big step beyond the confines of text-based rap (which is, at best, like talking in slow motion), and although a lot of the intrigue of anonymity is lost, this new trick is drawing a big audience with its cool quotient-hence singing has become a regular occurrence on MPlayer (no kidding);

* scribbletalk-a virtual chalkboard. This brilliant concept lets players unite in cooperative relationships with fellow gamers. Being able to visually plot strategies on the Net with your allies is a strong bonding agent;

* user-developed content-most companies are against user-developed proprietary content, and in turn, effectively alienate their user bases. Sites that encourage and utilize visitor-generated Web areas are right on track to cultivating community because they’re acknowledging that members’ input is relevant and valuable;

* hosting and sponsorship-MPlayer hosts both official and member-initiated events that include everything from singing clubs and contests, to major tournaments like the CNN/SI Links challenge (based on the number one-selling PC golf game). Rysher Entertainment had a similar event with the Soldier of Fortune/Quake II video game tournament (Quake is a soldier-based role-playing game), and described it as ‘the perfect melding of traditional media and new media.’

POP.X is the technology behind all of these innovations, and MPath is its proud owner. POP.X was designed to ‘add community features to smaller sites’ by allowing the creation of talk shows, chat, real-time polling and surveys, virtual classrooms and games. Capabilities like this provide such a wide range of options to captivate an audience that heavyweights like Sony, Electronic Arts and Fujitsu have signed on as licensees of the technology.

Despite their push to reach high-tech pinnacles, on-line communities are just like real ones in that they’re full of annoyances that make us want to move:

* regulars – in this case, bullies who dominate the block, and who can often be cruel and annoying;

* connection difficulties and hardware hang-ups – voice chat is sometimes a huge pain in the behind because of inconsistent sound reproduction;

* ever-present cash outlays – for the premier offerings, players have to dole out some cash. The cream of the crop always costs extra.

But for all the glitches, the fact remains that if on-line environments are to truly move up to the next level, communities are the stairway to take, a fact that MPlayer has prudently recognized. Simply put, traditional methods of bringing people together on-line are having less and less impact. In itself, there’s nothing very unique about being able to play games with other people (console games sapped that evolution long ago), so your on-line community must provide the same elements that make any community attractive: clear communication methods, a shared perspective, collective needs, community support and interesting shared experiences. MPlayer’s hard work seems to be paying off; although sign-ups do not necessarily equal success, membership numbering two million says that they’re doing something right.

Next month: The Cyber Space takes on the many-headed monster of multipath movies.

Greg Skinner is the director of Mina, a market intelligence company with expertise in the youth market. He also admits to having an unhealthy obsession with the World Wide Web. KidScreen asked him to do some browsing on our behalf and report on the latest developments in new media and how these innovations are having an impact on the kids entertainment industry. He is still at it. If you have any suggestions or ideas for topics you’d like to see in ‘The Cyber Space,’ please contact

Greg Skinner at 416-504-6800 (phone), 416-504-4054 (fax) or (e-mail).

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