October 24, 2004

Online gaming? How about online trading...

Gaming prodigy Jules Urbach has created a platform for instant-message-based video games and other applications that he plans to offer free to hobbyist developers and others. Urbach says the Otoy game engine is the key to leveraging instant messaging for a multitude of purposes, including huge multiplayer games that are free. "What I've always been most interested in is the idea of a virtual community, and AOL had the first chat room and IM," he says of his admiration for America Online's sometimes derided approach to the Internet. Urbach is a co-founder of video game firm Groove Alliance, which makes low-memory, online 3D games for clients such as Nickelodeon, Disney, Shockwave, and Electronic Arts; he is currently designing a Star Trek-like game for the Otoy platform that will be run in a window linked to the users' instant-messaging application, so that numerous players can be involved in the game simultaneously and use a separate window to chat with each other. Urbach says his Otoy games are highly componentized and could provide fertile ground for advertisers who could, for example, paste clickable billboards on virtual spaceships: "Each piece in a game can be a separate, encrypted stream," Urbach notes. Otoy will be made available as a free download next year, and Urbach hopes individual developers will use it to create applications that pull up Web browsers, MP3 files, Excel spreadsheets, or whatever other applications they can cook up. Urbach developed Hell Cab, one of the first CD-ROM games that became a best seller in 1992, and created the first 3D video game using Macromedia Director software.

FOR the past year, Jules Urbach has been crunching computer code in a converted bedroom on the second floor of his mother's house in Sherman Oaks, Calif., fine-tuning a piece of software that may well revolutionize online gaming. Mr. Urbach, whose words come in a caffeinated rush, is so excited about introducing his invention on the Web that he never stops working on it; his fingers dance across his Dell keyboard even as he delivers a frantic verbal sales pitch.

"I mean, there's really no telling what's going to happen with this thing," said the 30-year-old video-game designer. "Who knows what developers are going to do when they see this?"

Mr. Urbach hopes they will be inspired to irrevocably change the online gaming landscape. His invention, which he calls Otoy, is a game engine that piggybacks on instant messaging, and thus it is something of a Holy Grail in the software world. For years, developers have been trying to figure out ways to turn instant messaging into a multipronged medium that goes beyond mere chat to integrate games, e-mail and Web browsing; in the gloaming of a guest bedroom, Mr. Urbach believes he may well have come up with the skeleton key that will open IM to an era of hyper-functionality.

"I think a lot of people are going to be blown away by this," said Clay Sparks, a character designer and movie miniature artist ("The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen") who has designed games for Mr. Urbach's company, Groove Alliance.

Mr. Urbach is a video game prodigy. In 1992, shortly after graduating from Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, he created one of the first CD-ROM games (the best-selling Hell Cab), then became the first developer to design a 3-D video game (Real Pool, www.shockwave.com) using Macromedia Director software, a feat that even Macromedia's executives had thought was impossible.

In 1998, Mr. Urbach founded Groove Alliance with Chris Kantrowitz and Peter Laufenberg. Groove was one of the first game companies that created 3-D products exclusively for online use, churning out dozens of titles for Nickelodeon, Disney, Shockwave and Electronic Arts, among others, and providing a healthy living for Mr. Urbach, who now pays the mortgage on his mother's house.

Yet despite his success, he was restless. He suspected that there was some unexplored online games frontier, and he wanted to get there first. Instant-messaging services already offered primitive elemental games like tic-tac-toe, but Mr. Urbach wanted to integrate his 3-D games into IM, which he believed could help spread them more widely. "I wanted multiplayer games to be available to everyone, and I wanted it to be free," Mr. Urbach said.

Mr. Urbach's inspiration for Otoy came from a unlikely source: America Online. AOL is regarded by many as an online dinosaur, but Mr. Urbach, who has maintained his original AOL account since the early 90's, is one of its fans.

"What I've always been most interested in is the idea of a virtual community, and AOL had the first chat room and IM," he said. "I love picking a character and going into a room and leading a virtual life. I love everything about AOL, actually."

Mr. Urbach is a populist; he wants his games to be played by casual gamers - thousands of them playing against one another, if all goes according to plan - and not necessarily the hard-core addicts who spend countless hours on pay-for-play online games. "I look at something like Everquest, which is very complex and very addictive, and I see that working for simpler games as well," Mr. Urbach said. "That desire to be part of a larger community is just part of human nature."

To that end, Mr. Urbach has figured out how to use compelling low-memory games, many of them Groove games that occupy less than 70 kilobytes of memory, for Otoy. Users will see a link in their instant-messaging windows that will open a second window, adjacent and slightly larger. This is Mr. Urbach's versatile Otoy IM portal.

Click on a game link and the window reveals a constellation of stars and spaceships operated by individual players, or a prehistoric tableau with treasure-seeking dinosaurs. A chat room window can be overlaid on the games so that players can converse as they play.

Each component in a game designed for Otoy can be added or eliminated by the players with a few simple command lines. "I can componentize everything," Mr. Urbach said. "Each piece in a game can be a separate, encrypted stream." Mr. Urbach hopes this feature will be manna for advertisers, who can paste a billboard on a spaceship as a hot link, and then have players send the ship virally - when gamers send a ship to other players, the ad will be imbedded on the ship - to thousands of other players, who can then click on the link to reach the advertiser's Web site.

Otoy, which Mr. Urbach plans to make available next year for free downloading, can also be used to pull up Web browsers, MP3 files or Excel spreadsheets, depending on the programmer's intent. Mr. Urbach also has Photoshop built into Otoy.

He is not certain how all of this is going to come together. Like a mad scientist unsure of what he has wrought, he is leaving that to the armchair developers and open-source programmers who he hopes will tap into Otoy's seemingly limitless potential. The code language for Otoy is streamlined and easily comprehensible - a kind of Esperanto script that Mr. Urbach hopes will spur innovation from unlikely sources.

As for Mr. Urbach's own content for Otoy, he is working on a potential Star Trek project. "I wish I had this technology when I was 17," he said. "This is just a fulfillment of a desire to do things like this when I was a kid."

Posted by graeme at October 24, 2004 12:29 PM | TrackBack

Cool really cool.

Posted by: Jimbo at October 24, 2004 06:46 PM