Baang! You're Dead 

Clan leaders Ricky Menjivar and Vinh Bui are out for blood. Their battleground: Korean-style cybercafes across the East Bay. Their deadly game: Counter-Strike.

The first floor of Macy's at the Sun Valley Mall in Concord has been ravaged. Everything's on sale, even if it isn't really cheaper than usual, and the clothing department has been a mob scene ever since the store opened at 8 a.m. With only six days left until Christmas, the staff is battle-worn. Making matters worse is the holiday Muzak oozing from circular beige speakers in the ceiling -- staccato horns tooting out "Winter Wonderland."

Appeasing the crowds lined up at the only functioning register in this part of the store is a heavyset young man dressed entirely in black -- socks, boots, slacks, and button-down shirt. The only thing that isn't jet-black is the gold name tag pinned to his shirt just above the left nipple: "Ricky."

Ricky Menjivar stands five-seven with short, spiky black hair and the scent of Calvin Klein's Crave, which he samples from testers in the cologne section. The twenty-year-old sales clerk is perched behind a white rectangular box littered with security tags and sales scanners. The tiny black-and-white screens flash and the speakers beep as he scans Ecko shirts, Hilfiger pants, and designer socks. His arms move quickly, with the grace of a dancer poured into a body too big to pirouette.

Ricky has the scanning system down pat, but he seems to have trouble folding shirts. He stares at a white-ribbed oxford with a look of concentration. "You know, my husband once got a job at a clothing store," says his customer, a spry, white-haired woman. Ricky focuses on the shirt. "Right," he says.

Unfazed by his lack of interest, she continues. "I had to stay up with him all night teaching him how to fold shirts."

The clerk continues to fumble with her purchases. "Right," he repeats. It's close to noon and he hasn't had a break.

Hanging above Ricky is a sign. In its center, there's a bright red star festooned with the happy faces of young people. "The Fashion, the Fun, the Magic," it reads. "Imagine the Possibilities."

Ricky, in fact, is doing just that, except that the possibilities he's imagining aren't quite what the sign intended. They have to do with tactical combat situations, muzzle velocities, grenade detonation timers, and the defensive capabilities of Kevlar. One minute, he's traversing an Aztec ruin or storming a snow-covered office complex; the next, he's hauling ass through the cobblestone streets of an Italian town, lobbing grenades around corners.

Ricky Menjivar's body is folding shirts. His mind is playing Counter-Strike.


Counter-Strike is the most popular action game on the Internet, boasting some two million players. At this very moment, at least 70,000 hopeless addicts are playing it online around the world. The game was devised by ex-Microsoft programmers who aimed to simulate real-world terrorist scenarios: How do you save a cluster of five hostages barricaded inside a building defended by ten armed combatants? How can you stop a squad of terrorists from setting a bomb and escaping to safety? These are the questions Counter-Strikers explore on a daily basis.

Counter-Strike -- created by an avid gamer and later marketed by Kirkland, Washington-based Valve Software (see sidebar "Before the Revolution") -- is what's known as a first-person shooter, in which players view the virtual landscape through the eyes of their characters. The game is designed to be a true representation of combat, and that makes it more challenging than its predecessors. Most computer games feature Rambo-like characters who can withstand multiple hits from rocket launchers, flamethrowers, or nail guns. In Counter-Strike, a single well-aimed bullet will be your undoing.

Players choose sides at the outset: The terrorists' goal is to plant a bomb and defend it until it explodes; the counter-terrorists must defuse the device or prevent it from being placed. If and when the charge is planted, a text message goes out to all players: "Someone set us up the bomb." That's a play on another gaming catchphrase, "All your base are belong to us." Both expressions are botched English translations from the Japanese computer game Zero Wing.

Matches consist of a series of rounds, each lasting five to ten minutes. A round ends when the bomb explodes, gets defused, or when all the counter-terrorists are annihilated. If the terrorists are wiped out, they can still win the round if the bomb goes off before the counter-terrorists can defuse it.

For Counter-Strike fanatics like Ricky, it's more than a game. It's an identity. It's who he is and what he does best. Sure, Ricky will tell you about his vague aspirations, and yes, he pulls in a paycheck at Macy's, but if you want to know what he's proud of, then know this: Ricky is the leader of Concord's dominant gaming clan, the Triads. With a sales scanner, this cat is efficient. But with a mouse and a keyboard, he's straight-up dangerous.

It's raining when the young sales clerk finally gets a break. He stands under an overhanging ledge outside the mall, smoking Marlboro Reds and chatting with a girl from Subway, who then returns to the sandwich joint to build him his favorite lunch: a six-inch Buffalo chicken sandwich with extra sauce and juices. Ricky goes over to the soda fountain and fills half his cup with Mountain Dew before topping it off with orange soda.

He gazes out at the rain while he eats. Despite his heavy build, Ricky eats daintily, his thick ruddy pinkies sticking up even when he holds his drink. But the sandwich soon vanishes down his gullet, and he proceeds to talk about himself -- one of his favorite pastimes.

Ricky thinks he's the shit. He claims he's got his CCNA. That's geek talk -- a Cisco Certified Network Associate is capable of installing, configuring, and operating an alphabet soup of recondite computer networking services and protocols. Ricky also claims he can program in Java, C, C++, HTML, and Pascal. And did he mention that he got second place in his regional high school wrestling league? "I wasn't so popular in high school," he says, "but then I got my Eclipse 3000GT, and people are all like, 'Oh, we wanna hang out with you now.'"

Ricky's father is Italian, his mother Venezuelan. He lives at home in Pittsburg along with his younger sister, Rosa, who is twelve, and his sixteen-year-old brother, AJ.

His father likes guns, and has taken Ricky deer and duck hunting. Ricky has also fired guns on a range. The Heckler and Koch MP5 doesn't do it for him, he says. He likes the Desert Eagle, a weapon made by an Israeli company called Magnum Research. "It's loud. It's so powerful and heavy. I love it," he says. He even has a pet name for it: Deagle.

Macy's is okay, but Ricky has plans. "I like law. I might do some of that. I like medical. I might do some of that," he says. He wants to go to Chico State. "Party school!" he jokes.

Ricky doesn't drink, though. He's got other interests, such as the Tolkien trilogy, which he prefers over Star Wars. "Lord of the Rings," he says. "I can't wait for the last one to come out. I'll sit at home with all three on DVD, and a nice big fat hookah. Booooooffffff." He pretends to take a massive bong hit.

Outside again, Ricky bums more cigarettes from the sandwich girl. She wears too much eyeliner, talks about going to Oregon to buy cigarettes tax-free. They pass the mall gossip back and forth. Ricky is procrastinating, avoiding getting back to Macy's. Things will be chaotic at this time of day. Every customer wants his shirts boxed and wrapped. And folded.

And Ricky still has five more hours before he can jump in his Eclipse and head over to the Next Level, where he and his fellow Triads will kill and be killed all night long.


Not long after peeling out of the mall parking lot, Ricky's Mitsubishi speeds around a corner and down Golf Club Drive to Pleasant Hill's resident PC Baang, the Next Level.

"PC Baang" -- baang is Korean for "room" -- is just an exotic way of saying Internet cafe, a space more about broadband than caffeine. These venues first sprung up in South Korea around 1997 as places for teens and adults to surf the Net, play Starcraft, and meet members of the opposite sex. There are now roughly 26,000 PC Baangs in South Korea, where top gamers are treated like professional athletes.

The trend has been late to catch on in the United States, but it's finally gaining momentum as Baangs pop up to replace the defunct mall arcades where Gen X youth once socialized. Besides the Next Level, the East Bay PC Baang circuit includes CyberGlobe in Concord, CyberGame in Richmond, CyberCafe in Oakland, and other joints in Walnut Creek, Fremont, and Dublin.

The Next Level is nestled in strip-mall hell between a skate shop and a hobby store. To block out all sunlight, every inch of its windows is plastered over with game posters featuring gun-toting cyberbabes rendered in 3-D and clad in outfits that look either uncomfortable or nonexistent.

Inside, it's a nerd's paradise. The sizable joint hums with top-of-the-line PCs, PlayStation 2 consoles, and X-Boxes. The black walls and strategically placed gaming stations give it the air of a nightclub that moonlights as an arcade during the day. But the hordes of young men -- and a few female hangers-on -- who pack this place probably seldom muster the nerve to go out dancing. This is the refuge of the young and the unpopular, the boys and girls who don't fit into the gangster-rap chic so popular at their high schools. Here, there's no bullying, no catcalls, no thumping SUV subwoofers. There is only gaming -- pure, unrelenting digital gaming.

These kids don't just play Counter-Strike, they build their social lives around it. And they assume alter egos when they play. Ricky goes by the nickname SataN. "Because I'm evil!" he boasts. "I was playin' real good one day, and someone's like 'You're cheating!' And I'm like, 'No, I'm just good! Good and evil.'"

Gamers even have their own language, a form of keyboard graffiti that involves the swapping of characters and numbers. It's called "L337-speak" -- pronounced "leet-speak," as in "elite." The code was popularized by Quake players to expand naming possibilities for their online personas.

At twenty, Ricky is one of the oldest players here. There are a couple of guys in their late twenties, but they look self-conscious and out of place. Nearly everyone else is a teenager. About half the crowd is Asian American, with the rest an even split between white and Latino. It's not entirely clear why Baangs are so popular with the Asian kids. "It might have to do with Asian owners," suggests the owner of one gaming establishment.

It also may have to do with the tendency of Asian-American kids to socialize in large groups. Counter-Strike, after all, is a group effort. Teamwork is just as important here as it is in a game of baseball or football. And rather than team up with strangers, the most ardent players form clans, which they often give oddball or offensive names. These aren't like gangs, where the rivalries spill onto the streets. But in the virtual world, rival clans would like to spill as much of their opponents' blood as possible -- and brag about it.

Take Ricky, who leads the Triad Family Clan, or Triads for short: Ricky says his boys are the best. Ricky says he once won $1,000 in a Counter-Strike tournament. Ricky says his clan was founded by a bona-fide Asian Triad member from Canada. Ricky is full of shit.

But the world of Counter-Strike, to borrow from Stanley Kubrick, is a world of shit. Your ego is your shield, and players are constantly talking smack. Ricky is a master shit-talker, dishing out lingo like the tough guy on the basketball court. He talks so much trash, in fact, that some of the other players on the cafe circuit loathe him.


And they can loathe him all they want, because Ricky and his Triads dominate the Next Level. To prove it, he calls for a new game pitting everyone else in the place against the Triads' first string, which includes Ricky (SataN), Jonathan (Audigy), Lawrence (Fear), Michael (Maku), AJ (cRONI-X), and Anthony (S1ipKno7). "These are my boys!" says their leader, goading the competition. Ricky selects his favorite map, Inferno, for the match and sets his boys up as the terrorists. It'll be six against thirteen.

The counter-terrorists assemble their forces. Apart from a couple of stray clan members, most of the players are unaffiliated. Some of them have notable Counter-Strike nicknames: fucking alcoholic dumbass, {ANal}Cronicrectalleak, {ANal}RacoonOrgySexPistol, El Dweeze, MuppeT-FuckeR, and PuppyCock.

ANal is a clan ID belonging to the two guys in their late twenties, who haven't yet retired their adolescent senses of humor; the moniker is shorthand for Anal Necrosis and Liberation.

The gamers gear up. Counter-Strike players are allotted money for deeds from previous rounds. This cybercash goes to characters who've slain an opponent, saved a hostage, or planted or defused a bomb. It can be spent on new weapons and equipment, all of it modeled after real-world military gear. Counter-terrorists can buy M4A1 rifles, Heckler and Koch MP5-Ns, and flash-bang grenades. Terrorists have access to much of the same weaponry, plus a few typically terrorist-style weapons such as the ever-popular AK-47.

There's a flurry of keystrokes as everyone races through memorized purchasing combinations. Ricky's fingers fly across the keyboard: "B, 1 3 4 6 1 3 4 1 ..." Within seconds, he's packing an AWP sniper rifle, a silvery Deagle, a couple of high-explosive grenades, and full-body Kevlar.

Battle as they might, however, the Triads get their asses handed to them in a basket. They're good, but no way can they beat a force twice as large. "Man, thirteen on six is tough," Ricky says afterwards. "I don't even think Rival could handle that."

He's talking about Clan Rival, based out of San Jose. Rival plays for Rivalution LLC, a company that operates a string of cybercafes of the same name, including two in San Jose. These guys are hard-core. When players join, they sign legal contracts binding them to the clan, a sort of gaming noncompete clause.

Ricky and his Triads, they're just a bunch of guys playing games. Rival is a serious business. The clan plays for money, and money only. It's slated to fly to Korea in September to compete in the World Cyber Games, clashing with top Counter-Strike clans from around the world for some $80,000 in prize money.

After the shock of losing wears off and an unmitigated free-for-all ensues, the Triads go back to talking their usual shit. There's an explosion and a Triad shouts, "Suck it!" Another player laments his own death: "Damn, dude! Fuck, I had, like, no life left! How'd you not die?"

His opponent curses back. "Fuck you! Owned!"

Ricky is uncharacteristically quiet. When he's truly one with the mouse and keyboard, he stops talking trash. His wrists slink around the table, mimicking the movements of a DJ. In the zone, Ricky doesn't just shoot at his opponent; he nudges the ammunition towards them. One hand moves his character, while the other works against the mouse pad to give his shots the right amount of English -- a minute twitch of his wrist makes the difference between a flesh wound to the leg and a fatal round to the head. When Ricky's using all his stuff, he can go for round after round without getting shot. His score spirals up and up to 32 and 4: That's 32 kills, 4 deaths.

He's a god.


You won't ever hear that from Vinh Bui. Vinh is the leader of the Triads' archrivals, the Hollowmen, a clan that reigns over CyberGlobe Cafe, a PC Baang in nearby Concord.

CyberGlobe is a shoestring operation compared with Next Level. Tucked behind a barbershop in the hidden alcove of a Trader Joe's-powered strip mall, it consists of a long, white, rectangular room with black-light ballasts in place of the standard fluorescents. Swinging saloon-style doors block off the cash register and coffee machines, while Japanese-paper walls separate the server and tech room from the gaming area -- a ten-foot-wide corridor containing some two dozen PCs, each with its own black table, speakers, and headphones.

Angelo Macugay and Francis Bayutas opened this place on a lark. Angelo was about to purchase a bunch of computer systems for a training center when the salesman suggested he look into starting a PC Baang. Francis, Angelo's neighbor, had just moved to the United States from the Philippines, and he told Angelo of Filipino malls in which entire floors were filled with ten to twenty separate Baangs, all of them packed with young people.

So they teamed up and opened CyberGlobe, the mom-and-pop of the East Bay Baang circuit. On a weekend night, it's tough to get a seat. And despite the cafe's long list of available games, it's a good bet that on any given night, every last computer will be running Counter-Strike.

You'd think that cheap home DSL might kill a place like CyberGlobe, but you'd be wrong. The allure of Counter-Strike is about social interaction and bragging rights. Francis and Angelo recognize this, and they've nurtured the culture that drives their livelihood with the deftness only small-business owners seem to manage. "DSL doesn't hurt us. Home PCs don't hurt us," says Angelo. "These guys come here so they can see the expression on the face of the guy they just beat, so they can stand up and taunt their opponents. They want to be able to sit next to their friend and work together."

The Hollowmen are feared at CyberGlobe. Originally a Quake II clan, they specialize in first-person-shooters of all kinds -- from Quake III to Unreal Tournament to Metroid Prime. But Counter-Strike is where the money is. In September, Vinh led his clan to a $500 prize in CyberGlobe's first tournament.

Vinh, also twenty years old, is a beefy Vietnamese-American guy currently attending Heald College. His best friend Sean, known around here as Spire, is a wafer-thin Filipino kid with long dexterous fingers and a slight lisp, possibly the result of his being bilingual. Vinh plays under the pseudonym Nikko, and when unaffiliated CyberGlobe players see him and clanmate Spire coming, they often bicker over who gets to be on their team.

Unlike the Triads, this clan is made up of quiet-but-deadly types who rule their turf benevolently and rarely taunt a foe unless provoked. It even took some badgering by Francis to convince Vinh to enter the tournament, but when the Hollowmen finally agreed to take part, they trounced the competition, reaching first place without losing a single round.

Vinh is soft-spoken, but when he's playing, the clan leader is like a force of nature. He rarely dies, and can shoot so accurately that he goes entire rounds without wasting a single bullet. He, too, is a god.

The Hollowmen and the Triads don't like one another. Each claims to be the best, and clan members invariably recall past competitions in which their boys prevailed five games to four. The Next Level scheduled a tournament this past November, when the opposing clans were prepared to settle their disputes once and for all. Unfortunately, the cafe's staff created a major software meltdown the night before the tournament, forcing cancellation of the competition two hours before it was set to start. Both clans were furious.

As a result of the blunder, Ricky decided to move the Triads' home base to CyberGlobe, a brazen challenge to the Hollowmen's dominion.

During a subsequent scrimmage, Ricky's kid brother AJ (cRONI-X) found himself facing off against Vinh. The Hollowmen leader mopped the floor with AJ for most of the game. Finally, AJ got off a good shot and dropped Vinh. The sixteen-year-old shouted triumphantly and zapped out the typical Counter-Strike barb to all involved: "Owned."

Vinh was livid. "I'd killed him, like, ten times that game, and he kills me one time, and he's all like 'owned,'" the elder player fumed. Vinh struck back with L337-speak: "I pulled up a console and bound 'j00 r 0\/\/n3|>' to a key on the keyboard. So, like, I could press J and it would say 'j00 r 0\/\/n3|>' to everyone. I pressed J like seventy times every time I killed AJ after that. He got all pissed. He's like, 'You Hollowmen are supposed to be professional, and you're like, 'Owned,' seventy times! That's not professional. Triads are professionals!'"

It wasn't too long, though, before the Hollowmen regained their turf. The bigger, flashier Next Level, which was started by a consortium of investors, had been lacking the mom-and-pop touch needed to cultivate loyalty among its young patrons. It was losing money as a result, and CyberGlobe's owners were able to cut a deal to buy the rival PC Baang. With Francis and Angelo now in charge of both venues, the Triads felt comfortable returning to their former haunt.


To celebrate their new acquisition, Francis and Angelo set up a second tournament at CyberGlobe, with $500 going to the winner. And as the big day approached, the clans came out of the woodwork.

Dangle some money and call their names, and they'll assemble like the street gangs in the old movie The Warriors. From Walnut Creek, Clan Drastic arrives -- mostly immigrants: German, Russian, Finnish, and Polish. From Oakland there's Weekend Warriors, but it's the clan's second stringers today, so they call themselves Weekday Warriors to compensate. From Dublin come the Cyberninjas. Hailing from Concord is Angelo's daughter's clan, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, all of them under fifteen. The Hollowmen and Triads show up to do battle, of course. And finally, from San Jose, lured by the scent of green, Clan Rival walks through the doors.

Ricky and his Triads are taken completely by surprise. They'd been preparing for a showdown with the Hollowmen -- a clean sweep through the other clans culminating in a final match against their ultimate enemy. They weren't expecting to play anyone of Rival's caliber.

The Hollowmen knew what was coming. The previous night, Vinh pulled a reporter aside, begging him not to tell Ricky, or anyone for that matter, that Rival was planning to register. Every player is required to pony up an $18 entrance fee, and if word got out that Rival was playing, the San Jose clan would have been the only one showing up.

The proceedings begin with a random drawing to select the first-round combatants. Clans will fight it out in two separate brackets, and the winners of each bracket will play for the money in the final match.

The tournament takes all day, from 10 a.m. Saturday to 2 a.m. Sunday. The Triads make quick work of their first opponent, Clan XE. The Hollowmen, surprisingly, fare poorly. They lose out to Drastic in the first round. Already, the competition is stiff.

Ricky paces around the CyberGlobe like a nervous tiger in a cage. He wears a black Metallica T-shirt, a black bandanna around his neck, and a dusty baseball cap over his slicked hair. This is his lucky outfit. He waits for the first-round results to see who the Triads will play next. Finally, Francis posts the winners and Ricky's heart sinks: Triads have drawn Rival in the second round.

After a few minutes, Ricky seems more at ease. He doesn't talk shit. He doesn't get pumped up. He and his clanmates discuss Rival's tactics and study their moves as the pros practice on CyberGlobe's server. Ricky talks strategy with his brother, switching rapidly from English to Spanish to Italian -- more discreet that way.

As game time nears, Ricky rallies his troops for a final pep talk. Words don't seem to help: His boys look nervous, confused, scared. Then Francis calls out the next round. "Clan Rival! Over here. Triads over there!" He points down at the long line of computers, each one facing the opposite direction of its neighbor.

The clans get fifteen minutes to practice. Ricky sets up a server, and the Triads join him to hone their sniping skills. Ricky is showing his fear now. The Q button allows a Counter-Striker to switch quickly between main weapons, and Ricky uses it like a crutch, constantly swapping between his beloved Deagle and the AWP sniper rifle. It's a twitch he can barely control, done for no reason other than to alleviate his nervousness.

Some Rivals appear on Ricky's server, not joining the scrimmage, but watching, floating invisibly above the action, sizing up the opponent.

Francis calls out the final warning. The battle map has been chosen. It's Inferno, Ricky's favorite. The Triads stand and stretch. Ricky runs to the bathroom and lo and behold, the Hollowmen are standing behind his chair, waiting for him upon his return. "What starts with 'R' and ends with 'icky'?" calls Vinh. "Ricky!" his clanmates respond. It's a backhanded cheer, but the intent is honest: The defeated Hollowmen are rooting for their archrival in the face of near-impossible odds.

The match begins. The Triads are counter-terrorists for the first twelve rounds. They split up and attempt to cover the two bomb sites on the map, to keep them out of Rival hands. En route to its destination, Ricky's squad encounters the enemy. He quickly opens fire, dropping two Rivals with headshots from his Deagle. He then takes three rounds to the chest and falls dead. S1ipKno7 avenges him by taking out the remaining two Rivals at the site. AJ and Audigy hold their ground at the second bomb site and stay alive long enough to win the round. The Triads are up, one to nothing.

Spire stands behind Ricky, "If I were a betting man, I'd bet on Triads," he says. Ricky laughs. "I wouldn't," he says.

As the next round commences, Ricky pulls his boys to the closest bomb site to set up an ambush. After waiting for almost a minute, they realize the Rivals have gone to the second site. The Triads bust ass for the second location, but it's too late. The familiar words pop up on the screen: "Someone set us up the bomb."

The Triads split into two teams to surround the Rivals, who open fire and scatter Ricky and his squad with a burst of grenades. The round becomes a war of attrition that ends with only S1ipKno7 and SataN standing. The charge is still ticking, though. Ricky finds the bomb behind a crate and begins defusing. It's down to the wire, but he pulls it off with ten seconds to go, winning the round.

Up two to nothing, the Triads are giddy with potential. Ricky tries to curb their jitters: "Okay, let's keep cool," he says. "AJ take two, John and I'll take site one." The soldiers head out.

As Ricky arrives at the doorway to the first bomb site, his eyes widen. He screams a falsetto cry of terror as five grenades land in front of him, S1ipKno7, Fear, and Audigy. There's nothing they can do. In their rush to escape, they bump into each other and clog the doorway. The grenades detonate, killing all four. Now, all they can do is watch as AJ and Maku are stalked and slain by six Rivals. To add insult to injury, AJ is knifed rather than shot, a supreme display of skill on the part of Rival member Prophecy.

It all turns to shit from here. The remaining ten games in the set go to Rival. The following set -- in which the Triads are terrorists -- ends prematurely as Rival wins its fourteenth straight game, eliminating any chance of a Triad comeback. Ricky and his boys are crestfallen. "We won two!" he shouts, trying to salvage his team's battered egos. But the damage is done. The Rivals go on to win the tournament, largely uncontested.

A week later, Ricky loses Audigy and S1ipKno7. "They wanted to take a break," says the leader. "They're no longer Triads. But it's no big thing. There are hella folks waiting to join Triads. We already replaced them."

There are indeed "hella" players looking for clans. As time passes, the older players lose the dexterity required to stay good, and the young up-and-comers burst onto the scene likethe latest female gymnasts. "In about six months, you're as good as you're gonna get at Counter-Strike," says Spire of the Hollowmen. "It takes six months to learn everything you'll ever learn. I'm 21. I'm too old now. There are twelve- and thirteen-year-old kids who kick my ass now. They just have the hands to be faster than us."

Ricky won't give up on his talents so easily. "Every Thursday, baby! We Triads practice every Thursday after work," he says. "I'm here almost every other night. We gotta practice our grenade tactics. That's why Rival beat us. We don't use our grenades right. We played Hollowmen last week though. We beat 'em, four out of five rounds. Hollowmen ain't got shit."


Gaming the System

Everquest's economy is more than just virtual.

Members of clan Rival aren't the only ones making a living off Internet gaming. With more than 400,000 subscribers each paying $10 a month to play Sony's Everquest, an online Dungeons and Dragons clone, the game has become an industry not only for the company, but for its players as well.

Everquest takes place in the land of Norrath, a Tolkienesque world of pixelated warriors, thieves, elves, trolls, wizards, and craftsmen. Players create their own characters, or buy them on eBay. And since building and outfitting a character is a major time investment, there's a real-world market for nearly everything in the game.

Characters can make and then trade items such as pots, shoes, pelts, or weapons to computerized merchants in exchange for digital gold. This is swapped for real cash at the online auction site, where exchange rates fluctuate according to supply and demand. An enterprising player can earn around $4 an hour playing the game and selling treasure and products.

The true economy spawned by "Evercrack," as the game's most avid players refer to it, is widely, though perhaps falsely, rumored to exceed the gross national product of Russia. -- A.H.


Before the Revolution

Counter-Strike hails from a proud and bloody past.

The seeds of the Counter-Strike revolution were planted in 1993. That's the year Dallas, Texas-based id Software released Doom, an ultraviolent PC game known as a first-person shooter, in which the gaming landscape is viewed through the character's eyes.

Doom revolutionized PC gaming. Compared to its shabby progenitor, Wolfenstein 3D (which wasn't three-dimensional in the least), this new game was so violent, and the sound and graphics so vivid, that it effectively supplanted Wolfenstein as the quintessential first-person shooter. It also brought in a fortune for its designers -- it is said they could sometimes be heard complaining about their Ferraris scraping the speed bumps in the company parking lot.

As the Net began invading people's homes, id came out with Quake, which was similar to its predecessor but introduced two crucial new features to the PC-gaming world: a true 3-D environment -- unlike previous games, characters and scenery appeared different from every angle -- and free, unadulterated online warfare. Quake also pioneered an online play style known as the Deathmatch, in which characters could chase each other through gothic halls littered with traps and weapons, killing and being killed, with unlimited extra lives. Thousands of hot-wired young mouse jockeys around the globe vied for bragging rights.

In 1997, rookie game designer Gabe Newell and his startup company Valve Software released Half-Life, marking the next generation of first-person shooters. It was the first such game with an engrossing plot (involving otherworldly monsters and a vast government conspiracy). It also introduced a built-in online game finder, which made it simple for people to locate potential rivals out in the ether. You no longer needed to be a geek to find competition 24/7.

Enthusiasm for the new game spread like a mushroom cloud within the burgeoning community of online players. Half-Life became the hottest PC game of the year, prompting scores of garage programmers to tweak the game code and design their own missions, add-ons, and even new games around its foundations.

It was this community of savvy tinkerers that propelled sales of Half-Life into the stratosphere. For fifty bucks, a player could purchase a copy of Half-Life and find himself forever awash in free maps, art, missions, games, and online play. It was like buying Monopoly and finding yourself with a near-infinite supply of game pieces, cards, board layouts, and alternative rules.

This digital improvisation is an important aspect of the game's success, and Half-Life's designers encouraged it, according to Doug Lombardi, one of Valve's founders. "Fifty dollars is a lot of money," he says. "We work hard to make sure our players get their money's worth."

One of these amateur game-code tinkerers, Minh Le, came up with the ultimate Half-Life modification, Counter-Strike, which is now the hottest game on the Net. In 1998, Valve purchased and published it, and Le got himself a job on the company's design team. -- A.H.


The Best of the Rest

The five hottest games on the Net, besides Counter-Strike and Everquest.

Unreal Tournament 2003
The Hollowmen's favorite, this game is a graphical powerhouse that features gritty over-the-top violence in a futuristic version of Roman gladiator combat. It has supplanted Quake III as the dominant "deathmatch" game on the Internet.

The Sims Online
It's too new to be huge, but it will be very soon. Walnut Creek-based Maxis has already cornered the computerized dollhouse market with the Sims. This new Web version of the wildly popular game lets players explore a vast online neighborhood of social intrigue.

America's Army
This first-person shooter was designed as a recruitment tool and paid for by the United States military. Players go through boot camp before engaging in a range of real-world-style combat scenarios that draw heavily from Counter-Strike. It's free to the public -- your tax dollars at work.

Starcraft
In Blizzard Studios' sci-fi strategy game, players take part in a three-sided interstellar conflict in which they build armies and pit them in combat. The game is so popular in South Korea that characters appear on Doritos bags and avid players holster their mice on their hips. When a rival on the street accepts the challenge, the players run to the nearest PC Baang to do battle.

Diablo II
Also a Blizzard creation, Diablo II consists of mindless hack-and-slash role-playing, the antithesis of Everquest (see "Gaming the System"). While there are fewer players living off the sale of Diablo II items and characters on eBay, the prices paid for individual treasures tend to be higher for this game.

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