May 18, 2006 4:00 AM PDT
Online game rising from the dead
The once-promising online multiplayer version of the hit "Uru: Ages Beyond Myst," "Uru Live" was in beta and had already attracted a passionate and vocal (if small) following when its plug was pulled on Feb. 9, 2004. Exactly who made the call to squelch it was never entirely clear, but both the game's publisher, Ubisoft, and its developer, Cyan Worlds, agreed that there weren't enough financial resources to keep it going.
But GameTap, Turner Broadcasting's game network, announced at last week's Electronic Entertainment Expo that it's planning to relaunch "Uru Live" in conjunction with Cyan Worlds by the holidays. The Uru community is beside itself with excitement.
"My first reaction was, 'Woo hoo,'" said Stephen Crocker, an Uru fan who's eager to play "Uru Live." "Quite a few people thought I was mad for running around screaming, 'Yes!'
"I will be pushing my way to the front to make sure I get to beta test and sign up to the new 'Uru Live,'" he added.
"Uru Live" was the latest iteration in the "Myst" family of adventure games, spawned by one of the most successful and popular titles ever. Originally released in 1993, "Myst" became perhaps the best-selling PC game in the world prior to the release of Electronic Arts' "The Sims."
Many online games have crashed and burned, but the situation with Uru is unusual in that it was the "Uru Live" community that convinced GameTap the game was worth getting behind.
That's because the community has stayed alive and active in the two years since "Uru Live" died, mainly through an unsupported freeware program called "Until Uru" that Cyan made available to anyone who wanted to host versions of it on their own servers.
"One of the reasons we were so attracted to 'Uru Live' for GameTap is that it had this persistent group that kept it alive during the dark days of it not being a product," said Ricardo Sanchez, GameTap's vice president of content. "There's a community that would love to see it brought back."
Indeed, some fans were so insistent on continuing their "Uru Live" experience, even in the game's absence, that in the weeks and months following the shutdown of "Uru Live," groups of several hundred rabid fans set up small-scale versions of the game in two virtual worlds, There.com and "Second Life."
According to Celia Pearce, who wrote her media arts Ph.D. dissertation on the phenomenon for the SmartLab Centre, a research institution in London, about 300 so-called "Uru refugees" set up shop in "There," while at least 200 more began building a scale-model replica of "Uru Live" in "Second Life."
"What I found was that these players had already established a deep connection to the whole series of ('Myst' and 'Uru') games," Pearce said. "But they'd been playing the games pretty much in isolation (prior to 'Uru Live'). So when they came together online, they really bonded very rapidly and intensely. And when the game closed, people were just heartbroken."
Andrew Chernauskas, a college student from Erie, Pa., agreed. "It was a shock," he said. "I had these great ideas of what ('Uru Live') could be...But suddenly it was closed off, before it ever had a chance to show itself. I first found out when two of my friends who played 'Uru' called me on the phone to tell me. It was a lot like gearing up all year long for a national cross-country meet, then tripping over the start line when you began."
It wasn't just the fans who felt the loss, either. To those involved in supporting the community, the closure of "Uru Live" was just as crushing.
"It's a wonderful and rare opportunity to go back to something that was a bit of a heartbreaker and have that come to life and do it again and do it better," said Ron Meiners, who was Ubisoft's "Uru Live" community manager at the time of the closure, but who currently works for neither Ubisoft nor Cyan. "So there's a lot of excitement about the chance to go back to a world that we thought was gone forever."
And for Rand Miller, CEO of Cyan Worlds, the chance to try again with "Uru Live" is an opportunity to finally let the game be publicly judged on its own merits.
"I'm not afraid to fail at things," Miller said. "The worst thing is where you get right up to the point where you start to learn and spend resources on (something) and you don't get a chance to succeed or fail. That's how we felt with 'Uru Live.'"
GameTap thinks the dynamics of its network can make a go of "Uru Live," particularly because the distribution infrastructure and marketing resources necessary to operate and promote a game are already in place.
"Making it a part of GameTap makes the size of the audience we need to make it successful a lot smaller than if Ubisoft had it standing on its own," said Blake Lewin, vice president of new product development and innovation at Turner Broadcasting. "With GameTap making 'Uru Live' available, the costs are a lot less...and we can have more of a niche audience and still have it be successful."
It's still months before the game goes live, but those involved in the community are already rushing to forums to discuss the relaunch. And they're treating the game's new lease on life as a gift to be savored.
"It's almost like Christmas, this unlooked for, really, really wonderful development," Meiners said. "I can't tell you how good it felt when I heard that this would be happening. It was just heartbreaking when it closed down, and so to undo that is just wonderful."
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