The complex world of massively multiplayer online games is about to get more convoluted. Hot on the heels of the wildly successful “World of Warcraft,” game developers are hoping to capture their own piece of the action.
At last week’s Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, several firms showed off more than a dozen new titles, most expected to hit store shelves this fall.
A massively multiplayer online game (MMO) puts the player in a virtual world with thousands of others, working with, or fighting against characters that are controlled by someone who could be in the next room or on the other side of the globe. These worlds are persistent, meaning that the game goes on even when the player isn't there.
This latest flood of titles is the second major wave of MMOs to hit the market. The first rush followed the success of Sony’s "Everquest," which debuted in 1999. It resulted in a few moderate successes ("Dark Age of Camelot," "City of Heroes") and a number of disappointments ("Sims Online," "Star Wars Galaxies"). But near the end of the cycle, one game would come to rule them all.
Blizzard’s “World of Warcraft,” based on the company’s earlier series of real-time strategy games, was released in 2004 and by January 2006 had reached 5.5 million subscribers worldwide, each paying about $15 per month.
Those are numbers to make even the most jaded game developer sit up and take notice. (For the record, Sony's "Everquest II," another big current MMO, doesn't release subscriber numbers.) Another plus: MMOs are usually played on a PC (or in some cases a Mac), allowing their makers to sidestep the waiting game for the next-generation consoles. No surprise, then, that several new titles are hoping for a bite of the action.
Warcraft and Everquest (both will release expansion packs this year) are each set in fantasy worlds based loosely on the “Dungeons and Dragons” pen and paper role-playing game. Several new titles will soon show off their own versions of elves, knights and orcs.
"Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures": Based on the Robert E. Howard stories written in the 1930s, the Conan world is described as a twisted land of dark magic. Players will fight monsters, mount castle sieges and engage in player vs. player combat. No, you won’t be able to be Conan, you’ll just be a member of his world. It will be published by Funcom this fall.
"Tabula Rasa": Richard Garriott, the man behind the groundbreaking MMO game "Ultima Online," is back with this sci-fi-fantasy world. Rather than choosing a character class they'll be locked into from the beginning, players will make choices as they level up that will determine their avatars’ powers. Developers say their game will do away with the traditional bars of buttons that control the characters' movements and will instead feature controls similar to first-person shooters like "Doom" or "Half-Life." NCSoft says the game will be released this fall.
"Archlord": Massive player vs. player battles are the key feature in this world, with the eventual goal of one player becoming the ruler of the game. Participants will be encouraged to create guilds (teams of players), to capture key castles and keeps and be crowned the ruler of the game. For the next month, the “Archlord” will have godlike powers and be able to leave their mark on the world until the next winner is crowned. Developer Codemasters says they plan to crown the first “Archlord” in England and present the winner with a full set of real armor based on actual designs in the game. Subsequent monthly winners will receive trophies in the form of a helm based on game designs. “Archlord” is set to debut before the end of the year.
"Gods & Heroes: Rome Rising": Based on the familiar mythology of ancient Rome, “Gods & Heroes” will also feature a slightly different combat system. In addition to controlling their own character, players will be able to command squads of up to eight computer-controlled characters. These squads of nine characters can join other squads to form virtual armies. The players will also be able to call on the powers of the different Roman gods as they level up. Sony Online Entertainment plans to release “Gods & Heroes” this fall.
"Soul of the Ultimate Nation": Gameplay in this fantasy world focuses on strategy rather than simple hack-and-slash. Players will be able to choose their own mission scenarios, types of monsters and degree of difficulty. The graphics in the game are highly detailed. The game also features a soundtrack by composer Howard Shore, who received an Academy Award for his music in the “Lord of the Rings” movies. Webzen is planning for a fall release.
"Vanguard: Saga of Heroes": Developed by a team led by “Everquest” co-designer Brad McQuaid, Vanguard players will find themselves in a struggle for survival as they ally themselves with some groups and battle against others. Sony Online Entertainment recently took over publishing rights from Microsoft. Vanguard is expected to be released in fall.
"Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar": Based on the granddaddy of all role-playing fantasy games, this title will be set in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Instead of adventuring in areas that sound and look like places out of the famous literary trilogy, players will be able to actually travel to places like Mirkwood, Hobbiton and the Pelennor Fields. Players won’t get to actually be the characters in the book, but may run into them somewhere in the world. Codemasters plans to publish this game sometime in the fall.
In addition to the tried and true formulas, some developers are hoping to expand their audiences by going for nontraditional concepts and formats.
"Huxley": The first-person shooter has long been a staple of online gaming. "Huxley" will move these fast-action player vs. player battles into a persistent world where gamers will fight for control of the land. A variety of weapons and vehicles will be available to players as they try to secure energy sources and wipe out the enemy.
This concept has been tried before with Sony Online Entertainment's "Planetside," but "Huxley" will be available on PCs and the Xbox 360. Because the PC's mouse and keyboard is inherently faster than the Xbox controls, designers say, the game will try to level the playing field. Webzen says "Huxley" will be released sometime in 2007.
"Project Wiki": Geared toward younger audiences, Wiki is billed as a casual role-playing game based on a fairy-tale world. Gameplay will encourage cooperative interaction, the developers say.
The graphics are definitely more cutesy than any other title in the genre, resembling a pre-schooler’s cartoon more than a computer game. The game makers hope this will attract the female and pre-teen audience. The developers say they are looking into adding safety features to help protect against online predators. Developer Webzen says the game is still in the test-marketing phase and did not have a projected release date.
"Test Drive Unlimited": Massively multiplayer online driving? Yes it's true. Atari will combine the ubiquitous car racing game with a persistent online world. In addition to buying and customizing cars and motorcycles, players will also be able to customize the character behind the wheel.
Not quite as massive
Not every upcoming multiplayer game will be set in a large persistent world. Several online-only titles will focus on battle-by-battle gameplay.
"America’s Army: Special Forces (Overmatch)": The first-person shooter game developed by the U.S. Army will get an overhaul this summer. The new content will feature missions and weapons based on current events.
When the game was first developed, it was made by non-veterans, said Major Jason Amerine. "But now, all the subject matter experts are people who have rotated back from Afghanistan or Iraq," he said. Amerine, who was in Afghanistan as part of the initial U.S. invasion, is one of several soldiers who will be featured in the game as part of the "Real Heroes" program. Many of the new weapons in the game will be based on actual simulators used by the military. The new content is set for release by the end of summer.
"Enemy Territory: Quake Wars": For the first time in the ten-year history of the "Quake" series, gamers will be able to play the alien enemy in objective-based 24-player battles. Unlike most first-person shooters, the two sides won't be clones of each other. Each race will have unique classes and powers, Id Software CEO Todd Hollenshead said. "Quake Wars" is expected to be released this fall.
"Battlefield 2142": The hand-to-hand combat of the "Battlefield" series jumps into the future with the latest installment. Gamers will have access to new sci-fi weapons and scenarios in 64-player matches. Characters will level up, much like in persistent world games, as stats follow the players from game to game. "Battlefield 2142" is scheduled to hit store shelves at the end of the year.