MMOG Development with Multiverse

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2436, 2006-09-08, as a feature article, in both their print edition (on pages 18 and 20) and their website.

What do you get when you combine computer-based role-playing games with the global reach of the Internet? Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs), which are computer games designed to be played by thousands of players simultaneously, over the Internet.

The typical MMOG can be thought of as a virtual world, which you can enter and explore. Unlike most games, including computer-based ones, an MMOG does not start when you start the game, and does not stop when you quit or your character dies. Rather, the MMOG is running continuously, allowing you to join in at any time, and theoretically could continue running forever (or at least until the host company's servers crash!).

MMOGs also combine the best of desktop and Internet games, from a performance perspective. As a desktop-based program, an MMOG is running on the individual's computer, and thus the thousands of participants are not relying upon the MMOG host server to handle the combined processing needs of all those players. In addition, the resource-intensive graphics found in most of these games is handled by each individual player's computer, and not by the host server.

On the other hand, the Internet connectivity allows the players to compete against other humans, all over the world, similar to Web-only games, such as online poker and chess. But the MMOGs have a huge advantage in what they can offer to the user, especially in terms of the visual richness and far greater speed of play, since they are running on the user's local machine.

MMOGs first emerged during the late 1980s, but really took off during the early and mid 1990s, such that by 1995 there were reportedly over 500 titles available and in use. Some of the more popular MMOGs include EverQuest I and II, Final Fantasy, and World of Warcraft — all of which are fantasy MMOGs. There are several categories of MMOGs, with the most popular being the fantasy-oriented ones.

Reinventing the Wheel

While purchasing and playing these sophisticated games can be quite easy, creating them is an entirely different matter. Building an MMOG requires a considerable commitment of time and money, devoted to such activities as designing the virtual world, choosing the allowed characters, creating storyboards, and planning how all the elements fit together.

And that's just the design work. The development phase requires teams to digitally paint the characters and their backgrounds, render the images, write all the code to control gameplay and user access, and test the product before releasing it.

Although the total cost for developing a new MMOG — or any role-playing game, for that matter — depends largely upon the game's features and capabilities, all of these steps add considerably to the overall cost of building an MMOG from scratch, even just a simple one. The more advanced games can require over $20 million in development expenses alone.

But the key word here is "scratch". Even though the hundreds of MMOGs on the market vary from one another in countless different ways, they share much functionality in common. In fact, during the many years of developing these games, there has probably been a tremendous and unfortunate duplication of effort. Yet what if the capabilities shared by all of them were standardized and made available, allowing future developers to simply build upon an existing platform?

Multiple Universes

For the longest time, enthusiasts of MMOGs have understood that they have a fair amount of control over their character's actions and decisions within their favorite MMOGs. But they have had no control over the design of the games themselves, which have been controlled by the companies forming the game industry. In fact, a common complaint for many of the less capable MMOGs is that the user can only choose their character's actions, and only customize their outfits and, for war games, their weapons.

All that is changing, with the introduction of Multiverse, which is a platform that allows gaming companies and individual developers to create their own MMOGs. This new technology was created by Multiverse Networking, formed in 2004 by a group of former Netscape employees.

According to the company's website, the purpose of Multiverse is to allow independent game developers to create their own high-quality MMOGs at a fraction of the typical cost, by allowing those developers to base future MMOGs on an existing and proven infrastructure, so they can avoid reinventing the wheel.

The people behind Multiverse also envision another advantage: If and when a player chooses to switch from one Multiverse-based game to another, it is possible that their computer would only need to load up those elements of the second game that make it different from the first. Furthermore, there would be considerable savings of space on the user's hard drive, as shared program components would not have to be redundantly installed.

Multiverse itself is free to download and use. The company intends to make its money by only charging game developers that themselves make money from using the product. This approach should encourage existing game development firms to base their new games upon the Multiverse platform. But more importantly, by considerably lowering the barrier to entry in the market, Multiverse Networking hopes to encourage entrepreneurs to create their own small gaming companies — which can be apparently done for a little as $10,000.

To demonstrate their product's viability, the Multiverse package includes a Multiverse-based game, Kothuria: The World's Edge. It is still in the stage of beta testing. Nonetheless, Kothuria could be valuable to the prospective game developer if only to demonstrate what can be done using Multiverse.

Roll Your Own Roles

Multiverse offers game developers a "physics engine", which naturally handles movement and other physical aspects of the game. The essential elements of a virtual economy are also included, as well as various art resources. Once a developer has created a new game, and linked it to the network of other Multiverse games, then the new game would share user entry points with the previous games.

If you have an interest in creating your own MMOG, then basing it upon Multiverse is likely the best way to get started, especially if you do not have the resources — money, time, and staff — to begin developing a brand new MMOG from scratch.

But don't wait forever to get started, as it is not known how long Multiverse will be available and supported. The company's business model may be questionable, as it relies entirely upon external developers choosing to create new games based upon Multiverse, making those games profitable, and sharing those profits with Multiverse Networking.

Perhaps the MMOG that you develop will prove not only fun, but profitable. The groundwork has been laid for you. If you have ever considered creating your own online world, this is probably the best chance you will ever get.

Copyright © 2006 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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