Novel Seeks to Marry Casual Games With MMOs in “Empire & State”

10/1/10

I have never played a massively multiplayer online (MMO) video game. Okay, that’s not entirely true. I played World of Warcraft once. In college. I was experimenting. But that was it, I never got hooked. I guess I failed to see the point of getting so invested in the virtual world, when I could barely keep up with all of my interests and responsibilities in the real world.

But what if you could use an MMO as a training ground for the real world? Would you be able to justify spending your free time in virtual reality if it provided you with the life skills needed to be a good business owner, financier, politician, CEO, or leader in your daily life?

That would change the nature of the game, right?. And that’s the idea at Novel (formerly Novel Interactive), a small gaming startup in Redmond, WA. The company’s new MMO, Empire & State, is being introduced online in alpha form today.

“I think games like ours that are going to take games out of the traditional orcs, and dwarves, and elves realm, are going to start opening up the game industry to people who didn’t define themselves as gamers before,” says chief executive Brayden Olson. “Maybe they’re in business, or are politicians, or Xconomists, or reporters.”

Unlike other games designed to mimic real life experiences, like The Sims, or Second Life, (which, it should be noted, are both single-player) Empire & State has a specific feeling to it. Creative director Mike Marr describes it as a “political and economic strategy MMO,” meaning rather than fighting and pillaging in a fictional fantasy world, characters develop within a society modeled after real life. Players, who start out as citizens of an empire, can own homes, develop businesses, and compete and collaborate with one another to build that empire. There are jobs for everyone as small business owners, politicians, presidents of empires, criminal overlords, military strategists, business tycoons—even bounty hunters.

“It’s not your traditional MMO like World of Warcraft that focuses entirely on role play elements of developing characters, beating monsters and gaining loot,” Marr says. “This game is more on the strategy side—politics, economics. There is some war, but that war is more on the territory side.”

'Wanted' poster from Empire & State.

'Wanted' poster from Empire & State.

This idea of an MMO for the average person across all demographics—not just the younger to older male audience—is something relatively new, at least to very casual gamers, like myself. But that’s the idea, according to the Novel team. Traditional old school MMOs like EverQuest, or World of Warcraft, although massively popular within their respective demographics, have never really caught on with the casual gamer.

But the morphing of casual gaming into a new arena—social “metagaming,” where game concepts are applied to real life experiences—has had ripple effects with MMOs. In fact, the definition of MMO is starting to change, to incorporate more asynchronous games like Zynga’s massively popular FarmVille, Mafia Wars, and other games you can often find people tapping into from Facebook or mobile devices. This new class of games has taken the social interactivity concept of an MMO, and repackaged it into a bite-size gameplay experience that casual gamers can dive into for a few minutes at a time, rather than a few hours (a time commitment more often associated with traditional MMOs). What Novel is hoping to do, is create a more traditional MMO in look and feel and gameplay experience that appeals to both casual and hardcore gamers on a level playing field.

“I used to be an avid MMO player in my 20s, but I don’t have the time to play like that now,” says Marr. “There are a bunch of other gamers who aged with me. We still want to play, but we can’t play for six hours a day. Empire & State’s goal is you can log in, play for one or two 20-minute sessions, and still play the game.”

That’s not to say you can’t play for six hours straight. What the new game will allow, according to Olson and Marr, is a world where characters can also progress in 20-minute increments, rather than just through “leveling-up” with gameplay hours. It’s different than other social, new wave MMO games, Olson says, because it “combines the needs of both players in a way that builds a better world for both players.”

By appealing to the casual gaming audience, Novel says Empire & State will open the doors for future, more traditional MMOs, to have mass appeal to a wider audience. That could include women who may have been mainly interested in casual games.

“One of the things that allowed women to adapt better to casual games was the accessibility online,” Olson says. That accessibility is what he attributes to the success of a number of casual gaming companies in the Seattle area, like PopCap, WildTangent, and Big Fish Games. Novel is incorporating that element into Empire & State by making it free and available for play online (rather than through a software download). Everything from the art style to the educational concept is designed to be relatable, applicable, and intriguing to a wider audience, Olson says.

“It’s a game that’s not all about killing, which is something that is unusual for MMO, and pushes a lot of female players away,” he says.

And while this game is first and foremost for entertainment, it shares characteristics with the second venture in Novel’s business plan—enterprise simulations for businesses. The idea is to create a Matrix-like virtual-reality system that companies could use to train employees, evaluate decision-making skills, or test management strategies. Novel won’t be delving into the specifics of its enterprise simulation plans until sometime in the next year, but Olson says the game is “leveraging the same tools and technologies that would actually be used by businesses in a way that would increase their efficiency.”

RC-130 War Drone from Empire & State.

RC-130 War Drone from Empire & State.

Olson and Marr say the feeling and experience people get from playing Empire & State feels sort of like living in the Wild West—people are building a civilization from the ground up—from their homestead, to the social structure, and government. If a character owns a business in one empire, and it’s taken over by another, that incentivizes that character to get involved in local politics within the game.

“We’re really dealing with real world issues here that haven’t been explored in games before,” Olson says. “It’s not the type of game where war means you go out with your buddy and fight a couple people in the street. War is regulated by a political and economic climate—it’s a different type of war concept for gameplay.”

Olson calls this environment ‘new frontier politics,’ and he says it has an opportunity to teach players a lot about real world relationships.

“That leaves a lot of room for interpretation of what’s moral and what isn’t moral,” he says. “On this planet, everything is up for grabs. Exploit what you can, and take advantage of what you can.”

That’s some pretty weighty stuff to consider about human nature. If Novel has found a way to truly bring this kind of experience to the world of social gaming, it could be a fascinating experiment in the character building of MMOs (both in the game and out of it) may just be the first signs of another new wave in gaming. What should we call it this time, meta-MMOs?

Thea Chard is a correspondent for Xconomy Seattle. You can e-mail her at theachard@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/theachard. Follow @

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