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Artificial Intelligence: Article

WorldForge: The open source answer to EverQuest

Players encouraged to creatively contribute to the game

Most online gamers would sell their grandmother to get a hold of their favorite massively multiplayer (MM) title. The addictive multiplayer genre has continually been at the height of gaming popularity since the introduction of multiuser dungeons and networked personal computers. Today, MM titles such as Verant's awe-inspiring EverQuest are remaking the addictive virtual worlds with cutting-edge visuals and role-playing adventures, attracting a new breed of online gamer. Whether we like it or not, MMs are the Internet's answer to addictive drugs and are reshaping the way we play online.

How we tested
Hardware
Processor: Pentium II Celeron 566 MHz, overclocked to 700 MHz Memory: 128 Meg RAM, Mass storage: Western Digital, 15 gig Platform
Operating System: Red Hat Linux 6.1 Kernel: 2.2.14

Ultima Online (UO), in my humble opinion, was the game that gave the MM genre a widespread, online presence. And although UO played an important part in gaming history, some believed that it did not evolve from multiuser dungeons to deliver a truly advanced virtual world. With this perception, a group of developers decided to create their own player-focused online world, thus enhancing the online gaming experience. The result was the WorldForge Project.

Acorn bug alert!
Acorn 0.3 contains a known error that causes the game to crash on startup. The error can be fixed by changing the name of the music directory to mv path/to/acorn/share/forge/music /path/to/acorn/share/forge/blah, where "blah" is anything other than music.

Born in 1998, WorldForge officially started with an announcement on Slashdot (see Resources for a link). Avinash Gupta headed what was then called the Altima Project and dreamed of creating an online game not just for Linux, but for the entire PC community. Bryce Harrington picked up the reins early on when Gupta departed due to lack of time for the project, and he has led the talented WorldForge developers and artists to release their first online multiplayer game, Acorn.

Acorn unfolds in a small town among the woods of the fantasy world Dural. As a player, you begin life as an upstart pig farmer with simple goals. You earn a living by acquiring young piglets, making them fat by feeding them acorns, and then selling the oinkers to the butcher for cash. Wolves, pig-eating crabs, and walking skeletons, all of whom like to feast on juicy piglets, will be lurking in the woods to make your job just a little more difficult.

However, Acorn should not be underestimated. When I asked Harrington about the status of Acorn and the project as a whole, he said Acorn was designed to be the team's "first something." He added, "Even though [Acorn] is a simple little game, it represents a great achievement." The very important first steps of Acorn have proved that the WorldForge Project can create an original game and maintain the discipline to follow a task through to the end, no matter how simple or tedious it may be.

Growing the oak

WorldForge is not just Acorn, nor just a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG). WorldForge is a project dedicated to providing a complete game system with which anyone can create a persistent, online world. The WorldForge team intends to build the system by steadily releasing increasingly complex games that will use a core game server, media server, a standard communications protocol, and of course a client that gamers use to interact with the virtual environment.

The core game server in development is known as STAGE, or the Stage Two Altima Game Engine. STAGE -- with a modular engine design -- is only now entering development after a lengthy design and documentation period. With STAGE far from complete, Acorn's release prompted the immediate need for a game server. Cyphesis, WorldForge's artificial intelligence simulator, was the answer, and with the inclusion of movement physics, player accounts, and database management, it has been temporarily turned into a game server for Acorn.

The interface between the gamer and the server is another critical element. All client programs will communicate with STAGE and other servers using the object-based Atlas communications protocol, custom-built for WorldForge's requirements. Using objects and semantic phrases for communications, STAGE will support any client that can understand and interpret the object format. This is great news as it will break down the operating system barriers and allow players to use clients of all shapes and sizes, including the text-based displays of MUD fame, intricate 3-D clients, and the classical isometric views characteristic of RPGs.

Client development has seen much progress, with several different mini-projects under way. The most noticeable is UClient, the client that Acorn currently uses. As a media server is still on the wish list, UClient features its own built-in media, which helps generate the isometric two-dimensional display that renders weather effects (such as rain) and some of the best environmental graphics to come from an open source project. The other high-profile client is the three-dimensional XClient. XClient uses OpenGL and will bring the WorldForge realm to players in true 3-D, probably one of the biggest factors in grabbing the edge needed to keep up with the commercial competition in the MM genre.

Weather effects in Acorn 0.3
Click on thumbnail to view
full-size image. (49 KB)

The competition

WorldForge is certainly not alone in the MM genre. The December 2000 PC Gamer outlined several new MM titles in development for the PC, including Planetside, Neverwinter Nights, Anarchy Online, and BigWorld: Citizen Zero. Those titles offer a diverse game play mix, from the traditional Dungeons & Dragons fantasy realms to role-playing first-person shooters, and even to futuristic online adventures that will carve sci-fi plots deep in outer space.

Despite the large MM commercial lineup for the PC, WorldForge's competition will most likely come chiefly from Neverwinter Nights and Anarchy Online. Both of those titles are set to enter the Linux game scene this year, and will showcase some excellent visuals and intricate role-playing realms. However, even with the competition, I still feel confident enough to say that WorldForge will be successful. Let me explain.

Forging ahead

How will WorldForge compete with the quality commercial MM games for Linux and Windows? I think that Harrington couldn't have been more concise when he said that success will come from "good art."

Then again, good art alone will only get you so far. The complete gaming package must also offer what the competition does not, so Harrington's goal is "to make it easy for artistically minded players to easily submit new songs, new graphics, or engineer their own plots and storylines."

Harrington's WorldForge philosophy goes beyond just attracting players into an online world. He also encourages them to help build it, to make a world that they want to live in. Imagine building your own cottage in the woods, crafting a new weapon that's great at lopping off limbs, or composing a new tune on your flute that can control wild beasts. It is a winning idea to encourage originality and welcome the creativity of the gamer with open arms.

A player's residence
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view full-size image. (36 KB)

I'll bet I'm not alone in believing that online gaming is the future. MM titles, both role-playing and first-person shooters, are going to attract players looking to enjoy not only a challenging game, but also the opportunity to interact with other interested gamers. And with more households becoming wired, the competition among MM games will heat up as commercial game-makers look for new and innovative ways to corner the consumer dollar.

Will WorldForge survive? Given its progress in the first two years, I think WorldForge will continue for as long as the developers enjoy realizing their dream. The next phase of the WorldForge plan, Mason, has already commenced and will build from the experiences of Acorn to make, as Harrington described it, "an enjoyable game." WorldForge has a long road to travel but its burden is borne by faithful volunteers who contribute to one of the most courageous and complex gaming developments to grace the open source movement.

More Stories By Lee Anderson

Lee Anderson is a student of Information Systems and Computer Science at Edith Cowan University in Western Australia. Lee discovered Linux in December 1998, is addicted to fast-paced driving simulators, and loves the beach. He has a passion for learning new technologies and writes articles as a way of contributing to the open source movement.

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