Portal Gaming: 2001

Once upon a time, search engines merely searched. Since it is virtually impossible to find much on the Web without using one of these, millions of people went to them on a regular basis. A few years ago, someone got the idea of selling advertising on these sites and making lots of money. Since ad revenue increased as viewership did, it became imperative for the search engines to add more and more features to attract and keep users. Soon things like channels (large collections of links along a specific theme), chat, bulletin boards, e-mail, web page hosting, instant messengers, maps, news, weather, sports, local guides, and television listings began appearing on search sites, thus transforming them into ‘portals,’ or gateways to the Internet.

The major portals currently attract enormous traffic, and thus most of the advertising revenue and Wall Street action. They tend to have every standard portal feature. Usually as soon as one adds something, the others quickly follow. The financially overvalued Internet heavyweights are playing a very high stakes game, and none of them intend to lose. All of them use gaming as a means to attract customers and thusly advertisers.

The Stalwarts

Yahoo is normally the most visited site on the Web, mostly due to its massive collection of links. Gamers can find about 35,000 of these in the Recreation & Sports and Computer channels, as well as a great collection of history and science fiction links that would also be of interest. In addition, Yahoo sponsors chat rooms, auctions, event guides, and message boards for gamers. Members are allowed to form clubs, essentially chat rooms and message boards organized around a single theme, and gamers have started over 47,000 of these. The portal has 45 games that can be played online, mostly traditional card and board, and offers the Yahoo! Messenger (formally the Yahoo! Pager), an instant messenger system that resourceful players should be able to utilize. Finally, Yahoo acquired GeoCities so that its customers can build their own home pages for free. The company did improve the usually abysmal GeoCities by removing the controversial watermark, but it had an embarrassing fight with its customers over a contract change, later dropped, which appeared to grant Yahoo the unlimited use of people’s web pages. In any case, always read the fine print before signing up. Yahoo also owns WebRing which can be used to find game-related web rings (5423 as of this writing). Yahoo does remain one of the few sites that is not overloaded with graphics or annoying music. It downloads fast and is easy to navigate, unusual in this day of web designers gone mad.

Excite is another major search engine which converted to a portal. Like Yahoo, Excite offers message boards, chat rooms, Excite Messenger, a good collection of game links, and 45 online games, but no web page service. Excite bought WebCrawler in order to expand its search database and attract users, but it offers little of its own, except for a channel that links to all of the Excite services.

Lycos once expanded its Web presence vigorously through a series of acquisitions before being taken over itself by Terra Networks. Its takeovers included Tripod and Angelfire, two Web hosting services. The main Lycos site centers gaming activity around the Gamesville acquisition, and has game buying and selling facilities, online play, and downloadable games. Other parts of the site have AOL's Instant Messenger, chat, message boards, and clubs. More game sites can be found through HotBot, a good search engine acquired by Lycos through the Wired deal. HotBot’s Games channel is huge, and it links to similar material on the other Lycos sites. Also of interest is Webmonkey, a site for web developers, including game designers.

The Evil Empires

America Online is in the process of converting its ISP orientation into a stronger Web presence and incorporating Time Warner assets into its sites. The proprietary service has a channel exclusively for its members, consisting mostly of pay-to-play games, and lots of chat rooms and communities. The AOL web site offers game news, reviews, and downloads, provided by EA Games. AOL also owns ICQ which features game chat, play, and even a web ring of its gamers. ICQ is much like AOL’s Instant Messenger (AIM), and both are available free to nonmembers.

The AOL empire now includes web pioneer Netscape, a bizarre marriage aimed at giving AOL a daytime presence among business users. Originally, the Netscape site carried company news mostly, but the debut of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer spurred the page’s transformation into a portal. AOL has been merging some of its content into the Netscape site, and vice versa. Netscape has some game chat rooms, tied to AIM, a game channel also provided by EA, and some message boards, but none on gaming so far. Netscape became even less unique when it recently dropped its distinctive channels from the My Netscape service. Again, look for more Time Warner content to appear here. Netscape’s Open Directory Project is using volunteers to build the largest collection of Internet links. Each category has an editor, and so far there are almost 41,000 listed game sites. Many of the major portals and search engines use these links instead of developing their own collection.

Finally, AOL took over CompuServe, another early online service and has been AOLizing it the last two years. Its software is now the same as AOL's, its game channel is basically the same as AOL's and Netscape's, and Time Warner material should also start drifting in. On the brighter side, many of its Forums are now open to the public, and several carry gaming material. You can find a list of these at Mythical City.

The Microsoft Network has improved much in the last two years, and its Gaming Zone includes online games and downloads. MSN also offers MSN Messenger and spent some time trying to make it compatible with AIM before giving up. The duel between the two superpowers did offer interesting entertainment for a while, though. Finally, MSN has about 57,000 gaming communities, similar in structure to the Yahoo Clubs.

The Traditional Media

At the height of dot.com mania, several large media companies decided to make their own plays for web supremacy. So far, the results have been somewhat less than spectacular. At one time, NBCi seemed the most likely challenger to the major portals. NBCi merged Snap (a joint venture of NBC and CNET), Xoom, and several NBC properties into something that looked like a major portal for a while. NBC has decided to end the NBCi portal experiment but it still has a gamesite link.

The Go Network, a collaboration between Disney, which owns ABC and ESPN, and search engine Infoseek, was one of the more famous dot.com surrenders. Disney simply pulled the plug after deciding that it could not compete with the internet heavyweights. The site is still around, but it is mostly links to other Disney sites. Ironically, Go dropped Infoseek, and now uses GoTo as its search engine. GoTo had sued Go for using a logo similar to its own, and won. Now it is making money doing seaches for Disney's site.

Finally, there is iWon, tied to CBS and surviving by giving away money to users. One can play some online games for money, or even win something in one of iWon's drawings, just perfect for that next trip to the game store.

Small Portals

These are basically lesser-known versions of the major portals, though generally not as comprehensive. These include Go2net, probably better known for its MetaCrawler and Dogpile search engines, and for Hypermart which offers free web page hosting for businesses (budding game publishers please take note). Go2Net also has comprehensive game links, message boards, and online games. It has merged with InfoSpace, a directory service which also offers online gaming, web page hosting, a game channel and bulletin boards.

YourPortal has a massive link collection from LookSmart and also offers internet games. Metahoo is similar, but uses the Open Directory listings and has a different collection of online games. The OpenHere Network, Essential Links, mygo, and My Starting Page are mainly collections of links, with the latter three focusing on the major gaming sites. Starting Point is similar, but it also had the bad taste to list Academic Gaming Review as a featured new site.

Specialty Portals

About.com, formerly known as The Mining Company (mining the Internet, get it? You can see why they changed the name.), specializes in an expert approach to the Web. Volunteer guides amass links, write and collect articles, publish electronic newsletters, run bulletin boards, and host chat rooms in the area of their expertise. So far, the game category has nine divisions, including war and role-playing, each with its own editor.

AltaVista tried to make the transition from highly regarded search engine to portal and failed miserably. This site is changing almost daily, but for now its game channel, mostly LookSmart material, and translation service (not too good, but better than nothing for those nonEnglish game sites) are still worth visiting.

Talk Sites

Four portals rely on either message boards or Usenet for their content. Delphi was one of the first online services but was left in the dust by AOL. Since giving up this approach, Delphi has focused on providing chat and board services and hosting simple web pages. It includes a game channel but is a very hard site to search. Talk City does the same and much gaming material can be found there too. Google Groups (formerly Deja.com and now owned by the Google search engine) archives Usenet discussions back to 1995, including all of the game boards. Users can post to usenet through the service. NewsOne also collects Usenet postings, but includes a means to subscribe to newsgroups. Both allow people without a news server to participate in Usenet, and search the various gaming groups.

Finally, anyone thinking of keeping up with the changes in portal land should consult Search Engine Guide, Search Engine Watch, and Traffick. Each of these offers decent coverage of the almost daily industry developments.

Despite the dot.com implosion, the portal sites do offer a lot for gamers. While oriented to traditional, card, and arcade style games, the links alone are invaluable to strategy gamers. They all require some type of registration, but once in anyone can start a community or put up a web page for their particular gaming vice. In addition, the instant messenger system has much potential for Internet play and game design. Think of these sites as multibillion facilities available free for all of your gaming needs. Corporate America is rarely so accomodating.

Peter L. de Rosa

Note: This review essay is based on two shorter ones published in the Strategist 29 (July 1999):1, 3, as "Portal Gaming: Major Sites," and in the Strategist 29 (September 1999):3, as "Portal Gaming: The Smaller Sites." The Strategist is the newsletter of the Strategy Gaming Society.



PEANUTS & CRACKER JACK by Stephen W. Glenn