Sunday, December 10, 2006

Firefly MMO Flop in Progres |or| Intel Larrabee Flop in Progress

Recently two bits of information popped up on some news feeds that have caused a stir. The first is that Multiverse has licensed FireFly/Serenity and will be using thier in-house MMO engine in order to make a FireFly MMO-RPG. There have also been wraps taken off of Intel's Larrabee project which aims to take over Nvidia and AMD/Ati as the provider of high-end graphics cards.

Wired News originally reported on Multiverse's FireFly acquisition here:

Apparently Multiverse intends to use FireFly as a highlight and high profile example of what their engine can do. Now, when I went to I noticed a blurb on the side that states this:

November 9, 2006
Multiverse > SL > WoW?
Which is the future of virtual worlds? Experts or the masses? Multiverse appears to be hedging its bets by allowing its tool set to be used by either.

That is what starts ringing bells that something is wrong. Second Life is only able to handle a few thousand people at a time, is very slow loading, and generally looks like a lab project from somebody learning to make 3D objects. World Of Warcraft can handle a few million people at a time, is much faster on loading, and looks like a professional grade graphics project.

As you poke around the Multiverse site, something else jumps out. Multiverse does not actually make any games. Rather, they make a quoted Technology Platform for games. In otherwords, all Multiverse does is make a GAME ENGINE and expects to license the game engine out like ID Software (Doom3 Engine), Epic Software (Unreal Engine 3), LithTech (Jupiter EX), or CryTek (Cry Engine).

Forgive me if I think that Multiverse is already on the road to failure with their objective. The problem is, all Multiverse has to show off their engine is a Demo World that comes across as a cheap copy of Second Life. Most other Engine Providers generally have a killer application that show off what the Engine can do.

ID Software's Doom3 engine is demonstrated by Doom3 and Quake4, both high selling titles with massive franchise history. The games Massive Multiplayer capabilities are being shown off by the next Enemy Territory game.

Epic Software backs Unreal Engine 3 up with Gears of War and Unreal Tournament 2007. As with Unreal Tournament 2003, a headline game shows off what the new engine is capable of. With the expansion of Assault into Conquest, Unreal Tournament 2007 also shows off the Engines capability to stream maps, big news for MMO Type Games.

LithTech works closely with spun-off developer MonoLith on the Jupiter and Jupiter EX Engine. Unlike other high profile Engines, LithTech's premier title does not carry the name of the Engine. On the other hand, I don't think Jupiter or EX could be worked into F.E.A.R., one of the few FPS's I ever felt was worthy of a perfect 10.

CryTek made a huge splash with Far Cry and Crysis, titles that set new records for how games should look, as well as potentially justifying spending over $500 on a graphics card to get those looks.

The point here here is that Multiverse does not have a killer application on tap to demonstrate what the Multiverse engine can do. Rather, what Multiverse is trying to do is get someone else to build the killer application. Their plan for the FireFly MMO is to hire a development team to bring the world to life. Unfortunantly, the plan has a fatal flaw in it:

No one is available to hire who can program a Complex MMO.

Think about for a second. The MMO-Market is flooded with development teams. Consider NC-Soft and Webzen for a minute and the amount of developers they have. Consider Sony Online Entertainment and Blizzard for a minute. These companies are already aggressively highering mod makers, coders, and college students who demonstrate skills applicable to the MMO markets.

GuComics ( runs a comic panel every so often about The Zapper, commenting on deaths within the gaming industry. On August 16th the Zapper Panel listed several companies/games who had gone under. The MMO market is just littered with failed projects that had massive marketing budgets and formally high player counts. One of the most common problems is that the development teams simply could not put together a game that a lot of people wanted to play, the same problem NC-Soft has right now. NC-Soft has a lot of great games such as Auto Assault. Is it good enough for me to pay every month for? No.

To put this in even further perspective, consider NC-Soft's upcoming Tabula Rasa, found over here: Tabula Rasa has gained a lot of interest because of the person who is creating the game, Richard Garriot, AKA Lord British from Ultima. A lot of players eagerally await the game because they know what Richard Garriot has done in the past. Also consider City Of Heroes from NC-Soft, headed currently by Matt Miller, the creator and player of the character named Positron. If Matt Miller were to up and leave Paragon City, I'd be tagging right along behind because I love CoH. I, personally, would have never looked at SOE's Planetside game if it were not for the fact that the creators behind Tribes were bringing the game to life.

The fact is, once you know who a good game designer is, you'll be more likely to follow that game designer around if they move to another game.

Now, keeping that in mind, start putting the picture together. Multiverse is trying to get a development team together to produce an MMORPG for a high profile property. The problem is, the only people available to really pull together on an MMO Project are either people not yet in the MMO industry, or those who have created games that failed in the MMO markets. People who have the talent to program great games are going to be actively courted by several different developers with high profile projects. Lets say I get approached by NCSoft or Blizzard to be a writer, and I also get approached by some unknown company to to write as well for a long term contract. Which one would I choose?

I'd go with the company that has an established track record.

let me lay it out in a shorter form

Multiverse has
-no Killer Application on hand
-no well known developers on hand
-no reliable source of developers to compete with NCSoft, Webzen, SOE, and Blizzard

The phrase, Cart Before the Horse comes to mind when looking at what Multiverse is trying to do. The good news for Multiverse is that they aren't the only ones who have run into this problem.

Intel also has a problem with putting carts before horses, and that would be Larrabee. The-Register reported on Larrabee over here: Basically, Intel feels that they can take the high performance video accelerator market away from Nvidia and AMD/ATi. Like I think Multiverse is headed for failure, I think Larrabee is also in trouble.

The problem is that like game development, the pool of people available who are capable of designing high performance graphics is relatively small. One of the many reasons cited by ATi over the past several years about shying away from Open-Sourcing their graphics drivers is that everybody who could understand the drivers was already employeed by ATi, or employeed by Nvidia. Looking at the market, ATi is/was probably right about that. Like the MMO markets, ATi and Nvidia have not been the only players, they've just been the best so far.

Consider 3DFX, makers of the popular Voodoo Series of cards several years ago. Despite owning the performance market for games during the time of Windows 95 and 98, 3DFX is now property of Nvidia. Despite having a great API for graphics and fantastic software support, hardware misteps took 3DFX out of the market.

Consider XGI, makers of Volari. XGI was born when Silicon Intigrated Systems purchased Trident and spun off the Xabre line of graphics accelerators. Xabre was decently priced with decent drivers, but really could not make a dent against their competitors. XGI's hardware looked great on paper, but driver support was never good enough to allow the cards to function. XGI was aquired by ATi.

Consider S3, backed by Via. S3's Chrome cards have barely carved out a niche among Home Theater Enthusiasts. Despite decent pricing and decent driver support, they have not been able to crack open more than sliver of the graphics market.

What about former graphics great Matrox? Their Parhelia chip offered fantastic triple screen support, the performance of a Geforce4 TI 4200, at over 3 times the price. That was back in 2003, and since then Matrox has been near silent in GPU discussions.

PowerVR was another high profile, thier last major design win going into the Dreamcast. Did anybody actually buy a Kyro card though?

The landscape for graphics development is an extremely competitive one. While there have been many who have approached the graphics accelator markets over the years, competition for the add-in market drove several out of business or into mergers. ATi and Nvidia aggressively recruit anybody who has talent with drivers or hardware design, and have done so for several years. Even when some of the purchases didn't make any sense to begin with, such as the 3DFX and XGI purchases, the results spoke for themselves. Nvidia brought back SLI, and XGI's hardware designers are no strangers to multi-chip setups either.

So, lets put this in perspective then. ATI and Nvidia have a long history of spending millions of dollars to recruit anybody with talent in their industries.

Intel who has never really left the graphics market, is openly laughed at and mocked by game developers (Mark Rein for example) for their horrible integrated graphics.

Larrabee is a great idea, sure. Competition needs to exist. But lets be honest. If you want to work in graphics, either writing drivers or designing hardware, and you get approached by Nvidia, ATi, and Intel, who would you go with? Would you go to work for the companies with a reputation for high performance graphics? Or would you go to work with a company known for making Integrated Graphics that can barely run Unreal Tournament 1999.

Again, anybody who is competive or talented in the field is probably going to go for the companies with proven track records.

Now, maybe Intel can pull a Rabbit out of it's hat. Maybe they can make a competitive graphics chip based on General Purpose computing.

Keep this in mind though. AMD launched and sold Athlon64 processors in bulk back in 2003. Intel's Core2 processor did not reach mass availability until around August 2006 and the majority of Intel processors available today are still of the old Pentium4 design. It took Intel over 3 years to get a competitor to Athlon64 out the door, and that competitor is still hampered by a Front Side Bus design. Intel is timeling a Direct Connect Like Architecture for 2008/2009. That puts Intel over 5 years behind HyperTransport version 1. HyperTransport itself is already in it's 3rd revision and includes specifications for cables that can connect systems 3 meters away at processor latency.

So Intel is 3 years behind AMD on architecture design, over 5 years behind HyperTransport, and this is Intel's Core (... pun was not really intended here, one of my complaints with Intel's choice of branding) Market. Intel's bread and butter is the Central Processor and the supporting chipsets.

Graphics have been ancillary to Intel's markets for years. If they can't even compete against their Core Competitor(s), what makes us think that they can compete with companies whose entire business's are based on secondary objectives?

I, for one, don't think Intel can.


TriggerTyme report coming up next
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