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MASSIVE Success of Networked Multiplayer Games Event at UCI

Jack Emmert's Keynote on making a MMOG for an ancient Roman audience.

On April 20, UCI's Institute for Software Research and Game Culture & Technology Lab held the avant-garde event MASSIVE: Research Summit on the Future of Networked Multiplayer Games. The summit was hosted by Calit2 and supported by UC Discovery and the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences. MASSIVE convened a diverse and interdisciplinary group from academia and industry to explore the cultural, creative and technical dimensions. The event also included demo sessions, a student game design showcase, and industry recruitment tables to put game and virtual world companies in touch with up-and-coming student talent at UCI.

Massively multiplayer games (MMOGs) are the fastest growing sectorof the game business, which, in the United States,is largely based in California.This rapidly growing genre provides a particularly interesting topic for boththe Institute for Software Research and Calit2 in that it highlights theinterconnections between media arts, sociology/anthropology, and technology.Multiplayer games pose new challenges for network architectures, and place newdemands on network infrastructures. They also generate new forms of art,production and culture, and new research questions that require synthesis of avariety of research areas. One of the key questions posted by MASSIVE was, which of these research questions are best tackled byindustry and which are best approached by academia?

Jack Emmert, lead designer of the superhero MMOG City of Heroes (Cryptic Studios, NCsoft, 2003), opened up the day’s keynote by positing a fascinating hypothetical question: What would an MMOG for the Ancient Romans look like? This set the tone for the remaining panel sessions, each of which was followed by a lively discussion.

A number of key issues were raised. One was the need to expand the audience for MMOG's by creating more diverse game content and genres. Several participants pointed out that the addition of creative activities, such as furniture and fashion design, broadens the appeal of MMOG's to women, an area that most participants agreed could use improvement. Another was the increasing cost of production, which is worsening with the growing expectations created by blockbuster MMOG World of Warcraft (Blizzard, 2004). Some participants felt that increasing creative and production opportunities for players was one way to mitigate this. A debate also arose about the question of production value: on the one hand, higher-resolution graphics and better lighting effects are considered de rigeur for new computer games; at the same time, games with simpler graphics, such as Whyville (New Medeon) and Neoets (Neopets, Inc.) are garnering large audiences with simple 2D graphics. Casual games, an area often overlooked by the mainstream game industry, was also viewed as another means of expanding the audience. Some participants also felt there was room for more games that were in-between the hard-core and the casual styles of games. Baby boomers was highlighted as a potential audience for these new forms and genres of MMOG. Several presenters in the morning sessions came from disciplines such as sociology and anthropology, highlighting a growing area of research in the social and cultural dynamics of games and virtual worlds.

The afternoon sessions focused on innovative approaches and technologies. “Out of the Box” looked at games that take place across multiple platforms, but also at games as performance, and as a means of bringing mobile content into public space. The use of games and text-based virtual worlds, also known as MUDs and MOOs, as a method for live improvised performance also offered an alternative use of games in the artistic sphere.

A session on "New Production Models & Infrastructures" highlighted some of the challenges of both creating and supporting MMOG's, including introducing new economic models that expand opportunities for independent developers. Two infrastructure models were presented. Also discussed were open source strategies, and the San Diego Supercomputer Center's new server infrastructure for research.

The closing panel highlighted industry/academia collaboration with a handful of examples: UCI's Game Culture & Technology Lab showed its recent work with Santa Ana’s Discovery Science Center; UC San Diego's CRCA's recent collaboration with the game industry, Quicksilver's collaboration with USC's Institute for Creative Technology, and Whyville, which originated at CalTech and has enjoyed a long collaboration with UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

The sessions ended with a lively conversation among all the panelists as well as members from the audience. A number of key topics emerged, including the storytelling challenges posed by MMOGs, as well as the current "creative crisis" in the game industry, which leads to innumerable "copycat" games and rare innovation.

For the closing reception, MASSIVE participants were joined by members of HASTAC, the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory, to enjoy hands-on demos from some of the presenters and continue the discussion. A big draw was the student created game showcase, which included everything from a “hack” using the controller of the popular new game Guitar Hero (RedOctane, 2006), an adventure game made by an all-female team of UCI ICS students, and a mobile zombie game.