Fans celebrate rebirth of 'dead' online game

When "Uru Live" launches, it will mark return of a popular game once left for dead. Thank its hard-core fandom for the revival.

The resurrection of the online fantasy game "Uru Live" is already going better than expected.

Some 500 players are participating in a beta of the game, which formally launches this holiday season on Turner Broadcasting's GameTap game network, and 7,000 more are waiting to join them. For them, the rebirth of "Uru Live"--which brought the celebrated "Myst" franchise into the realm of so-called massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMOs)--is a chance to once again immerse themselves in a game about which many feel unusually passionate. The popular game was once left for dead.

Uru Live

"There was a part of me that didn't want to get too excited for fear it would be taken away again," said Keith Lord, a 24-year-old Web and graphic designer from Eastington, England, about the return of "Uru Live." "In the end, I decided to forget that part and just enjoy what we have been given back."

That "Uru Live" has life at all is probably surprising to some . The game had a strong fan base before it was shut down during beta on Feb. 9, 2004 due to a lack of financial resources. Left with no official place to play the game, many players stayed together in an unsupported freeware version of the game called "Until Uru" made available by its developer, Cyan Worlds.

Big game companies like Electronic Arts and Activision should take note: Communities of gamers increasingly say they won't let their favorites go quietly into the night, and small companies like GameTap are trying hard to tie into that fandom, said gamer Eleri Hamilton (her game name). Ultimately, Hamilton said she thinks the re-emergence of "Uru Live" could carve new ground for smaller developers.

"I think it's something the gaming industry in general should take note of," she said. "Here was this game that was killed by a large publisher (and) that the fans kept the torch burning (for) two years until GameTap picked it up. I think what GameTap is planning, with reaching out to the smaller game companies that don't match up to the big publisher bottom lines, is going to shake up the industry."

Now "Uru" fans and developers are looking forward to the comeback.

"There are a number of factors now that I think will help it be successful," said Ron Meiners, who for the last few months has been working as a contract community manager for GameTap. He was an "Uru Live" community manager at Ubisoft, which published the original game. "In many ways, it was ahead of its time. There's more broadband penetration now, and a lot more mainstream understanding of what an MMO is, due to 'World of Warcraft', 'Second Life' and other virtual experiences."

There are also a number of changes to the game. GameTap has implemented a new "physics engine" that governs movements in the game's virtual space and has new sound support for "Uru Live." While there are still bugs in the system, there should be no problems with the scheduled holiday launch plan, Meiners said.

To Josh Draper, 25, a laundromat operator from Conway, Ark., the new "Uru Live" does a good job of replicating the look and feel of the original. He also lauds some of the changes GameTap has made, such as making it easier for newcomers.

"It's become easier and faster to get to interact with other players," Draper said. "In the old version, you had to complete a solo area before you could do that, but now you can start playing with others almost immediately."

Meanwhile, Meiners said GameTap is considering adding all-new elements of user-created content to "Uru Live" and that by doing so, the network is hoping to leverage the creative capabilities of the playing community. Such a move makes sense, since many of today's most popular online games heavily depend on letting users contribute much of the content. That serves two main purposes: It keeps in-world content continually fresh, and it means development costs are lower.

"We're still working out how this will work, but people could create clothing, objects or even entire new worlds," said Meiners. "The 'Myst' games are based on travel to new worlds, and the solving of challenges there. The community created a few of those...Part of the whole mythos was the creation of whole new worlds as an artwork and we're working on enabling the community to engage in that."

That means the new "Uru Live" universe could well be populated with buildings, trees, sculptures, landscapes, oceans and other user-created objects, all of which, GameTap developers hope, will enhance the in-world environment.

"The worlds created for 'Uru' can be quite fantastic, and very beautiful," Meiners said. "So this opens tremendous doors of creativity and challenge."

Meiners said he's heard concerns from some members of the "Uru Live" beta community that the influx of newcomers via the larger GameTap subscriber base could prove an issue in what has been a somewhat insular environment.

"We know we need to grow a lot to be successful," Meiners said. "But some people aren't sure what effect that will have on the community."

Hamilton also downplayed that concern.

"I think it's good to push 'Uru' past the the 'Myst' fan niche market," Hamilton said. "Initially it might be challenging integrating some of the rougher edges of MMO society, but I think that will mellow."

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