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Otherland - New MMO Based on Otherland Novel: Intro, Part One

MMORPG.com news Manager keith Cross traveled recently to Singapore to learn more about a new MMO being developed by Real U Studios based on the Otherland novel series by author Tad Williams. Today, Keith begins with part one of our introduction to this new game.

New MMO Based on Otherland Novel Intro Part One
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Recently, a group of European and North American game journalists were invited to Singapore to visit Real U studios, where we were promised a first look at a previously unannounced MMO project. Today, the embargo on the information has been lifted and we can freely talk about Otherland, a game based on the novel series of the same name by Tad Williams. Tad was the surprise guest of honor for the trip, and was at the main presentation along with Kevin Buckner, the Senior Producer on Otherland, and Andrew Carter, CEO of Real U.

Otherland is currently about 75% through the pre-production phase, and about 15% complete according to Real U. The game is being developed with a special version of the Unreal Engine 3, and is currently scheduled for release in 2010.

Otherlands Screenshot

If you're unfamiliar with the Otherland books, the series is set in a not to distant future where an advanced version of the internet is accessed using virtual reality gear of varying quality. Once inside, you enter a virtual world that looks and feels almost real, where people do all the things we do online today such as shopping, socializing, gaming; but for them it's a fully immersive environment rather than a flat glowing screen. Visitors to the net are treated to near infinite possibilities in terms of the types of environments in which they can choose to exist. Think of it as a place where any book ever written, any game ever made, and any place on earth throughout history, and more, could potentially be a world within this virtual space.

But, like everything cool, it is corrupted by power, money, and politics. Problems for this online world begin to occur when a cartel of influential individuals create a super version of the net, where for all intents and purposes the worlds there are as real as the real one. Real enough that one can continue to experience the sensations of this place, even if their body has been disconnected from their VR gear, leaving their disconnected consciousness online, wondering why they can't log off.

This is where the players begin in the game version. Trapped online and left with the task of figuring out what's going on. We were told on the studio tour that one of the main underlying themes of Otherland is to leave question marks in the players' minds. In fact, players, or at least their characters, aren't meant to fully understand that they are in a virtual space. They explained that a focus on story is going to be one of the main features of this game and the player's quest to figure out how this world works and ultimately how to escape is all a part of that story.

Otherlands Screenshot

Currently in the world of MMOs, successful implementation of story is the exception rather than the rule, having only been done well in a handful of games. Real U seems to have a good shot at adding their game to the list of story driven MMOs with the involvement of Tad Williams. The game industry is notorious for slapping the names of well known individuals on the cover of a box in the hopes of selling more copies, even if the named individual actually had little to do with the creation of the game, but that doesn't appear to be the plan with Otherland. When asked how involved in the project he is, Tad quips, "they can't get rid of me." Following up by saying, "when I met the creative team, it was such a fit." and that they were on similar wavelengths concerning what Otherland is and could be. The team was not looking to recreate the novels, but to use them as a starting point, and building a new universe out of those ideas.

It isn't really hard to conceive some of the directions they could go with an IP as potentially diverse as Otherland. One area of potential lies in the near infinite number of different worlds that can exist in this game. In the books, the characters visit worlds that are fully immersed in the sci-fi or fantasy genres, some are based on real world places both historical and contemporary, others drop all pretence of simulating reality and are unashamedly virtual in their design. The designers at Real U are faced with the challenge of putting themselves in the shoes of designers in the fictional future of Otherland, where they have to ask themselves, if they were designers in this medium what would they create and how would they do it. When the goal of a particular world isn't to simulate reality, then there is a lot of leeway in terms of what they can do with the physics of a space. We were told that there would be a number of worlds with there own special physics, including worlds that are giant wind tunnels, and worlds with cartoon visuals and logic. In Tad's words it will be like "zillions of different games, but interconnected by story and by the similar rules of Otherland."

In part two of this article we'll talk more about the worlds within Otherland, including specific looks at Lambda Mall, a major social hub and one of the first online locations visited in the novels, and a world that is a simulation of the planet Mars. We'll also get down to the nitty-gritty and look at what they were able to tell us about the game's systems and mechanics like combat, quests, crafting, travel, business models, and more.