A new dimension for hard-core gamers Gaming
By ROBERT LEVINE
Published: April 25, 2005
Christina Carkner, a 26-year-old computer systems administrator, says she spends up to 30 hours a week defending humanity in an online approximation of the world featured in "The Matrix" movies. The game she plays, The Matrix Online, is an example of what are called massively multiplayer games - rich, virtual environments that combine tangled plotlines with a social experience similar to that of a chat room. This is not the first time Ms. Carkner has lived such a second life. For several months she was deeply involved in a game called World of Warcraft, but she soon ran out of challenges and canceled her subscription. "I had hit the max level and I got bored," she said. The Matrix Online, from Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment, is one of the boldest efforts yet to appeal to hardcore players like Ms. Carkner as well as to a wider audience. Massively multiplayer games, which are considered mainstream entertainment in Taiwan and South Korea, still represent a small fraction of the United States video game business. Unlike traditional video games, which have their roots in arcades, these games have more in common with role-playing pastimes like Dungeon & Dragons. "We certainly could be the kind of game that expands the market," said Jason Hall, senior vice president for Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment, which co-publishes The Matrix with the Sega Corporation.To fans, massively multiplayer games present a chance to live another, more heroic life in a virtual world. To the companies that publish them, the games, which retail at $50, are a risky but potentially profitable business model. In addition to the purchase price, such games charge a subscription fee of about $15 a month.The revenue can add up. One multiplayer game, EverQuest, from Sony Online Entertainment, had more than 400,000 subscribers for several years. Its sequel, released in November, currently has 350,000 players. Sony has estimated that the franchise will deliver $500 million in profits over the course of its first eight years."Everyone is looking to imitate the EverQuest model," said P. J. McNealy, a senior analyst at American Technology Research. Retail sales of massively multiplayer games grew significantly in 2003 and 2004, according to the NPD Group, which tracks video game sales. And while the most popular multiplayer game released in the United States, the fantasy-oriented World of Warcraft from Blizzard Entertainment, has 1.5 million subscribers, that has proved to be an outlier. The industry usually regards 100,000 subscribers as the point at which a title breaks even. Not many games have hit that point and maintained it. "This can be a profitable business - it just isn't usually," said Robert Garriot, chief executive of NCSoft North America, which publishes City of Heroes and is developing other titles. "There are a handful of people making money. Instead of being in the Top 10 you have to be in the Top 5."And the cost of attracting subscribers is growing. The more elaborate massively multiplayer games can cost more than $20 million to develop, according to several executives in the business. That is about double what it costs to make a game for a console like Xbox. It took four years to develop World of Warcraft, according to Paul Sams, chief operating officer of Blizzard Entertainment, a division of Vivendi Universal Games. "It's substantially more expensive, substantially more risky and substantially more rewarding." And, unlike other games, there are costs after the introduction, including server infrastructure, technical support and adding new content that will be interesting enough to keep gamers coming back.The Matrix Online has had a bumpy road from the start. In February 2004, Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment and Ubisoft announced that they were terminating their joint publishing agreement for the game, after which Ubisoft was replaced by Sega. The game's release date had been delayed several times, and the reviews have been mostly lukewarm.The advantage that The Matrix has in the market is its association with the movies, and Sony clearly hopes that the game will extend The Matrix brand. (The plot of the game begins where the third movie ends, during an uneasy truce between humans and machines.) Players of The Matrix can interact with characters from the films, like Morpheus and the Oracle (who are controlled by "actors" in the game who perform according to guidelines), and get involved in events that will affect the entire world. The other major massively multiplayer game based on a film franchise, Star Wars Galaxies, did not prove to be the breakthrough some had hoped. It has around 250,000 subscribers and is profitable, according to Sony Online Entertainment, but was criticized because it lacked the characters from the movie. "There was certainly a lot of disappointment in Star Wars Galaxies that the characters weren't in the game," said Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis at the NPD Group."The biggest card we have to play is that it's the ongoing story after The Matrix movies," said Paul Chadwick, lead writer on The Matrix Online. The general story line was planned by Larry and Andy Wachowski, the brothers who wrote and directed the films, much as a story is plotted at the beginning of a television season. Mr. Chadwick will script various events, and players will determine the exact way in which they occur. "You're a player in the history of The Matrix," Mr. Chadwick said. To help latecomers get up to speed, that history will be archived online, along with the names of those who made it happen.That sense of history might give players like Ms. Carkner an incentive to stick around. "Matrix is one of the more story-heavy" games she has played, Ms. Carkner said. One weekend in early April, players had to capture bits of Neo's memory, which eventually led to the creation of more powerful agents for them to fight. Along with other players, Ms. Carkner helps run Radio Free Zion, an Internet-based radio station that streams a mix of music and game-related news those playing the game can tune in on their computers.Participating in massively multiplayer games often requires a substantial investment of time: EverQuest users play for an average of about 20 hours a week. "It requires - my word - a 'special' kind of person," said Michael Pachter, a gaming analyst at Wedbush Morgan. "I think because people like video games, which is a casual experience, they may have misjudged the size of the market." Publishers of other massively multiplayer games are hoping the title succeeds, simply because it could draw more players into the genre. "Each successful game brings people into this market," said Raph Koster, chief creative officer at Sony Online Entertainment. "But the name of the game in massively multiplayer products is keeping them."