"The question of whether I own the monkey sword is over," a gamer named Katie Lukas announced to a roomful of serious gamers and game makers in New York in September.
"I own it. The question is, what are you going to do about it?"
Monkey swords and "World of Warcraft" gold. "EverQuest" swords and "Second Life" cars. These are just a few of the favorite things that players of massively multiplayer online games have been selling to each other for the last several years.
Despite Lukas' comment, the debate is unsettled. Some game makers have OK'd these sales. Others, like those behind the hugely popular "World of Warcraft," consider it a ban-able offense. Some players, like Lukas, think the effort they put into acquiring, customizing and sometimes even creating virtual items makes the invisible objects they play with their own. Others still feel they're just playing with the company toys.
This is the kind of story that bubbles up now and then, like when the latest report comes from MMO-crazy Southeast Asia about a player killing another over a stolen virtual item or when an MMO like "Project Entropia" makes a deal to allow its virtual money withdrawn as real currency in actual ATMs.
So when will the debate pop up again? It may very well emerge with the release of one of the most popular games at this month's Electronics Entertainment Expo: Will Wright and Maxis/ EA's 2007 PC game "Spore." And to predict that "Spore" might provide a flashpoint is a compliment to the game.
PlayStation 3, Nintendo Wii and Bill Gates make waves at the expo that reveals gaming's future.
During all of this, the player is the disembodied architect of the evolution of at least one of the species in their universe, customizing and tweaking the features of their creatures as the not-quite-Darwinian chain of life progresses.
Wright and company didn't allow E3 attendees to play much of "Spore." But they did let a few mess around with the game's creature editor, a sort of Photoshop or Maya for the bulbous, Pixar-looking characters the game encourages you to create.
New virtual life was easily created with surprisingly intuitive movements. Stretch a hanging torso from eggplant shape to carrot. Click vertebrae and roll the mouse wheel to fatten or pinch a cross section of the body. Drag and drop a head and some eyes; slide the cursor around a wheel to get pupils in a googly-eyed position. Add fangs. Add feet. Click a button to try and make it walk. Test its roar.
It was all easy to use, and the resulting, ridiculous creature would have been at home on the pages of Dr. Seuss. But it wasn't the genius work of the doctor — it was the creation of the player working the mouse. The creation, but not the property, probably: EA and Maxis would most likely own it.
Katie Lukas wouldn't be relevant to this if the creatures that could be created weren't so varied and fun to look at — something each player will invariably feel attached to and possibly possessive of. She also wouldn't be relevant if "Spore" weren't designed as what Wright is describing as a "massively single-player" experience, in which players are hooked to the Internet through their PCs and never compete against each other, but have the creatures they create automatically uploaded into a server and sprinkled into the universe of other players.
"Spore" players are helping populate the game's universe in a similar but more automated version of how enthusiastic "Sims" players built furniture for each others' virtual homes. These creatures will feel like your own.
As he demoed the game in a darkened theater during the final session of E3 earlier this month, Wright wowed the audience with the variety of creatures he could create. He showed more, flipping some virtual trading cards onscreen that will be created for each player's creation, credit the creature's creator on them and let their figments be tracked as they populate other people's games.
Wright explained how even the player's personality traits — bellicose or generous, for example — may be imprinted in their creature's DNA, to emerge for good or ill in other people's copies of "Spore." When Wright finished his demo, the lights went up and there were figurines of some well-crafted "Spore" creatures, all "printed" from a high-tech 3-D printer but also the perfect kind of thing to sell in toy stores. Again, who's not going to feel attached?
An EA spokesperson said it was too early to say exactly what EA and Maxis will legally state they own and how exactly the terms of playing the game will be presented to players. So with creatures as lively, engaging and as personally crafted as those in "Spore" — and with the player's role so integral to the game itself — who's going to care who owns what? And who is going to start feeling possessive?
More from the world of gaming:
Ubisoft announced Monday that the company will create PC, console and portable games based on TV's "Lost" for release in 2007, although a Ubisoft spokesperson said it's too early to say what kind of games they'll be. The company is putting development in the hands of its massive Montreal studio, which works on everything from the acrobatic "Prince of Persia" adventure games to moodier "Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell" work and licensed games like "Open Season." ...
Last week saw the release of "New Super Mario Brothers" for the Nintendo DS, the first new side-scrolling Mario game since "Super Mario World," which was released in America in 1991. That's just short of a "Return of the Jedi"-"Phantom Menace" gap, though no game reviewer has yet to charge the new "Mario" with botching that comeback the way so many movie critics slammed George Lucas. "NSMB" has gotten mostly rave reviews. Still, playing the last two "Mario" side-scroller games make for an interesting comparison, underscoring the rare criticism of the new "Mario" from 1Up.com's Jeremy Parish, who charged the game with not living up to its potential and said the game "lacks that inspiration, the ability to defy your expectations and make you gasp in surprise." Where it does elicit surprise is how much more difficult "Mario"-style gameplay is than most of the other types of games currently in vogue. And it serves as a handy reminder of the original concept's genius: Lending the game to lapsed gamers and they get to hopping right away. ...
A little more about the Nintendo Wii from a GameFile interview with the creators of "Metroid Prime 3: Corruption": One of the common complaints about what was generally a pretty strong demo of the game was how the Wii controller's left-hand nunchaku device was used to trigger "Metroid" heroine Samus' left-handed grappling beam. Thrusting one's left hand forward in real life made the beam shoot out from her virtual hand like a Spider-Man web. That caused the beam to latch onto some junk that then needed to be yanked away. The natural assumption was to yank the controller back, but that did nothing. Instead the demo required that players flick the nunchaku's control stick back, even though it made Samus' hand jerk back. Why would Retro make the outward casting so Wii-specific but map the pullback to an old-school flick of a stick? The folks at Retro said it's because the Wii's nunchaku device can't read the pullback as a separate motion from when it's thrust out. That kind of positional movement can be read in the right-hand remote controller, but not for the left — a newly revealed limitation to a controller with endless possibilities that now seem just a tiny bit more narrow.
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