December 6, 2005 4:00 AM PST
New gateway to multiple virtual worlds?
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Needless to say, at least for now, such fluid border-crossing is impossible with anything outside of the Sony Online game universe (which includes "Star Wars Galaxies" and "EverQuest"). On Tuesday, however, a Mountain View, Calif., start-up called Multiverse Network is trying to change that dynamic by launching a platform that will make it possible for players to switch between any online game included in the company's network.
A California start-up is launching a platform that will make it possible for players to move between online games without having to switch software.
Multiverse may be an innovative concept, but observers say its future depends on whether it can attract game developers who will use its platform to create new, moneymaking games.
Multiverse's founders think consumers should be able to switch easily between different virtual worlds. And they say their new game developers' platform, called Multiverse, can make that happen, while giving small online game developers the ability to work on top of an existing network of games and software code.
Multiverse is a lot like the enterprise software developers' kits used to build back-end systems at big corporations, but with an open-source twist that lets programmers share what they create.
Instead of defining business processes for things like accounting, the game platform provides developers with a physics engine; the basics of a virtual economy; art assets and much more that they can use in their own games. Once a developer has incorporated those elements and others into a new online game, Multiverse links the new title to its network of virtual worlds, all of which share a common entry point for users.
"We have all these gated communities: 'World of Warcraft' over here, 'Star Wars Galaxies' over here and 'EverQuest' over here, and it doesn't make a lot of sense to cross the gated communities. But the number of (users) going into them is growing exponentially," Multiverse co-founder Corey Bridges said.
Why not access them all at one point? That's what Multiverse is trying to do, while cutting down on development costs.
Traditional approaches to making online games can lead to development costs as high as $20 million. As a result, few small publishers can compete with game giants like Sony Online and NCSoft.
Multiverse execs say they can get small game companies going for as little as $10,000. And they're backing that up by giving software to developers for free. They will only make money on commissions that come from subscribers to the games that were created with their technology.
Looking out for the little guy
"The business model is long-term," said Richard Bartle, one of the pioneers of online games and an editor of Terra Nova, a leading Web site about virtual worlds. "Although Multiverse's software will help speed up the to-market time for companies, it's still going to take developers ages to create content."
While Bartle is cautious about Multiverse's business model, he's fascinated by its potential.
"Small-scale professional developers will be able to use it to create innovative new virtual worlds," Bartle said. "It lowers the barrier to entry." Also, academics will be able to use it to create their own virtual worlds for experimental purposes without spending big dollars, he said. Such uses could, for example, include studying virtual worlds to better understand real-life economic or sociological behavior.
Just to prove Multiverse can work, the package includes a pre-built virtual world called "Kothuria: The World's Edge." Any new Multiverse customer can take any of the elements of "Kothuria" and modify them for their own purposes. Therefore, Bridges added, a developer with minimal resources can quickly take pieces of "Kothuria" and blend them into a new game.
"Game developers have been telling us, 'Wow, this sounds like a good idea, but build us a game using your platform,'" Bridges said. "Walk a mile in our shoes."
The building blocks of "Kothuria" are an open-source framework that includes layers determining the physics of the game, as well as its logic and rules.
"Say you don't like the combat system," said Bridges, "or say you want to extend it, you can just extend it or swap it out. What this does is it gives game developers of all stripes and strata a niche to do what they do best."
Ron Meiners, community manager of the virtual world "There" and an expert on online games, believes Multiverse could present new opportunities.
"The cost of production now is really restrictive. This will hopefully open up the process to many more ideas and hopefully some innovation," Meiners said. "And certainly without the need to create the kinds of profits needed by most studio projects, people will hopefully be able to take chances that aren't really realistic now."
Of course, Multiverse's future depends entirely on whether it can attract the kinds of game developers who will use its platform to create new, moneymaking games. But Bridges said the nine-employee company is in it for the long haul. He recognizes that it faces a chicken-and-egg dynamic, but added the company already has a number of potential customers lined up, though he would not name any of them.
Meiners said he is inclined to see if Multiverse can make a go of it.
"It will just take one really good product to launch them," Meiners said. "I think the novelty of such a success would draw a lot of people and keep the ball rolling. It's hard for me to believe that people won't find this notion exciting."
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