Modern video games tend to focus on the online multiplayer experience. From the kid-friendly, block-based building game Minecraft, all the way up to blockbuster titles like FIFA or Call of Duty, community play is integral. Once the preserve of hardcore gamers, networked experiences have been part of mainstream gaming culture for quite some time.
These games utilise a high-speed internet infrastructure to connect players’ smartphones, tables, PCs or consoles with friends across the street or strangers around the world, so millions of players can jump into massive gaming worlds.
In the mid-90s, around the dawn of the home internet era, BT identified network play as the future of gaming. In June 1996 it launched Wireplay, a dedicated PC gaming service that allowed players to dial into a server, separate from their web connection, and challenge others to play compatible games.
Here’s what you need to know about Wireplay…
After previews during 1995 and careful testing within the gaming community, the Wireplay service went public in June 1996, coinciding with the Euro 96 football tournament held in England. The licensed Euro 96 game – based on Actua Soccer from Gremlin – was one of the first compatible Wireplay games. The tournament prize was a year’s supply of Snickers bars.
BT worked with Gremlin and developers of popular PC CD-ROM games to build in networking functionality, with the idea of making it easy for players just to jump in. Compatible games featured a lobby where players could challenge each other, chat, view leaderboards, and save results for tournament play.
However, the key to the entire endeavour was speed. BT had to replicate the experience gamers could expect while playing against a PC-controlled opponent. Because home internet speeds were still slow by today’s standards, gaming over the web wasn’t yet achievable. However, through a closed dial-up network, BT achieved a lag of just 105 milliseconds (0.105 seconds).
Home gamers needed a PC running the Intel Pentium 486 processor, which were among the more advanced PCs of mid-late 90s. A BT phone line and a 9600bps modem were also necessary to enjoy the Wireplay games.
Towards the end of 1996 BT worked to foster Wireplay adoption by giving away millions of copies of popular games like the fighter pilot simulator EF2000 with PC gaming magazines. It remained one of the most popular Wireplay games.
In 1997, BT opened Wireplay-ready internet cafes inside Blockbuster Video stores in the UK. It cost £3 for half an hour on a PC (compared to £1.50 an hour at home), but was there was a free kiosk where visitors could set up an email address for future play.
First person shooter (FPS) games helped to populise online play. Prior to the launch of Wireplay, the gory Doom game enjoyed was among the first to gain a significant online following via the “deathmatch” format. When the Windows 95 version of the Wireplay platform emerged, the service began supporting an 8-player deathmatch in the massively popular FPS game Quake (below).
The price of Wireplay was comparable to other online entertainment services. It cost 2.5p per minute during evenings and weekends and 6p a minute during peak times. By 1997, BT was racking up 12,000 log-ons per week.
18 months after launching the Wireplay initiative in the United Kingdom, BT licensed the tech to telephone companies in Australia and the United States.
Wireplay played a sizable role in fostering the competitive gaming scene around Europe. The Quakedelica tournament in London in 1998 was among the first high profile events.
Even World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov got in on the action in 1998, taking on three teams of challengers. You can relive one of the games here. Chess arrived via BT’s Play Games Now service, which was an addition to the Wireplay network. It also included popular pastimes like backgammon and bridge. The games’ governing bodies got behind the service, enabling official tournament play online.
By 1999 over 100 games were supported by Wireplay, including most of the chart-topping PC titles of the time.
At the launch of Wireplay, British gaming icon Peter Molyneux warned: "A big challenge could be policing a new kind of online bullying. I can imagine it being like the school playground where players with less ability are muscled out." It’s an issue that’s still being battled today.
After notching up more than 100,000 registered users in the UK (50,000 a month at its peak), BT sold Wireplay to Gameplay Plc. for £5.5 million at the turn of the century. However, it’s early promise diminished and the service made significant losses following the sale.
Ownership bounced around, but the Wireplay community endured in one form or another through games like Quake and Team Fortress. It was finally shut down in 2014.
Today, dedicated services like PlayStation Network and Xbox Live offer console gamers access to online multiplayer action, while PC gamers and smartphone users are able to join the servers of individual games. The esports competitive gaming industry is expected to surpass $1 billion in annual revenue by next year. BT’s Wireplay played a significant role in this emergence of online play in the UK and beyond.