Tad Williams, Online Gaming and the future

Eoin Purcell

Tad Williams’ Otherland is to become a MMORPG*
I read about it on Orbit’s excellent blog:

It sounds, from the interview in particular, as though Otherland the MMORPG will be a highly original take on the online roleplaying concept, one that puts the key element of interactive story-telling right at the heart of the gaming experience. Pre-order those virtual-reality goggles now…

And there is much much more on Tad’s blog:

Seriously, I’m really looking forward to this game, although it’s still probably a year and a half away, at least. (The release date is 2010.) It’s being made by RealU in Singapore, published by dtp entertainment, and it’s a major project. The entire Singapore studio is devoted solely to the game, and they’re approaching eighty employees. More importantly, though, they’re doing a beautiful, fascinating job, not just duplicating or doing a pastiche of the books, but trying to take what is original and interesting in the work and opening it out into an entirely new realm, the MMORPG. Into the virtual world, that is, and what could be more appropriate for OTHERLAND?

I like this
I like it a lot. What is more it makes sense. Where we once had games flowing from books, now we have online games developing. I can think of three worlds off hand that I’d be likely to spend serious time in were they to go virtual:

    Terry Pratchett‘s Discworld
    George RR Martin‘s Ice & Fire universe and
    Steven Erikson‘s Malazan Empire

The book I’m reading now offers some hope too, Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind is really excellent and the world is very impressive.

Longer term, more strategic thoughts

Looking at this development a number of queries arise.

There is the cost issue. Based on just the evidence we have from Tad, The entire Singapore studio is devoted solely to the game, and they’re approaching eighty employees., this is going to cost a lot of money. Development costs are high for gaming, Halo 3 for instance cost around $30 million to develop and around the same to market!

No small scale publisher can do that (indeed even the big ones will be hard pressed). That means this is an area where at best publishers will licence further work rather than direct or engage in the action themselves.

Then there is first mover advantage problem. I’d suggest that if current online games can improve and deepen the experience over time then they have a fair chance of retaining players rather than losing them to new entrants. In fact there is a very good article in the New York Times about this point:

Warhammer is no “WOW killer,” which is what many gamers and industry executives seem to be waiting for. With its international player base and dedicated development team at Blizzard Entertainment, World of Warcraft isn’t going anywhere.

But for a lot of online gamers, Warhammer is providing the most significant competition for their leisure hours in many years. It’s about time

New games face two hurdles, one in getting gamers to try them and two in getting them to stay with them once they have tried! neither is insurmountable but are no inconsequential, especially when the entrenched opposition is so good.

The question then becomes what is the potential size of the market, how many new games are likely to make it through development to the market and onto achieving viability? and that is essentially an issue of time and attention. Suppose I like the idea of five worlds to play in online, can I really spread my attention across them? No I can’t. I’m already reaching a point of distraction with social networks and online groups as it is, games would suck too much of my time.

Perhaps future generations will be comfortable spending many of their leisure hours playing online games, but I would suggest that the market is limited to a core of heavy players making the liklihood of many games reaching that sustainability /profit point low.

Where does that leave us?

All told this ads up to a realm that most publishers will avoid because of costs, inexperience in the market and a feeling that the rewards are just too risky. yet the potential benefits are huge and the authors will no doubt be aware of this.

I cannot help but feel that as an industry publishing is watching an opportunity slip by and in reality there is not much we can do to change that except licence others to exploit our content and that of our authors.

I need to think more about this but I’m nearly certain that for the industry, that is not good.

*What is a MMORPG
In case you are wondering a MMPORG is a: massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) is a genre of computer role-playing games (CRPGs) in which a large number of players interact with one another in a virtual world. The term MMORPG was coined by Richard Garriott, the creator of Ultima Online, the game credited with popularizing the genre in 1997 (for more read the rest of the wikipedia entry here).

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