The World is your Playground with Onverse
by Deborah M. Fike · 08/31/2009 (6:28 pm) · 10 comments
There are a lot of ways that has Internet has changed how we interact with people. Snail mail has evolved into e-mail, which has in turn spawned instant messaging. The Internet being an interactive media tool, entrepreneurs are exploring the world of using video chat and games to push how we interact with people in our lives even further. Through our keyboards, web cams, and headsets, we are all becoming digitally closer every day.
One company on the edge of this revolution is Onverse, a virtual world that also incorporates many different types of social games. Founded by gamers, Onverse's end goal is to experiment with new game styles and genres that are associated with social media and bring gamers together so that they can not only enjoy games, but also learn more about each other through their avatar and home systems. Take a sneak peek at what the beta, released in June of this year, has to offer:
Steve Pierce, CEO of Onverse LLC, sat down to talk to me about developing this ambitious project. Before founding Onverse in December 2006, he was a design manager of Sony Online Entertainment's EverQuest II. Enjoy his insight and advice about virtual worlds and its intersection with gaming.
What makes Onverse stand out among the crowd?Style - We have a unique style and feel that you can really only get from an indie effort where we have creative freedom to experiment with things WE think would be fun. A publisher does not decide our features. For example, one of our modes of transportation is called Avatar Cannons, where you can shoot yourself across areas for quick travel. You can also choose to be a horned goat-bunny-gorilla with boxing gloves and a gold clock chain if you want. The idea is just to have fun and not worry about traditional boundaries.
Gaming Angle - I see a lot of the executive teams on virtual worlds out there with no gaming industry background. It shows in their "games" as well. Their world was built to be a social place, with dancing, chatting, homes, etc., but that is where the likeness to a game stops. I've even heard one executive say "We are targeting people who have never played games." I mean come on, these people are gamers. Treat them like gamers or you are missing out on the majority of the industry. We try to rely on our game knowledge to not only make Onverse an easy adaption for traditional MMO gamers, but to prepare ourselves for the above-stated future of attaching other games and game-like activities.
Housing - We think our community-style housing sets us apart. Most virtual worlds that give you a personal space or home have it in its own instance where it is separate from everyone else. Our areas all have 40+ homes or apartments in the same area. This allows you to get to know your neighbors and live next door to friends. It also allows us to cut down our instance load on our servers significantly.
Team - I wanted to throw this in here because it deserves to be said. We built Onverse with four people, with an additional fifth person hired most recently to create our website (as well as some in-game stuff since). We've built it on about 5% of the funding and 10% of the manpower that most of our closest competitors are built with. I think that makes us unique as well.
What was your inspiration to create Onverse?The inspiration came when I was working at Sony Online Entertainment on EverQuest II. I had been a developer for three years, working my way up into design management. Well, we got our yearly raises and I just decided that a big corporate environment where your salary is chosen by someone you don't know wasn't for me anymore. I knew I could build my own game and I had a concept for it, so I packed up my bags, moved back to Arizona and began searching for people to help me.
Onverse has evolved a lot since that first idea, primarily because the scope of that idea was a massive task. It is still the end goal, though, to keep our direction focused toward my original idea.
Onverse was built by five people with a fraction of the funding of most competitive virtual worlds.
What was your development process like?As stated above, we have five people on our team. I do Design, Management, Marketing, Advertising, QA, and Customer Service. Wes Macdonald is our Lead Engineer and he pretty much coded the entire game world. Eric Hoefer is our Art Assets Lead. He's created thousands of the art assets you see in Onverse, designed the mock-up for our website style and is our QA guy for art assets. Ben Steele is our Art Director. He created our avatars, UI elements and many of the structures you see around Onverse from Stores to Houses. Ben also keeps our art direction and style in check. Scott Mitting is our Web Engineer who created our social network in less than a month and continues to improve the site as well as help with the game coding.
After a couple failed attempts at getting things rolling, real progress started when Wes came on in September of 2007. We really didn't have anything before then so I guess you could say that it took us just over 1.5 years to get to our open beta.
We have a meeting every Monday morning and Friday afternoon. The purpose of both is to set goals for each week and to review how we did on our goals. Other than that we are so small that we just walk about 10 feet and talk to each other with ideas and or problems.
The game was built on the Torque Game Engine. We use 3D Studio Max, Lightwave and Constructor for our art assets. On the code side we use Visual Studio 2008, Xcode, KDevelop and Torsion for script.
As far as QA is concerned, we have to do it all ourselves. Everyone has to test their own code, design implementation and art assets. I started out in QA, so I am pretty picky when I check on new stuff.
We are currently in beta testing. We never really had a "closed" beta because we really didn't have time. It sounds crazy, but we knew it was ready for an open beta. Since June 15th our servers have never come down except for our four updates, and they continue to chug along happily.
Describe your biggest technical hurtles and how you overcame them.Backend Server Software - Most of the time developing Onverse was spent on this. It was built completely from scratch. We created a custom set of communication protocols built over TCP/IP for communicating with our Torque based simulation servers. Using that same protocol we built multiple different types of custom servers that handle user login, worldwide chat and routing to and from the different instances. We dynamically open and close the simulation servers based on load and where the players are in world. This allows us to move the load across multiple hardware servers seamlessly. All of our server software scales horizontally allowing us to achieve the infamous massive in “Massively Multiplayer.”
Clothing and Mesh Hiding - This was a really difficult challenge, especially since none of us had ever done it before. We had to redo our avatars completely about four times to get this down. Basically all clothing objects are created as separate objects that have a matching rig with the avatar. In game we then render the clothing object using the avatar’s rig. We then have a system that hides portions of the avatar based on what clothing items are equipped. It also allows clothing to hide other clothing. We did our original models in Lightwave, but when segmenting the mesh we needed to define custom normals or any lighting showed off our seams. Without the source code to the Lightwave exporter we had to move over to 3DS Max to get those normals out.
Collaborative World Editor – We knew from the beginning that the fewer obstacles we had in the world design process, the higher quality we could achieve. One of those obstacles was multiple people editing the world at one time. To do this we made the default Torque world editor work seamlessly in a client server architecture. The most difficult part was the terrain editor. We ended treating each terrain change as a single transacted event from each client and apply them on the server, updating and correcting the clients as it went.
Onverse players build homes within the same area. This allows players to get to know neighbors and live next door to friends.
What unique challenges did you face in creating a virtual world?Like many start-ups, our biggest challenge has been funding. So far we've done it all with savings, family, a small bank loan and a constant spirit of frugality. We are currently looking for funding, so if anyone is reading this and interested, want to make some money?
It is also hard to spend multiple years of your life working towards something that you aren't making any money for. All along you keep telling yourself it will pay off in the end. It is a challenge in itself fighting off all the naysayers, both in real life and in your mind. Keeping an optimistic attitude and fighting off self-doubt can be a real challenge.
If you had to do it all again, what would you change about creating Onverse?I would probably have bootstrapped at Sony much longer until I already had a team established, but then again, if I had done that, I might very well have never found these extremely talented people. A lot of time was wasted initially by people who weren't up to the task of what we were trying to do.
I would also win the lottery before trying to do this again, but I guess I've learned some life skills on "How to get as much food at the store for as little money as possible." I can cook tuna and pasta like 40 different ways! Did you know you can get 12 chicken thighs for 3 dollars! Seriously though, I would make sure and have the necessary funding BEFORE beginning a new venture. (After the success of Onverse, I'm sure something new would have a much better chance though.)
"I see a lot of the executive teams on virtual worlds out there with no gaming industry background. I've even heard one executive say 'We are targeting people who have never played games.' I mean come on, these people are gamers." - Steve Pierce, CEO of Onverse LLC
Huge thanks for Steve for this interview. Steve is a really busy guy, and we chatted back and forth for many months to create a quality interview. I look forward to following Onverse's progress!
For more stories like this, check out GarageGames' Developer Interview series.