The success of games such as Ultima Online and EverQuest has helped to spawn a whole new genre of massively multiplayer role-playing games (or MMORPGs for short), but sadly some of these second and third generation online worlds have little to distinguish them from their competitors.
One of the more innovative and ambitious efforts is Project Entropia, which features a sci-fi setting, some interesting new gameplay twists and a novel economic system. And it's all being developed in sunny Sweden by a new company called MindArk. We caught up with the team to find out more...
The Final Frontier?
MindArk has only been around since 1999, although as marketing manager Patric Sundström told us "the first stages of conceptualization and development actually began before that", and the original idea behind the game dates back even further.
"The Project Entropia idea has existed for several years, long before the first graphic MMORPG came out", according to Patric. "The technology however has not been available before now for a game of this magnitude. When we felt that the technology available was capable of handling the vision we had for Project Entropia, we began the actual production."
"Up to now we have only seen three major MMORPGs in the Western market, but if you look at the amount of people playing these month in and month out, you realize that this is the beginning of something that will dominate the world in the future. As it is today, discussions center around PC games that can be played online, but when these also become available through consoles I believe the market will follow. I don't know how many years it will take before everybody can connect and play with each other, but I am convinced that online interactive entertainment and especially MMORPGs will take a large share of the market from other forms of games and from other forms of entertainment."
And MindArk are hoping to be at the forefront of this second online gaming revolution, their aim nothing less than "the next generation of interactive entertainment", as Patric explained. "Our goal is to create the first real virtual universe and all that this entails. We are aiming to build a cyber-reality where you as a user have the possibility to live the life that you've always dreamed about and to realize the fantasies and dreams of a life that suits you."
The Story So Far
Project Entropia is set on a distant world called Calypso, which has been colonised by humans some time far in the future. And as writer and concept artist Fredrik Andersson revealed, the history of Calypso is written in the blood of its colonists, who "fought a hard war against terraforming robots which nearly wiped out the previous colony".
"That war is over and the colony is now re-established, consisting of three large and newly constructed cities [which] remain safe havens to insure both peace and prosperity for all its human inhabitants. But the past has returned to haunt the settlers; new robots from another planet have appeared on Calypso to compete for the domination of the world. Despite this new threat the cities remain secure, offering a peaceful social life inside an urban utopia. Meanwhile, the wild and untamed world is forcing brave settlers to confront native beasts, invading robots and menacing mutants in the struggle to claim this world for the future benefit of all human kind."
The result is something of a wild frontier world, and as Patric told us the way in which it develops over time will be influenced by the actions of the players who inhabit it. "We are building a world that will be under constant development, both from MindArk's side as well as those who live their lives on Calypso. We want everybody who creates an account in Project Entropia to feel like they are participating in the development of this world."
Calypso Needs You!
The game's storyline features "primitive natives, robots, mutants and humans struggling for world domination on an alien planet", which Fredrik describes as "quite an odd mix of classic sci-fi ingredients". There's more to Calypso than meets the eye though, and MindArk have "deliberately made [the plot] a bit more complicated to leave behind open spots for future story development on a grand scale, based on both the past and future story lines".
Like Asheron's Call, Project Entropia will feature an on-going story to keep players involved in the world as it develops around them, although the speed at which this back story is revealed depends on the players rather than just following a simple monthly schedule. "The rate at which these future events unfold will depend on how players solve different main quests along the way", Fredrik told us. "The main story line is not a straight line and will be interlaced with parallel story lines as well as dead ends. We have a lot of possibilities to work with and we'd like to use the input from players as guidelines for future events and development."
"We see Project Entropia as a long-term enterprise", Patric explained. "For this to work, it's necessary to have constant development of the game - we will make sure that new objects, skills, monsters and robots are added. The development of new land areas will occur partly from MindArk, but also from players who will have the opportunity to buy floating platforms that they may place out at sea, and should enough of these be placed together they would in effect build a new continent. We will even allow players to participate in creating and building their own things."
This also extends to the quest system, as Fredric told us. "We will provide players with different quests, scenarios and events on a regular basis, but players will also be able to create their own quests and adventures. For example, a society may want to conduct a test where a player must first solve a quest before becoming a member, and where the current members plan and prepare their own quest."
Free For All
One of the most unusual aspects of Project Entropia though is its pricing system - the game is free to download and free to play, with no up-front or monthly fees. Obviously we have seen over the last year during the dot.com crash what happens to companies that give their services away for free, so how will MindArk make their money?
"What we ultimately want to achieve with Project Entropia is to have a world of one million players or more on-line simultaneously and on the same server. To get so many people to begin using Project Entropia, we thought that giving it away free and letting the players decide what they want to buy in the game would be the best approach. This will also create a whole new approach to the distribution of games and the activity of role-playing."
What happens is that players will be able to exchange in-game currency (PEDs - Project Entropia Dollars) for real world cash, and vice versa. And as Patric pointed out, this means that "there will be players who choose to play Project Entropia like a job, where they earn money in the game to pay their expenses at home". It's certainly an interesting idea, and is sure to appeal to hardcore online gamers who already spend much of their free time living in virtual worlds such as the highly addictive EverQuest.
MindArk are also making sure that you will be able to play the game without having to put out a second mortgage on your house. "When you begin Project Entropia you will receive certain items with no particular value and which can't be sold, but which will help you to get going without having to buy anything immediately". People willing to pour their life savings into the game will obviously be at an advantage, but you will be able to get along perfectly well without spending any cash if you're short on money.
Crime and Punishment
Obviously the idea of real world and in-game money being interchangeable does lead to some interesting new issues though, such as what happens if somebody kills you and steals valuable equipment from your corpse. Arguably this is a form of theft, as you are taking something which has an easily identifiable real world value. "This will only occur when the player is not insured", Patric assured us. "When a player is insured it won't be possible to loot their possessions."
This mechanism also helps to deal with the notorious player killing issue, as not everybody enjoys fighting other players. "If you should decide to go out and kill other players you will automatically lose your own insurance for X amount of hours and be classed as an outlaw, meaning other players can kill you without punishment", Patric explained. "So those who wish to play Project Entropia as a PK should be very sure of what they're doing before they begin. It won't be much fun for them if they lose their possessions regularly."
It's not just equipment, weapons and property which players can buy though - Project Entropia also looks set to be the world's first massively multiplayer game to feature a fully operational stock exchange! "The core of the Project Entropia stock exchange will work just like today's stock exchanges, like the NASDAQ or London stock exchanges. In the beginning there will be a limited number of companies [listed], but this will increase as the world is developed and settled."
Trading in shares of non-existent companies might sound like an odd thing to do in a role-playing game, as Patric told us "one of the reasons why we have chosen to incorporate a stock exchange is to create a game that appeals to a wider range of people than just those who want to go on an adventure". And as you can convert any profits you make back into real world cash, the potential is obviously there for virtual day traders and stock brokers to move in. It's a funny old world...
Even Better Than The Real Thing
Another of the interesting possibilities which MindArk are looking at is the idea of allowing real world companies to set up store on Calypso. In theory you could be able to buy books, music and DVDs without ever having to leave the game.
"We have already created the foundations for this through our own economic system. We will even allow players to set up their own shops where they can sell items they have made or found on monsters they killed. To take the next step of implementing real shops from the real world into Project Entropia is certainly feasible. A related part of Project Entropia will be auctions that will be held in Calypso, meaning players won't have to go to outside sites to buy the things they want."
In fact, if you can pay your bills by adventuring or trading shares within the game, and buy real world goods from franchised stores in the cities of Calypso, you have to wonder whether some people will ever leave the game. Hopefully we should know soon if it can live up to its promise, as the first beta phase is already underway with just fifty people testing the game and its basic systems. According to Patric, "Project Entropia will go through a number of different beta phases each allowing in more and more people, and we will continue to accept beta applications all the way up until we go gold".
If you want to contribute, head over to the Project Entropia website and sign up for the beta program now! As Patric told us, "the gaming industry is constantly learning what people like and want included in games. If you don't listen you're making a big mistake. That's why we at MindArk try to have as good a contact as possible with the users so we can get their input on what they want to see in Project Entropia, and what they want to experience."