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Kali is dead! - 11/20/97


Yep. You read that right. Kali is dead - it just doesn't know it yet. Not right now, no - and perhaps not even within a year. But the end is coming, and there's nothing anybody can do to stop it.

The next obvious question is "Why?" To explain that, we'll need to delve into the past for a little and give a bit of background on Kali. Fear not! We shall return to discuss the topic at hand.

Kali is the brainchild of a gentleman named Jay Cotton - just a normal guy who happened to be a huge fan of Descent when it was first released. Unfortunately, the single player game in Descent pretty much sucked (to be blunt) - multi-player action was where the game shone. Problem was, most people didn't have a LAN available to play the game multi-player, which sort of put a damper on things when they heard all about the fun they were missing from their network-endowed cronies.

Jay saw this problem and did a little thinking. The end result was that he came up with the idea of coding a shim that would basically sit in-between the game and a TCP/IP network. The shim looked and acted just like an IPX network layer to the game, allowing you to start up a gaming session just as though you were playing on a LAN. The slick part was that once the shim received a packet it would actually send it via TCP/IP over the Internet (also known as a Wide Area Network, or WAN) to another player.

As you might guess, players flipped out over the possibilities - and Jay saw a business opportunity. The shim began to expand and evolve as he added features; instead of supporting only Descent, he began to turn it into a general IPX game via WAN emulator - and named it Kali.

Kali was a huge success as soon as it was announced. For one, you could play almost any IPX-enabled game over the net with it - and it's important to remember that this was a time when there really weren't other ways to play a lot of these games across the Internet. In many ways, it was the prehistoric era of online gaming. In addition, Jay decided to charge a simple one-time fee of $20 to register. (New users could download a trial version of Kali to test it out; however, it timed out and stopped working after 20 minutes.) That low fee greatly appealed to the "everything-should-be-free-on-the-Internet" crowd - and in truth, it was a great deal.

Since then, Kali has continued to evolve. Early iterations were extremely user-unfriendly, forcing players to configure public domain TCP/IP stacks in DOS and perpetually try to squeeze the last bit of free system memory out of their system to even get their games to run. However, Jay kept up with the Windows 95 revolution and released a native version (cleverly called Kali95) which was even easier to use. Kali95 works with the Windows 95 TCP/IP stack, and basically removed the vast majority of configuration work users used to have to do.

On top of all these successes, Kali's numbers look good, too. To date, Kali has over 180,000 registrants, with servers in over 60 countries. 130,000 of those players are still active, with around 18,000 playing on any particular day for 2-3 hours. In short, things are looking very good for Jay and Kali… for now.

I can already imagine the rabid responses we're going to get on this one (and ironically enough, probably not from Jay). In the hopes of calming some of you down a little, let me let you in on a little secret of mine. In case you hadn't already guessed, I like Kali. Always have, always will.

And by like, I mean really like. I was one of Kali's beta testers back when Jay was polishing up the very first DOS version. I was one of very early registrants (just missing the half-price beta registration offer), and have played countless hours of Command & Conquer, Warcraft, and Duke Nukem 3D with it. And to this date, I have Kali95 installed on my machine, and I still recommend it to people who want an inexpensive way to game "long distance". Heck - I even like Jay and his company, who have always been incredibly open and responsive to the Kali community.

Yet, in spite of all that, Kali is still dead. It just doesn't know it yet. And here's why:

The online gaming industry is delineating itself along two basic financial models. The first model is free gaming subsidized by retail sales of the boxed game, ŕ la battle.net or Westwood Chat. The second is the original pay-for-play model many online gaming networks are hanging on to. The problem for Kali is that these financial models are shifting, and it's looking more likely that companies are going to want to control player access to their properties.

The free gaming networks are adding more and more features as users demand them, which is slowly but surely driving the cost of running those networks up. Thus it's likely the game company networks will eventually start charging for some of their premium content, while keeping older content free. In addition, the pay-for-play gaming networks are moving much the same way - having older free content while charging for premium titles. The final piece of the puzzle is that companies following either model also hope that advertising revenue will help subsidize their costs.

The key element to either of these financial models working are eyeballs. Both models depend on gamers having a reason to come to their respective services - first, during the "free" era to build a consumer base, and eventually, to draw people to view advertising or pay-for-play content (using the generic free content as a loss-leader).

Assuming this is the case, LAN over WAN emulators such as Kali are going to have some difficult times ahead. Currently Kali (and Kahn, a Kali-clone - say that three times fast!) have succeeded by a) having a low, one-time registration fee, and b) piggy-backing on continued game company IPX support. Up to now, companies such as Blizzard and Westwood haven't minded Kali too much. Although they made no money from Kali sales directly, it was at least likely that there was additional revenue being brought in thanks to selling additional copies of game titles.

Lately, however, the game companies have begun to understand the need for owning and controlling their own online gaming networks - and with them, their gaming properties. Looking ahead, they see that they need to build a dedicated consumer base if they're to survive. To that end, it's beginning to make less and less sense to support IPX in retail versions of games. If they do indeed choose to include IPX support in a title, it makes more sense to support IPX in a manner that forces the game to be run on an internal LAN, and be unplayable over Kali. Jay has stated suspicions that certain (to remain unnamed) companies have already attempted to lock out Kali users. I happen to know for a fact that he's right about one large company in particular (let's just say their major titles were in the top five of this year), and I'm pretty sure about a couple of others.

In short, it's not looking good for Kali. The game companies are in the driver's seat here. All it takes to add a vast amount of gamers to their gaming network solution is a simple decision to not support standard IPX - which in turns means dollars flowing into their coffers, not Jay's. And although Jay has done an admirable job of tweaking Kali to support titles which might have been purposely Kali-crippled, it's a losing battle. Simple packet-flooding (sending large game packets far more quickly than the Internet can handle) will cripple Kali-support for a title while leaving the game completely playable over a fast IPX network. Although Jay's been able to find clever ways in the past to compress and eliminate unnecessary packets, he's also been exploiting an area the game company programmers haven't been too concerned about. If the game companies crack down, expect Kali support for newer titles to come to a crashing halt.

It's a pity, too. Kali is an online gaming institution, and Jay Cotton has possibly done more to advance the state of affordable online gaming than anyone else out there. But it's the end of an era - the heavies are moving in, drawn by the scent of big money pouring down the pipes in the years ahead. And smaller houses like Jay's are going to be squeezed out unless they can find a new niche that's not so easily locked out. Hopefully he'll find a way… but sadly enough, I sure can't see it.

André Vrignaud has worked in the computer gaming industry since 1990, although he admits the Atari 2600 had a great influence on his formative years well before then. Most recently he's worked at SSI and TEN, where he produced much of their online content and direction, and is currently working for Intel in their New Media Programs group. He is always interested in stimulating, albeit inflammable, e-mail (including rumors, tips, and other random trivia).

André Vrignaud

taken from www.cdmag.com


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