Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 3 (March 2002)

Part 1: Gaming for the Masses

By Karen Moltenbrey

The allure of massively multiplayer online games (MMOG) has been that a person can play with or against thousands of others simultaneously, bringing a social atmosphere to what was typically considered a singular form of entertainment. But until recently, MMOGs lagged in content and popularity to their PC- and console-based big brothers, limiting their appeal for game players.

Now, by capitalizing on recent hardware and graphics card advancements, MMOG developers are narrowing the gap in graphics quality between their games and traditional-style games. This can be seen in recent rollouts such as Turbine Entertainment's Asheron's Call: Dark Majesty, Origin Systems' Ultima Online: Lord Blackthorn's Revenge, Sony Online Entertainment's EverQuest: The Shadows of Luclin, and Mythic Entertainment's Dark Age of Camelot. The result is a new, massively popular form of gaming.

Moreover, the future looks even brighter for massively multiplayer gaming, given the lineup of other next-generation games waiting in the wings. For instance, gaming giant Electronic Arts (EA) later this year will introduce its mega-hit single-player PC game The Sims to the MMOG arena, and LucasArts Entertainment, in conjunction with Sony Online Entertainment, will ship its massively multiplayer game Star Wars Galaxies. Each title is based on an al ready popular series and, like all MMOGs, will deliver something that traditional-style games are scrambling to offer-extensive multiplayer support.
Capitalizing on hardware and graphics card advancements, developers of massively multiplayer online games are now able to incorporate sophisticated graphics into their new titles. Last year, Funcom received recognition at the 3D Festival in Copenhagen for

The original concept for MMOGs started 20 years ago with MUDs (multi-user di men sions), text-based games with a still-image backdrop. MUDs were played by a small but passionate group via dial-up connections to major networks such as CompuServe and Genie that could easily cost $20 to $30 an hour. "These text games were the backbone of online gaming for a long time, and they helped evolve the graphics games you see today," notes Mark Jacobs, president of Mythic Entertainment, who created some of the earliest online games such as Galaxy, Aradath, and Dragon's Gate.

In the mid-1990s, Meridian 59 from 3DO became the first graphics-based multiplayer online role-playing game to generate substantial retail revenue. The 2D sprite game used a proprietary engine similar to the one used by id Software for Doom, developed during the same timeframe. Although the imagery was crude by today's standards, Meridian 59 provided a new look for this specialized form of entertainment. "Many people had never seen anything like it before," says Jacobs. "Instead of having to imagine a scenario, they could see it unfold. Also, they were playing against tens of thousands of players on servers or server farms. That got people very interested-especially those associated with big business, like EA."

MMOGs were forever changed in late 1997 when Origin Systems, an EA division, introduced Ultima Online, one of the first subscription-based MMOGs to attract a substantial player base. The game, derived from the established single-player Ultima series for the PC, featured 2D sprite objects in a 3D rendered world. Under de velopment for four years, it attracted 120,000 subscribers almost instantly. "Prior to Ultima Online, this was still a fairly small and focused business in terms of gaming," says Jeff Anderson, president and CEO of Turbine En tertainment, who managed the Ultima On line franchise while at EA. "That changed quickly, and one of the reasons was the graphics, which made these games appealing. People looked at this market and said, 'Wow, we have a business.' "
Origin created a 2D and a 3D version of Lord Blackthorn's Revenge, so those with higher end PCs can enjoy a more advanced graphical experience.
(Image courtesy Origin Systems.)

Ultima Online dominated the MMOG world for a brief period, driving Meridian 59 and many MUDs out of business. In 1999, the big-three names in MMOGs were established when Verant/Sony Interactive Studios of America and Turbine released EverQuest and Asheron's Call, respectively, with true 3D game worlds. Mythic's introduction of its full-3D Dark Age of Camelot last October added a fourth major player to the mix, as the game sold 180,000 copies and acquired 118,000 subscribers in three months. During this time, South Korea's NCsoft began dominating the Asian market with Lineage: The Blood Pledge, and is now poised to invade the US market with its extremely successful title, having recently formed a US subsidiary.

"With the second generation of MMOGs now coming out, the games are more attractive to users," says Turbine's Anderson. "Rather than just expanding a single-player game, which many developers of the first-generation games did, we are focusing on what makes MMOGs more fun and unique, such as socialization."

Anderson admits that the freshness and innovation of the MMOG genre contributed to its early success. "The first systems and iterations were not perfect, but people flocked to them because they could play against other humans rather than AI," he says, "and that made the gaming experience more satisfying."
Motor City Online, released last October by EA, introduces automobile aficionados to a persistent online community in which players can buy, sell, trade, customize, race, and hang out with other "gear heads" and driving fanatics. Players can even earn a w

For developers, these games offer a substantial revenue source. A game CD-ROM, on which the assets and imagery reside, retails for between $20 and $40. In addition, there is a subscription fee, which averages $10 a month-still one of the cheapest forms of high-end entertainment, Anderson points out. "With a game that has 200,000 subscribers, it's easy to see that this is a viable business," he says.

David Cole, president of DFC Intelligence, notes that a top massively multiplayer game can now command more than $100 million in revenue during its lifetime in retail and subscription costs. He cautions, however, that only a handful of MMOGs will reach that level, while quite a few single-player games have the same potential because that market is much larger.
To ensure that the upcomingStar Wars Galaxies remains competitive into the near future, Lucas Arts/Sony Online Entertainment is requiring a GeForce3 video card on the client's PC.
(Image courtesy LucasArts Entertainment.)

With so much income on the line, the original big-three developers-Origin, Sony, and Turbine-have not rested on their laurels. Since releasing their original MMOG titles, the companies have introduced new, advanced content and graphics into their ever-growing virtual worlds through expansion packs or new releases to keep players interested and coming back.

In general, MMOGs differ from multiplayer LAN-based games in a few distinct areas. The worlds in MMOGs are always in flux, affected by 24/7 play. As players log on and off, the story line continuously evolves, altered by those who remain connected to the game. Conversely, the stories in LAN-based multiplayer games begin and end when the players log on and off.

Another MMOG trademark is the number of players the game can sustain. Massively multiplayer games can support hundreds of thousands of players simultaneously, while most LAN-based multiplayer games support a maximum of 32. Additionally, MMOG players usually customize their characters with garments and weapons to differentiate them from the crowd, a capability that most LAN-based games do not support.

While these features are desirable, they none theless make MMOG con tent creation challenging. For instance, de signers of single-player games can generate the most complex models possible in their game because they know how many characters will be on the screen at any given time. With MMOGs, that number can vary greatly, says Mythic's Jacobs, so developers must cut corners by creating characters with fewer polygons, trimming backgrounds, and creating fewer effects. Artists also em ploy rendering tricks, such as varying the levels of detail in the models over distance, using fog to limit viewing distance, and creating worlds with sight-line limits to keep fields of view within reasonable rendering limits.

During a short period, MMOGs have progressed from low-end 2D games to those with high-end 3D environments, powered by advanced 3D graphics engines with efficient rendering capabilities that can display tens of thousands of polygons per second. "There's been a tendency to think that online games were using second-rate graphics engines, but the more recent titles and those on the steps for release prove that the MMOG engines are just as powerful as those used in other game categories," says Tommy Strand, producer of Funcom's highly rated Anarchy Online, unveiled last summer. Most of the newer titles also take advantage of the features offered by the latest graphics cards, such as Nvidia's GeForce3 and ATI's Radeon. For example, artists at Turbine are working extensively with bump-mapping, environment-mapping, and other next-generation visual effects that these cards can offer.
For EverQuest: The Shadows of Luclin, Sony Online Entertainment increased the hardware specifications required to play the game. As a result, the developer was able to include detailed player-characters and realistic organic scenery in the areas closest t

"The new cards are allowing us to do things that were impossible with the previous cards. For instance, features like programmable pixel and vertex shaders give a huge amount of control back to the artists and programmers," says Turbine's Anderson. "And they support higher resolution textures." Developers such as Turbine are introducing other technical advancements, such as texture compression, pixel shaders, continuous level of detail, motion capture, occlusion culling, customized vertex shaders, and environmental effects, into their MMOG environments.

Developers, however, must also consider the hardware specifications of their players, or risk alienating them with slower frame rates caused by more detailed graphics. "Large graphical enhancements are troublesome for a persistent-state game," says Andy Beaudoin, producer of EA's Motor City Online, a virtual racing universe created last October. "You need to maintain backward compatibility or risk losing customers who may not have upgraded their computers."

Indeed, MMOGs have a long life cycle and typically must support a wide variety of system specifications, adds Gordon Wrinn, EverQuest associate producer. "I first played EverQuest on a Pentium I, and several generations of processors have come and gone since then," he recalls. Wanting to take advantage of the recent hardware innovations, Sony Online Entertainment chose to dramatically improve the graphics quality in The Shadows of Luclin expansion pack to EverQuest, released late last year, by increasing the game's minimum system requirements. Players now need a 400mhz Pentium II with a 16mb Direct3D-compliant video card that has hardware T&L (transforming and lighting), such as in ATI's Radeon or Nvidia's GeForce series of graphics boards. "It was a difficult decision to make, because there are people who played EverQuest before who cannot play now," Wrinn says. "But we had to balance those concerns with the need to attract new subscribers, which would be difficult to do with graphics that looked three years old."

Origin took a different approach with Lord Blackthorn's Revenge by including both a 2D and a 3D client so the game would have an updated look without excluding its previous player base. "We found that 75 percent of the Ultima Online players don't have the correct hardware to run a good 3D game," says Rick Hall, senior producer. With Lord Black thorn's Revenge, both types of players coexist in the world and see the same monsters, avatars, and wearables (clothing), but only some see them in 3D.

This approach meant that a new, more efficient model had to be constructed for each 2D model in the original game. Yet it enabled the artists to incorporate motion-captured animation and particle systems for dynamic effects that could be seen by those with more advanced hardware. Origin also had toyed with the idea of providing a perspective-based camera in the 3D version of the new game, but opted for the same isometric top-down perspective featured in the original title, so the 3D players would not have a strategic advantage.

By creating an engine with an open architecture, developers such as Origin can enhance their games with new expansions or patches without having to change the underlying game mechanics. "We could have added a new graphics engine that takes advantage of tomorrow's technology, but we can't change the data structure we've already created," says EA's Beaudoin. Other developers, such as Sony Online Entertainment, have avoided this problem by adding separate worlds to their established games, requiring the player to purchase the new client to reap the new technological benefits.
To create the 3D-accelerated graphics in Dark Age of Camelot, Mythic's artists used off-the-shelf tools such as Discreet's Character Studio and 3ds max. They even chose a commercial game engine-NDL's NetImmerse-rather than developing one in-ho

Designing for an entirely new audience without existing players, Sony Online Entertainment decided to up the graphics ante with its Star Wars Galaxies. The game, which is slated for release later this year, incorporates higher polygonal models, textures, and effects to simulate the realistic environment from the feature film Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. "We believe our user base will have very competent machines by the time Galaxies ships, so we are looking at a higher standard-one that will enable the online game to compete with a single-player game in terms of polygon budgets and texture memory," says Haden Blackman, LucasArts producer. Galaxies will require Nvidia's GeForce3 T&L-enabled video card, and the company is incorporating expansion features for the GeForce4 and 5 cards, which are expected in the near future. This should enable the game to remain close to the cutting edge for several years.

The unprecedented success of the top three MMOGs during the late 1990s stimulated interest in this unique gaming market, resulting in a rush by newcomers to announce or release titles. Yet many of the games failed to appeal to users, and a large percentage of them never even made it out of development for financial reasons. "The main question now is, how much room is there for growth?" says DFC's Cole. "These games are very time-consuming-it's not unusual for a person to play one of these games for 20 hours a week. Therefore, most people are likely to subscribe to only one, maybe two, titles. And it's uncertain how many new players there are who are willing to make this type of time investment."

To be successful, a new MMOG must immediately capture the attention of potential players, which is usually achieved through innovative graphics and game play. Typically, a player must have at least a Pentium II or III with a 16mb 3D accelerated video card to enjoy the newer games. Bandwidth is currently not an issue for game play, nor is it for acquring data since most of the content is provided on a CD-ROM rather than through a download.

When Mythic began creating Dark Age of Camelot, there were approximately 60 other new MMOGs under development. However, Mythic was one step ahead of the new competition; the company already had the server technology in place from its text-based games to run the virtual Camelot world, so it was free to devote more effort to creating the game models. This enabled Mythic to cut two years from the typical four-year MMOG development cycle and beat its competition to market, which may have contributed to the game's success. Furthermore, the game, which draws on Arthurian legends, Norse mythology, and Celtic lore, has brand-name recognition.
The level of image detail changes in Asheron's Call: Dark Majesty depending on the client's frame rate. For each 3D object, the artists had to create several different models with decreasing levels of complexity.
(Images courtesy Turbine Entert

"We set reasonable goals," says Jacobs. "We wanted to be evolutionary, not revolutionary, and we didn't over-reach." The game currently requires a Pentium II with a 32mb 3D accelerator card or a Pentium III with a 16mb card. An expansion pack to Dark Age of Camelot, which is expected this fall, will take advantage of the next generation of graphics cards as well as NDL's NetImmerse real-time 3D game engine, though users with slightly older computers will still be able to play the game. "The combination [of the new cards and NetImmerse] will dramatically change the graphic look of Dark Age of Camelot," he adds.

Funcom's Anarchy Online, like many of the new MMOGs, used motion-captured data for its characters. The models were created in Discreet's 3ds max and animated with data from Ascension's Flock of Birds and processed with Kaydara's Filmbox. The data was then imported into Funcom's animation system, which blends short, dynamic sequences for faster response time. As a result, the developers generated a wide variation of character animations, allowing the player-characters to act uniquely. Funcom also implemented an advanced continuous level of detail scheme that dynamically adjusts to the detail level threshold set by the user, which avoids massive texture memory overload resulting from the character customization. To enjoy the highest level of texture detail, players need a Pentium III with a Direct3D-compatible 32mb video card. Alternatively, those with lower end computers sacrifice graphics detail for speed.

While most new MMOGs such as Dark Age of Camelot and Anarchy Online were developed for higher new hardware specifications, games with an established following must either adapt or risk losing players to titles with an advanced look and game play. Turbine realized the importance of such a move, requiring a graphics accelerator card for the Dark Majesty expansion pack released last November; the card was optional for the original Asheron's Call. "The change from an optional accessory to required hardware happened faster than a lot of people expected," says Turbine's Anderson. "Before, we relied on the computer to do everything. Now the rendering is done by dedicated hardware, so we can relax some of our strict graphics standards." The result, he notes, are games with larger texture sizes and polygon counts, and in creased frame rates.

"The new technology makes game development a lot more fun. With our new titles (such as Asheron's Call 2, expected this fall), we are dramatically increasing polygonal counts and adding larger, more detailed textures," says Anderson. "All this adds up to a more lifelike world." In addition to using keyframed animation, Turbine has added hundreds of motion-captured moves to make the gaming experience as genuine as possible.

To generate Dark Majesty's vast landscapes and accommodate up to 100 characters in a scene, Turbine's developers used New Tek's LightWave and Alias|Wavefront's Maya to create scalable models with UV mapping that the company's proprietary graphics engine can swap out when a client's frame rate begins to falter. Also, through Turbine's proprietary Dynamic Data Down load system, small amounts of landscape information are continually streamed as the user's avatar travels to different areas. This enables the character to wander from one end of the virtual world to the other without having to download data for a new zone, as was the case in many of the older MMOGs.

"Ultimately, our main focus is dynamic play. Having a beautiful world that visually excites and awes the player is important, but if the user can't play because of frame rate issues, then the beautiful world doesn't offer much value," notes Anderson.

To ensure that the graphics in Sony Online Entertainment's The Shadows of Luclin remained competitive, the company gave the game-the third expansion pack to the four-year-old EverQuest-an extensive graphical facelift. The artists added detailed player-character models, such as a new cat-person race, and rich organic environments-arctic tundras, blistering deserts, and underwater zones-created with 3ds max and proprietary tools. The programmers attached armor to the characters as separate geometry, rather than as a simple texture-swap as they did in the past. As a result, the models are more realistic.

"We let texture memory get a little out of hand in Luclin," admits Wrinn. "The chances of anyone seeing more than 10 percent of these at any given time is small. The problem is we don't know which 10 percent they are likely to see, leading to a larger number of textures stored in RAM and a higher memory footprint for the game."

In creating Lord Blackthorn's Revenge, Origin employed a clothing technique similar to Sony Online Entertainment's for creating its diverse character models. For the original Ultima Online, the artists layered 2D maps on top of one another to create the appearance of different outfits. Third Dawn, the first 3D version of the game, also layered new clothing on top of the previous polygons, but unlike in most other MMOGs, when the top clothing layer completely covered the bottom layer, the bottom layer did not render. The skin underneath, however, al ways rendered. Consequently, the clothing had to fit perfectly over the previous geometry, which resulted in bigger, "poofier" clothes. For Lord Blackthorn's Revenge, the group used a proprietary "stitching" system, which separated the male and female player-characters into numerous parts. As players add new clothing, or wearables, to their 3ds max model, the system removes the previous geometry and adds new polygons. So, the artists can create much tighter fitting clothing for the characters.

"Prior to the stitching system, we had problems of skin and clothing underneath another layer of clothing poking through the top layer as the character moved," says Jeremy Dombroski, lead artist. "The new system allows us to turn off 99 percent of those underlying polygons, so we have fewer problems with unwanted polygons protruding."

For better graphics quality, the game engine uses mip-mapping, whereby a model's texture resolution is adjusted based on the object's distance from the camera. However, instead of removing pixels, the game engine swaps in a simpler texture generated on the fly (rather than in advance), making the distance shots appear crisper. The team also developed a proprietary optimization technique to achieve faster frame rates from the clients' video accelerator cards while loading textures.

"The Ultima Online that exists today is almost nothing like the Ultima Online we got out the door four years ago," says Rick Hall, senior producer. "We've changed almost everything; from top to bottom, we've rewritten a lot of the code." To play the 3D version of Lord Blackthorn's Revenge, subscribers need at least a Pentium II with an 8mb video accelerator card, whereas the original game required a 200mhz Pentium and any 2mb VGA card, the same specifications needed for the 2D version of the new release.

With their sophisticated look and style, unique episodic content, and multiplayer capability, MMOGs are attracting a new following, many of whom are converts from the PC and console arenas. The result, predicts Alex St. John, CEO and co-founder of online game company WildTangent, is the emergence of a vaster, more powerful market in gaming than we've ever seen.

Next month, Part 2 of this series looks at the next generation of massively multiplayer games and their potential for the console platform.

Karen Moltenbrey is a senior associate editor for Computer Graphics World.