Business at the top of the virtual world

I’m in Reykjavik for a few days. I spent a chunk of today at the Eve Online FanFest, organized by Eve creator CCP Games.

Eve Online is a MMORG (or massively multiplayer online role-playing game), one of those horrible acronyms that makes you wish there was a Linneaus for engineers. With about 200,000 players, Eve isn’t nearly as big as something like World of Warcraft, which claims 9 million subscribers. But Eve is in fact the biggest online game when it comes to people being able to play each other — it has had almost 50,000 people playing at one time, in the same virtual world. A game like WoW is built like a series of multiverses — as it fills one server, it takes new players and assigns them to an identical world in another server.

It also has a business-like structure — people form corporations and engage in trading. In fact, I spent some time today with Eyjo Gudmundsson, who left his day job running the business and science program at an Icelandic university to come be Alan Evespan, or really a combination of Fed chair and treasury secretary for the world. Gudmundsson is testing out economic theories from the real world, mostly macroeconomic theories related to trade, but also things like the microeconomic theory of hoteling (in Eve’s case, market demand for similar resources that are priced differently). Gudmundsson is figuring out monetary policy for Eve, and will start helping it create a stock market.

Eve officials like to say that the game is very good training for running a company (see Gamers Hone Capitalist Skills Online). Perhaps it is. It will be interesting to watch how its own management deals with the challenges the game faces, starting with putting in place things like a central bank or a stock market.

A major problem comes from the size of battles in the game. In theory Eve could have 3,000 ships square off against an equal number. In practice, though, the contestants face what is called “the lag monster,” referring to the gaming platform’s inability to process a battle of that size in real-time. Imagine that you were watching a football game and the television went out just as the ball was about to be snapped on 4th and one, and by the time it came back on there was a commercial and eventually you would figure out what you missed. That’s sort of like lag in the gaming world when a battle starts, and you no longer control your ship or can even tell what’s going on around you.

Eve is working with IBM and Microsoft to develop a supercomputing platform that will help it get rid of lag in such cases. But CEO Hilmar Petursson told the audience today in his Q&A that it won’t be until some point in 2008 when that platform is ready.

Eve is also trying to improve its graphics, which it calls ambulation. Eve is going to introduce new character images and create the potential for a more Second Life-like social environ (Second Life is the only virtual world that can have more people in it at one time than Eve).

Another striking gambit from Eve is the idea of a Council of Stellar Management, which would mix player representatives and company management. The player reps would be voted on within the game, and this council would in effect guide how CCP designed the game. In June, CCP told the New York Times that elections would be this fall (see In a Virtual Universe, the Politics Turn Real
), but here today there remained only the promise of elections was made.

Finally, CCP is also trying to make the game more friendly to players who aren’t hardcore gamers (that is, men who become obsessed with this new frontier). One of Hilmar’s ideas on this was stuck at the bottom of a slide during his presentation. It said, simply enough, ‘hire more girls.’ Later, one of the players posed what I will call the Exotic Dancer question, which basically comes down to, at what point can trade expand to include commodities that aren’t minerals or spiced wine. “You raise an interesting point,” was the comment from one of the company’s lead software designers. We’ll see just where it leads.

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