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Neopets Ambitious New MMO
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Tue Jul 01, 2008 7:14 am Reply and quote this post
It's so early in development that it doesn'thave a name yet, but I'm already quite intrigued by the new MMO fromthe creators of Neopets.
Adam Powell and Donna Williams struck it rich with Neopets,an online virtual-pet site that grew so popular with kids and femalegamers that the pair sold their creation to Viacom in 2005 for $160million. Now, as founders of a startup called Meteor Games,they're working on something markedly different for an encore: A newMMO game that blurs the lines between traditional massively-multiplayergames, social networking, and casual gaming.
"We're World of Warcraft players ourselves," says Powell, "and wewouldn't want to compete with them. The game is really more casual --we want players to be able to play it for five, ten minutes at a time."
Imagine sitting down for a game of chess inside the 3-D virtualworld of the MMO. Your opponent is a real live person, but they'replaying the game in a simple Flash browser window, without all of thefluff around it. Or imagine playing a version of the classic cell phonegame Snake, but at the end of the game, the snake comes to life in theMMO and starts attacking enemies for you.
                                                      
Neopets,Williams and Powell readily admit, is often seen now as a child'spastime. But that game's original target audience was an older set --teens and young adults. But after the pair launched Neopetsin 1999, the game took on a life of its own and became so popular withthe younger audience that the twosome didn't want to sacrifice theintensely lucrative younger market.
The goal of their unnamed new project is to capture the traditionalgamers. The art style is going to be cartoonish, certainly, but unlike Neopets,it won't trade realism for saccharine sweetness. Instead, Williams andPowell are drawing inspiration from a litany of sources near and dearto children of the 1980's.
"It's sort of traditional high fantasy with a little bit of sci-fi,"says Powell. "It's like a lot of 80's films that we love, like Labyrinth or Legend."
"Or The Dark Crystal," adds Williams.
So then, is this game merely lifting ideas from the lucrative well of collective nostalgia to compete with World of Warcraft?Apparently not. The game itself seeks to target a demographic somewherein between the hardcore MMO fan and his 7-year-old younger sister. Theword "tween" was mentioned, though I picked up on an obvious distastefor the term.
Key to attracting this audience, say the designers, is the game'sreliance on a hybrid financing plan. Players will be required to payfor a subscription, though Powell was very quick to point out that itwon't be nearly as expensive as those of traditional MMOs, whichgenerally run in the neighborhood of $15 per month.
Instead, the stated goal is to offer players a monthly fee of under$10, making up the difference and more with the ability to buy in-gameitems with small microtransactions. But kids with more pocket moneywon't be able to power up for cash.
"We are strongly against letting players buy an advantage," saysPowell. All of the microtransactions, he says, will augment theplayer's looks, not powers: New houses, new clothes, new pets.
And yet neither subscriptions nor microtransactions are anything newin the world of online gaming, so what sets this unnamed MMO apart fromthe rest of the pack? Synergy. Don't worry, they didn't actually dropthat buzzword during our conversation, but after describing the way thegame would span several different platforms in real time, there simplyisn't a better word for it.
As an example, Powell detailed one possibility, involving a simplegame of chess. At launch, the game itself will span both a traditionalMMO client as well as a social-networking website, and that simple gameof chess can be accessed through either, he explained.
Let's say one player is sitting inside the MMO. He's at a table inhis own fully 3-D virtual house and in front of him is a chessboard. Hemoves a pawn, waits, and the opposing side moves against him. Onlyinstead of challenging another player within the MMO, he's playingagainst someone who is playing chess via a simple Flash applicationembedded into the website. Each of their moves is relayed to oneanother in real-time, and both receive certain levels of virtual rewardfor the activity.
To explain how the reward system would work for someone interactingwith the MMO from the outside, Powell offered another example the grouphas planned for the title.
Remember Snake? That game where you maneuver a squigglyline around a board to collect pellets in the hopes of extending yourline's length? If you don't recall, check your cell phone. I guaranteeit's on there. The new MMO's website will have a Flash game similar to Snakebuilt into it. Instead of simply hoping for a high score, playersmaneuver the snake around the board in a hunt for pellets with theultimate goal of making the snake come to life.
Once you've collected enough points in the Flash game, your snakewould spawn within the 3-D MMO world and start attacking foes on yourbehalf, earning experience points for you whenever it successfullykills something.
Besides the basic versions of the mini-games, the social networkingsite will also contain your standard sort of Facebook-styled features.It's unclear how in-depth the system will be, but expect messaging,friends lists and everything you've come to love and/or loathe from theMySpaces of the world.
At launch the game's technology blending will only stretch as far asthe MMO itself and its official site, but the duo also plans toeventually roll out cell phone software that works with the system.Powell and Williams said that they have not yet decided how the phoneswould be implemented into the overall world, but giving players thechance to interact with the game while away from a computer is the sortof idea that could result in unforeseen levels of MMO addiction anddevotion.
Normally I'd be very cynical about a game relying so heavily on thissort of technological confluence -- particularly given thehyper-adorable, kid-centric current state of Neopets -- but assuming that these creators can actually deliver on the ideas they have for this game, it could be huge.
Of course, since the game is extremely early in development, no oneoutside of the 40 people on the development team will be playing it anytime soon. Powell and Williams say that they hope to publicly demo thetitle for the first time at Penny Arcade Expoin Seattle this August. If things go well, they plan on releasingsomething playable, whether it be the final game or a public beta, inearly 2009.





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