We had a chance to sit down with Avatar Reality's VP of Development, Li-han Chen, at E for All to get some details about their recently announced title, Blue Mars. Set on a futuristic, terraformed Mars circa 2177 AD, the world will be far more akin to something like Second Life than like other more typical MMOs; in fact, the company is calling Blue Mars a "massively multiplayer virtual world," or MMVW, in lieu of labeling it specifically as a game world. Two main mechanics will separate Blue Mars from SL: a suite of pre-programmed in-game activities (minigames, essentially) to provide a framework for socialization, and no user-generated content -- all environments and objects in the world will be coded by third party developers.
By the time Blue Mars enters closed beta at the end of 2008, Honolulu-based Avatar Reality hopes to have at least 3 of these minigames developed and ready for testing. With golf and vehicle racing listed as two of the activities, it seems clear that Blue Mars is going to cater to the more casual side of the gaming audience. If combat exists at all in the world, it will be relegated to specifically designated areas -- the core mechanic is casual socialization. Perhaps paradoxically, the game is going to be aimed at users with high-end machines and graphics cards (Quad Core CPU and GeForce 8800 or better) in order to feature the CryENGINE2-rendered "breathtaking graphics."
Blue Mars will be free to play, but you'll have to spend real money to get in-game currency in order to participate in the world's economy (it hasn't yet been decided whether users will be allowed to "cash out" a la Entropia Universe). Since users can't create objects, money-making activities will tend towards the service-oriented: tour guide services are expected to be in demand, and even private police forces were mentioned as a potential in-world "employment" opportunity. There will be player housing and furnishings available to purchase, and clothing and accessories to deck out your avatar, but all of these will made by third party developers. When asked about the firm stance against player created objects, Mr. Chen cited reasons of quality control as paramount -- Avatar Realities wants only the highest quality goods and environments available to user experience within the world.
Asked what would draw a player to Blue Mars as opposed to other casual virtual world environments like Second Life, Chen cited the amazing scenery as being reason enough to want to habit the world. We should expect to see the "biggest waterfalls ever; things you could see nowhere else" on a trip across Avatar Realities' version of the red planet. Terrain data for the world is being pulled directly from NASA, making Blue Mars an intriguing mix of accurately rendered geography and imagined, futuristic civilization. Even fast travel has been designed with the goal of sight-seeing in mind: once you've been to a particular set of waypoints, you gain a time-compressed travel functionality between them that won't be teleportation, but some variation of vehicular transport that allows you to see the scenery while travelling.
It sounds like there will be a lot to see on Blue Mars, but will there be a lot to do? That will be the primary question to be answered once we get our mitts on the closed beta late next year.