My impressions of Puzzle Pirates developer Three Rings' new project were coloured by the minor car accident I got into on my way to check it out.
Escaping into a virtual world was just what I needed after filing an insurance claim in a San Francisco parking lot. I began the process by walking through quite possibly the most badass office setup I've ever seen. Three Rings calls their establishment "Nautilus" and actually has a submarine hatch built into one of the corners of the spacious office, right next to the bookcase with a hidden door behind it. After perching on a carved wooden chair - the plainest thing in the whole room as far as I could see - I leaned over Designer & CEO Daniel James' shoulder to watch him boot up Whirled.
The best way to describe all that Whirled is - and it's a lot of things - is virtual environment/online community/games portal. Players (Three Rings hates calling them "users") log onto Whirled and start their virtual life with a little tofu avatar. They can evolve their avatar into just about anything they want (emperor penguin, giant whale, nearly-naked man) by playing games and earning coins to buy themselves stuff and upgrades.
Aside from avatars, players also have their own room to decorate and remake into a reflection of their inner-self. Or not - they could just make it into a pixilated strip joint/opium den, if they so choose. The point is freedom of expression and Whirled gives players the power to do that by encouraging them to create their own stuff and upload it for other players to use.
Most of that stuff is player-made games. Three Rings has always adored online multiplayer games - sort of like the Korean go-kart gaming fad - and multiplayer flash mages make up the core of Whirled's experience. Some of the games Three Rings makes themselves, but they're hoping the vast majority of Whirled's games will be player-made masterpieces that encourage gamers to be creative and business savvy.
For example, James showed me Corpse Craft - a primitive RPG made up of dungeons created by users. The graphics are old school; it's kind of nice you have the option to change your avatar's appearance to fit in because I think a giant emperor penguin would kind of stick out in a semi-goth setting.
"Penny Arcade described it as 'fucking banging,'" James bragged.
And it was, but for more reasons than the setting and the decent gameplay. Corpse Craft is set up such that it's free to play - but to get the most out of the experience players have to spend real-life money to buy Whirled gold bars. The gold bars go for 10 cents apiece and can be used to purchase content for the game; in this case, monsters for the dungeons.
Player-creators can choose not to require gold bars of their audience - the alternative currency in Whirled is "coins" which are earned entirely through in-game actions. But the incentive for gamers to be enterprising is high: the more gold bars a player-creator can get his audience to buy, the more opportunity he has to cash out gold bars into real money. You know, to use in real life.
So, if you made the most awesome game ever that so happened to require the purchase of gold bars here and there, you could make some money from Whirled. Not mention a name for yourself as a game developer.
"We're hoping that developers will take advantage of Whirled as well," said James.
There certainly is plenty of opportunity. Whirled launched its beta in March of 2008 and has grown to a base of nearly 20000 players since then.
The beta tag stays only because Three Rings isn't quite done fiddling with the world here and there. Among the changes the developer is hoping to make is more group/guild management functionality. Currently, Whirled has friends lists and chat just like Facebook - but since the emphasis is more on gaming together than on just hanging out together, a guild system would be nice.
Whirled is something I feel that I can't quite be put into words. It's more than just a virtual space like Home and more than a networking system like Xbox Live. Go check it out for yourself if you want the full idea. Like with Puzzle Pirates, there's a lot of stuff going on under the shiny, entertaining hood.
Me, I've got some more insurance stuff to deal with.