One of our charter group members moved to North Carolina several years ago but has been able to continue gaming with us. Once he was settled into his new digs Mark signed up for a free phone service so that he could listen in and play along for three hours every Sunday night. However, all the group members are computer geeks to some extent, so an effort was made to see if we could get establish a video link with Mark as well. We tend to play at only two locations, so camera's and microphone's were purchased and off we went.
Side note: This is not a "gaming platform" discussion, although it may be in the future. Most importantly this was the crucial step in getting Leo, our resident Uber-tech geek, to finally break down and get his apartment networked up. Of course he went completely overboard, but being able to see Mark's face on a 40+ inch high definition television screen is a hoot.
Our initial attempt was to use AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). AIM has text and video capability, most of the group members already used the instant messaging portion already, so it was the logical first step. Rich did tests with Mark and myself, it seemed to work, so we started using it on Sunday nights.
At first it worked very well. We would have the occasional dropped video connection, but the connection could be quickly reestablished. However, after a few months the service began to degrade to the point where we were consistently losing connections, having trouble reconnecting, and much of the night was spent with Mark on the phone just as before.
So the next step was to try Skype. Skype is a well known "free" VOIP service, that is free as in you can talk free to other Skype users. It is free to download and it has a video connection portion as well, and as before it worked well for us ... for awhile. Then we started getting constant dropped video connection problems with Skype too.
Trillian was the next tool we tried to use. I had never heard of Trillian at the time, but like our two previous experiences it was free to download, it worked well ... for awhile, and then the same dropped video connections started to happen yet again.
Hmmm, curious isn't it? I was never sure the relevant party members were ever all on the same version of the software at the same time. There were always a stream of upgrades made available, so the products were undergoing constant change. But the problem wasn't that we couldn't connect at all, but that we couldn't stay connected for any real length of time.
Our current thought is that there are just network load issues somewhere between Naperville and North Carolina. It's not like we have our own dedicated line, and all it would take is some sort of network connection timeout or delay somewhere between here and there to bring the connection to its knees. It is still curious though that they all worked well initially and then the video connectivity degraded slowly but consistently for all three products.
We are currently using Googletalk and IGoogle. We have been using this for several months now and the video connection has been very stable, usually lasting most of the three hour session. Of course the others started out working well initially too, so we'll see I suppose.
Beyond just a search engine Google has introduced a large set of web-based products in an attempt to push competitor Microsoft off its pedestal. Google Mail (or GMail) has been around for several years, Google Docs serves as a web-based office suite package, Picasa is a picture storage tool that holds all the artwork I use on this blog, and of course Blogger, the blog software that produces this blog. Just this week Google introduced Buzz, their version of a Facebook-type social networking interface. A full list of Google tools is listed here. I know Mark is looking to see if he can use Google Docs as a file sharing device for the dungeon he is working on.
For all of these Google tools that I now use I prefer to use Bing for my web searching. I just want to be able to pick and choose the tools I want, and of course, free is a price that is hard to beat.