Just wait until you see Game of War: Fire Age. There really is nothing quite like it. It is a game of tremendous scope and vision. But it’s not so much what you see, it’s what happening in the world that is particularly mind-blowing. Machine Zone‘s forthcoming MMO RTS, capable of supporting hundreds of thousands of simultaneous players in a persistent synchronous world, is a watershed project. At the time of this writing, the game is only up and running in five countries. By the time you read this, it’ll have been released worldwide. And it may change the face of gaming forever.
But this is not a game review. This is a story about a vision. This is a story about a dream. Gabriel Leydon is the dreamer. It’s his singular mission to revolutionize gaming – beyond the remarkable things Machine Zone has already done in mobile. The revolution he has in mind has to do with scale, as in massive scale. It wasn’t enough that he and co-founders Mike Sherill and Halbert Nakagawa ushered in the F2P paradigm long before Apple made it do-able within a game. What Leydon has in mind are hyper-connected real-time environments where not thousands, but hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of players interact simultaneously. With this new game, he’s drawn his line in the sand.
Game of War: Fire Age can host 3 million players in simultaneous chat with a .2 second response time. Gamers from all over the world can interact with each other, form alliances, plot, strategize, email, comment and chat with no language barrier because Game of War does translations on the fly. Type in a command or a greeting to a gamer in France, bingo, it appears in French in his chat window. Spanish, German, Russian? No problem. And if there’s strange bit of slang or a text acronym that it can’t handle, the game turns to players for answers, building it’s database through crowd-sourcing.
Gabriel Leydon, Machine Zone’s co-Founder and CEO, is hell-bent on making gamers feel powerful. He wants to convey scale, and create massive communities. He wants to create something so engaging, cooperative and unpredictable that it evokes the turning tides of real battle, the drama and adrenaline of alliances, betrayal, victory, defeat, the rush that can only come from the interaction of real human beings having to make decisions in real time. Game of War cannot be played, fought or won alone. It is not a game of individual glory, but one that requires teams, pitting kingdom against kingdom in a quest to dominate a huge, real time world.
The first incarnation of Machine Zone was called AddMired. They began as an app developer, building a slick photo-sharing community on MySpace called Addable. Addable was a huge hit on the early social network, allowing users to not just share photos and build comment threads around them, but to make a game out of it. This fostered competition and engendered a sense of power among those users who were most adept at gaining followers, thus boosting their photos to the front of the line.
Addable was popular, but there was no way to make money on it. Not at that time on MySpace. But it didn’t really matter. Sometimes, cash is not the ultimate reward. In the fast-moving, cutthroat world of social-mobile, knowledge enables kings. And what Leydon and his partners took away from their MySpace adventure was enough to launch a thousand apps. And perhaps a million kings.
Leydon is a game designer at heart, and that’s because he is and always has been a game player. He was the typical lonely-kid-gamer as a boy, playing and becoming proficient at games in order to fit in. For him, prowess in games was a form of social currency. In his late teens, he would log up to sixteen hours a day playing Atari’s San Francisco Rush, becoming one of the best in the world at the game. After hacking into the system and getting caught, he was recruited by Atari as a testing lead. But even before breaking into game development, Leydon understood inherently what it meant as a player to feel that sense of virtual power and wield control in a gaming world. It was the feeling of being very good at something and the power of connectedness with others that inspired his vision.
As a game designer, Leydon’s goal has always been to make his players feel powerful. But power, as he describes it, is derived not from money or resources. “The value of a king is not how much gold he has or how much land,” Leydon says. “It’s how many subjects he’s got; it’s how many people will follow you.”
Power is derived from other human beings. It’s given to you via an agreement between people, an exchange of energies and consent. And that dynamic is precisely what Machine Zone attempts to replicate in its games – and what it has created in Game of War: Fire Age.
iMob was Machine Zone’s foray into iOS. It was their first game and the proving ground for the ideas and mechanics they gleaned from building Addable on MySpace (i.e. community, connectedness, something about empowerment). iMob was a mostly text-based RPG that introduced the concept of Free-to-Play. Read that again: it introduced Free-to-Play. At that time, there were no tools, no hooks for in-app purchases. But Leydon and his team got around those limitations by prompting players to purchase other Machine Zone apps that communicated with iMob, to give players boosts and other in-game enhancements. Viola. Free-to-Play is born. It was primitive and clunky, but it worked. iMob was a huge hit.
But this was still in the boom era of the social game phenoms when Zynga’s Ville-franchises were making money hand over fist, and Leydon admits that he had a little Facebook envy. The acronym-crazy days of social were dominated by DAUs and ARPUs but F2P had yet to be coined. Still, Machine Zone stayed the course. They knew they were onto something big but believed that it was going to get bigger. Gaming, as the world understood it, was about to be hit with its dinosaur-killing asteroid. And Leydon and crew knew it.
When the tools came along that did allow for in-app purchases, Machine Zone’s revenue went up 700 percent almost overnight. That Facebook envy was gone, and Leydon raised $13M in venture money rather quickly. And it’s no wonder. His passion for the F2P paradigm and mobile gaming in general is on the level of a fire and brimstone gospel preacher.
“Console and PC are old models,” Leydon says. “The App Store changed everything. Think about it. Between Google Play and iOS, we can reach 2 billion people in real-time. And you have the F2P revolution. The other industries? They just don’t matter. There is no game industry outside of mobile.”
Leydon does not come off as arrogant. He speaks with the authority of a hands-on developer who has struggled and lost some hard-fought battles. But there’s an edge to his voice. He has the quiet confidence of a poker-player holding a suite of kings. And his conviction on the future of mobile and the power of hyper-connectedness is spellbinding. But it’s his thoughts on story in games that are perhaps the most compelling. Machine Zone focuses almost all its energies on community-enabling tools and player-driven events’ which are, he says, far more interesting than anything game designers or writers can dream up.
“I don’t believe in stories,” Leydon says. “I’m trying to create an event, not tell you a narrative. The real power is in sharing with other people. The story is the player base. The story is the player. If you get out of the users’ way, the stories are always perfect. Their stories make sense. Enabling those interactions is the biggest challenge. It’s what Machine Zone is all about.”
When asked about the name Machine Zone, Leydon described it as that sense of immersion one gets when you’re, say, driving at night and realize you’re home without remembering how you got there. It’s that sense of immersion, of transparency, of mechanism that Leydon is shooting for in his games.
“Machine zone represents the total immersion a player feels with the device,” Leydon says. “The zone is a moment where the game stops being a game and starts becoming real. We focus on social technologies because that’s the only technology that can really create the level of realism we want on our games. The emotions are real, the relationships are real, and the game becomes real.”
If the early numbers on Game of War: Fire Age hold (average time spent in-game daily is two hours), then Machine Zone may have succeeded in that flattening of time where the details no longer matter. They may have created the ultimate virtual space where human psychology and the social behavior of man actually trumps graphics and gameplay. Should we be stoked, or scared?