For the longest time, playing a game on a computer required that the game program be loaded onto the hard drive from a diskette or CD (purchased or otherwise…). Installing a game offers a number of benefits: The game program can make full use of the computer's available resources, without the sort of restrictions placed upon Java applets running in a Web browser. An installed game can be optimized more easily for a computer's particular configuration, such as screen resolution. Also, such games do not require a connection to the Internet — aside from those few that now require product activation over the Net.
Web-based games, on the other hand, confer advantages of their own: By not requiring any installation on the user's hard drive, they take up no disc space — or only a minuscule amount for the game site's cookie, and possibly the Web browser's cache of pages and images. Internet games require less time to get started, and thus encourage the user to try titles that he or she otherwise might not want to experiment with or purchase. Also, such games tend to be more "lightweight", consuming less system memory. In addition, Web-based games better lend themselves to competing with other players over the Internet. Lastly, these games-in-a-browser are better suited for adaptation for use in mobile devices, such as the new cellphones with small color screens that can display moving graphics of limited size and color set.
In this article, I will explore a number of the better known websites for Internet games, including those which strive to have a sizable selection of unique games in several categories, as well as those sites dedicated to one particular popular game or another (for instance, chess and Go).
More Is Sometimes Better
Perhaps the largest and best Web-based gaming site is that of Yahoo. Their easy-to-use site features 25 card games (including solitaire, poker, blackjack, and bridge), 16 board games (including chess, checkers, backgammon, and Reversi), 19 arcade games (including Tetris clones), nine word games (including daily crossword puzzles), and eight fantasy sports games (including basketball, football, baseball, and hockey). In addition, a handful of these games can be played for cash prizes. Yahoo should be commended for its restraints in not having pop-up advertising in its game area.
The omnipresent Microsoft naturally has its own game site, as part of MSN — although it is apparently a repackaging of Zone.com. In terms of the number and diversity of games, it appears to be comparable to that of Yahoo Games. Those games requiring download and installation, or even a CD-ROM, are clearly labeled as such. Both websites are quite popular, with each one typically hosting over 100,000 players. However, there were noticeable differences between the two sites. For instance, in true Microsoft fashion, the MSN site required the visitor to be running Internet Explorer or the very latest Netscape (and even then it had problems). Even more annoying, the site immediately began spawning pop-up windows, some of which misbehaved even on a Windows 2000 machine with full security patches and half a gigabyte of RAM. Perhaps this is one reason why the Yahoo site consistently reports hosting more visitors than the MSN site.
There are other, less well-known game sites, such as Games.com (the clear winner in that once-popular Internet game, "Race for the Best Domain Name"…). It offers a healthy assortment of board and word games (including Battleship), arcade games, as well as dice and card games. Like most if not all gaming websites, Games.com displays how many visitors are currently playing each game. If their numbers are accurate, then far more people prefer arcade games than both of the other categories combined, by at least an order of magnitude. Excite offers 13 casino games (along with the option to gamble with real money), as well as 13 bankroll-safe alternatives. Some of these sites, such as Excite, appear to have taken a page from the Microsoft playbook in terms of prioritizing what works and what doesn't on their sites. In the case of Excite, not a single interactive game displayed correctly, in IE, Netscape, or Mozilla — although sadly the same cannot be said for the banner ads. The only game that did work was Crossword, presumably because it was displaying a static image of a crossword puzzle, rather than using a Java applet to display a game board and accept user input.
Pogo.com, affiliated with Electronic Arts, has over 50 games, including casino, sports, and extreme games, plus the usual arcade, card, board, and word games. Unlike Yahoo and MSN, most if not all of pogo.com's offerings claimed to give out cash prizes. PlaySite has a smaller selection of games, but also promises monetary winnings. The aspiring Web gamer should bear in mind that these smaller sites — even those that display the games just as well as the advertisements — appear to have more difficulties and poor performance in their Java-based games, in comparison to the larger sites, whose parent companies no doubt have more resources to devote to developing and testing their games in different Web browsers.
Quality Not Quantity
Not all game sites attempt to attract the most visitors by offering a large number of different options. If you enjoy chess, "the game of kings", then you will likely enjoy GameKnot. Its focus is chess, even though it offers Reversi (a.k.a. Othello) and Lines, without obligating you to establish an ID and login, unlike most sites. As long as you have Java 1.1 on your machine, you will be able to play turn-based chess (similar to correspondence chess) with other players, anywhere in the world. You can watch other people's games, chat with the players, and easily invite your friends to start a chess game with you (even if they have not established their own ID or even heard of the site).
An older game than chess, Go probably boasts more players throughout the world, especially in the Asian countries, where professional Go players are highly regarded. Perhaps the best known website that allows Go players to compete with one another internationally, is the IGS, the Internet Go Server. In fact, as of this writing, China is leading 3-0 in the first ever China-Japan Internet match, a tournament which is being played completely on the IGS.
For those who enjoy word games, CRpuzzles bills itself as "your on-line puzzle magazine committed to giving solvers free, daily-updated, print magazine-class puzzles." On this promise, it delivers, with a nice selection of logic problems, word search puzzles, crosswords, cryptograms, and other brain-teasers.
Now that I have briefly examined numerous websites that offer computer games online, you should feel more comfortable exploring those sites, trying games you've never played before, and joining in the fun. Of course, given the different levels of performance one can expect from the various sites — in addition to the browser, chip speed, and free system memory of your particular computer — your results may vary from what I discovered after several hours of playing- er, doing research. Regardless, give these Web games a chance, and enjoy!