Multiverse opens doors for indie game designers

A year into recruiting online game development teams to its platform, the company has 100 working on a wide range of projects.

Gaming
AUSTIN, Texas--More than 5,000 online game development teams have lined up to become part of a network based on a platform that makes it cheap and efficient for nearly anyone to create a new online game.

Known as Multiverse Networks, the Mountain View, Calif.-based company behind the platform has been lining up developers interested in building on its platform, and already has around 100 teams doing so in a private beta. Those teams include one of the most experienced creators of 3D virtual worlds, a forestry researcher, one of the most influential experts on online game economies, and many others.

Multiverse, which plans to open up its public beta this fall, is the talk of the Austin Game Conference here, an annual confab dedicated to the development of online games and virtual worlds. In the year or so since publicizing its platform, the company has become seen as one of the best choices for small development teams seeking to build virtual worlds but who lack the tens of millions of dollars it can often take to create stand-alone titles.

"We asked several senior people in the industry, and learned that Multiverse is viewed as a solid virtual world middleware product with strong backing and a solid future," said Edward Castronova, an associate professor of telecommunications at Indiana University. His Arden Institute is building a virtual world based on the works of William Shakespeare. "Its services and pricing were perfect for the group I run: talented, enthusiastic student volunteers with little experience and less cash, but plenty of time and no market constraint. It's a good product for people who want complete creative freedom and have the labor to pursue it."

Indeed, Multiverse's business model is very much what will attract academics, government agencies and other teams without major funding: Its tools are free to use, and its income will come only as part of revenue sharing when its customers make money.

"Multiverse seemed to be the right combination of software, people and business plan," said Mike Sellers, CEO of Online Alchemy, an Austin-based developer. "If you're a studio, whether just getting started or trying to get funding, you can't do things based on needing a half-million dollars if you don't know you're going to get a half-million dollars."

Online Alchemy is building a new virtual world outside the auspices of giant publishers like Electronic Arts, NCSoft or Sony Online Entertainment. The company has been finding that Multiverse gives it the right combination of tools and support after looking at other middleware developers' offerings.

Sellers, the lead designer on "Meridian 59," the first fully graphical 3D massively multiplayer online game, said that under a traditional development model, creating a new online game would take 12 to 18 months just to get the technology up and running. Once that is done, he said, creating the game itself would take at least another six months.

By comparison, he said, Online Alchemy got its demo up and running using the Multiverse platform in just four weeks.

To Corey Bridges, Multiverse's co-founder and executive producer, the plaudits the company is getting from its earliest customers is exciting, but perhaps not so much as the diversity of those customers' projects.

"We have a wide range of customers," Bridges said. Those include people who are using the platform to build things from traditional massively multiplayer online games to business collaboration tools to academic resources to socialization spaces, he said.

For now, Mutliverse's private beta has about 100 developers. None has come to market with projects, but that should change soon. And Bridges said the group is small because the company wanted to be able to devote a lot of attention to its earliest users.

"We're in constant touch with them," he said. "We have private forums, IRC channels that our engineers basically live on. And there are constant e-mails and phone calls between our engineers and our customers."

As for the teams Multiverse chose for its initial beta testers, Bridges said they were almost exclusively full teams replete with engineers, modelers, designers and producers.

That's "so they would be able to be as self-sufficient as possible," he said.

Bridges also said Multiverse has created a wiki where its customers can collaborate on ideas for how to build virtual worlds with its tools.

"People can bring their own skill sets to (the wiki) to explain how to do something with the Multiverse platform," Bridges said. "You end up with this critical mass of shared brain-power out there."

According to Ron Meiners, who handles developer relations for Multiverse, working with teams of developers from South Africa, Thailand, Israel, Qatar and many other countries has been eye-opening.

"People from all over the world are involved with Multiverse," Meiners said. "It creates just a really amazing vision of a worldwide nexus of independent game and world development."

One American developer on hand at the conference here was Tim Holt, a senior faculty research assistant in the College of Forestry at Oregon State University.

Holt is using Multiverse's platform to create what he called "a massive forest visualization environment."

Essentially, he said, the idea behind the project is to incorporate real-time forestry data involving tree species, size of trees, the number of trees and more. And then the data is fed into the Multiverse tool to create a real-time 3D-look at the Oregon forests.

It's "a collaborative space for forest planners and forestry researchers," Holt said. "You're making a policy decision about something, about a region, and the best thing you could do would be to have everybody fly there...But that's not realistic...So we see this MMO-style game that becomes this collaborative thought space, and we can see the forest and discuss it."

And Holt said he was attracted to Multiverse because it allowed his team to create such a project on the smallest of budgets, something he said wasn't possible with other tools.

In any case, to Sellers, Multiverse's platform provides the kind of dynamic that will surely result in some stellar projects, even as many developers' work goes nowhere. But it's worth it, he said, because of the successes that will come.

"You're going to see a lot of lackluster projects, and that's true" since many teams are going to be little more than two guys in a college dorm room. "But one of those two guys in a dorm room is going to be (the next) Yahoo."

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