There are always tremendous complications when developing and launching an MMO. As APB recently handily demonstrated, it's an enormously time and money-intensive endeavor to launch a game on this scale -- and even when it does launch, there are numerous additional considerations arising from audience issues.
Of course, from that point forward, a company has to operate the game as a service, and continue to update it with live content. And then there are business model considerations...
In this in-depth interview, Ryan Seabury, creative director of LEGO Universe at developer NetDevil -- itself a division of well-funded MMO firm Gazillion -- discusses the development process of the expansive toy-based title, which was first announced in 2007.
He takes in everything from the cloud-based graphics-crunching technology required to get the game up and running, to why it's a subscription-based title, whether Luke Skywalker might make a cameo, and how the team has been focus-testing the title with the same group of kids for four years now.
There's a lot of building that happens in this game. Is it complicated to manage all this creation on servers, in instances, and what other players see?
RS: Yeah, there's a huge amount of technical magic that's happening in the background to make this feasible. We thought about rendering LEGO bricks in real time, but they're complicated, actually; people think they're just blocks, and they should be easy, but the level of detail with all the studs and the details on the other side... LEGO is uncompromising about how those need to look.
As a comparison, a two by eight LEGO plate brick, a very simple brick, is about twice the polygons of say, a World of Warcraft avatar. You can see as people build on their properties and stuff, there are hundreds if not thousands of bricks in a scene, so we built a ton of tech to optimize that on the client side and also there's a whole rendering farm technology, 3D surfaces cluster on the server side.
When you build a model, it gets uploaded to that, it starts optimizing it, doing all this material surfacing on it, removing hidden surfaces, doing all this magic on it to make it run on everybody else's computer, and that comes back down the wire to everybody else. That's happening basically in real time.
You can have your best friends in there, playing with the stuff as you're building it. As you're putting it together, the physics are dynamically generated and everything. It's really cool; it's the culmination of a lot of years of work to get to that point, but now it's all online.
Will cloud technology be used to make that work?
RS: Yeah, it's a cloud type of idea, right? We have an extensible network arrangement; we can throw more hardware at it if we need to. We offload the processing that needs to happen to make these render in real time to a server location, so you don't have to have 60 high end multi-core CPUs sitting there crunching on your models, but you get the benefit of that nonetheless.
Does it raise the minimum spec very much, versus World of Warcraft, for instance?
RS: I think we're shooting for a lower spec, to be honest. It's a challenge, because when you talk about user-generated content, we don't know what people are going to do with that. But it's a family-friendly game, we're going to have kids in there, and kids' computers are going to be another step below what gamers' PCs will be.
It's actually funny to test the min spec we are going for. We can't even find the parts we want anymore; we have to piecemeal it out on the internet, and it costs more to put together one of our low-end machines than a it does to make a super high-end Dell or something like that.
Speaking of kid-friendly, everyone's got their own methods for this, but how are you going to make sure there aren't just a lot of penises everywhere when you're making things?
RS: One thing we can say is when you build models you have your own property, and you can share that if you want to. If you share something publicly, it will be monitored by a human before it's seen by other people.
Thinking about what the practicality of that means, if we have millions of players in the game, that's a lot of content; there will be some lead time before you get your models up to share, but that's not really fun, right? Say if I'm an eight year-old, and I build what I think is a really cool looking dinosaur, I want to show my friend, I want to show him right now.
So we started thinking about the whole user generated content paradigm and said, "How can we get it so it's possible to do this in real time?" I mean, the majority of people aren't jerks that will use it to make bad stuff; most people want to play the game for legitimate fun, creative reasons. So how can we get them together so they can do that?
We came up with this idea of best friends, which I think is a really cool, innovative concept. It takes a lot of ideas from what's going on in social networking today and other forms of user generated content and combines them. The idea is that you can take some extra steps on your LEGO ID at LEGO.com to verify your identity in real life. It's kind of like stuff we've seen in the bank industry and other domains, where we can establish a trusted, verified identity with the consumer.
If we know you are who you say you are, then we can trust that you can make connections with other people who have gone through those steps. That allows parents to say, "I've got kids that play with the kids down the street all the time, and as a parent, I don't monitor their chat playing in the basement. I don't monitor the models you're building."
So we replicated that in the online environment, so if you establish who you say you are, we can become best friends through LEGO ID, and then we can say that our kids can play together, and that means they can play in each other's property where the models aren't moderated, and they can chat more openly than the default chat in the game allows. It creates a real time creative conversation with the players.
At the same time, we keep it safe, because if you think of YouTube as a user-generated content thing, you don't watch 99 percent of what's on it; you go for the 1 percent that's viral and maybe some videos your friends uploaded about their vacation or something. It's the same idea.
Most of the time you don't want to see the content that's out there, so let's put the emphasis on these social networks and get those people connected as well as we can, and still make it possible to share content we think is awesome with the rest of the world. That just takes a longer lead time because a moderator has to look at it before other people can see it.
So parents will have to do that for their kids, right?
RS: Yeah, but it's also good for adults, right? If we have a group of friends... But yeah, if you want to make use of the best friends feature. You can choose not to do it, and play the game as normal, but you'd have to wait through the moderations queues.