Some of the earliest video games were two-player games, including early sports games (such as 1958's Tennis For Two and 1972's Pong), early shooter games such as Spacewar! (1962) and early racing video games such as Astro Race (1973). The first examples of multiplayer real-time games were developed on the PLATO system about 1973. Multi-user games developed on this system included 1973's Empire and 1974's Spasim; the latter was an early first-person shooter. Other early video games included turn-based multiplayer modes, popular in tabletop arcade machines. In such games, play is alternated at some point (often after the loss of a life). All players' scores are often displayed onscreen so players can see their relative standing.
Gauntlet (1985) and Quartet (1986) introduced co-operative 4-player gaming to the arcades. The games had broader consoles to allow for four sets of controls.
The first large-scale serial sessions using a single computerStar Trek), OCEAN (a battle using ships, submarines and helicopters, with players divided between two combating cities) and 1975's CAVE (based on Dungeons and Dragons), created by Christopher Caldwell (with art work and suggestions by Roger Long and assembly coding by Robert Kenney) on the University of New Hampshire's DECsystem-1090. The university's computer system had hundreds of terminals, connected (via serial lines) through cluster PDP-11s for student, teacher and staff access. The games had a program running on each terminal (for each player), sharing a segment of shared memory (known as the "high segment" in the OS TOPS-10). The games became popular, and the university often banned them because of their RAM use. STAR was based on 1974's single-user, turn-oriented BASIC program STAR, written by Michael O'Shaughnessy at UNH.
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Ken Wasserman and Tim Stryker in a 1980 BYTE article identified three factors which make networked computer games appealing:
- multiple humans competing with each other instead of a computer
- incomplete information resulting in suspense and risk-taking
- real-time play requiring quick reaction
Wasserman and Stryker described how to network two Commodore PET computers with a cable, which included a type-in, two-player Hangman and described the authors' more-sophisticated Flash Attack. Digital Equipment Corporation distributed another multi-user version of Star Trek, Decwar, without real-time screen updating; it was widely distributed to universities with DECsystem-10s. In 1981 Cliff Zimmerman wrote an homage to Star Trek in MACRO-10 for DECsystem-10s and -20s using VT100-series graphics. "VTtrek" pitted four Federation players against four Klingons in a three-dimensional universe.
Flight Simulator II, released in 1986 for the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga, allowed two players to connect via modem or serial cable and fly together in a shared environment.
MIDI Maze, an early first-person shooter released in 1987 for the Atari ST, featured network multiplay through a MIDI interface before Ethernet and Internet play became common. It is considered the first multiplayer 3D shooter on a mainstream system, and the first network multiplayer action-game (with support for up to 16 players). There followed ports to a number of platforms (including Game Boy and Super NES) in 1991 under the title Faceball 2000, making it one of the first handheld, multi-platform first-person shooters and an early console example of the genre.
Networked multiplayer gaming modes are known as "netplay". The first popular video-game title with a LAN version, 1991's Spectre for the Apple Macintosh, featured AppleTalk support for up to eight players. Spectre's popularity was partially attributed to the display of a player's name above their cybertank. There followed 1993's Doom, whose first network version allowed four simultaneous players.
Networked multiplayer LAN games eliminate common Internet problems such as lag and anonymity, and are the focus of LAN parties. Play-by-email multiplayer games use email to communicate between computers. Other turn-based variations not requiring players to be online simultaneously are Play-by-post gaming and Play-by-Internet. Some online games are "massively multiplayer", with a large number of players participating simultaneously. Two massively-multiplayer genres are MMORPG (such as World of Warcraft or EverQuest) and MMORTS.
Some networked multiplayer games, including MUDs and massively multiplayer online games such as RuneScape, omit a single-player mode. First-person shooters have become popular multiplayer games; Battlefield 1942 and Counter-Strike have little (or no) single-player gameplay. Developer and gaming site OMGPOP's library includes multiplayer Flash games for the casual player. The world's largest MMOG is South Korea's Lineage, with 19 million registered players (primarily in Asia).
The largest Western MMOG in 2008 was World of Warcraft, with over 10 million registered players worldwide. This category of games requires multiple machines to connect via the Internet; before the Internet became popular, MUDs were played on time-sharing computer systems and games like Doom were played on a LAN.
Gamers refer to latency using the term "ping", after a utility which measures round-trip network communication delays (by the use of ICMP packets). A player on a DSL connection with a 50-ms ping can react faster than a modem user with a 350-ms average latency. Other problems include packet loss and choke, which can prevent a player from "registering" their actions with a server. In first-person shooters, this problem appears when bullets hit the enemy without damage. The player's connection is not the only factor; some servers are slower than others.
Beginning with the Sega NetLink in 1996, Game.com in 1997 and Dreamcast in 2000, game consoles support network gaming over LANs and the Internet. Many mobile phones and handheld consoles also offer wireless gaming with Bluetooth (or similar) technology. By the early 2010s online gaming had become a mainstay of console platforms such as Xbox and PlayStation.