RPS in Paris: Empire Of Sports

By Jim Rossignol on November 16th, 2007 at 9:48 am.

So Gillen and I were invited to visit the offices of F4 in central Paris. F4 are making a sports MMO named Empire Of Sports. Consider it for a moment: a sports MMO. That’s right: no orcs, no elves, not even any spaceships – just healthy young folk wielding tennis bats, kicking foot-to-ball spheres, and pumping iron a world full of gymnasiums. It was clearly our duty to examine it, to question its creators and to have rabbit-based dinner in a popular Parisian brasserie.

Past the jump I self-indulgently ramble on about whatever came to mind while I was writing this up, look at why Empire Of Sports might just be the first generation of a new kind of MMO, and fail to make any worthwhile Amélie references. You’ll also not see the photos we took of our trip, because we forgot to take a camera with us. What we took instead were ‘brain photos’, which we don’t seem to have a USB cable for.

The F4 marketing manager was, in a previous incarnation, one of the finest games journalists the world had ever seen: Mathilde Remy, fearless French wordsmith and Joystick journalist. She met us from the Eurostar and – unusually on meeting a games company PR manager – we kissed twice, in the Parisian fashion. Englishman’s embarrassment rapidly dissipated, we navigated the Paris metro to make our way to the F4 offices. Enroute we discussed the nature of the project: Remy was enthusing. She told us about the vision behind the company, and the nature of its founder members. F4, she told us, were not quite like other developers. Clearly, we would find out.

Now I’ve seen some pretty impressive dev headquarters but those belonging to F4 – on the Champs-Élysées a couple of hundred metres east of the Arc de Triomphe – are situationally peerless. They might have lacked the airy utility of the countless open-plan work-halls that I’ve visited over the years, but being able to drop to street level and immediately be able sit about in cafés pretending to be Sartre make F4′s base all the more enviable.


Jim Rossignol, in Paris, yesterday.

Soon we were escorted to the boardroom and introduced to the F4 bigwigs. Kieron stroked his beard and I drank an Espresso. It was time to see a good deal of what makes Empire Of Sports so interesting. But first: tennis.

The main impression that anyone who has come away from playing Empire Of Sports seems to have taken with them is this: the tennis is quite good. It’s unlike any other tennis you might have played – it uses WASD to position the player and a point-and-click accuracy reticle for aiming. This might sound strange when we’re so used to twitch gamepad-friendly tennis, but it’s actually a remarkable design – and the accuracy reticle allows various techniques to be employed (via a mix of mouse buttons and number keys) while also giving some reason the RPG elements of Empire Of Sports. You not only develop the fitness of your character, but you level up at tennis.

So what Empire Of Sports has already done, quite successfully, is to create a prototype for an online sport that is both skill-based, and also beholden to RPG-style development. That’s quite an accomplishment. The skiing and bob-sled are at a similar level of competence, but it could be the larger sports – basketball and soccer – that prove to be a stumbling block. They have not yet been revealed in any significant, playable state, and they could potentially make or break the whole idea of a sports MMO. If F4 can create a satisfying system for play along the lines of what they’ve already achieved with tennis, then Empire Of Sports will be a major feat of fresh game design.

F4 want to be the kind of company that does something different with MMOs. It wants to make them natural places to go for games, and the kind of thing that anyone can download and start playing. As well as Empire of Sports they’re developing an MMO racing game for the subscribers of a French ISP, but we’ll talk about that if and when it ever finds itself with an English version.

What’s key to the Empire of Sports MMO concept is the world itself. This cartoon capital-city area is a linking hub of non-sporting activities that allows players to hang out, interact and organise games. It’s a bright, science-fictional caricature of the real world, in which you can travel to the various sports facilities, shop, get tattoos and pick up sporting assignments (basically quests) that allow you to train your character and develop their repertoire of sporting skills. Like Guild Wars’ build system for skills, you’ll be able to select a set of tricks for any particular game – so you might develop your particular skiing or football build, unique to your character. You might be excellent at taking jumps in the skiing, or really good at crosses in football, for example. There are gyms, in which you play various reaction-time and rhythm-action games to buff your character. This is, I suppose, part of where the traditional MMO ‘grind’ lies. You’ll need to come into here to level up, although your character will not (sadly) get fat from inactivity.

If characters were to get fat then they could be found hanging out in the player apartments. Everyone has a home of their own, to be furnished and kitted out with trophies. Apartments also have a TV screen which will act as a portal to game-viewing. Being a sports game, there’s every reason why people should want to watch some of the play that’s going on in the world, and F4 want to facilitate that. This is, at heart, a PvP game. The world itself is cute enough, but really it’s all front-end interface for the real meat of solo and team-based competitions. Playing against other human beings will be what makes Empire Of Sports really interesting. Competitions will, in time, develop into general cups and leagues, to be run on a regular basis. The hardcore will be able to band into sporting teams and to hone their skills together as they practice for big games. If they can get the mechanics of play right then five-aside online soccer could really be a big draw.

Later, with Empire Of Sports largely explored, we headed off into the depths of Paris to find a table at which to sit and eat delicious stuffed rabbit-meats. There we were joined by some F4 design team folks, and we discussed the state of the MMO generally. What should MMOs learn from? Should a game always have at least a rudimentary trading economy? Or how about City Of Heroes side-kick approach? Shouldn’t there always be some mechanic for a beginner to be able to play alongside his more experienced friend? All issues that Empire Of Sports will have to deal with.

What seems clear from seeing Empire Of Sports for the first time is that ArenaNet’s Jeff Strain was right when he said (and I paraphrase) that MMO is simply a technology for putting loads of people in the same game. Empire Of Sports is a fine example of just that: it’s recognisably removed from the Everquest lineage, and it’s the kind of esoteric MMO project that will, finally, begin to break the grip that the old idea of what makes an online RPG. F4, with their background in sciences and big business, seem the ideal kind of company to do that: they’re a band of developers without too many presuppositions about what development should entail. (I’ll leave Kieron to do the full rant at some point, but we’ve said on a few occasions that the big problem with MMOs now could be that they’re developed by people who want to make MMOs. And what that usually means is that they want to make World Of Warcraft. And that, even with 9 million subs on its side, is not the best model for our gaming future. ) F4 are attempting a sports game specifically for the PC, which is odd enough, but it’s also a subscription-based MMO model. That alone makes this game worth paying attention to.

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20 Comments »

  1. Morningoil says:

    Can I just say, I utterly bloody love this blog? And that I can’t believe I’m so late to the party? Seriously – this is like the Looking Glass of blogs.

    Also I salute the community. I think this is the first time in internet history people’s comments are as provocative, well-informed, and interesting as the articles.

    Hurrah!

  2. Janek says:

    Sounds pretty interesting – persistant world with multiple sports, tight-knit teams, full rankings and the ability to watch the action? Oh God yes.

    One would hope they do get the skill/attribute system right, though. I’m thinking something like Eve, where you can swiftly become specialised in a particular role, then branch out from there. Don’t like the idea of grinding minigames for it, mind.

  3. essell says:

    Hooray for non-generic-fantasy-bollocks MMO-ing!

    I wonder whether it will have any influence on players’ interests in actually going out and playing sports…?

  4. The_B says:

    I think you’ve pretty much covered my exact viewpoints on MMOs at the moment with that short bit about everyone trying to copy WoW. But I want to add, it’s fantastic that developers are trying new things. Weirdly, I don’t even play GW anymore – I have the first one, but I’ve never felt compelled to get any of the expansions, I think mainly because even without a subscription, the fantasy format for MMOs just tires me a little.

    And granted, there are several MMO’s (mainly from the East) that try and do different things with the model (such as Audition) but usually these run on micopayments rather than subscription, and I don’t know whether it’s because of their “mass produced” feel to most Eastern MMO’s but they feel rather soulless after the novelty has worn off. It’s excellent to see what seems to be an MMO with real polish and a degree of design flair coming out of this side of the world, and one that doesn’t feel like it has come off the conveyor belt, as it were.

  5. Paul says:

    This has the potential to be huge. But, like the article says the key will be getting the ‘feel’ of all the sports right, especially the team ones.

    It has me far more excited than any other MMO currently in development though, beta key please….

  6. Piratepete says:

    I like the fact that the MMO is defined as a system thats lets lots of players play the same game together. Irrespective of setting. I happen to like fantasy worlds but MMo’s shouldn’t be limited to that entirely. On that note I am gonna go and investigate Test Drive unlimited :)

    By the way can I also wax lyrical about the blog. As a mature gamer I find RPS massively refreshing, intelligent debate, well written articles. Just wee forum would set it off for me nicely :)

    RPS, one of the internets best kept secrets :)

    Only one thing. I can’t get my gravatar to work, and the FAQ link to gravatar don’t work proper guv’nor

  7. Lu-Tze says:

    Unfortunately, I see the main problem here as each activity being too diverse.

    Every person will pretty much settle into playing Tennis or Football or whatever their particular fancy is, and will just whine when the other parts of the game get updates and they don’t.

    2 people who are both heavily into the game might never see each other, and could never even compete on an even keel because they aren’t into the same sports.

    Every single part of this could be done better by a game focused on that one sport (okay, the hub probably not but still…) but they might pull it off and create a really interesting casual MMO where people can take their avatar around a variety of different sports.

    It’s nice to see someone try something different, and try out new control schemes, so that we end up with what is, essentially, Wii Sports Online.

    Hell, you could make every argument i’ve just made against Wii Sports being a successful title too, but the public votes with it’s money. Good luck to them.

  8. Kieron Gillen says:

    One of the things which they’re talking about is, down the line, supporting it solely off advertising, which kind of increases its casual credentials even more.

    (And, of course, heavy advertising in a sports game is the one game type advertising thing we WOULD accept without blinking)

    Their approach to the games is, via the controls, making the sports game completely different in terms of how they play to the traditional model. Yeah, it’s not FIFA… but it’s something else, which hopefully justifies itself. Hopefully.

    (My piece should go live over at EG sooner or later)

    KG

  9. vasagi says:

    sports mmo nah

    you need a very good match making service in there or people with time to grind are gonna pwn every one, with the equal of sports style ganking!

    will be interested to see how this pans out.

  10. Zeno, Internetographer says:

    Well, sports games were never my cup of tea, but it is good to see a developer doing something new with the MMO model. What really needs to happen is for this to lead to Empire of Errand-Running and Empire of Small Claims Court.

  11. F'yth says:

    I can’t say I’m too fond of the “Its a sports game!” thing. On the other hand, their hub system is intriguing to say the least. I could see a match-based FPS, such as UT, making good use of something like that..

    Therefore, while I’m not overly excited about a sports MMO; if succesfull, it might be able to change our perceptions of what an MMO is. This in turn could lead to further innovations (like the fore-mentioned hub-based FPS complete with character customistation).

    Here’s hoping they succeed.

  12. tom says:

    Surely they could double the membership by making it orc tennis or elf rugby..

  13. Zeno, Internetographer says:

    World of SportsCraft

  14. Coherent says:

    Eating bunnies is like eating cats and dogs. Bunnies are pets and companions, not food! It’s only excusable if you’re actually starving to death and have no other protein source. :( :( :( for bunny-meat dinners!

    I’m not much of a francophobe, but this is a good reason to hate the french.

  15. Coherent says:

    Oh yeah, and this is an incredibly stupid idea for an MMO that just perpetuates the fatass gamer stereotype. Why play a sports MMO when you can just go outside and play sports for real?

  16. Matthew Blake says:

    @Coherent: Because this will hopefully get more people to try out MMOs and break the fatass WoW gamer stereotype. Either way, it’s broadening what an MMo can be, and that can only be a good thing.

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