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.

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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.

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