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Planet Michael: What would MJ say?

Dev defends its controversial MMO.

SEE Virtual Worlds is turning Michael Jackson into an MMO - but what would the late, great pop star say if he were alive today?

"I think he would be... You know, it's hard - I don't want to get caught too much in trying to speak for him, that would be out of taste," VP of production and development Josh Gordon told Eurogamer. "But I can tell you that we have looked very, very hard at what he presented to the public and what he brought to our world really - to everyone in the world. Our focus is very much on maintaining that vision and not trying to radically diverge from the fantastical world and super-pop iconic stuff that he brought.

"So my hope is that he would look at this and say, 'This is exactly what I would have envisioned and want to play and do.' That's the best we can do: take what he left, the legacy, and try to realise it."

But would Michael Jackson agree to it?

"Um, I assume he would have but, you know, it's a hard... I feel like it's hard to answer this question," Gordon added.

"I'd have to imagine he would because I believe that we're holding very true to what he was doing. But it's impossible of course to speak for someone who has passed on. I don't mean to dodge the question but I feel uncomfortable trying to answer something like that."

SEE Virtual Worlds' global marketeer Pam Pearlman chipped-in: "We're working very very closely with the Estate to make sure the game we deliver is something they feel supports Michael and the brand he brought to life during his lifetime. With the help of the Estate, we're confident we're delivering something they're proud of and they represent Michael and have known him for decades.

"Together we're trying to bring something to the virtual world Michael would have been proud of."

Why not call it Planet Michael Jackson, then?

"A lot of focus groups went determining this," insisted SVW president Corey Redmond. "What the decision ended up being after several names was most fans know him as Michael. The fans really have embraced Michael Jackson on a first-name basis and they talk about him as if they know him, although obviously most people don't.

"I thought it was a much more intimate way and more intimate title than all the other ones we were working on. And certainly Michael Jackson being probably the biggest star of all-time, a lot of fans know him as Michael. So even though it is Michael Jackson's world, Planet Michael just made it much more intimate - particularly for the fan."

Planet Michael is built for the Entropia Universe - a connected collection of 'planets' or MMO worlds. MindArk created the Entropia Universe and its solid free-to-play, micro-transaction engine.

The existing platform gives SEE something to convince licence-holders with - aka, show them there's money to be made. All SEE then does is hire a developer (unknown at the moment - a mix of "newblood" and experience) to make the content of a themed planet. This takes around 15 to 17 months. So far SEE has two planets: one based on Michael Jackson, the other on Universal Studios' monster hunter Van Helsing.

Planet Michael's September announcement was met with derision. But SEE has thick skin and thoroughly believes millions of people are chomping at the bit to play.

"Michael was a controversial kind of guy," said Josh Gordon, laughing. "And they may not have taken a game with Michael Jackson as a major theme terribly seriously, but we had millions of fans around the world really excited by our press release and are really looking forward to this coming out.

"You're going to get a mixed bag of emotions with people: some people who think it's a joke and don't take it seriously. But when they see what we're going to do with this game and not only in the way the environment will look, but have it so people can socialise and interact online - over the next few months you'll see people will take it very seriously and will really want to get involved."

Planet Michael will involve making an avatar, exploring the world and battling monsters. You'll not earn experience but learn professions and skills and abilities, as well as meet and play with other people from around the world. At some point you'll even be able to travel to other themed planets as your Planet Michael avatar. Some skills and abilities will be transferable, but plenty will need to be left behind for when you return. It wouldn't do to have an armed-to-the-teeth Van Helsing monster hunter invade a world of spinning, kicking dancers, for instance.

Planet Michael is a fairly typical MMO, albeit with a twist: Michael Jackson. Gordon talked about hunting zombies in Thriller Land and having event dance-offs with other players. He said there will be "lots" of socialisation and exploration, and you'll know the minute you log-in to Planet Michael whose world you're a part of.

I still can't work out oww he does this.

"Oh well you're going to know completely by the themed experience," said Gordon. "The tack we've really taken here is to look at his music videos and to try and bring those to life as thematic elements in the game. We talked about areas like Thriller Land or fantastical areas that might rely more on videos like Scream or Billie Jean land or Billie Jean City - we're still playing around with the name of that.

You will feel, or you should feel, that you're immersed in those videos that everyone around the world has come to love and desire. Your experience is almost like being immersed in a music video, if you will, whilst doing MMO activities with your friends and family."

Will Michael Jackson be a boss in the game, then? He's certainly portrayed characters that fit the bill: the werewolf in Thriller, the car/spaceship robot in Moonwalker, the skeletal ghost in Ghosts - to name a few.

"That would be interesting!" Gordon laughed. "I have to tell you, Robert, we had a discussion about that. I would say it's very unlikely that would be true and you would be battling Michael - I can almost assure you you won't. But we did have a crazy design session where that topic actually came up and we decided that probably wasn't the right road to go down. But there are some interesting possibilities...

"He might, I mean, it's not inconceivable that you would have some kind of a dance-off experience and we can go into that a bit more when we get further down the line.

There's also Michael Jackson's music catalogue to think of. SEE's current plan - and it's not set in stone - is to allow you to buy MJ's songs and play them in-game via a "virtual iPod like unit". The licensing deal with the Jackson Estate even stretches to the unreleased songs Sony will dish out over the next 10 years - they'll be available in Planet Michael too. In a "perfect world" Josh Gordon would let you keep the songs, but he doesn't know if he can yet.

"The Estate definitely does not want Michael Jackson's music playing all the time and people to get sick of it," added Corey Redmond. "But of course it's going to be a big component.

As good as Moonwalker?

Within any Entropia world it's possible for people to get rich selling their own items - in Planet Michael's case selling "spangled gloves" et al. These are made from blueprints so no one can stray too far off topic. The PED currency equates 10:1 to a US dollar. "[Getting rich] is absolutely doable and people have done it," Gordon insisted.

Planet Michael may not be a WOW beater, then, but Gordon believes "we're of course competing" - although not "directly as head-to-head competitors".

"We are really skewing ourselves not to avoid the hardcore but really try to bring to market something that appeals to Michael Jackson's fans," Gordon added.

"I see it as less about battling and fighting in MJ and more about questing, adventuring and socialising. He just has millions and millions of fans and we want this to be a place where those people all come together and go on this joyous fantastical ride but it's less skewed towards battling powerful monsters than towards an immersive adventurous experience."

"We're developing a game Michael Jackson himself would want to play - his friends, his family, his fans. We want to broaden that experience so it doesn't require the hardcore."

Universal Monsters Van Helsing and Planet Michael will be released at the end of 2011. The way things are going, Universal Monsters Van Helsing will be the first to market. In that game, incidentally, you get to become a monster hunter like Van Helsing and hunt baddies such as Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster and anything else Universal Monsters based a film around.

SEE Virtual Worlds also has "a lot" of other titles in development based on "very big, iconic franchises that everyone is familiar with".

"No it's never quite that simple [phoning up and saying, 'Hi can I use your licence?'] - this is Hollywood, after all," Corey Redmond explained. SEE has spent more than 10 years convincing companies to grant their mega-licenses, but then it was for mobile theme parks and properties like Star Trek, Pokemon and Titanic.

"We have a lot of relationships with just about everyone in town - not only the studios but also production companies and everyone else. These relationships are really what it takes. These studios know they can rely on us to do justice to the brand. It does take a bit of an insider track. And a lot of work."

"There are different deals that the studios have with things like [Harry Potter] that may or may not be accessible," he added. "But I would say usually we have good success with working with and obtaining titles. I would say that there are some that may be beyond our reach. But so far we've had good luck getting what we want."