Nirvana for the video game industry looks a lot like World of Warcraft, except without the arcane rules that mystify the average player.
That vision is the driving force behind Lego Universe, a new online game that's based on the toy building bricks franchise and is scheduled for release in 2010. Developed by a San Mateo, Calif., firm called Gazillion Entertainment, the game is designed so that even a 5-year-old and his grandfather can play together. Gazillion, which has been operating in stealth since 2005, is also working on an online superhero game based on its license with Marvel Entertainment.
The goal is to make virtual world games that anyone can play. It's a financially hazardous terrain, previously explored by many companies before Gazillion, including NC Soft, whose Tabula Rasa game, designed by Ultima Online creator Richard Garriott, shut down March 1.
These types of games are difficult and expensive to build. They're even more arduous to maintain after tens of thousands of players pile in, uncovering and exploiting every bug in the game.
The potential payoff is a glittering pot of gold. Consider World of Warcraft, a game developed by Blizzard Entertainment in Irvine. It has 11.5 million subscribers, each paying about $15 a month to play. That's $172.5 million a month in fees alone. The game disc, which makes a regular appearance on the weekly list of top-selling PC games even though it's 4 years old, brings in an additional $20 a copy.
It's no surprise that the game genre, known as Massively Multiplayer Online games, or MMOs, is a hotbed of development. MMORPG.com lists 253 such games, many of which are in development. With such a crowded field, one way to cut through the noise is a well-known license. Both Lego and Marvel fit that bill, said Ted Pollak, senior analyst with Jon Peddie Research in San Francisco.
"I think there is a big opportunity for mass-market MMOs, especially when they are connected to recognized brands," Pollak said. But, he warned, "the quality of the game must be top-notch, which is not an easy undertaking."
Gazillion Chief Executive Rob Hutter said his firm has recruited 300 developers, including many industry veterans.
"We worked hard to create a game experience that is easy to learn, but also offers depth for even the hardest-core players," Hutter said.
Among the changes Gazillion made: shorter game sessions so players can jump in and out in five or 10 minutes, easier ways to move around the virtual world, more intuitive menus, and fun ways for old-timers to interact with newbies.