Forging Ahead

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Creating a new genre in the Age of the Internet.

Sometimes I think television should adhere to some kind of truth in advertising law.

I started to watch a show called "BattleBots," and much to my disappointment, they didn't show robots at all. I turned the channel, and saw another show, this one called "Robot Wars." This even had ‘robot' in the title, and there wasn't a robot in sight.

I know what a robot is; Asimov taught me. The thermostat on my wall is more of a robot than the ‘bots' on these shows.

When will we see a ‘bot battle' with actual robots that have to think for themselves? Apparently, quite soon.

Liquid Edge Games has been working on such a thing for almost four years now. While their RoboForge has virtual robots (a battle with real ones is a long time in coming), they are robots in every sense of the word. Of course, having them virtual makes it difficult to apply the Three Laws of Robotics to them directly, but I digress.

Soon people from all over the world will be able to construct virtual robots, program them by teaching them actions and manoeuvres, and send them forth to do battle with the robots of opponents across the Internet.

What a marvellous world we live in.

GiN caught up with Mike Ward, the Business Development Director of Liquid Edge Games Ltd. He answered some questions about his company, its new game Roboforge, its place in society, the changing face of the computer game market, and the misrepresentation of robots on television.

Roboforge – http://www.roboforge.net

GiN: Tell us a bit about your company and how you got started.

Ward: Liquid Edge Games was formed in 1999 to continue the development of RoboForge. The company’s founder and CEO, Darren Green, was doing some contract work in Tokyo and was kicking back in his hotel room flipping through numerous channels on his TV, all in a language he didn’t understand. One thing he could work out though, a lot of people liked a game where cumbersome mechanical robots attempted to knock each other over.

He thought the robots were kinda cool, but figured that they were extremely expensive and you probably needed a Dad with a PHD in robotics to build one. As a kid he always liked building stuff (model planes, Lego etc) and he thought that the idea of a computer game where you could actually build a robot and then let it fight it out with other robots would be kinda cool (and much cheaper than doing it for real).

It took a few years of contemplation (read: procrastination) for the idea to gel enough to tell someone else about it. In 1997, Darren spoke to two of his programming friends (Hugh and Young) about the idea and received an enthusiastic response from them. The idea for RoboForge and Liquid Edge Games now became a reality. They spent a year designing the game in their spare time. Once the design specification was sorted, they all chipped in some money to fund the development for a year from Darren’s basement.

The money was used to develop a working prototype of the game (crude but functional). The prototype was then used to successfully attract funding. Four more staff members were employed and development continued through 1999 and 2000 until our targeted launch in May 2001.

GiN: What about your new game, Roboforge? Tell us a bit about that.

Ward: RoboForge is an Internet based 3D computer game that allows players to construct sophisticated virtual robots and train them for combat. The robots are mechanical and/or organic in nature. Players can construct virtually anything by mixing and reusing components from a library of 300 parts and from the 12 different robot "genres."

Building a robot is as simple as clicking components together in a true 3D construction environment. Components can be Joints (moving servos), Sensors, CPUs, Energy Generators, Weapons, Shielding or just passive Limbs. Once constructed, the robots can then be trained for offensive and defensive moves (all in 3D), and programmed to think during combat (using a sophisticated but easy to use declarative programming interface). Wizards will allow a user to construct their first robot in minutes so they can then "tinker" with the settings, adding new limbs, painting and texturing, and so on.

Players can have an unlimited "garage" of robots. Once ready, they can let their creation loose in an arena against another pre-programmed robot and compete in tournaments on the Internet for prizes, including cash. The robots fight in a hand-to-hand style. The movement of the limbs and damage done to each other is calculated using realistic physics. Mass-inertia and 3D torque calculations are used in the simulation engine.

The robot sensor systems have scope and range. Damage is based on point of impact inertia and realistic resultant physics are calculated (i.e. limb recoil). Completely damaged limbs explode and so on. All this provides a realistic sense to the user when they watch the fight ensue.

GiN: We’ve seen various "’bot" battle programs on television where the "robots" are actually directed by humans through radio controllers. In Roboforge, can the robots be considered true robots?

Ward: You have identified the fundamental difference between RoboForge and the "bot" battle programs on TV – with RoboForge the bots are required to think for themselves. Once you send your bot over the Internet to fight in tournaments he's on his own. As the boxing trainers say, "all the hard work's been done before he enters the ring."

Given the unlimited variations of robots that can be built with RoboForge and the fact that the bots think for themselves I guess you might say RoboForge is what BattleBots and Robot Wars will look like in a 100 years time.

You ask if the RoboForge robots can be considered "true robots" – absolutely! Unlike the TV shows where the "robots" are glorified remote controlled cars, RoboForge bots are true autonomous beings and with their own AI they think for themselves. With Roboforge the best bot builder will win, with the TV shows the best "bot operator" will win.

GiN: Do you see Roboforge more as filling a niche in the market or trying a new twist on an existing concept?

Ward: We see RoboForge as a new genre. It is a very much constructive and thinking game with most of the gameplay being focused on the building and testing of the robot. Players will get huge satisfaction and a sense of ownership from creating, nurturing and training a champion contender. Because the robot is autonomous we can organise huge tournaments and run them overnight.

If everyone had to be there to control their robots, it could take months for us to run a big tournament. Also, to play for money, everything has to be fair. Connection speeds greatly affect how a player performs in online games. The robots duke it out on our game servers, so it's all fair and square. RoboForge is massively multiplayer with players being able to compete against each other from all over the world, not to mention the fact that they can win some serious cash prizes in the tournaments.

GiN: How are the online tournament structure and player rankings set up?

Ward: RoboForge is designed to run like a professional sports circuit. It is an international circuit and the designers are real people from all over the world. When players start they can enter the amateur tournaments that are open only to those designers who have competed in five or less tournaments. They are free to enter and will typically have several prizes that can be won.

They can then progress to the open tournaments, which again are free to enter, and will have bigger prizes. If players want to win some serious money, then they can enter the RoboForge Pro Circuit. These tournaments are pay-to-enter (only five US dollars per tournament usually). Huge cash and prizes can be won at these tournaments. There is a full ranking system, which culminates in an invitational tournament at the end of each season, where massive prizes can be won by a select few (the "Best of the Best").

GiN: Do you think you will make a larger profit from the sale of the game, or the pay-to-enter tournaments that will be available?

Ward: We believe that the ongoing tournaments will be integral to the success of RoboForge. This competitive and challenging aspect of the game with the resulting fame and fortune will be essential to building the community around RoboForge. Certainly we need to get the game sales side of the business model right first before the tournament revenue will kick in.

However, assuming we can achieve a healthy critical mass of numbers from game sales we expect the tournaments to contribute most to profitability, especially over the longer term. Games sales revenue tends to be rather short term and "one-shot" in nature, whereas the tournament aspect will ensure the longevity of the game.

We're hoping for somewhat of a snowball effect, the more copies we can sell, the bigger the tournaments and more frequent they will be held, attracting more and more people into the online space of Robotic Combat Sport.

The unique aspect of the RoboForge tournament model is that it is easily scaleable. Because we use a server farm model, it is easy for us to quickly gear up for an increase in numbers of players wanting to enter into tournaments by simply adding low-cost PCs to the farm. There is no such thing as expensive redundant servers with RoboForge. We are looking forward to the day when we need to spend money to boost our server farm capacity.

Obviously the profitability of the tournament model depends on which percentage of players who have bought the game we can attract back to the professional contests. We're relying on the inherent competitive nature of gamers, who after spending hours creating what they believe to be the ultimate fighting machine, will know the only true test for their creation is to see it compete in the professional tournaments. Whilst RoboForge is a premium game we feel that at a retail price of 29.95 US dollars, it is competitively priced.

At that price we believe we can get enough out there to ensure the profit from the tournaments will soon kick in. We could, of course, go the way of AOL in the early days and give the game away for free. Since we are selling online we don't incur massive distribution costs. However, there is a perception of value issue, which may unnecessarily depreciate the game if it were given away for free. Since RoboForge is a quality product it can easily support the retail price.

GiN: Times were, having a publisher was crucial to the marketing success of a game. How has the Internet changed all of that?

Ward: I guess the way in which we are choosing to market and sell RoboForge over the Internet is evidence of the way the Internet has changed things. In the old days (not that long ago) the only way a game developer could get their product out there was through a publisher. Obviously this meant that the developers' margins were eaten away by publishers, distributors, wholesalers and retailers. Electronic software distribution means that the cost of getting the game to the customer is lower and therefore we can afford to pass this cost saving on by charging a lower price for the game.

The Internet gives us the opportunity to carry out more cost-effective and targeted marketing. RoboForge will be primarily marketed through an Internet reseller program with a 25% commission for each sale referred by an affiliate.

I guess the real answer to your question of whether a publisher is crucial or not will only be found after we've been out there for 6 months – and whether or not we've been able to make a good go of it. Whether or not we can adequately penetrate the market with online only distribution is certainly an issue for us, and I must admit it was a big call for us to make to go it alone. Certainly at some point, maybe once the online community has been built, we would like to see a RoboForge CD in a box on a shop shelf. I guess that will be the only way we can hope to capture the impulse and gift buying market.

On the positive side, with the way we are going, we get to keep control of the development and marketing, which can sometimes be an issue for developers if they get locked in with the big boys.

GiN: Did you attempt the standard ‘try to find a publisher’ routine with Roboforge?

Ward: Yes and no. We funded the development of RoboForge ourselves. It was only in December of 2000 after two months of public beta testing, when the game was 95 percent ready for market that we decided to see what the publishers thought. I guess we were motivated to do this partly out of fear of not being able to successfully penetrate the market with online only distribution. Also, by at least talking to the publishers we won't ever wonder, "what might have been" had we decided not to approach them.

We received strong interest from the publishers we met with. The difficulty we had was that because we are based in New Zealand, as soon as we left a publisher's office, a certain amount of momentum would be lost and as time went on the distance factor probably put us in the "too hard basket."

The other issue we faced with the publishers was that we were a bit of a square peg and they only had round holes, and as a result we seemed to fall through the cracks in a number of instances. By this I mean the publishers viewed us as "online-only" property (notwithstanding that we pitched to them that we could be both – box and online), yet because RoboForge is a premium game we did not fit with their online strategy of simplistic games given away for free to the casual gaming market.

Anyway, that's how we read things, how can you really know what the decision making process is in a large organization? We believe we could find a publisher, however, how long do you keep trying and how long do you wait for an answer? Especially when you've got a completed product that you can adequately take to the market yourself. Because at less than 30mb, it is well suited to online distribution.

GiN: What differences do you suppose were there in the process of making this game with a smaller team as opposed to a larger development house?

Ward: I guess we were never faced with this choice because we were internally funded and never really had the deep pockets to pay for a large development team. The benefits we saw from a small team of our size were keeping a cap on the budget, better controlling the workflow and quality of the output. I'm sure there may be more "bells and whistles" we could have had with a larger team, however, I don't believe we have had to compromise the game in anyway with a smaller team.

GiN: Had you considered making the game for a console platform?

Ward: Because the online tournaments are such an integral component of RoboForge, when the game was first conceived in 1997, next generation consoles with Internet capability were a long way off, therefore our only real option was to go PC based. We would at some point in the near future like to port RoboForge to a console platform. Given it is written in Java, we should be able to do this without too much difficulty.

GiN: Does making a game that is somewhat online-intensive such as Roboforge dictate what platforms you will produce it for?

Ward: Yes it does, certainly as RoboForge currently is, however, we have ideas for variations on the RoboForge theme that are not so "online intensive" and better suited to a console. It is all a matter or time, priorities and managing the resources we currently have.

GiN: What are your plans for the future?

Ward: We would really like to capitalize on our Java development expertise and do other online games. However, our immediate focus needs to be on business development for RoboForge and ensure that it is successful before embarking on other development projects – the joys of not having a big publisher behind us I guess!

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