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Q&A: Netamin's Mackay On The Rise Of The MMOSG

Given the popularity of online games, why aren't more MMO-focused sports games being made? Gamasutra talks to Netamin's Sean Mackay about Ultimate Baseball Online, the firm's MMOSG that puts 18 human players on the same field in real-time, and uses
Diamond Bar, California based Netamin Communication Corp. was incorporated in 1999, initially with the goal of bringing Korean MMOs to the US. The overcrowding of the market forced the company to rethink its decision, though, and in 2001 Netamin began development of Ultimate Baseball Online, a massively multiplayer online sports game produced with the assistance of former Major League Baseball player Darrell Evans. The game allows players to create their own character and then take part in leagues and tournaments, with pay-to-play competitions offering prizes like iPods, PSPs and $4,500 for the winning team. Response to Ultimate Baseball Online has been relatively positive, with most reviews noting the general ease of play, though a degree of criticism has been levelled at its simple presentation. The 2007 iteration of the game started at the end of April, and features the addition of in-game advertising from Double Fusion. We spoke to Sean Mackay, Event Marketing Manager for Ultimate Baseball Online about the game, the massively multiplayer online sports game marketplace, and the legal implications of offering cash prizes in a pay-to-play competition. When did the idea for Ultimate Baseball Online come about? Ultimate Baseball Online was chosen as the flagship game because, originally, baseball was thought to be the slowest of American sports. In 2001 design elements and groundwork were laid to begin UBO's first test run. Little did the developers know that the game is only as slow as its single most critical moment. For baseball, that is the moment when the batter tries to make contact with a 100mph fastball; not slow at all. What started out as an attempt to make the easiest of sports games very quickly became the hardest. Was there a certain wariness about developing the game, given the unproven nature of the market and the genre? Any time you create the first of its kind in any category, there is a sense of anxiety, but that ‘wariness’ has always been overshadowed by the ground-breaking possibilities relevant to online sports gaming. Was the decision to attempt a multiplayer online sports game due to feelings of overcrowding in other sections of the MMO genre? Most definitely. There are so many options out there for fantasy, future, or combat-style MMOs. When Andy Wang, CEO, decided to change his focus he wanted to make certain to start something truly unique for the gaming community. This was a category not yet tapped and he saw the opportunity. How would you describe the MMOSG market at this time, and how has this changed since you started development? We've noticed that the transition to online gaming is becoming more and more important to the American sports video game player. Players are no longer satisfied with beating the computer or a friend in their living room. The thrill of scoring a touchdown or hitting a game-winning homerun against someone completely foreign to you is 10 times more exciting than the previous models. Microsoft and Sony are making big pushes in the console world to connect their users, but the difference with MMOs is that you don't always have to buy a box at the store to get the game. The biggest change in the MMO world is a transfer from the highly used subscription model to a free-to-play model supported by in-game advertising and micro-payments for character changes/enhancements. With sports, in-game advertising isn't just a natural fit, it can actually enhance the user experience. Games with fantasy worlds and monsters cannot enrich their game-play experience by introducing a Dell Computer advertisement to a 14th century quest-style game. But when you hit a homerun in a baseball game and the ball flies over the Dell Scoreboard sign in centerfield you get the sensation of being in the real big leagues. Who is your primary audience? Sports fans with good computer connection speeds. We like to focus on MMO players because they are familiar with the game controls and mechanics and on hard-core baseball fans. Fantasy baseball players can get a kick out of Ultimate Baseball Online because they can combine their love for statistical tracking with their own gaming performance. Players can manage teams, compete in challenges, join tournaments, or leagues... so we want the competitive game players. How seriously do you take the challenge of Freestyle Street Basketball in the marketplace? Does the relatively small size of the market mean that gaining a bigger user base than the other game is more important? Freestyle has done some great things with their video game. It is important that sports MMOs generate market share in the gaming industry and they are making a move to help spearhead that initiative. Our games differ greatly however and I think that our communities can coincide quite easily. Building market awareness and increasing its depth is the most important key to sports MMO success. We are all helping each other in this regard. How difficult was it to develop the game? What technical issues did you run into, and how have you overcome them? UBO's greatest hurdle goes back to the batter/pitcher interface. Putting 18 players on a field and having them all see the exact same thing at the exact same time is the single most difficult technological hurdle to overcome. Add to that the size and inconsistent internet connectivity in the United States and you have some pretty big hills to climb. Netamin holds patents that allow for the connectivity of a specific group - the players on the field - to send and retrieve data at the same rates in order to achieve the task. Did you have concerns about making the game playable to more casual gamers? Definitely. At first, UBO was going to become a subscription-only video game for the sports-minded baseball fans in the world. After market research and analysis, it was realized that not every sports video game player has the time nor wants to compete in a dedicated league system or tournament structure. Some players don't want or need the team experience. A lot has been done in the past year to provide the casual baseball video game player a place to play. What legal issues surround the fact that users can play for money? How close to gambling is this? As any of the players in the UBO community would tell you, this game is a completely skill-based game. Character enhancements and progression can make the avatar run faster or throw harder, but they cannot account for gaming and baseball skill in UBO. We have made certain that the game does not fall into the realm of gambling, giving everyone who plays in UBO an opportunity to win. Does this restrict players from other countries at all? Currently, UBO is a world-wide product. We carry a very diverse group of players, including players from Canada, UK, Brazil, Australia, Taiwan, and Estonia of all places. The diversity enriches the community and many of our top teams hold at least one ‘foreign’ player. Where do you see the MMOSG genre going in the next few years? This is a genre ready to break open. Every year, the broadband and cable connections for internet connectivity increase. Computer operating speeds and video cards get better. Even the consoles are moving closer and closer to providing full processing units. The graphics, connections, and features of the MMOSG’s will get better and better – and Netamin plans to be at the forefront of that movement.

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