Matrix Online jacking in on January 18, 2005

Sega and Warner Bros. plan simultaneous launch of their movie-inspired MMORPG next year in the US and Europe.

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The holiday season grew a little less crowded today. Sega and Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment announced the Matrix Online will no longer ship in November 2004 as previously expected. Instead, the massively multiplayer online role-playing game based on the Matrix sci-fi film trilogy will launch on January 18, 2005. The game's release will be simultaneous in North America and Europe.

In the Matrix, things won't always be what they seem.

Sega and Warner Bros. also announced that they would begin a Matrix Online preorder program next week. Those who preorder the game will get access to its closed beta, which will start on November 18, 2004. "During the pre-order beta, players will experience The Matrix Online's full mechanics and abilities," said the two companies in a statement. "[It] will be an opportunity for members of the Matrix community to establish allegiances, join guilds and plan strategies for the full game."

Those purchasing preorders will also get access to the game three days ahead of the general public, and their in-game characters will receive "an advanced-level 'Hyper Jump' ability with a special effect."

Billed as "continuing the saga" of The Matrix trilogy, the Matrix Online is being produced by Warner-owned Monolith Productions, with input from the films' directors, the Wachowski brothers. Players will be able to join one of three factions--the Humans, the Machines, or the Exiles--in the game, which will feature a complex skill and ability system as well as "an extensive mission structure." GameSpot's feature preview has more data on the MMORPG.

GameSpot spoke with Jason Hall, senior vice president of Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, shortly before today's news was released.

GameSpot: The game previously had a November release date. What’s behind the change and how will the development team be using these extra months?

Jason Hall: There are a couple of components behind the change, but the main thing is some opportunities presented themselves that allow us to do a much [larger] release as opposed to just the United States. [We'll now] include the vast majority of Europe in the same launch effort. We feel that that’s a compelling enough opportunity.

GS: What was the main reason for that?

JH: Well, the Matrix Online is the continuation of the story of the Matrix, and on day one of the launch, the story continues [with] what happened to Morpheus. All of these questions start to get answered. If we do a simultaneous launch, everybody can experience the story on a going-forward basis at the same time, as opposed to having a six-month lag between what’s going on in Europe and what’s going on in the United States.

GS: Will there be a limit to the number of gamers who can populate the closed beta beginning in November?

JH: Currently we have not set a limit, but that’s not to say that there won’t be one.

GS: How solid is the January release date?

JH: I can assure you that it’s going to ship on January 18. From a technical standpoint, if we really wanted to not include other countries, we could have shipped it a little bit earlier. This is why we’re very confident in our ship date. Our decision revolves much more around maximizing the opportunity with the Matrix and reaching as many users as possible, and much less around things like a technological or production hiccup.

GS: Absent a clear storyline during the beta, what will gamers be able to do inside the gameworld?

JH: During beta there are physical game mechanics that are newer to the genre than [what] the Matrix Online brings to the table. People will be able to experience the combat system, which is different--much more tactile than any other MMO. They’ll also be able to see how our mission system works, how they’re going to be able to have varying degrees of exploration in the game. The game is designed to accommodate people who want to spend 20 hours on the game at a time, or 10 minutes, and there’s a whole design system supporting that, and it relates to how the mission system functions.

In the beta, people will be able to experience how that works, why now you can get in and out of the Matrix in 15 minutes and actually accomplish something. On top of that, they get to check out how the graphics look, how the game runs, how it performs on their systems, and they can learn how relationships form within the game. So when the story goes live [in January] they have a pretty good idea and sense of direction that they want to take. The experience is not super linear.

GS: Jason, how do you want players to judge the Matrix Online?

JH: We have worked very hard to capture the elements that made the first movie special and to heighten and bring those elements into the Matrix Online, so I’m hoping that the game players experience that and really get a sense of that place. I’m hoping that they essentially get the sense that the specific story that’s going on in the game matters, and that they affect it.

One of the big problems in MMOs that I see is that they are very general. They're not necessarily cumulatively taking everybody somewhere, and from what I’ve seen during the testing and what I know we’re planning, it’s so much more compelling to actually be part of a real ongoing fiction, that’s contemporary on top of that. I’m hoping that the gamers who play the game appreciate that, that they realize we’re not just giving them a sandbox to play in, but it’s actually a sandbox with a purpose and that actually has a direction.

That aside, from the basic stuff like the combat technology being used, from the fact that we’re probably the most dense game in terms of content--each building is fleshed out, it’s a whole real city there--I don’t want to sell the Matrix on technology or graphics, I want to sell the Matrix on what the content is.

GS: Have you decided on the game's retail price and subscription fees?

JH: Those pieces have been decided, but Sega is a part of that discussion and it wouldn’t be appropriate for me at this point to discuss that.

GS: How are you approaching the marketing of the Matrix Online? And does the new date, one that's even further out from the release of the movies, make promoting the game more difficult?

JH: Thematically, we are approaching the marketing for the Matrix Online from the standpoint of 'it is a good game unto itself,' so the distance that we get from the movies is not as relevant to us as you think.

The game is fun whether you saw the movies or not. And we built it that way. We’re not trying to take an exploitive take on the Matrix properties in building a massively multiplayer game. We’re trying to make a massively multiplayer game that stands on its own [and] continues the story of the Matrix, but it’s fun in its own right.

GS: What are the hoped-for sales numbers you're floating within the organization?

JH: I can’t tell you that, but I will tell you that we have high hopes for the product. Our hopes are completely rooted in the quality of the game product that we’re delivering, not in the fact that it’s the Matrix, so [therefore] it’s guaranteed to sell.

GS: Are the Wachowski brothers involved in the game currently?

JH: They’re not in there looking at textures, but they are supervising the story.

GS: The MMOG space has suffered a number of casualties in the past year. What do you think it is about the Matrix Online that’s kept it from suffering the same fate?

JH: When you embark on building an MMO, the casualty rate is as high because, frankly, they’re just very difficult computer programs to create and the number of people on earth who know how to make them is limited.

It takes a lot of money, and a lot of patience, and very, very good and detailed planning. Now, that’s something that Monolith has really figured out…the planning aspect of video game production; which is why when they build them, they typically are able to hit their launch windows whenever they say they will. A big portion of why this game has stayed on track and why it’s at the level that it’s at is because of all the planning that went into the product three years ago.

GS: You are now eight months into your job at Warner Bros. What sort of traction are games getting inside the organization?

JH: Unprecedented. That’s how I would characterize it. Warner Bros. has completely supported the video games effort. They take the game industry very seriously, much more seriously, I think, than the other studios do. And they are absolutely determined to take a position within the game space that in some form or another marks them as a leader.

GS: Was it a tough decision to adjust the release date?

JH: The fact of the matter is we’re trying to capture a wider market for the Matrix, and we’re trying to make sure that more people can participate in the same storyline together. But certainly, it’s not like we’re going to tell Monolith to stop working, right? So, certainly the game only gets more polish as it goes forward. And these are the things that Warner Bros. wants to do. When we release this product, it’s going to be reflective of the way we want to conduct ourselves in the space. It’s not an easy decision to say, “Hey, let’s skip Christmas,” knowing that if we really wanted to, we could put it out beforehand. But the best decision for the game, the best decision for the consumers is for us to wait 60 days, and that’s what we’re going to do. We all agreed: Let’s do the right thing for the product and for the consumer.

GS: What are you currently advocating in terms of the direction Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment takes?

JH: In the simplest terms, quality is number one. In order to achieve that, we have to be competent in our dealing within the game space, with developers and with publishers. And to create that competency within a studio, there has to be understanding. So as we go forward, there’s a lot of work [to be done] internally, inside Warner Bros., creating an understanding of the game space.

GS: And they're seeing it how?

JH: Warner Bros. views the game space as a legitimate place for content, not just a place simply to license product off into. So, where I’m trying to take Warner Bros. is for them to be viewed by the average consumer and game player as a legitimate game development entity that puts as much care into its products as any of the other top-tier game entities. Over the course of time I think you’ll see us live up to that standard.

GS: Thanks, Jason.

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