Back in 1985, I read a fiction piece in Dragon Magazine called "Catacomb," about an early MMORPG where you could earn money in the game and take it out in real life. A young female assassin met and fell in love with a thief who seemed to have double-crossed her to make an in-game fortune, but who showed up in real life to find her, now an actual millionaire. Every since that day, I have been waiting for that sort of game to surface. And finally, one day, it happened.
Last year at the 2006 E3 E-focus event, MindArk (MA), a Swedish gaming company, was promoting their online game, Entropia Universe. I can't tell you how excited I was to finally see an online game with a real cash economy. I begged my editor to let me cover the game, and he agreed. They were passing out demo disks that allowed you to be dropped in a place called Club Neverdie, which was part of a space-station that had been purchased by a gamer named Jon "Neverdie" Jacobs for over $100,000 USD.
My editor let me know, however, that he had been asked to investigate this game by a disgruntled gamer. He gave me the man's email address and suggested that as part of my research, I should make sure to cover the downsides of the game. Most of what has been written about the game so far has been about the financial aspects of the game, or a brief review by those who obviously only spent a short amount of time in game. I resolved that I would give this game (for which I had been waiting so many years) a very thorough appraisal, not only as a game, but also as an entrepreneurial venture.
Entropia Universe (EU) is a game whose genre is a little hard to pin down. It's a futuristic sci-fi world with all that entails, but it also includes quite a bit of "roughing it" on the continents with the hunting of strange animals and mining of ore deposits as common pastimes. You can also gain skills in creating textiles and other crafting. On the more civilized side, there is the New Oxford University, where you can attend live classes or lectures by people from real life, and an art gallery where you can view copies of real life artwork to purchase them for your in-game apartment (or you can purchase them in real life and have them shipped to you). Then there is the space station, where Club Neverdie is located. Here you can shop for all sorts of in-game items, take your avatar dancing, or meet up with friends. There have been streamed concerts in-game, and John "Neverdie" actually broadcast his wedding in his club in-game from the real-time/life ceremony. But most of what is highly publicized has to do with the economics of land purchases in-game, or the fact that banking rights are now being sold for the planets. Suffice to say, little is said about how the game itself stacks up. Perhaps it's because this is more of an immersive experience, and a bizarre one at that. It's hard to encapsulate what is available in a few short review paragraphs. But let me give you the overview of how the gameplay starts.
First, you get dropped on planet with nothing but an orange jumpsuit and your cunning mind. You can earn money through collecting dung or sweat from other creatures, or you can deposit money into the game to be able to purchase weapons, armor, medical packs, and other objects that drastically increase your life expectancy in the game. However, dying is free, and you can (and do) die as much as you like with no monetary damage. I have found that there are people who have done very well in the game and have never deposited, but it is a lot faster to just purchase the bare essentials to begin with and go from there. But it's just like real life...if you don't have the money, or if you don't want to part with yours, you can work your way up the ranks strictly by "sweat equity." There are a number of people in game worth over several thousand USD who have never deposited, but they had to work through long hours of the sort of mind-numbing labor that we think as more suited to the drudgery of real life. There's a lot more to the game than this, but for now, this will give you something to picture as we move deeper into my own experience with Entropia.
My first step was to make contact with the player my editor had told me about. I fired up my email and got started. My contact, who will remain nameless, had been playing in Entropia for seven months and had been depositing regularly, roughly around $200 a month. He had been enjoying the experience, even though the financial outlay was fairly steep, much more so than other online games which just charge you a minimal monthly fee. However, the deposits allowed him to do things in game that he wouldn't have been able to do otherwise (or at least it would have taken him much longer to actually earn that money in game). His largest complaint against MindArk was that he had been ripped off in the game, and when he put a complaint in to them, they told him they couldn't do anything about it. Incensed, he gave away some of his avatar's possessions to a few friends and pulled out of the game, netting about $150 in USD for all his game play. His point was that he had been scammed, had been selling a weapon he had just picked up and the person buying it had bilked him out of promised money. He put in a petition to MA, but since he couldn't remember what type of weapon it had been exactly (remember he had just picked it up and wanted to convert it into quick cash), MA refused to return the weapon, prosecute the offender, or credit him on the grounds that they couldn't track the exchange. With that frustration, he cashed himself out of the game for good.
Even with all of his negative feelings toward MA and their treatment of him, he still admitted that EU as a game was an amazing experience and that there hadn't really been anything quite like it. Since he knew that I probably needed more information and someone to talk to who was still in-game, he was nice enough to set me up with my next source.
Larry "Compusmurf" Wright is a general and co-founder of the SkillinVillains, one of the many societies that have sprung up to help gamers survive and thrive. Like any online gaming world, players tend to be attracted to others who have similar goals/views and who, at the very basic level, they find fun to game with. I emailed Compusmurf and set up a real-time chat so that I could ask him some questions about EU and get his feedback on the response that I had gotten in a written interview with Marco Behrman, CIO of MindArk (click here for full interview).
After answering most of my initial questions, Comp suggested that we meet in-game so he could act as my tourguide. I was thrilled, and accepted his offer. I had been waiting to get enough of my initial research done before I plunged into the game, but I felt that by now I had enough to go on to be able to focus my gameplaying experience. It took me about two hours to download the software (roughly 1 GB of info) on my laptop and to create my character. My avatar was an Amazonian female with a spiked mohawk name Janet "Zed" Smith. When you have created your character, you're given the choice of two places to get dropped--Club NeverDie (CND) or at an outpost on the continent of Eudoria (the other continent is Amathera). Comp had already told me that you had to be able to pay for a flight back down to the continent from the asteroid that the club was located on, so we decided to save CND for later in our explorations.
And so it was that on a night in early July, I phased into being at Port Atlantis and finally met my mentor-to-be. Picture a Yoda type, but with electric blue armor, a cowboy hat, and an arsenal of weaponry (including a whip!). That will get you started on the man that is Compusmurf. What I discovered from our interactions was his infinite patience, his skill on the battlefield, and his genuine desire to see newbs in the game succeed and have a positive gaming experience.
The first thing he did was give me some clothes and armor so that I would have protection as well as not having to stand out as an orange target. Apparently the gifting of armor to newbs is one of the things that his entire society is committed to, and they are often to be found around the drop points to "meet and greet" so they can act as educators to the uninitiated. They are one of the societies who understand that if new players are able to stay alive and have a good time in-game, then their presence increases the robustness of the world as a whole. And with online worlds, the learning curve sometimes is daunting enough to make newbs quit before they are even able to see a quarter of the wonderful stuff this game has to offer.
After I got dressed in my new clothes, he then equipped me with an elctro-sword and a gun, as well as a medical pack. He said that really a medipack, light armor, and at least a knife or small gun were desirable to be able to get to get a person started in this brave new world. We did a short weapons and movement tutorial in a designated fighting ring, one of the few places on the planet where causing damage to another player is allowed. Unlike other games, no one can kill or loot your character when he/she is killed except in specific PVP (player versus player) zones, which the game marks out very clearly. There is no way to just "stumble into" these sorts of things. After a few rounds on the receiving end of Comp's whip, electro-sword, and blaster, I was ready for my first hunting expedition.
I died a lot that night. But that's fairly normal. In the nights that followed, we started working on getting me TPs, or teleporter locations which would allow me to move quickly from one location to another. When a person has all of the teleporter points on the two continents, it then becomes much easier to focus on other parts of the game besides exploration. Don't get me wrong, even if you have the teleporter points, there are still large swathes of land to be traversed. If you have the wherewithal, you can later buy a chip that gets implanted in your head which allows you to teleport psychically. The only thing you have to worry about is that you never know when your teleport will put you smack dab in the middle of a herd of ravening Snables (a two headed beast which shoots acidic snot at you). This is just one of the many modifications you can have installed which increases what you can do in the game.
One night when I jacked in, Comp had a surprise for me. We met over at Camp Echinda, a sloping village that would look supremely pastoral if it weren't for the aircraft streaming overhead. Here I met Jessie Star, a crackerjack pilot for the Villains and Comp's business partner in-game. One of the things I love about this game is the ability to buy things to decorate your apartments and to change up your fashion statement. When I met Jessie, she was wearing a great lime-green duster, a tight black dress, and stilettos. Her apartment was stylishly decorated, with several great painting adorning the walls. We all sat down and talked for a while, then went to the hanger to board her ship. I slipped out of my armour and into something more comfortable and put away my guns. And although I didn't have any dancing shoes at this point, I was ready to boogie. I was finally going to Club Neverdie!
To be complete, the space station has lots of other things to recommend it than just the club. There are plenty of shops that people rent out from John "Neverdie" to sell their wares, and while we were there, Jessie was able to pick up a swell pair of lime-green boots to go with her duster. This place not only has shopping where you can pick up any variety of things, it also has stocked hunting and mining preserves, so if shopping isn't your thing, you can try your luck at finding riches in those arenas. After the grand tour of the station, we headed into the club. It's a huge multi-room complex with all the disco lights you could possibly want. This is one of the few places I turn the sound on in the game. Generally there is an ambient music or a strange "language" that you hear when people type/talk. There are also some advertisements on floating video-screens in some of the planetside towns which advertise both in-game products and events, but also have ads for real life products. This is a new arena for marketing products, and many advertisers have jumped on the bandwagon. It's a little disconcerting seeing an add for Axe Body Spray in-game, but it just adds to the surreal overall experience.
In the club, however, you want to put your sound on to enjoy the music. This is a place where Neverdie has streaming live concerts occasionally, and special events that are a must see. Entropia even held an after-party for the Nobel Laureates at the club in an ongoing attempt to add new and interesting content to enrich their online world. Laureates were taken to the Stokholm School of Economics for the Nobel Night Cap, where screens projected Club Neverdie into the real world and audio/video from the real world was streamed into the club in real time.
However, for us this trip was just about enjoying ourselves. Your avatar can dance in a number of styles, and you'll have to trust me when I say that this is actually a kick. Even if you don't dance in the real world, there is something satisfying and amusing seeing your avatars getting down with their bad selves. Finally, Jessie and Comp needed to log off, as they were playing on the East coast and I was on the West. So they left me to explore the space station a bit more. The only downside was that when I was ready to leave, I had to go to one of the teleporter points and snag another pilot to take me back to the planet. The fairs for travel are pretty reasonable, though sometimes if you are playing in off-peak hours, you have to wait a bit for a pilot to come along. Luckily that night, I only had to wait a few minutes for transport, and then I was back planetside.
There were many nights of adventure to be had, and to begin to describe the magic of it all would take a while. Over time, I got to meet more of the Villains. Besides Jessie and Comp, I was always happy to see Sir Odd Bunny and Trex "Twitchie" Prada, who were regulars in our rogue's gallery. I was always amazed at how wonderfully supportive these players were, and how they were willing to go on crazy adventures to help a new girl learn the lay of the land. They kept me alive long enough to lure me into the wonderful world that is Entropia.
Many of the reviewers who have stepped down into the game have mistakenly pointed out what they believe to be glitches in the game which are actually logically explained in the game play. One reviewer mentioned the fact that the picture shook in places, which is what happens when someone is detonating charges near you for mining purposes. In some of the areas of the world, there is quite a bit of lag due to a large amount of data about the physical surroundings or because there are a large amount of people in-game. The only re-occurring complaints I heard from regular players was that there were dry periods concerning loot, and that Mindark needed to continue to increase its server resources. There are places in the game that the landscape has a little fogging and some glitching. Entropia could use a little more love on that side of things. However, they add expansions and updates to the world about every two months, so there are continually new things to do and explore to keep boredom at bay.
The flora of this world is bizarre and strange, and I imagined what it would be like from a designer's frame of reference being able to make a world. You could include almost anything in Entropia because of the strange futuristic mix of alien and earth technology and biology. Many nights, as I was running through vast landscapes trying to add the next TP point to my map, I would pause in wonderment at the strangeness of things around me. Sometimes my surroundings would be vintage Escape from New York, other times it would be Dr. Suess or something resembling a Little House on the Prairie farmstead.
On the "business" side of things, one of the issues currently is that many financial institutions see Entropia as online gambling, and restrict the use of their cards to make deposits as such. To combat this, MA has started issuing their own gold card. Also, as MindArk is in complete control of the economy, they are like deities who are able to change the games parameters or "boot you out of Valhalla" at a whim. Say for instance, you buy a rare item in game. Suddenly, there is a "discovery" or drop of a number of items just like it. Your item has just been devalued. However, the assumption is that the golden rule of reciprocity is in place here. If MA wants players to stay ingame, they have to be neutral or benevolent gods. Compusmurf also schooled me about the issue of scamming. He said that because you're dealing with money ingame, you shouldn't do anything you wouldn't do in real life (ie; loan people money, go for deals that are "too good to be true," etc.). And finally, there is the point that if MindArk were to go bankrupt, there is no protection for an invested player.
I realized that this is why MA desires press for its financial milestones and its money making possibilities. Comp suggested that although MA lists its total number of players as hovering around the half-million mark, that perhaps only 20% were active on a regular basis. This number may increase, as MA proves that it has legs as an investment, and more people are able to get to know EU as the great game that it is. Comp said that the principles governing EU are the same as in gambling or in any other real-life investment-don't bet/invest more than you can afford to lose, and that "getting rich" is just as hard in game as it is in real life. However, he is proof that one can make money, if one devotes enough time and energy to do so, plays it smart, has a good social network, and is favored with that elusive element, luck.
One night, Jessie put out a notice that she had found a beacon. This is something that Mindark puts in the game as a bonus run to allow a team the chance to pick up loot and test their skills against some of the toughest creatures and bots the game has to offer. Basically, this is a timed run where all creatures have loot and if you can get to the beacon, you are rewarded monetarily.
The first night we went after the beacon, we all assembled at Jessie's hangar. This time she was sporting heavy-duty armor and an arsenal that would have made a terminator proud. We crowded on her ship and she alerted the system that we were ready to go for the beacon run. The game then took over control of the ship, and put us down in a large area that was set up specifically for our run. We deplaned, then loaded our weapons and set off toward the beacon point, fanning out into an arrow shape pattern like migrating geese. About half way through the firefight the game glitched and we were booted out of the run. Jessie put in a complaint and in under two days, Mindark had replaced our beacon and we were set for a "do over." Comp tells me that this is a fairly standard period of time for the resolution of most complaints. When we went for the beacon a second time, my main job was to heal people, as I didn't really have the heavy firearms to make a dent in the enemies we were coming up against. I ended up becoming a casualty before the run was over, but I heard later that it was a fairly lucrative run.
For Jessie, this game is started out as more of a financial/entrepreneurial exercise, but she also enjoys the camaraderie and gameplay at this point. Some of the others that I met in the Villains like the fact that the score is kept by real money and envision getting a "break" which allows them the chance for fortune. Others want the fame of getting in the Hall of Fame, which regularly updates on who has had amazing loots. Many of the regular gamers, however, are here for the gameplay and to meet like-minded friends. Don't get me wrong, if they should happen to loot a fortune they wouldn't turn it down. But they would probably play the game if there were no other financial incentives. They just love the game.
After the beacon run, Comp took me to the New Oxford University. There is a huge statue of Bullwinkle in the main square which towers over anyone who enters the area. We went to the art gallery in the base of the statue to see their new exhibit. It was interesting because the featured artist the first night I was there is a painter who's an acquaintance of a friend of mine in real life. It's a small world after all, I guess.
That night, after Comp had signed off and went to bed, I stayed behind to look at the sights. I stood out on the ivory parapets of New Oxford, watching as the pennons on the towers as they snapped in the wind, and looking out at the ocean beyond. Twitchie joined me and we stood there talking deep into the night. I had been wondering how to end my article, as the deeper that I got into the game, the more I found that amazed and excited me. Where was the breaking off point in which I could safely say I had gotten to know this world and everything it had to offer?
Twitchie, who despite his name is a fairly zen guy, laughed at my frustration. That was when he put my gameplaying into perspective for me. He said that since it was an ever-expanding world which was not governed by in-game goals, there wasn't necessarily a clear demarcation point. There were always new horizons to explore, new fun to be had. Just like life, there wasn't a specific stopping point. You were done when the world no longer interested you. Twitchie said that in most games, getting to the end was the point. But here, since it was an evolving system, "getting there" wasn't half the fun, it was all the fun. The journey, and the people you traveled with, was what made it all worthwhile. And as I thought back to all the great memories I had of traveling with Compusmurf and the rest of the Villains, I knew that he was right.
I was done with my article, but I was only beginning the game that is Entropia...