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Currently, about 230,000 people live in the nation of Britannia: soldiers, tailors, blacksmiths, musicians-people from every walk of life. Of course, Britannia does not exist anywhere but in the minds of the people who live there.

Britannia is a virtual world, also known as a Persistent State World, a place where online computer gamers compete and interact with hundreds of thousands of others, simultaneously. It’s called persistent because the world exists independent of any individual player’s presence.

This is the realm of MMORPGs, the unwieldy game industry acronym that stands for massively multiplayer online role playing games. Within these consensual online environments, players can fight one another (or not), build careers, open shops, farmland, get married and-of course-die.

By all indications, MMORPGs are the “next big thing” in computer gaming. Currently, there are but a handful of successful virtual worlds–sword and sorcery games like Ultima Online, where Britannia exists, and EverQuest, whose population is pushing 380,000; and the military sim World War II Online. Recently the space opera Anarchy Online was released.

“It’s safe to say that it’s the big thing that’s happening to PC gaming,” says Greg Kasavin, executive editor at GameSpot.com. “It’s still the area in which PC gaming has a very obvious lead over console games [such as PlayStation or Nintendo].”

Today Britannia, Tomorrow the World

We’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg. According to Kasavin, there are countless games currently under development in dozens of markets around the globe. They include a Star Wars universe game from LucasArts, another sci-fi world from Sony, and a massively multiplayer driving game from Electronic Arts called Motor City Online. According to one published report, the creators of the wildly popular CD-ROM game Myst are currently trying to raise money for a new MMORPG.

“Obviously it started off as something that the real hardcore people were into but we’re definitely seeing a trend toward more mainstream people as more time goes on,” says Rick Hall, senior producer for Ultima Online.

As anyone who lives in Britannia will tell you, virtual worlds are getting crowded; the major question facing the industry is whether personal computers and Internet technology can keep pace with the numbers who want to move there. Hall estimates that Britannia’s population grew 120,000 in the last 18 months, EverQuest 150,000. The recent debut of Anarchy Online was plagued by technical glitches as tens of thousands of anxious players signed on at once.

“Anarchy Online has made a lot of people very angry,” says Kasavin. “Basically people couldn’t even play when it first came out.”

Jody Durkis, an independent game developer and self-described “serial beta tester” based in Ann Arbor, MI, says that only the need for an improved broadband infrastructure is limiting the appeal and playability of MMORPGs.

“EverQuest alone takes up so much bandwidth in the California area where the servers are that they basically have their own city of networks,” says Durkis. “If you could look at that area on a map showing data flow, it would be like this bright little supernova.”

Into the Fast Lane

As the broadband infrastructure improves, Durkis foresees a boom in the variety and scope of these consensually imagined online worlds. “The developers are already out there-I mean tons of them, working on new ideas. As broadband opens up these new markets, there ought to be a very big convergence, a huge boom.”

As these virtual worlds become more immersive, sophisticated and appealing to a wider audience, it will create spot markets for specific genre games, Kasavin says. Maybe you’d like to spend a few months piloting the republic in a Roman Empire game, or scheming against nefarious Baronesses in some Gothic bodice-ripper.

“There are already sub-genres of games just as there are niche genres in film,” says Kasavin. “We’re starting to see games be more culturally in tune-to be more interesting as a medium. There’s a new game called Max Payne that’s clearly inspired by John Woo movies, and films like The Matrix. And the story is quite strong, too.”

Hall agrees, saying we can expect to see other film and literary genres start to migrate into MMORPGs-sci-fi, cyberpunk and Westerns being the most likely.

“Regardless of the genre, you see, over and over, people making their own experiences within the game,” adds Durkis. “For instance, EverQuest is a sword-and-sorcery game, but it’s also a glorified IRC client. People get in there and chat and have cybersex and do all sorts of things that have nothing to do with the game per se-but are facilitated within the game parameters.”

As in the real world, players don’t interact with the entire population of a virtual nation, but rather, a couple thousand others in “splinter” communities on dedicated servers they select. Alliances and rivalries are formed with both humans and non-humans who are increasingly realistic. But the social aspect appears to be a clue to these games’ growing popularity.

“People find it much more exhilarating to play with others,” Kasavin says. “There are very good non-human (AI) opponents now, very devious and smart. But people still like playing people.”

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