Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 4 (April 2002)

Stalking the Mainstream

Next-generation MMOGs explore uncharted waters using state-of-the-art graphics

By Karen Moltenbrey

When Mythic Entertainment released Dark Age of Camelot last October, it threw down the gauntlet in massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) development by implementing rich, detailed images and innovative game play. Since then, companies such as Funcom, Origin Systems, Turbine Entertainment, and Sony Online Entertainment have answered the challenge with MMOG titles that, like Camelot, also feature 3D-accelerated graphic environments.

These development efforts, which were chronicled last month in Part I of this series, have delivered the genre out of the Dark Ages, during which time simplistic imagery competed visually with a plethora of text and numbers on the computer screen.

Developers are once again taking dramatic steps forward in the MMOG arena with innovative graphics content. This time, they're blazing new trails away from the familiar fantasy-oriented role-playing format and toward unique styles that had been the do main of single-player games. This approach, enabled by state-of-the-art graphics technology, may finally catapult multiplayer gaming into the mainstream.

Role-playing games, which are slower paced and can endure latency changes, have proved to be an excellent fit for MMOGs. Moreover, a fantasy title, especially one that is historically based, enables artists to create simplistic icons and objects (such as a crossbow) that can be easily identified and understood by players. Conversely, a science fiction title, for example, requires a higher level of image detail to convey an un familiar concept or idea to players. There fore, as MMOGs employ more sophisticated graphics technology, it be comes plausible for developers to explore new content options.

This step is exactly what developers need to advance massively multiplayer gaming to the next level, says Tommy Strand, producer of Funcom's future fantasy game Anarchy Online, the first MMOG to stray from the medieval fantasy structure. Haden Blackman, LucasArts Entertainment producer, agrees. "If companies continue to develop fantasy-oriented game titles, we'll probably see evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, changes in the look of MMOGs," he says. "That's because designers will be concentrating on improving on what has already been done rather than being forced to take huge leaps in a new direction."

One of the most anticipated third-generation MMOGs to deviate from the cookie-cutter fantasy format is Star Wars Galaxies, from LucasArts and Verant/Sony Online Entertainment. Creating a science fiction title such as Galaxies is far more demanding for artists, who must build new worlds, concepts, and imagery that players have never before experienced. Indeed, Galaxies is based on a license with a pre-established art style, but the size of the virtual game universe is vast, requiring the team to expand the design far beyond the existing Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace universe, on which the game is based. Galaxies' art asset list is nearly 10 times that of a single-player game, so the team used NXN's alienbrain digital production management software.
Mythic's Dark Age of Camelot blazed a new path for MMOGs by incorporating 3D accelerated graphics.
Image courtesy Mythic Entertainment.

Given the popularity of the Star Wars franchise, Galaxies has the potential to expose a huge, previously un tapped audience to massively multiplayer gaming. Furthermore, the Star Wars story line will have a broader appeal, unlike the adult-oriented fantasy focus of the earlier MMOGs.

Despite having an already-established interest level for the game, Lucas Arts is not relaxing the development standards. The artists are incorporating the most advanced graphics features possible with Nvidia's transform and lighting (T&L)-based GeForce 3 card, and will add an expansion capability for the GeForce 4 and 5. As a result, the game can feature realistic characters, created in Alias| Wavefront's Maya, that express emotion through intricate facial movements. It will also have finely detailed landscapes, including blades of grass that sway in the breeze, and a wide range of weather effects that can affect game play through limited visibility and movement. The team is also incorporating bump map ping, specular highlights, and dynamic lighting and shadows.
Before the content-creation process for Star Wars Galaxies began, programmers spent a great deal of time scripting new tools, such as one that lets artists fractally generate terrain.
Image courtesy LucasArts.

Another familiar name that is expected to dominate the MMOG space later this year is Electronic Art's The Sims Online. Created by Maxis, the game will bring the extremely popular single-player series to the multiplayer community.

In the MMOG space, all the Sims-modeled with Discreet's 3ds max and animated with Maya-will come "alive," in the sense that they will be controlled by actual players instead of by the game's artificial intelligence. The multiplayer version will use the same game engine as The Sims, albeit with updates.

The MMOG will incorporate most of the content (models, scenery, objects) that is found in The Sims, in addition to a significant number of new assets that have the same level of quality as the single-player version. "We are not sending any graphic content over the Internet and a lot of the processing is done on our servers, so there's no reason why The Sims Online should contain lower quality graphics," notes Gordon Walton, executive producer.
Electronic Arts is promising the same graphics quality in the MMOG version of The Sims as in the single-player version of the popular PC game.
Image courtesy Electronic Arts.

Paving the way for simulation-focused MMOGs was Cornered Rat Software, which last summer introduced World War II Online-Blitzkrieg, an MMOG that places the fate of 1940s Europe in players' hands through simulated air, ground, and sea combat. The title contains historically accurate vehicle models created with MultiGen-Paradigm's MultiGen Creator and weaponry generated with 3ds max.

"Our troops and vehicles have been exhaustively researched, and our tank models are as accurately modeled and detailed as any single-player simulation game," contends Roger Long, art director, who worked as a contract artist on Kesmai's Airwarrior, a first-generation MMOG. The game also incorporates complex physics through moving hatches, cockpit controls, recoiling guns, working suspensions, and more. Even the airplane propellers visibly change pitch. Another unique feature is the wide range of speeds at which many of the diverse game elements move (a slow tank versus a swift plane).
In Earth and Beyond, players will be able to customize their character by choosing from a list of races and classes to which their avatar will belong.
Image courtesy Electronic Arts and Westwood Studios.

World War II, which is hosted on, also includes a half-scale digital elevation map of Western Europe created from satellite data. The terrain has been augmented with historically based 3D models of forests, roads, towns, rivers, and factories, also modeled with Creator. "Graphically, the game has a very long visibility range (10km), and is detailed to the individual building level," says Long. "You can look across a river valley at a town and walk through the trees and hedges to get to it."

Electronic Arts is preparing to expand the MMOG universe this summer with the science fiction-style title Earth and Beyond, created by Westwood Studios. Amid the backdrop of blazing nebulas and detailed planets, players will be able to build their own complex star craft. Doug Chiang, a concept artist for the films Star Wars Episode I and II, has established the look of the game, setting a high standard for the Westwood artists, says art director Gary Cox. Having the space backdrop, though, has simplified the content-creation process. "We don't have to compute and render the ground, except for some planets, so we have more power to expend on the ships, monsters, lighting effects, and models," Cox explains.

The group is using custom software within 3ds max that provides full control over advanced texture and shading settings, a proprietary particle system editor, and a high-polygon terrain engine that provides realistic, dynamic lighting for rich, detailed images and environments. The game will also feature hardware tessellation of curved surfaces, T&L, and environment and bump mapping for an added level of detail.
World War II Online incorporates a large amount of complex physics, such as instrument panels with moving dials and guns that recoil when they're discharged.
Images courtesy Cornered Rat Software and Playnet.

While MMOG developers are trying to expand the genre with new styles, for the most part they've avoided first-person shooters, which are popular in games, because of the latency and other issues. "Latency and ping [the time it takes for a signal to travel from a player's PC to a server, and back] are critical in twitch games, so you need to have server clusters in each market where you're selling the game," explains Dave Georgeson, Sony Online Entertainment producer. Unfortunately, many of the independent developers have been unable to afford such a setup. But a company with deep pockets has the means to overcome ping and latency, and break into this new area.

It's hardly surprising then that Sony is exploring this genre with PlanetSide, a first-person action game set in a futuristic world. Planet Side will feature various detailed landscapes-from warm, lush environments to barren des erts to arctic tundras-as well as vegetation, such as trees that can be used for cover against enemy fire, and environmental effects, such as weather. Although Nvidia's GeForce 3 will be the assumed graphics card of the player base, the game is being developed with the GeForce 2 as a minimum standard. "There will be many bells and whistles for the GeForce 3 and 4," promises Georgeson.

It's worth noting that Cornered Rat's World War II Online contains first-person shooter activity. The company, however, has not found it necessary to address ping and latency because current Internet connections seem to handle the limited amount of basic information (location points, movement rates, and world status) that is passed back and forth to update each player. The more complex details, such as animation complexities and physics, occur locally.

The innovative features of these and other next-generation titles are possible because of the latest 3D technology supported by the GeForce 3. However, state-of-the-art imagery alone does not make a successful, enticing title. In fact, the most popular MMOG among subscribers worldwide-NCsoft's Lineage: The Blood Pledge-is a 2D-based game with prerendered 3ds max objects and sprites. The title was originally released in Korea nearly four years ago, a year after Origin Systems' Ultima Online, which also features sprite-based objects within a 3D rendered world. While both games have undergone several major updates since their births, they continued to maintain their 2D roots. As reported in Part I of this series, Origin recently introduced expansion packs that offer the choice of 2D or 3D content. Also realizing that the road to future MMOG success will be paved with 3D imagery, NCsoft is likewise readying a real-time 3D version of Lineage, which is expected sometime next year.

Nonetheless, there are advantages to a 2D-based MMOG. For instance, many MMOG players contend that a 2D top-down perspective is more advantageous to game play for accomplishing group activities than a 3D-enabled free-roaming camera. "With prerendered images, you get extremely sharp visuals and a 'commander's' survey of what is happening. On the other hand, people love 3D because it is far more immersive," says NCsoft's Richard Garriott, who created the first Ultima Online title. "So while there are justifications for both 2D and 3D massively multiplayer games, the trend is toward 3D because it can deliver more visual punch thanks to the latest generation of 3D hardware."

Meanwhile, NCsoft appears to be the first to deliver an MMOG for the Macintosh, having recently ported Episode 10 of Lineage to that platform, allowing for the first time both PC and Macintosh players to compete side by side in an MMOG. Until now, developers have ignored this market segment, which represents only about 5 percent of new growth potential. "Many figure it's easier to pick up 5 percent more [PC] audience by making game servers available in the UK, for in stance," says Garriott. The incentive for NCsoft to court this group, he ex plains, was the virgin audience, which does not have an investment in a current game such Ultima Online or Ever Quest.
Lineage is by far the most successful MMOG in terms of market share. But to ensure that the game remains competitive, NCsoft will be introducing an all-3D version.
Images courtesy NCsoft.

NCsoft's most ambitious project yet will be a near-future MMOG with 3D-accelerated graphics. The game, whose working title is Tabula Rasa, will be geared to advanced MMOG players as well as newcomers through parallel tracks that players will follow on their own, in addition to group adventures. "We're trying to make MMOGs state-of-the-art, which in turn will make the titles accessible to a broader audience," says Garriott.

NCsoft is also planning to make Tabula Rasa attractive to a wider audience by taking advantage of the hardware-acceleration features of the GeForce 3 and subsequent releases. In turn, this is enabling the group to maximize the number of bones in each player character model yet still have the animation calculated with in the card's cache. The NCsoft artists are also adding features such as lighting, shadows, reflectivity, and refraction for a degree of realism usually found only in single-player games.

The game is structured around the NDL NetImmerse code. How ever, the NCsoft team is independently adding a more sophisticated multitexturing capability that will result in richer textures for the 3ds max objects and terrain. "We're using everything from reflection maps to highlight maps to bump maps, and blending the textures," Garriott says. "This should result in a more realistic world than we saw in the previous generation of massively multiplayer games."
Despite using a 2D graphics engine, the real-time science fiction game Shattered Galaxy (top) from Nexon nearly swept the Independent Game Festival awards at last year's Game Developer's Conference. In addition to a 3D sequel, Nexon is also workin

Until then, NCsoft will publish Cryptic Studios' City of Heroes, a 3D superhero-based MMOG with a comic book style.

Another highly anticipated MMOG will be offered by Blizzard Entertainment, which will bring its popular Warcraft series to the mass audience with World of Warcraft. Blizzard declined to provide details about the imagery other than to say the game will require a 3D accelerator card. The game will initially be released for PCs, with the possibility for a console port being bantered about the industry.

Without question, massively multiplayer games have grown up during the past few years and are breaking free of their niche label, thanks in part to mature graphics. "We'll soon see even more dramatic improvements in character models and particle effects," predicts LucasArts' Blackman. NCsoft's Garriott is more optimistic, believing that MMOGs will rapidly become the leaders in graphics and game-world presentation. "That's where the highest level of demand is for suspending disbelief in a true alternate world," he says.

Garriott, along with Origin's Rick Hall, also expects to see realistic physics incorporated into MMOGs, where flowing currents power waterwheels and gear works control machinery. Such physics may present a difficult development task, since the complex calculations would need to be dispersed across players' machines, resulting in a synchronization problem, where by each player would experience a slightly different per ception of reality.
MindArk, creators of Project Entropia, is using an occlusion culling solution for its Net Immerse-based game engine that will optimize the rendering process for the 3D imagery.
Image courtesy MindArk.

However, this could be overcome, Garriott says, by having the player's personal computer solve the core-level physics and then make the necessary adjustments so the calculations are synchronized with the virtual world, based on the information exchange be tween the home computer and game server. Other expected features include further implementation of curved surfaces and extending the hardware acceleration to include character animation transformations instead of just fixed objects such as terrain and environments. "That alone will make a huge difference in the visual quality in MMOGs," Garriott adds.

But will these features be enough to finally legitimize massively multiplayer gaming? Some developers, such as Sony Online Entertainment's Gordon Wrinn, believe they will. Others, such as Mythic Entertainment's Mark Jacobs, do not believe the graphics quality of MMOGs will ever match single-player games because of the inherent constraints in multiplayer games, such as accommodating the extraordinary number of characters in each scene.

Garriott, who has been leading the charge in MMOG development since the first generation of titles emerged, believes that the recent efforts by MMOG developers have resulted in a Renaissance for massively multiplayer games in terms of their quality. As a result, the genre will obtain main stream gaming status, albeit following the next generation of titles. "The third-generation games that are coming out will only begin to open that door," he says.
Brick House Trading Company is incorporating per-pixel lighting, UV mapping, and other advanced graphics features into Arcanity, an MMOG that is still under development.
Images courtesy Brick House Trading Company.

"We're making huge strides in the genre, but the crucible will come when the casual gamer can be en gaged by an MMOG in a nonthreatening way and have a successful ex perience," Garriott continues. "The new generation of games is trying hard to solve that issue and others, but the first attempt at overcoming an obstacle is usually not the one that takes something over the edge. More refinement is necessary, but the day will come."

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

PCs have thus far enjoyed a monopoly in the massively multiplayer game market, but they're now encountering competition from not only the Macintosh but consoles as well. "Massively multiplayer games require a large network community, and that community exists only for the PC/Macintosh at this time," says Alex St. John, CEO of online game creator WildTangent. "It will take two to three years before the consoles really become connected on a large scale to make financial sense for the manufacturers to extend their multiplayer reach."

Microsoft has kept the door open by shipping its Xbox console with an Ethernet port. Sony, on the other hand, made the port optional for its PlayStation 2, while Nintendo did not include the feature in the current version of the GameCube.

The undercurrents of this migration are already beginning to ripple through massively multiplayer gaming. Sega was the first to bring multiplayer gaming to the con sole with titles such as Phantasy Star Online for the now-abandoned Dreamcast machine. It appears that the PlayStation 2 will become the next console with a massively multiplayer game, as Square in Japan prepares to release Final Fantasy XI, an MMOG that will be offered on the PS2 and PC. According to Square, the game will be available for the Japanese market through the company's new PlayOnline network, but no plans for a US release have been announced yet.

While console vendors are champing at the bit for their opportunity in the MMOG market, they may have a difficult time finding developers who are willing to ad here to their current business models. According to NCsoft's Richard Garriott, Microsoft's re strictive development policy aimed at keeping its Xbox console bug-free would result in a long, arduous review process each time new content is added to a game.

"Microsoft wants to protect the customer's experience on the Xbox, but for developers, the policy would be a kiss of death," Garriott says. "The ability to add content freely in an ongoing fashion is one of the most desired attributes of MMOGs." He also notes that developers must be prepared to respond quickly with a patch to counter emergent antisocial behaviors by certain players, so that unexpected "bad" behavior won't ruin the gaming experience for others. -Karen Moltenbrey