Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 6 (June 2003)

Economy of Scale


By Lisa Taylor

For the past four years, a small team of artists, programmers, and creative businesspeople from MindArk AB in Gothenburg, Sweden, has tenaciously stuck to its goal of devising an unparalleled, virtual online world. The result is Project Entropia, which illustrates the latest advancement in massively multiplayer online gaming. With its huge, seamless 3D universe and revolutionary real-world economy system, the game is attracting players from around the globe.

One of the hallmarks of a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) is its ongoing evolution. And Project Entropia, which went live this past January, is no different in this regard. While the new Earth colony on the fictitious planet Calypso is already 1800 virtual square miles in size, MindArk will soon expand this world by adding another vast continent filled with novel 3D environments to explore.

MindArk is hoping that game players will be attracted to the exotic plants and animals in its virtual online world of Project Entropia. All images ©2003 MindArk AB.




One might think that it would take an enormous art team to create such a complex game world, complete with characters and props. However, the MindArk team, which consisted of a mere nine people at the height of development a year ago, today sits at five: one concept artist, one user interface/visual effects artist, two 3D artists who build static objects and environments, and one art director/animator, Alf Svensson, who creates the animation and oversees the team.





The greatest artistic challenge for the MindArk team was creating a sufficient number of diverse environments and creatures to entice players to invest time exploring the entire world. "I figured we would need about a hundred different species of animals, fish, and bird-like creatures, and as many different kinds of trees and plants," says Svensson. "My goal was to create an environment that was probable in all aspects, yet fantastical enough to evoke awe."

Each region within the Project Entropia world has its own flora and fauna, both familiar and alien. "All the animals appear credible, or functional in their shape and credible products of evolution," continues Svensson. "I wanted to fill every niche: bovine-like animals, aquatic and flying creatures, imposing herbivores, predators of various sizes, and insects." To model and animate these creatures, the artists use Discreet's 3ds max Version 4 and Character Studio Version 3. They also employ NewTek's LightWave 6.0 for constructing some of the buildings in Calypso's major city. Additionally, they use Adobe Systems' Photoshop for texturing, generating the concept art, and user-interface development.

Because Project Entropia is an online game, the geometry and textures of the images have to be extremely lightweight to keep Internet pipelines from clogging up and users' PCs from bogging down. And the art has to be beautiful and compelling, as it is vying for players' attention, not only from competing online games but also from mainstream PC and console games, notes Svennson. Therefore, MindArk's ultimate goal when creating the visuals was to employ straightforward CG techniques for producing large quantities of diverse art that will match, if not exceed, current graphic standards in gaming.

Players customize their game characters using a slider system that adjusts various physical attributes of their model.




"There always seems to be a plug-in that generates a novel effect, but in the end, you can generally reach the same result if you use your imagination and talent," Svensson contends. In fact, by taking this approach, MindArk has not only achieved different looks for its game environments and non-player characters (such as animals and monsters), but also devised a system for creating avatars (personal, playable characters) and a unique "real-world economy," which set Project Entropia apart from other MMORPGs. Upon entering the game world, the player is asked to create a character and then presented with an enormous variety of choices to personalize the virtual beings. A slider system lets players select precise body musculature and facial features: foreheads can be broadened or shortened, noses narrowed or widened, eye shapes adjusted, pecs and waistlines sculpted. Also, a color bar allows for a wide range of skin and hair colors, and includes hair volume controls.

Aside from Project Entropia's graphics and animation, another feature that makes it unique among other games in the genre is the fact that it's free to play. Compared to most massively multiplayer developers—which charge an initial fee for the title's setup software and a monthly online fee of $20 to $40—the business model that MindArk has established is innovative, if somewhat controversial.

MindArk founder and managing director Jan Welter Timkrans points out that for some time, MMORPG players have been informally buying and selling virtual weapons and other game tools—items that are valuable to their fellow players. This typically takes place outside the game structure on Internet sites such as eBay. MindArk has adopted a totally new approach by enabling such trading transactions within the game itself. With this so-called "real-world economy," players can buy and sell to one another without leaving the Project Entropia universe. Moreover, to compensate for the free play, MindArk also sells goods and services to players.

"With the advent of Internet trading opportunities like eBay and such, it seemed logical to incorporate the trading of virtual items into the virtual universe," says Timkrans. "This makes immersion in the virtual universe more complete and compelling, and adds an extra dynamic that's not available in other online worlds."

With this feature, players can use their credit cards to purchase any number of items that might help them advance in the game. Over a period of time, these items will undergo "wear and tear" and require repairs or replacement. All such purchases are strictly optional, and the attractiveness of the offer will depend a great deal on what an individual player is hoping to achieve. Those with more social goals are likely to play Project Entropia at little or no cost, while those who are more adventurous or combat-oriented will likely find themselves paying to get ahead. Still, the prices don't seem tremendously mercenary; a basic self-defense pistol will run 13 PED (Project Entropia dollars) or about $1.30 (US).

While it takes time to develop the kind of large online following that translates into a successful MMORPG community, MindArk was nevertheless boasting a membership of 60,000 players as of April, with a target of 300,000 by year's end. Whether or not the company reaches its goal, there is little doubt that the game will continue to set new standards for this increasingly popular genre—standards that not only encompass Project Entropia's much-publicized business model, but also the breadth and diversity of the game's graphics and animation.

Lisa Taylor, a freelance writer based in Ontario, Canada, can be reached at lisa@pixelcom.biz.

Adobe Systems www.adobe.com
Discreet www.discreet.com
NewTekwww.newtek.com
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