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The Cutting Edge | SPECIAL REPORT: ELECTRONIC ENTERTAINMENT

A Pair of Heavyweights Hope to Slay Dragons in the Online Realm

Sony's EverQuest and Microsoft's Asheron's Call represent major leaps in Internet games.

May 10, 1999|ASHLEY DUNN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Creating virtual worlds that could be shared by thousands of people at the same time was once one of the most esoteric pursuits in cyberspace--a project that only the wildly futuristic would even consider.

Worlds such as Meridian 59 and AlphaWorld were technically difficult to build, hard to manage and appealed to only the most fanatical of Internet denizens.

But in the last few years, virtual worlds have become one of the fastest-growing segments of the computer entertainment industry, demonstrated by the huge success of Ultima Online--a role-playing game that has attracted 125,000 users who paid about $50 for the game and then $10 a month to slay beasts with thousands of others.

Now, two of the biggest names in technology--Microsoft and Sony--are jumping into this realm with a pair of massively multi-player role-playing games that have put virtual worlds squarely in the mainstream.

Sony released its much-awaited EverQuest in March and has already reached about 90,000 users, each paying about $10 a month to enter the eerie, three-dimensional world of Norrath with its gliding emerald drakes and grotesque festering hags.

Donald Vercelli, product manager for 989 Studios, the Sony company that published the game, said that 1,000 to 3,000 new players are being added each day, even when the game has yet to be sold overseas.

"We're seeing explosive growth," Vercelli said. "We've really just scratched the surface of this. Ultima Online and EverQuest are just the beginning of online games."

At the video game industry's largest trade show, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, in Los Angeles this week, Microsoft is providing its first public glimpse of the test version of Asheron's Call, another sword-and-sorcery role-playing game that will be officially released around Christmas.

The game, which is being developed by Massachusetts-based Turbine Entertainment Software Corp., will also rely on a monthly flat rate of $10.

In the works are several other virtual world games that will expand the imaginary realms from hacking dragons to the intergalactic war and other domains.

"It's not a niche and it's not a genre," said Dan Scherlis, president of Turbine. "It's a new medium."

EverQuest and Asheron's Call are both a leap forward from the first generation of massively multi-player role-playing games in that their worlds are considered three-dimensional.

In the past, people and landscapes in games were drawn as a series of two dimensional pictures. But in EverQuest and Asheron's Call, each person and thing is made up of a lattice of coordinates, which are then rendered into an image.

The rendering means that objects can be viewed from any angle. In essence, they are three-dimensional creations that create a sense of virtual realism that is the foundation of these worlds. The worlds are generally huge, often taking a character hours, possibly days to traverse the entire realm.

Both also mark a maturing of the concept of what makes these types of worlds compelling. One of the most persistent complaints about Ultima Online was how unfriendly that world is: Players are constantly killing each other and looting each others' bodies for precious armor and weapons.

To restrict that type of antisocial behavior, EverQuest has made killing only an option. All players are immune to attack from other players unless they choose otherwise.

To get players to band together and interact, the designers of the game essentially made it so difficult that only teams of players can survive. The result is a game that is far more a social experience than a blood fest.

Asheron's Call has also tried to avoid the brutality of Ultima Online by again emphasizing the benefits of cooperative play. In the game, high-level characters can become more powerful if they have many followers, people who have sworn allegiance to them. The followers can benefit by receiving spells and expensive armor from their leader.

It may seem like a minor feature, but the creation of this kind of allegiance system is the first step toward the rudiments of a political system.

Jeremy Schwartz, a senior analyst with Forrester Research who specializes in games and entertainment, said it is the ability of players to create their own institutions and develop their own characters that makes the new generation of these games so compelling.

"It's really become much bigger than we thought," he said. The ability to personalize your environment is very powerful. As the technology improves, the immersiveness of the games improve as well."

Scherlis said that the next generation of games, which are already in development, will look toward expanding the size of the worlds, making the pieces of them more lifelike and re-creating more complex social institutions of the real world.

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Ashley Dunn can be reached at ashley.dunn@latimes.com.

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