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MMOGology: Grand Theft MMO

Marc Nottke

On Tuesday, April 29th, 2008 Rockstar Games released Grand Theft Auto IV (GTA IV), one of the most anticipated games of 2008. Based on early reviews (all of which have been unanimously positive) it looks like the latest installment in the series has exceeded expectations. Everything about GTA IV appears to have been kicked up a notch. The graphics are more realistic, the gameplay has been refined and tightened, and the characters and storyline have more depth. While this type of evolution is to be expected, one of the most interesting new features about GTA IV is that you can play it online. Unlike previous versions of the Grand Theft Auto series, this one will allow Xbox 360 and PS3 owners the ability to play with up to sixteen friends online. While sixteen players doesn't exactly qualify as "massively multiplayer", it's a step in the right direction for those of us eagerly anticipating a GTA-style MMO.

It seems like a natural progression for Rockstar to bring their venerable series to the massively multiplayer arena. After all, you've got a built in, recognizable franchise name based around the most classic multiplayer concept known to man – cops and robbers. I think every child has played a real life version of this game at some point in their lives (although perhaps more G rated). It's one of those universal themes that everyone instantly "gets", and yet, no MMO developer has cashed in on the concept. The time seems ripe for Rockstar to join Blizzard in the money printing business.

So how realistic is it that Rockstar might be producing a Grand Theft Auto MMO? Is such a game already in development? I did a little digging and I'll show you what I've been able to find thus far after the break. I'll also fill you in on a few MMOs with similar concepts that you might be able to play as early as this time next year.

If cops and robbers is such a basic, fun, concept why hasn't anyone cashed in? Maybe it's because there have been rumors that Rockstar is planning on creating such a game as far back as 2006. Who would want to compete with Rockstar in that arena? Game news site Gamespot speculated in March of 2006 that the next GTA could be an MMO based on Rockstar's hiring of network programmers. Of course, it's most likely that those programmers were hard at work building an infrastructure to support GTA IV's online play for small groups. However, having those fellas stick around for a while might prove useful in the development of other GTA themed projects (like an MMO). In any event, the new multiplayer component gives Rockstar developers a chance to learn about what is and isn't viable when playing GTA online and to what extent bandwidth and other issues come to play when multiple players experience GTA at once.

Fast forward two years to March of 2008 and recaps an Electronic Gaming Monthly article summarized by N. HalesLegacy. One of the many GTA related bulletpoints states that an there may be an upcoming, subscription based MMPOG GTA in the future. If that tip seems a little vague, there's some explicit interest in developing a GTA MMO mentioned by Sam Houser, co-founder of Rockstar Games. In an interview with IGN Sam stated that an "MMO subscription model [is] like the golden-goal kind of thing." Of course, getting the GTA formula to fit the MMO model is another story. Sam goes on to say that managing the chaos inherent in a GTA game would be a major challenge in making GTA an MMO. Sam says, "Having 2,000 people run around a map shooting each other, that's just not interesting to me." I can think of a few people who might disagree with that statement, but I think it's noble of Houser to want a GTA MMO to be more than just a free for all death match. Producing a quality game full of depth is something that elevates the franchise above its clones.

Thus far, it appears as though most news regarding a GTA MMO is in the realm of speculation and possibility. There's a good chance that it will be developed at some point, but no hard evidence to confirm that the project is underway. So what's a GTA and MMO lover to do while waiting for Rockstar to wake up and smell the hot coffee of a money printing GTA MMO? Who would be foolish enough to go up against the possibility of a GTA MMO? Well at least two developers out there are willing to step into the crime MMO void currently left vacant by Rockstar. Vogster Entertainment is developing CrimeCraft and Realtime Worlds Ltd. is developing All Points Bulletin. If these names sound familiar, it may be because Colin Brennan and Shawn Schuster touched on them briefly in news articles earlier this month.

For those of you who haven't yet heard of it, CrimeCraft is an Unreal 3 powered MMO in development by Vogster Entertainment. You heard that right, an MMO using the Unreal 3 engine. If early screenshots are any indication of the final product, MMO gamers are in for a real visual treat. So what will you actually do in CrimeCraft? Vogster says that players will be able to run our own businesses, trade with other players, battle criminal groups and corrupt police and explore career paths both good and evil. The action will take place in a large, dystopian "living and breathing" city. According to IGN, the game is going to be free to download and is set for a spring 2009 release. According to Galbadiax, there will be no monthly charges for the game. No initial cost and no monthly fee? Does that mean the game is completely free to play? So far it really looks that way. Of course, the details are still sketchy, and there's always the possibility it could support a micro-transaction based model. Still, I think most people would be eager to try out a free GTA-like MMO. Another interesting note: the game is set to release on three gaming platforms (Xbox 360, PS3 and PC) simultaneously. We just might be bored with GTA IV by March of 2009 and ready to get our crime game fix online.

Another cops and robbers based MMO in the works is called All Points Bulletin. Developed by Realtime Worlds Ltd., this MMO is described as a "freeform combat and driving-based game." Like CrimeCraft, APB promises another "living, breathing" Unreal 3 powered city for players to explore. Players will be able to choose which side of the law they support, Law Enforcement or Gangs (alternately referred to as Enforcers and Criminals). The game promises players will be able to fully customize their own weapons, vehicles, clothes, music and environment. All very lofty promises to be sure, but when they're coming from the creator of the original Grand Theft Auto series, perhaps they're more noteworthy. Yep, apparently series creator Dave Jones is the CEO of the All Points Bulletin development studio. To find out more about All Points Bulletin you may wish to head over to the Team Xbox web-site to read a massive preview of the game. The article also has some interesting takes on the blurring lines between massively multiplayer online games and regular multiplayer online games (think Counter-Strike) as well as Jones' thoughts on overcoming MMOG stereotypes set by games like World of Warcraft. As of this writing, the PC version is the focus of the development team. If that version is successful an Xbox 360 and PS3 version may follow. Like CrimeCraft, expect to see this game sometime in 2009.

So where's my GTA MMO? Unfortunately, it looks like it's still a ways off. I think it's only a matter of time before Rockstar capitalizes on their brand name and creates the crime MMO of the century. Until then at least we've got All Points Bulletin and CrimeCraft to look forward to playing (not to mention the countless hours of GTA IV online multiplayer). Hopefully these new MMOs hit their prospective release dates next year and we'll be playing cops and robbers with each other just like we did back on the playground in elementary school - except we'll look a lot cooler while doing it.

MMOGology [mŏg-ol-uh-jee] – noun – The study of massively multiplayer online games via the slightly warped perspective of Marc Nottke.

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