Honolulu-based Avatar Reality hopes to revitalize local gaming industry with new virtual reality game
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Creating a world set 170 years in the future is what a team of Honolulu-based game developers considers a challenge.
Make the planet Mars, populate it with ultra-modern cities, flying cars and millions of gamers, and that's what they call a whole lot of fun.
The development of Blue Mars, an online multiplayer game set to debut in beta format next year, is bringing dozens of former Square USA employees back to Hawaii under the company Avatar Reality Inc.
The company, founded in mid-2006, is helping revitalize a local gaming industry that saw the loss of more than 200 game developers when Square closed its Honolulu office in 2002.
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COURTESY AVATAR REALITY
When creating en entirely new world from scratch, a tropical paradise is a good place to start. Avatar Reality Inc. game developers used NASA data to map the surface of Mars for its online multiplayer game, due out in beta format next year. The game will allow users to live in all types of climates, but will initially start out with a beach town that looks similar to Hawaii.
The year is 2177, and flying cars speed over the surface of Mars.
Giant oceans make way for pristine beaches, and white-capped mountains border newly constructed luxury villas.
Welcome to Blue Mars, a virtual world set millions of miles away that is helping to breathe life into Hawaii's tiny game-development industry.
The online multiplayer game brings together a team of game designers who left the state in 2002, when Square USA studios collapsed under losses of more than $100 million after producing the computer-animated film "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within."
In April 2003, Square Co. merged with Enix Corp., best known for its "Dragon Quest" Nintendo Entertainment System games, to become Square Enix Co., based in Tokyo.
Blue Mars is set 170 years in the future, when advancements in technology have allowed humans to terraform Mars into a habitable planet. The world is the creation of former Square developer Henk Rogers , who founded Avatar Reality Inc. in mid-2006. Rogers is also the chairman of another Honolulu company, Blue Planet Software Inc., which licenses the Tetris computer game.
RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Kazuyuki Hashimoto, president of Avatar Reality Inc., showed renderings of some of the items that would be for sale in Blue Mars, a virtual world set in 2177. Basic entry to the game is free, but users pay to buy everything from a standard non-furnished apartment for about $5 a month to a certain hairstyle or walk for less than $1.
"The idea is pretty unique," said Avatar President Kazuyuki Hashimoto. "We know that it's difficult to make an interesting game."
Occupying one of the six floors of airy industrial downtown office space that Square's 240 game developers once used, Avatar's 15 employees weave a world of high-tech imagery. On one computer screen, the interior of a luxury condo overlooks one of the fantasy world's two oceans. On another, leather handbags and high-heeled shoes await buyers in a shopping district.
"We are still targeting the casual user," said Li-han Chen, vice president of development at Avatar. "Most of the companies think the casual user doesn't care about the fancy 3D graphics. We would like to offer a beautiful world that is also enjoyable."
Unlike San Francisco-based Linden Research Inc.'s Second Life, an online world where users create and determine the content, most Blue Mars cities are created by professional "city developers," or gaming companies that contract with Avatar. And unlike World of Warcraft, made by Blizzard Entertainment Inc. in Irvine, Calif., users won't pay a monthly subscription fee to play.
"The city developer can go out and talk to an advertiser and build interesting shops and have a tie-in to real-world economy," Chen said. "They basically lease the land and do business there and we share the revenue with them."
COURTESY AVATAR REALITY
Rising like a lotus flower above the Martian landscape, this conceptual drawing of a Blue Mars spaceport will accommodate flying cars and shuttles from Earth.
In another turn from Second Life, which has 11 million users, Avatar regulates player behaviors in all areas. There are no weapons, killing or nudity on Blue Mars, and some places, such as casinos, are age-restricted using initial registration and credit card information.
Basic entry into Blue Mars is free, but users pay to buy everything from a standard non-furnished apartment for about $5 a month to a certain hairstyle or walk for less than $1. Gamers can also work as tour guides, functioning much like customer support, to earn some extra virtual cash.
Avatar will debut a beta version of Blue Mars in mid-2008, with the goal of having 1 million users by 2010 and 10 million by 2013. To meet that target, the company is hiring another two game developers this month and plans to double its workforce by the end of the year. Some 3D imaging work will also be outsourced overseas.