The Devilís in the Details

Turning LEGOs into a massively multi-player online game.

Scott Brown, president of NetDevil, wanders happily through the online-game development company's Louisville headquarters, very much like an oversized kid given the keys to the toy store. "For me, this is a dream job," he gushes.

And NetDevil's office looks like the stuff of every techno geek's dreams. The kitchen is crammed with crates of junk food and soda. Each desk features one or more gargantuan flat-screen computer monitors, futuristic techno-tubing connects the dimly lit cubicles, and life-sized models of Aqua Teen Hunger Force cartoon characters watch over the video games, which are everywhere.

Lately, new playthings have appeared. On nearly every desk sits a robot, castle or spaceship built from LEGOs. These are research models for NetDevil's dream assignment: to take one of the world's most recognized toys, LEGOs, and turn it into a massively multi-player online game (or MMO), thereby drawing a whole new audience into the booming business of online cooperative play.

The job is a sign that industry insiders are taking notice of NetDevil, an independently owned company that Brown, who grew up in Littleton, founded in 1997 when he couldn't find any other way into the game. While the company's first major MMO, Auto Assault, didn't come close to reaching World of Warcraft's popularity level after its release last year, that the 65-person operation was able to produce it at all was impressive. Creating an MMO is far more challenging than creating a typical video game. Developers aren't just programmers; they're part city planners and part sociologists. When you have thousands of people interacting in the same massive virtual world, sticky subjects such as social dynamics and economic theory are bound to come up. And when the game ships, the work isn't over. The company has to keep updating this world to ensure that players spend endless hours there.

Making a LEGO MMO will be trickier than anything NetDevil has tackled. "I can't say much about it, but I can tell you the scope of it is massive," says Brown, who estimates the game will take at least 50 percent more manpower than Auto Assault and years to complete -- not that he's complaining. "There is just something cool about LEGOs," he explains. "It could be one of the greatest intellectual properties ever." And just as the plastic bricks themselves are endlessly versatile, Brown imagines an online world with limitless possibilities -- gamers could build themselves into a fantasy game, a space game or something else entirely.

This will be one of the first major MMOs actively marketed to the lucrative eight- to twelve-year-old gaming population, and that presents further challenges. Parents are already fearful of online predators doing who-knows-what to their babies. And there's mounting concern about the addictive nature of MMOs; China has reportedly imposed limits on how long its game-crazy denizens can play each day. For kids, a LEGO MMO could be the online equivalent of candy-flavored crack.

But Brown insists there's no need to fret. "We are working on making one of the most safe games for kids," he says. For example, in-game chat will be limited to prevent foul language, and players' activities will be monitored to keep LEGO phalluses from popping up everywhere. And kids won't stay up all night to play, Brown points out, since "parents will put their kids to bed."

That leaves just one question: What if those parents are too busy playing World of Warcraft?

 
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