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.
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.