How VoIP Revolutionized Online Gaming

With Skype boasting over 300 million users in 2016, most people now have some familiarity with VoIP. The number of people using VoIP continues to grow, with the global VoIP market on track to expand at a compound annual growth rate of over 9 points from $83 billion in 2015 to $140 billion by 2021. But while VoIP is now widely-used, most users probably don’t realize that this technological trend first emerged from the video game industry. Here’s a look back at how VoIP technology revolutionized online gaming and how gaming revolutionized communications.

Activision’s MechWarrior 2

While VoIP gaming would eventually become associated with gaming consoles, some of the pioneering efforts in the field emerged in PC gaming, as PC combat simulation games became an early forum for deploying VoIP technology. One of the earliest games to use VoIP was Activision’s 1995 release MechWarrior 2: 31st Century Combat. This vehicular combat simulation game was the sequel to the 1989 game MechWarrior, set in the military science fiction universe of BattleTech, a 1984 board-based war game. BattleTech was originally called BattleDroids, but changed names after Lucasfilm claimed the rights to the name “droid.” Players assumed the role of semi-humanoid battle robots called BattleMechs, fighting other BattleMechs, tanks, infantry and other opponents. MechWarrior and MechWarrior 2 were both introduced on a MS-DOS platform, but their popularity spawned variations for other platforms. MechWarrior 2 was originally launched on MS-DOS, but versions were later released for Microsoft Windows and Mac OS computers and for the PlayStation and Sega Saturn gaming consoles. MechWarrior 2 supported LAN and online multiplayer options, with VoIP enabling players to communicate with each other.

NovaLogic’s F-22 Raptor

In the late 1990s, software developer NovaLogic (recently bought out by THQ Nordic), began introducing what the company called Voice over the Net (VON) technology for PC games running on Windows 95/98. In 1997, NovaLogic had launched NovaWorld, an online gaming matchmaking service and community that paired players from different locations against each other over the internet. NovaWorld was extremely successful, and in 1999 it began including support for VoIP communication.

At the time, NovaLogic was working with the U.S. military to develop combat simulation games, in cooperation with defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin. VoIP made its debut with NovaLogic’s 1999 flight simulation game F22-Raptor Lightning 3, the sequel to the best-selling 1996 release F-22 Raptor Lightning II, both named after Lockheed Martin’s stealth jet, then in the flight-testing phase. VoIP enabled players competing with each other remotely to talk in real-time instead of typing, sparing precious seconds of navigational time. This helped level the playing field for Internet-based teams competing with teams of players in the same room.

VoIP support was also featured in two other games NovaLogic released in 1999, the tank simulation game Armor Fist 3 and the tactical first-person shooter simulation Delta Force 2. In 2000, NovaLogic ran a limited-time offer that included Labtec’s LVA-7330 ClearVoice headset microphones with Delta Force 2 and Armored Fist 3 for use with VoIP technology, an early example of partnering between VoIP and headset providers.

Sega Dreamcast, PlayStation 2 and Xbox

Meanwhile, as NovaLogic was popularizing VON for PCs, Sega’s introduced VoIP to sixth-generation consoles with the Dreamcast, introduced in Japan in 1998 and in North America in 1999. Dreamcast was the successor to Sega’s 1994 Saturn console, which relied on CD-ROM and was a rival to Sony’s PlayStation. Scrapping the CD-ROM platform, Dreamcast was the first gaming console that came with a built-in modem, designed to facilitate Internet support and online multi-player play. Dreamcast also included a slot where users could insert a microphone to use voice control for games or to talk to other players.

Dreamcast won rave reviews, but it was soon upstaged by the release of Sony’s PlayStation 2 in 2000 and Nintendo’s GameCube and Microsoft’s Xbox in 2001. While Dreamcast didn’t last, it set a trend that PlayStation 2 and Xbox helped popularize. As a result, today VoIP is standard issue for gaming consoles. More importantly, VoIP is now popular with consumers at large, thanks in part to the pioneering efforts of video gamers.

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