boston.com Sports Sportsin partnership with NESN your connection to The Boston Globe

For gamester Schilling, a new play

Sox hurler aims to revamp online fantasy gaming with new delivery

There's not a lot of baseball memorabilia in Curt Schilling's office in Maynard, but you'll find plenty of swords.

In fact there's long-bladed cutlery all over the place at 38 Studios LLC, the entertainment start-up founded by the Red Sox pitching ace. The swords set the right tone for a company that's developing a new massively multiplayer online fantasy game, or MMO.

But a supply of magic wands might be more useful. There are already plenty of online sword-and-sorcery games — the most popular, Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft, boasts 8.5 million players. Besides, 38 Studios won't introduce its offering until 2010; what will the market look like by then?

"To get into gamers' heads, to penetrate the market, you have to do something significant," said Schilling, who is such an avid fan of the game EverQuest that Sony Online Entertainment created an in-game character in his likeness.

Schilling and his colleagues say their game will be radically different from its rivals — so different, it'll transform the gaming genre. But we'll have to take their word for it, because 38 Studios guards its secrets with unusual fervor.

Although the company will show off one or two pieces of "concept art" from the game at Thursday's Comic-Con convention in San Diego, officials refused to provide any images to the Globe. And no one will talk about the basic storyline of the game, or even its title. "If you completely open the door and show everybody what the whole thing is, especially when we're going to deliver something three years from now, then we're doing everybody a disservice," said 38 Studios president Brett Close, a veteran of gaming giant Electronic Arts Inc.

But the scope and thrust of the project can be gleaned from a visit to 38 Studios and a look at the partners the firm has signed up.

A stroll through the company's offices revealed hundreds of sketches of creatures who seem to have come from central casting in Middle Earth. The designers are currently planning for 12 species or "races" in the game, and while they may not be called elves or orcs or dragons, there's certainly a family resemblance.

The game's plot is being cobbled together by bestselling novelist R.A. Salvatore, a Leominster native hired as 38 Studios' chief world-builder. Salvatore has written 45 books, many of them based on existing fictional universes like those of Dungeons & Dragons and "Star Wars." This time, Salvatore and his colleagues are starting from scratch, creating an original fantasy universe with its own geography, culture, customs, and technology.

It took J.R.R.Tolkien, author of "The Lord of the Rings," nearly four decades to build his fantasy world; Salvatore is working much faster. He has already written short stories about people and places in the imaginary world that are being circulated among 38 Studios' 40 employees to guide them in their work. "Then they get the feel, the smell of what that area is," said Salvatore. "Everyone's on the same page."

To establish the look of its fantasy world, 38 Studios tapped comic book artist Todd McFarlane, creator of the popular character Spawn and creator of a line of fantasy toys. "Todd is helping as really the artistic visionary for the product," said Schilling.

But online gaming is just one facet of 38 Studios' larger plan to create a full-spectrum entertainment franchise, like those built around Harry Potter or James Bond. And McFarlane is a master of marketing. He leveraged his comic book success to launch businesses that make animated movies and fantasy-inspired toys. "We are not just a game developer," said Bill Thomas, the company's chief operating officer. "We are an entertainment company."

38 Studios officials hope that McFarlane's experience will aid them in creating a fantasy world that will transcend the Internet. "It will be a cross-platform, interactive computer experience," said Schilling. "We're tying in a lot of other platforms than just the console game. We're talking about using other forms of access into the game, including television, cellphones, hand-held." Close added that the game universe could also inspire a series of novels, comic books, or even movies.

If the plan works, 38 Studios could succeed even if its online game stumbles. And that's a distinct possibility, according to Rich Gallup of the video game news website GameSpot.

"In order for an MMO to really make it, the game needs to convince people to stop playing World of Warcraft, which will be extremely tough," wrote Gallup in an e-mail. "The MO crowd can be extremely loyal. There are people out there still playing games that were released in the 1990s. Curt's team has got their work cut out for them."

But Schilling doesn't mind long odds. And he's convinced that if 38 Studios can get the game right, the players will come.

"It's just like the movies," he said. "Westerns have been made for a hundred years, science fiction, fantasy, all those things have been made for a hundred years — but when a good one comes out you still watch it. The game space is no different. When a great game comes out people will play it."

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com, Hiawatha Bray at bray@globe.com.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES