Series Info...Biting The Hand #20:


by Jessica Mulligan
March 5, 2002

It has been a boring couple of weeks in gaming; nothing much happening, no honest scandals to comment on. I suspect everyone is saving their energy for the developer community’s annual orgy of excess, the Game Developer’s Conference. While less attended in recent years since game companies stopped footing the $825 entry cost, plus hotel and airfare, for everyone and their grandmother, there are still a fair amount of people wandering the lobbies (and local strip clubs), saying hello to old friends they haven’t seen in a year. Companies also tend to go silent around this time, waiting for the week of the GDC to issue press releases on new products.

In the meantime, everyone is pretty much keeping their heads down and ironing their dollar bills, so they’ll be nice and crisp for distribution at T’s Cabaret and the Hanky Panky. I’ll just have to content myself with some general commentary and hope the GDC turns up some interesting news in a couple weeks.

Wither Thou Goest, Young Man?

There are reports, first noted at Unknown Player and later confirmed by Sony, that SOE President and CEO Kelly Flock has left to pursue other business interests.

Now, normally, this kind of line is simply CorpSpeak for "We told him to clean out his desk." In this case, however, I doubt that is true; Kelly has been with Sony for a long time and is, by all reports public and private, highly respected by the company’s senior management. He was appointed President of Sony’s Imagesoft in 1995, the development arm that became 989 Studios back in 1998. When Sony decided in early 2000 to reorganize the online games division and sack pretty much everyone in the New York office, they practically begged Kelly to take over.

Long before that, Kelly was exposed to online games when I brought Kesmai and Activision together to do the Multiplayer BattleTech online game for GEnie in 1990. He was in development at Activision and we provided a bunch of free Air Warrior accounts to interest them in providing their MechWarrior license for the game. They definitely became hooked and MPBT became a reality (It was all part of my and GEnie head Bill Louden’s Plan for World Dominion of Games™. Who knew we would become celebrities?).

The real question becomes, what are those other business opportunities Kelly is moving on to? Anyone hears anything, be sure to let me know.

One, Two, Three, Many…

Time was, when I was a consultant back in the ancient days of 1996, I used do a regular count of how many commercial online games were being developed or were live to subscribers. This is a pretty good indication of the overall interest in the commercial side of the industry and how many publishers, developers and garage shops have the wherewithal (i.e. the moola) to be in development. That is not to say all such projects will live to see the light of day.

Trying to get a semi-accurate count was a tough job in 1996, as most publishers weren’t using the Web very much then. I had to get most of my information through personal contacts and strategic guesswork. The first time I did this, I came up with a total of 136. Obviously, there are nowhere near 136 for-pay online games available today. For that matter, of the 30+ publishers and developer making them, few survived (anyone remember Phillips Interactive?).

Then the Multiplayer Online Games Directory web site, came around in late 1997 and took some of the burden off. The site operators always seemed to have a pretty complete list and whatever holes existed, I could fill in with my own sources. Lately, the counting job has become a bit easier, as the site just went through a refit and reorganization, including a pretty good search-and-list engine with advanced features for genres, prices, etc. I did an advanced search on Pay Subscription games in development or live and came up with a total of 234. An even more interesting statistic is that MPOGD lists 132 for-pay games launched and live to subscribers.

A quick survey of the games listed tells me it is 1996 all over again, with the difference being that there are far more developers now capable of putting together a nifty Web site. I’ve just started to go through the list; if I find anything really interesting, I’ll let you know.

When Lawyers Attack!

In the last column, I talked a bit about the strange lawsuit filed by BlackSnow Interactive against Mythic Entertainment. It was a well-reasoned column, I thought, and it was assumed it would elicit some comment.

Well, I was right, and I was wrong. The column did elicit some comment, just not about the main point being discussed. In fact, I received a bunch of email about one line. That’s right, the most email generated from a 2,000 word column was about one line which I considered pretty much a toss-away example.

What was that line, you ask? Let’s look at it in context:

"In this specific case, it seems cut and dried. To play the game, you have to agree to the EULA. If you agree to the EULA to get access to the game, Mythic owns the characters and items, you get to use them for a while, end of story. If you don’t agree to the EULA, you don’t get to play. It seems pretty self-serving to come back later, when you’ve been violating that same EULA and making money off of what could rightly be termed a derivative work and say, "Just kidding!" I really don’t see how a court could rule against Mythic, but I’m not a lawyer and, of course, strange things can happen in the US court system. Like $4 million jury awards for being scalded with no permanent injury by a cup of hot coffee at McDonald’s. Personally, I didn’t like the way the cheese was staring at me the last time I was at Burger King, it made me all paranoid n’ stuff and I almost dropped my tinfoil hat; time to call a lawyer." (Author: Bold emphasis added)

So naturally, with such an interesting subject to discuss, one with huge ramifications for all online gamers, publishers and developers, one would hope there would be some speculation on outcomes and the meaning of it all. Beyond passing mentions of how interesting the suit could end up being, some or all of the lawyers who read this column thought it noteworthy to mention… the McDonald’s coffee lawsuit.

Being trial lawyers —at least, I’m guessing they were, since most of them sent me links to various Trial Lawyers Association Web sites-, each and every one of them took me to task (very politely, I might add) for falling for the corporate line as issued to the press. One wrote a very nice three page email about it.

Reckon that’ll teach me to use throw-away lines in a public forum. I won’t comment on the overall merits of the lawsuit or judgment, except to say what I told each of those attorneys: that anyone who holds a hot cup of coffee in their lap and tries to remove the lid is just asking for it. However, there is more information than what I (and probably you, unless you’re a trial lawyer and then I’ve probably already heard from you) had heard before, and you should certainly have that available to you. The information URL on the lawsuit I was most spammed with was:

Read it and form your own opinion. I don’t know what scares me more, the fact that more than a couple trail lawyers play online games or that some of them read this column.


For some strange reason, I’ve been replaying Mechwarrior 4 again lately, and thinking. More abut that later.

I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of giant battle robots, as unrealistic as it might be. Hey, gaming is all about suspending your disbelief and there is something about the BattleTech universe that has always made that easy for me.

Although I’d watched the miniatures game being played at GenCon and Origin for years, my first real exposure to the universe was Infocom’s BattleTech: Crescent Hawk’s Inception in 1988. That was a fun little game, a mixture of tactical combat and strategy with a bunch of adventure game elements tossed in for good measure. It kept me and my room mate glued to the PC for hours at a time and I came to really love the world of BattleTech. I refused to get sucked into the miniatures aspect of it, though; I saw what being hooked on Games Workshop’s Warhammer miniatures did to my roomie’s paycheck every two weeks. His expenditures make being hooked on Magic: The Gathering look positively cost-effective. I think he personally made it possible for the children of several of Games Workshop’s employees to attend private school.

The real clincher for me came in 1989, when Activision shipped the 3D 1st person Mechwarrior game. When you come right down to it, this game was one of the first examples of an FPS. It featured something like 30 missions and combat with up to eight whole Mechs on the screen and close to 20 frames per second of performance. That might not seem like much today, until you remember that in 1989, the 286 PC with two megabytes of RAM was considered a fully blown-out computer and could cost well over $2,500.

I fell in love with that game immediately; the day after I bought it, I was on the phone to Activision, asking how much they wanted for the rights. My boss, the Director of Product Marketing, kept telling me not to waste my time, but I ignored him and continued. Eventually, Activision and Kesmai cut their own deal, with GEnie as distributor, and the online game was born. I just knew that a 3D 1st person online game based on the engine would blow everyone away and I was looking for ways to get more publishers involved in the industry, anyway, as GEnie’s corporate masters at General Electric didn’t believe in giving advances for games.

I was right about the game. I first showed the online version of the game at a small convention in Phoenix, Arizona in 1992, with two PCs back-to-back in a small hotel conference room. It started with three or four people mildly interested and grew steadily until the room was packed with people trying to get a chance at it. At one point, two players activated their jump jets at the same time and, on both monitors, you could see them blasting away at each other as the Mech’s jockeyed for position in mid-flight. The entire crowd of one hundred or so people involuntarily cried "Whoa!" simultaneously. Remembering that one ten-second incident still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up; that reaction is what online gaming is all about and why I stuck with this business through the hard times.

MultiPlayer BattleTech, as the game became known on GEnie, was a hit. It was the eight player Mechwarrior engine with a role-playing shell wrapped around it and we loved it. It was the only game I insisted on having a paying account for, because I wanted to play as a player. It went through several permutations over the years and was finally closed down by Electronic Arts late last year, after nearly a decade of life.

As I noted at the start of this piece, playing Microsoft’s latest version of the game has got me thinking. It was a short thought, but an interesting one:

What if you took the MechWarrior 4 engine and wrapped a role-playing shell around it…

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