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This year the electronic-gaming industry expects to beat Hollywood at making money. It’s happened once before. In 1998, entranced with a new generation of gaming consoles that included the Sony PlayStation, Nintendo 64, and Sega Dreamcast, Americans spent more of their entertainment dollars on games than movies. As those consoles began to age, movie box office receipts took the lead again from 1999 through 2001. But yet another generation of consoles hit the market last year, one reason game sales again are booming. Another reason is the growing audience for what’s known as “massively multiplayer online gaming” — an activity for which San Diego is the current center of the universe.

ndustry sources estimate that a million Americans are already immersed in massively multiplayer online gaming, an impressive number but still only a third of 1 percent of the U.S. population. A larger number of individuals has had fun over the years with arcade and console games or gotten caught up in Myst or Civilization or Sim City on their personal computers. But if these people play games online at all, they play with a few friends, rather than with thousands of strangers, and they pay no extra fee. Then there’s the mainstream — the masses of folks who still think of games as objects spread out on the dining room table or programs on TV.

The marketing team at Sony Online Entertainment thinks millions of people will join the hard-core gamers within the next year. Considering the recent growth of Sony Online Entertainment, this prediction has plausibility. In March 2000, the company had 105 employees. Today, it has almost 500, with more than four-fifths of them based here in San Diego. They operate out of three glass-and-concrete buildings located a few blocks north of Miramar Road, about two miles east of 805. It’s not an ostentatious place. Pale young men in jeans and T-shirts often cluster around the parking lot, smoking and talking. Inside, in many of the offices, the lighting is dim and the noise level low — optimal conditions for concentrating in front of a terminal. The premises contain one room filled with computers but neither monitors nor people — just processors stacked eight feet high, rows and rows of them, bristling with plugs and cables. This room held almost 1000 computers on the day I visited.

All the interconnected boxes constitute the “servers” for Sony Online Entertainment’s current blockbuster, a fantasy role-playing game called EverQuest. Anyone who buys EverQuest (for $29.99) gets a couple of CDs containing graphic images of a fictional world called Norrath. Players load the CDs onto their home computers, but to play the game, they have to connect (via the Internet) to Sony’s roomful of servers. They then select a character — a wood elf or a dwarf or a barbarian, for example — and use arrow keys to move it. As they do so, Sony’s computers tell the players’ computers which images to display, so players can see their alter egos carrying out their directives. On screen, it looks less realistic than a movie but more complex and lifelike than a cartoon.

The object of the game isn’t well defined. It’s less a purposeful activity than an experience. Players roam the world, exploring a vast array of outdoor and indoor environments. They fight enemies, starting out with bats and wasps and working up to dragons. They go on quests — collecting objects in the manner of a scavenger hunt. Players can undertake many of the early, simple activities on their own, but experienced players almost always team up with other people, with whom they communicate in real-time written exchanges. At the most advanced levels, they work in large groups. It might take 80 players to slay the most formidable monsters.

The computers in Sony’s server room keep track of all these players, and they tell each player’s computer what his or her fellow players are up to. At the moment, more than 430,000 people are paying Sony $12.95 a month in exchange for this service. In practice, the subscribers never all play at once. But it’s common for 30,000 to 80,000 to be in the game at one time.

The EverQuest server room made me think of a brain — undistinguished looking but harboring a crowded world of interactions, memories, and dreams. It’s a one-track mind, obsessed with Norrath’s spells and dragons and politics. But in the coming months, Sony will set up huge banks of computers in other rooms to serve different mind-sets. One of the upcoming games, Star Wars Galaxies, will allow players to explore and have adventures in the science-fictional universe of George Lucas’s popular movie series. Another (Planetside) will bring masses of players together to chase, evade, and shoot at each other. Yet another, called Sovereign, will be “kind of like playing Risk against hundreds of other people,” in the words of one of the game’s designers.

If there’s one father responsible for spawning these creations, a candidate for the paternity suit might be Brad McQuaid. A focused, intense 33-year-old, he arguably had the most to do with conceiving and bringing EverQuest to life. On the other hand, McQuaid is quick to point out that he was “in the right place at the right time with the right support to make that happen.”

Born and raised in “the San Diego area” (he declined to be more specific or say where he went to high school), McQuaid attended “some college here,” then began working in the computer industry as a business programmer. But games were his passion so, along with a friend named Steve Clover, McQuaid started creating one in his spare time.

He wanted it to be a fantasy role-playing game, a genre that won widespread popularity following the 1974 introduction of Dungeons & Dragons. Dungeons & Dragons wasn’t a computer game, of course. It required three to nine players (a typical number) to gather together with dice, paper and pencil, and a couple of books of complex and arcane rules about spell-casting, monster-creation, and the like. Play sessions often took four to six hours. But the high school and college students who were Dungeons & Dragons’ natural audience had plenty of time. And the game provided rich social rewards while giving participants the chance to exercise their imaginative and storytelling abilities. Within ten years, it had become an international hit.

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