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SxSW: Corey Bridges, Master of the Multiverse

Continuing our coverage of South by Southwest, Gamasutra sat down with Multiverse executive producer Corey Bridges, who filled us in on its open and indie-enabled ‘platform for virtual worlds’ that could one day see a player bringing a stormtrooper into a
Continuing our coverage of the ongoing South by Southwest festival and conference in Austin, TX, Gamasutra sat down with Multiverse executive producer Corey Bridges, to provide a detailed description of how they’re building ‘a platform for virtual worlds.’ Bridges himself is a jocular, well-spoken man with an impressive resume. Starting at the Stanford Research Institute as a teenager in an insect lab (“I can tell you all about mosquitoes,”), Bridges then moved on to Borland, joined pre-IPO Netscape, was employee number eight at Netflix, joined ZoneLabs and launched Zone Alarm. But what Bridges spent an hour chatting about was letting indie teams develop virtual worlds... How did you find Multiverse? Corey Bridges: There are four co-founders... the four of us worked at Netscape, and started having lunch together about three or four years ago, once a week. [We said] ‘We’re a bright group of guys, we like each other, let’s figure out some way to work together again.’ We spent a couple of months kicking around different ideas, and settled on the notion of creating a platform to make virtual worlds. From that point, it was about eight months of writing specs, and really planning the tech and business before we even started doing much. We just planned, and planned, and planned. Then in July ‘04, we incorporated, linked arms, and jumped off the cliff together. But how did you decide on virtual worlds? How was that the thing? You could have done anything. CB: We’re big gamers. We really dig games. We’ve played all the MMOs. At the time, we’d literally played all the MMOs – now there are a few that have slipped past us. We really liked the idea of making an MMO. That was one of the ideas we thought we’d do. In fact, a couple years previous [co-founders] Rafael [Cedeno], and Robin [McCollum], and I had worked on building an MMO... but had to set it aside because it’s too hard as an indie team. So three of four years ago when we met again, we started thinking ‘maybe we could do an MMO.’ But then we thought ‘that’s just too hard for an indie team to do with any kind of efficiency. What there really needs to be is some kind of technology platform to make that quicker and easier.’ Then we sort of stopped and said, ‘wait, that’s what we do. We build technology platforms. Okay, why don’t we build that?’ So it grew out of love, and the notion that this type of game was really intriguing. From there, as we spent more time thinking about it, we’ve really embraced the notion that virtual worlds are a new medium. And MMOs, as a game genre, are just one expression of this new medium. And it can be used for entertainment, for education, for porn, for training, simulations... There’s so much you can do with this, just like books, TV, the internet at large. To riff on this a little bit, the thing about virtual worlds as a medium, it could only have come about now in the evolution of mankind. It takes the intersection of two vectors: technology and culture. Technology, at this point in humankind, we’ve got really great graphics cards. And near-ubiquitous high-bandwidth connections. So that’s the tech side. On the culture side, you’ve got people who are able, and willing, and even eager to interact with other people via 3D synthetic space, via avatars. There are dozens of companies that have tried to do virtual worlds, or virtual reality platforms over the years, and they’ve all fallen by the wayside – except for the most recent ones – because it was just too early. You didn’t have the intersection of these two vectors. So a few years ago, we saw now was the time, and by making our platform we want to enable innovation in this medium of virtual worlds. So we changed the economics...making it feasible for someone to get in and experiment and try new things in the medium. And in that way, we get innovation. How long did it take you to build the platform? CB: So version 1.0, we’re a few months away from releasing it. And we started in July of ’04, so call it about three years. And right when we finish version 1.0, we start on version 1.5, 2.0. It’s going to be an ongoing, evolving, living platform. What’s developer reaction been? CB: It’s been nuts. Right now, we’ve got over nine thousand teams [that] have registered to use the Multiverse technology. And that’s not nine thousand individuals, that’s separate teams. Several hundred of which actually have professional game development experience. Which is great. We’re trying to enable the independents to be able to get in and innovate in this space, whether it be for games, or other non-game virtual worlds. But the fact that this has struck such a cord within the game industry itself, speaks to the fact that...you go into game making, and for many people it’s this irrational passion, like wanting to be a musician. It’s like ‘I’m called to do this, this is what I’m on this Earth for, I’m going to follow my bliss, boom – off I go!’ The odds are just incredibly against you that you’re going to be top of the pinnacle. In the current way this industry works, to be the lead designer on something... So you’ve got all these people that are trying to follow their bliss, but they find themselves working at some giant monolithic company, as like a cog in the latest iteration of some sports franchise that they don’t even enjoy. They’re making somebody else’s dream possible. So in the game industry, we’ve struck a real chord with a lot of people who say, ‘yes, I don’t want to work for the man anymore, I want to do my thing.’ So indies are important to you? CB: Absolutely. The independent developer of virtual worlds, whether it’s someone that’s never made virtual worlds before or made a game, or somebody working at a big company that maybe has made a game, but wants to do it under their own terms, with their own intellectual property, without the resections a publisher would place on them... that’s a huge market. Right now, without Multiverse, it takes ten, twenty million—or in the case of World of Warcraft, eighty million dollars to make an MMO. So the indies are barred entry to that space. One of the things we learned at Netscape was that if you take a technology platform, and you base it on open standards, and you make it easy to use, and you make it a true platform where you can bring different skill sets to it, and you make it – as I say – economically feasible for people to experiment, then that’s when you get the next Amazon, the next eBay, the next Yahoo, the next Google. Ten, twelve years ago: no one knew who they where. They were the indies. And you look back to ’93, ’94, and you had big companies like AOL, CompuServe, and Genie saying ‘you’ve got to have tens of millions of dollars to compete with us.’ And then Netscape came along, based on this open standard of HTTP, with this free client that let you access any world that was built on that tech. See, no one remembers that the internet used to be segmented by provider. CB: Yeah, yeah.. It was walled gardens at that point. You had CompuServe, you couldn’t see what people were saying on the AOL discussion boards. Couldn’t send email to Genie. Prodigy was over here, MCA mail was over here. And I remember the first time I sent an email from one service to another. It was like, ‘oh, yes. Now, now we’re getting somewhere here.’ Once you had everybody building on this set of open standards, and you had this universal client of the Netscape browser, letting consumers send URLs to their buddies, and just in a nice, low-friction way be able to check out new content, then you have this huge explosion of people innovating, saying, ‘Oh, I’m going to create an online auction site, oh, I’m going to sell books over the internet, oh, I’m going to have a search engine.’ Those are all wild new business models that we’re trying to enable the virtual world versions of. Not literally the virtual world versions of those, but whatever it is that virtual worlds as a medium can accommodate, we want to let the next Jeff Bezos, the next Sergi and Larry, come in and do something wild and crazy. So what is an indie? Everyone talks about them, but nobody knows what one is. CB: I say an indie is somebody that wants to do whatever it is that they want to do, but they want to do it on their terms. So an indie could be a garage-band kind of guy, or a small group of guys slaving away in their garage, trying to break into some industry, whether it’s games, or the virtual world industry, or who knows what. Or it could be someone that’s developed a big game or virtual world before, but they’re going to use that same skill-set to do it on their own terms, as opposed to giving out their IP, selling their IP to a publisher, because they have no choice, and they need the publisher for distribution and seed funding, and all those things. So an indie, whether experienced or not, neophyte or veteran, and indie is someone who wants to do it on their own terms. For some definition of ‘it.’ What was your reaction to Sony’s announcement of Home? CB: From a business point of view, I think it’s fantastic. It’s yet another step in mainstreaming virtual spaces. I don’t know what the consumer experience is actually going to be, I won’t know until I get my hands on it and spend a little while, but from just a business point of view, I’m happy as a clam. We’re turning down people wanting to invest in us, and have been for a while, because this space is just heating up so much. So you don’t see it as competition? Sony’s not gunning for you? CB: No. I mean, we’re in the business of enabling indies to make virtual spaces, and that’s not quite what Sony is doing. They’re trying to leverage the power that you get, this sort of intimacy and much greater sense of connection you get from a shared 3D virtual space. But they don’t have the same goal of enabling people to really innovate in that medium. You’re letting people create for the PC, but what about consoles? Is that too much of a walled garden for you to work with? CB: It is for now, but that’s on our roadmap. First come PCs, because that’s got the largest market share, in terms of the MMO space, which we saw as the killer app to spread adoption of a virtual world platform. We started with PCs, then we’ll got to Mac and Linux. Then come mobile devices. Then come the consoles. Right now, we haven’t finished version 1.0 of the platform yet. Hopefully, coming from a place like Netscape where we had dozens of different flavors of the client running on this Mac, that Mac, this Windows, that Windows, this, that, the other thing...hopefully we’ve got good credibility when we say we do indeed plan to do the whole cross platform thing. Is this your first time to South by Southwest? I notice you’re wearing cowboy boots... CB: That’s right. ‘When in Rome,’ you know. But yeah, this is my first South by Southwest. I’ve been very intrigued. How does Multiverse work, business-wise? CB: So we’ve got this whole technology platform. It’s client, it’s tools, and it’s geared especially toward indies, and the way we do that business wise is have the technology available on our site for free. It’s completely free for non-commercial use. You can download the tech, install your servers wherever you want, we don’t have to host them for you, build your world, have as many people come into as you want, and we don’t make a dime until you start charging consumers. Then we do revenue share, we keep ten percent, letting you keep the other ninety, as well as all the intellectual property, and all of that. Although some of the larger companies have said, ‘ah, we don’t want to do revenue share.’ In that case, we do a very large, upfront payment. How does that technology work? CB: We have the notion of a universal client – metaphorically similar to a web browser. One web browser gets you to every web server. The Multiverse client lets you, as a consumer, play any MMOG, access any virtual world that’s been built with our technology. You’re always one click away from every other virtual world. Sometimes I talk about how we’re ultimately building a network of virtual worlds, and it’s enabled by this one client that lets you access all this content. So what are the player implications of a network? Would you want to walk from World of Warcraft to Star Wars Galaxies to EVE Online? CB: So the ramifications are mildly mind-blowing— Mildly. CB: We have a lot of customers who are building stand-alone worlds, just like a website. Even though you use the same browser you go to every other website with, you can build a website that doesn’t reference or hyperlink anybody. You can build a world like that on Multiverse, that’s just a self-contained thing like the MMOs of today. Or, you and I could each build worlds that are different genres -- maybe you’re doing fantasy, maybe I’m doing Sci-Fi -- but the consumers can take some amount of their identity from one world to the next. Maybe the avatar, maybe their name, maybe all their weapons. Maybe I can bring my stormtrooper into your fantasy world, or you can be bring a dragon into my Death Star, or something. That’s going to be... there’s issues of game balance, and a whole bunch of mind benders. But our technology – absolutely – lets the game developers make that choice. If they want to have some big crazy mash-up world, they can do that. If they just want to share an economic system, they can do that. If they just want to share the social networking aspect, they can do that. It’s completely up to the developers how much they want to share. Have you ever heard of Dr. Richard Bartle? CB: Sure, of course. At the 2005 Austin Game Conference, he gave a keynote. And he talked about the future being virtual worlds created by people, and a browser where people could go from virtual space to virtual space. CB: I spoke to him at that actual AGC, and he was blown away because he was like, ‘I was just talking about this.’ I’d hate to put words in his mouth, but he’s... what has he specifically said? He really loves the idea that we’re free for non-commercial use. If you build a world and never charge consumers, then you never pay us anything. As an academic, he loves that notion. He loves the fact that indies are going to be able to get in. And he’s been very supportive of what we do. I was hoping that he would, because we have built a lot of the business model and functionality and a lot of our thinking and what we do came from his book, Designing Virtual Worlds. That lays out where virtual worlds have been, where they were when he wrote the book, and where he thought they could be going. We thought, ‘okay, let’s make sure our platform can accommodate these wildly disparate that this medium can go in.’ And it was largely thanks to his book that gave us whatever foresight, we possessed or posses now, that let us build it as a useful platform. So, on the business side, when is this sucker going to start turning a profit? CB: Fine question! [laughs] We’re going to have games that are ready for consumers to play this year. I’m not sure if they’re going to be beta games or released games for pay. That is literally up to our customers, the game developers. When they feel they’ve got a game that’s ready for people to pay for, and not before, that’s when they launch their game. What would be best for Multiverse is to have some number, say a half-dozen good consumer games, that consumers would actually pay for. And they don’t have to be out-of-the-box hits like a hundred-thousand users, a hundred-thousand subscribers per. Maybe they can be twenty-thousand on this one, fifteen-thousand on that one, five-thousand on that one. As long as they’re able to attract whatever is their right size, whether it’s a niche or mainstream game, that’s when we’ll start – from a Multiverse point of view – marketing to consumers. Because right now, we don’t spend much time talking to consumer game magazines, because our developer’s games aren’t released yet, and we don’t need consumers to know much about us, because there’s nothing they can do. The exception to that, of course, is when we announced the Firefly MMO would be built on Multiverse platform. And that got us crazy-huge consumer attention and interest— And skepticism. CB: ...and skepticism. Oh, rightly so. Don’t believe anybody until you see what they build, for gosh sakes. What’s it like being on the inside, and watching these worlds come to life? CB: I tell you, I’m the happiest boy in the world. This is a great damn job. It’s fantastic to see it develop, to watch this stuff go mainstream. I mean, it really feels like the early days of Netscape.

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