By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
Employees zoom around on scooters, the preferred mode of inter-office transportation. They zip past the indoor basketball half-court, the rec area overflowing with video games, the corners of the studio devoted to NetDevil's other titles — like Jumpgate Evolution, a remake of the company's first game, and a yet-to-be-announced title about which all visitors are sworn to secrecy.
But most of the space belongs to LEGO Universe. Artists sketch out concepts for scenes and scenery while other employees translate those drawings into 3-D digital models. Developers map out game mechanics and storylines on dry-erase boards; musicians mix soundtracks in an "audio cabana." Nearby, programmers hunch over multi-panel computer screens, stringing together code that will make it all work. The massive undertaking has led NetDevil, which was purchased by California game developer Gazillion Entertainment in 2008, to expand its workforce by about 50 percent a year, recruiting top talent from around the country. When the swelling ranks outgrew its old workplace, NetDevil simply knocked a two-story hole in the wall and spilled into an adjoining office.
Above all this action hangs a life-sized, battle-scarred car, perpetually crashing through one of the studio's walls. It's a tribute to Auto Assault, a post-apocalyptic car adventure that was the company's second foray into online worlds. As part of the game's release in 2006, NetDevil tried to give the car away in a contest — but the winner opted for a cash prize instead. That slight more or less summed up the public's opinion of the game, and Auto Assault, though critically well received, shut down in 2007.
NetDevil could have shut down, too, or moved away, like many of the game developers that have called Colorado home. (Idol Minds, one of the few developers left in the state, laid off half of its employees in October.) But instead it grew bigger — because in the meantime, it had scored the LEGO deal.
That deal was a dream come true for NetDevil co-founder Seabury, now creative director of LEGO Universe, since he still had a crate of LEGOs stashed away in his childhood home. "The first thing I thought of were all the positives," he says. "When you look at a property like LEGO, it's almost universally recognized. It's hard to think of a company with more positive recognition. The only complaint you hear is about parents stepping on bricks in the dark."
While NetDevil was far from the only company the toymaker talked with when it decided to create a new game — LEGO ultimately vetted 51 developers around the world — the relatively unknown Colorado team came out on top. "It's weird, because they were a smaller company, and this is clearly the biggest thing they've ever done," says Evan Narcisse, a New York City-based video-game journalist. "You would have thought somebody like [World of Warcraft developer] Blizzard would have landed this."
But NetDevil's technical ambitions — in one Auto Assault scene, the company tried to run 34,000 different digital objects using physics-engine software designed for 2,000 objects at most — as well as its good-natured attitude appealed to LEGO. "The fit was very important to us. We knew it was a very long-term project," says Mark Hanson, LEGO Universe project lead and director of business development for the LEGO Group. "All around, it was a very good company for us to go with."
And while Auto Assault didn't perform as expected, the very fact that NetDevil was able to bring to market a game of its magnitude was a mark in its favor. MMOGs are far more complex than typical video games; when you have thousands of people interacting with one another in a vast virtual world, real-life complexities arise that never had to be considered for games like Super Mario Bros. Developers have to think like city planners, considering just how many players an online game should accommodate so that it doesn't feel as empty as a bus station at midnight or as crowded as a New York City subway stop at rush hour. And then there's the all-important fun factor.
As Seabury puts it, "How do you code fun?" To answer that question, the game developers have worked in three-week sprints, then re-evaluated — and sometimes scrapped — everything they've done. For example, one early level centered on LEGO skunks. But in play tests, older kids complained the theme was too childish — and worse, testers in Europe didn't even know what the animals were. So developers dumped that concept and went back to the digital drawing board.
"I've never worked on anything this hard before," says Erik Urdang, LEGO Universe's technical director, who studied artificial intelligence at Columbia and Yale. While the game was originally scheduled to come out in 2009, the release date has been pushed back several times.
And NetDevil has to do more than just build a good online game: It also must meet the stringent requirements of its very powerful partner. LEGO didn't just ship ten million bricks and one twelve-foot behemoth to Louisville because it was feeling generous. NetDevil got the message loud and clear.
This is what makes us special, the Danish company was saying with every one of those bricks. Make sure you get it right.