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Race to build Stormreach

Westwood firm poised to begin a push to lead its online gaming niche

With its towering spires and elegant, cobbled streets, Stormreach is an unusually attractive city, and an exceptionally dangerous one. The town is built for adventure, with opportunities for deadly conflict around every corner. That's why the creators of Stormreach believe that people around the world will be clamoring to get in.

Stormreach is a fantasy city being erected on the Internet; its architects work out of a nondescript office park in Westwood, headquarters of Turbine Inc. The team is racing to finish the new online game, Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach, in time for the holiday shopping season.

It's a major challenge for Turbine, a little-known gaming company that's making a bid for leadership in the market for ''massively multiplayer " Internet games. These are games that take place in an online world that exists 24 hours a day. Players create characters who ''live" and ''die" in the virtual world. There they make friends, solve puzzles, and fight battles.

Already Turbine operates a popular online game, Asheron's Call. But Dungeons & Dragons will be its biggest venture yet -- an online version of the title that introduced millions of people to sword-and-sorcery games.

Many Americans play computer games of some sort, but only about 3.5 million play massively multiplayer online games, according to the Yankee Group, a Boston research firm. But recent hits like World of Warcraft, with 1.5 million players, proves there's a hunger for such games. And a successful online game means a steady flow of profits. That's because gamers pay a subscription fee to keep playing. Those fees, usually around $15 a month, can add up to far more than the $50 price tag for the game software.

Turbine wants to keep as much of this revenue as possible. The company created Asheron's Call on behalf of Microsoft Corp., but has since purchased the rights and runs the game itself. The deal with Microsoft was part of chief executive Jeffrey Anderson's ongoing plan to establish Turbine as the number one vendor of multiplayer online games.

Now comes phase two. Over the next two years, the company will introduce new games based on two of the most beloved fantasy franchises. In 2006, Turbine will release the first massive online game based on J.R.R. Tolkien's ''Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Turbine will publish the Tolkien game on its own, rather than pay a share of the profits to a major game publisher. The company is taking a more cautious approach with Dungeons & Dragons Online, teaming up with the French game publisher Atari Inc.

D&D is the granddaddy of all fantasy role-playing games. Created in 1973 by Gary Gygax and Dale Arnesen, the game, played using books and dice, has developed a global following -- and generated a variety of spinoffs, including novels, comic books, a Saturday morning cartoon show, and popular computer games like Neverwinter Nights and Baldur's Gate. But earlier D&D computer games were desktop-based titles; Turbine is creating an ongoing D&D saga that will play out around the clock over the Internet.

It's a breakthrough opportunity for Turbine -- and a severe challenge. ''You look at the two founding mythologies that created every computer role-playing title," said Turbine's director of marketing Jim Drewry, ''it's either Dungeons & Dragons or Lord of the Rings." If Turbine gets it right, the two games could catapult the company to global prominence. But getting it right means pleasing millions of loyal Tolkien and D&D fans, as well as newbies who've never before played an online game.

To attract new players, lead designer Ken Troop is trying to create a user-friendly fantasy by eliminating some daunting features found in other online fantasies.

D&D Online puts players in the heart of Stormreach, where they can quickly learn where the action is, with enough abilities and weapons to start an adventure. ''We are not trying to replicate a world," said Troop. ''We are trying to replicate a shared adventure where you can have fun with your friends."

In traditional online adventure games, players get points for killing enemies. So it's common for them to hang around in areas where weaker enemies congregate, making easy kills to build their strength. That tactic won't work in D&D Online. Points are awarded for completing a mission, not for any kills made along the way. This lets players succeed through cunning rather than killing -- a fact that could help D&D Online appeal to more peaceable gamers.

Just a year ago many gaming industry watchers were beginning to question the viability of the entire market for persistent online games. A few titles, like Sony's Everquest, had done well. But others, such as Electronic Arts Inc.'s The Sims Online, failed to catch on. The French game company Ubisoft canceled an online game based on its popular computer game series Myst. And Microsoft Corp. abandoned Mythica, a game that would have been set in the world of Norse mythology.

But then came Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft. Released last November, it was so popular that the online computers hosting the game were overwhelmed. Within a few weeks of its release, 1.5 million people worldwide had signed up, at $50 for the game software and $15 a month to keep playing. ''It blew the doors off everybody's expectations," said Mike Goodman, senior analyst for the Yankee Group in Boston.

Goodman doubts that D&D Online will be this successful. ''I think Dungeons and Dragons is going to do OK," Goodman said, predicting that it will gain about 150,000 subscribers. He's far more bullish on Turbine's other big project. ''I think Lord of the Rings is going to be phenomenal," Goodman said, and predicted it would attract up to 600,000 subscribers.

Both games, however, appear to be in the right sector. According to an analysis of recent industry sales data by Bruce Sterling Woodcock of mmogchart.com, fantasy-role playing games have a 84 percent marketshare of massively multiplayer online games.

Yet Yankee Group's Goodman said that if massively multiplayer gaming is to grow beyond its present niche market, designers will have to branch out beyond the sword-and-sorcery genre. Game companies have gotten the message; one of the most anticipated titles now under development is an urban crime game called All Points Bulletin that will be designed by the creator of the Grand Theft Auto series of games.

But Troop says D&D Online will be just what the industry needs -- a title with a built-in base of loyal fans and features to attract first-timers. He figures that if the software's good enough, millions are waiting to play.

''As long as you keep putting out good games, the space will continue to grow," Troop said.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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