Novel, Backed by Vancouver VCs, Uses Gaming Tech to Make Business Simulations for Companies

6/10/10Follow @gthuang

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he might well be Seattle’s next Bill Gates or Howard Schultz (no pressure though).

Olson grew up in the late ‘90s being exposed to the first wave of commercial 3-D virtual worlds, in the form of MMO role-playing games like Asheron’s Call and EverQuest. He was hooked immediately. “I knew I wanted to do this and only this. It became an obsession to me,” Olson says.

Like most college students, though, he didn’t really understand what entrepreneurship was about at first. He was fortunate to connect with a very influential mentor—Bill George, the Harvard Business School professor, author, and former CEO of Medtronic, who is also a board member of ExxonMobil and Goldman Sachs. Last year, George worked with Olson to build an online leadership community, and helped him get seed funding for his startup.

Novel was incubated at Redmond-based Gas Powered Games, under the tutelage of video-game guru Chris Taylor, Gas Powered’s founder and CEO. (Gas Powered is known for its immersive action games like Dungeon Siege, Demigod, and Supreme Commander.) Olson and a small team of artists and engineers have spent more than a year working on their first MMO game, which will be a precursor to their business simulations.

The new game is called Empire & State, and it will be in alpha release by the fourth quarter of this year, Olson says. What makes it interesting is that its premise is business and politics-oriented, instead of action, shoot-em-up, or fantasy. It has some similarities to role-playing video games like Civilization or The Sims, except that those games are single-player only. Empire & State takes place in a fictional world where settlers are “planting the seeds of civilization,” says Mike Marr, Novel’s creative director. It conjures up the feeling of New York City when it was small, or the Wild West, or the California gold rush. As in The Sims, the graphics are rendered in an “isometric” view, meaning the world is stylized and “looks like it’s on a grid,” Marr says.

Players start out as citizens of an empire, and can collaborate and compete with other players to become leaders of young companies or presidents of countries. Depending on their interests, they can also become criminal overlords, military strategists, bounty hunters, or business tycoons. The game itself will be free, but Novel will charge money for transactions within the game, like when players want to purchase clothing, weapons, or housing. “Our innovation is that players have never been given the ability to explore real business practices and politics before,” Olson says. “We’ve never had the ability to do anything but kill stuff before [in MMOs].”

Where this all translates into the company’s future business simulations is the … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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  • JBJ

    “We’ve never had the ability to do anything but kill stuff before [in MMOs].”

    Clearly somebody has never heard of Eve Online, which has enough going on that they hired an economist (back in 2007!)

    http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSN0925619220070816

  • http://www.justatish.com Jack

    There have been a couple of MMO based business communication companies. Its an amazing new avenue for communication and based on the amount of people sitting at home in their pajamas interacting socially for hours on end, seems like the logical next step for productivity in corporations. Novel’s templated scenario system makes alot of sense, I’ll be looking forward to seeing the finished product.

    On a side note, I’ve also evaluated proton media, second life enterprise etc… the most applicable to business I have seen so far is http://www.Venuegen.com . They have been around for over 2 years, and their product is ready for use right now as a plugin in the web browser. They also seem to have nailed the avatar emotion, user experience, and all the user tools for communicating.

    Good to see more companies in this space, with remote workers, distance learning, and groups of hobbyists all over the world bringing their ideas to market virtual business is clearly the not too distant future.

  • Eris

    I have to agree with JBJ…the author of this article seems to have not done his research. I don’t know about other virtual worlds, but Second Life not only has in-world businesses, but also its own economy with its own currency (Linden dollars). Residents (as players are called) can either purchase Lindens for real-world money or they can earn Lindens in-world.

    In fact, one woman became a millionaire (in real US$) just selling virtual real estate in SL! http://www.businessweek.com/the_thread/techbeat/archives/2006/11/second_lifes_first_millionaire.html

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  • Gregory D. MELLOTT

    ‘ERROR Analysis’ may be its practical value. Virtual playing is much too slow a way to test principles for the most part; if one is even doing that when one lets humans interact relatively randomly, likely triggered by the graphics effects as much as anything else.

    One might consider our trade balance problem. There is little, if any, coherent response to it. Japan’s primary way to deal with foreign trade is to keep it to a minimum by the individual’s behavior. Their economy has struggled for a long time. The only way I can see to deal with such a problem and not generate isolationist behaviors is to have a ‘charitable’ tariff on products made in substandard conditions compared to what our laws allow. Even returning the funds generated to the communities impacted in a way that is acceptable by all parties, and tries to deal with the low wages, pollution, etc, while avoids having it fall into corrupting influences, like drugs and its trafficking, can let us compete and thus even project our standards abroad. That’s something worth analyzing to me. How much virtual reality debugging might be needed? I don’t know.