What if everyone in the world could play a game at the same time?
Game of War: Fire Age is an ambitious mobile game that wants to make that prospect a reality — and, most notably, to enable every player to understand what the others are saying while they play.
The game's most impressive feature is an instantaneous translation of text-based online chat. If someone writes in France "MDR" (for "mort de rire," or "dying of laughter"), an English-speaking player sees it as "LOL." Machine Zone, the company behind the game, says it will release Game of War in Apple's App Store this month.
Since the 1990s, a single, giant, global game has been the alluring promise of what are called "massively multiplayer" online games. By the middle of the past decade, at the peak of virtual-world fever, Edward Castronova, an economist at Indiana University, warned that we were facing the equivalent of an emigration crisis — the prospect that hundreds of millions of people would be leaving this world for digital ones, where they would spend the vast bulk of their time and money.
And yet, while these games have indeed proved to be immensely popular — World of Warcraft still has more than 8 million subscribers — they have failed, for the most part, to follow through on the conceit that they are enormous global spaces. Nearly all massively multiplayer games would be better called decently large multiplayer games. To begin with, the millions of subscribers for a single title are divided among millions of computer servers called shards that create a multiverse of virtual worlds that do not intersect or interact with one another. For most of these games, only several thousand players compete alongside one another at a time in a single virtual place.
Eve Online, a science-fiction game from the Icelandic company CCP Games that has a half-million subscribers, is the most notable game to avoid having multiple shards. But Eve Online has never had more than about 65,000 people playing it simultaneously. That's clearly a lot, but it's well shy of 7 billion.
Game of War: Fire Age doesn't have anywhere near a billion, or even a million, players yet — it's now being tested by tens of thousands of players in a beta version in Australia, France, Mexico, New Zealand and Singapore — but that's the goal.
"The basic premise of the game is we want to answer the question: What does it feel like to rule the world?" said Gabriel Leydon, chief executive of Machine Zone. "In order to get that feeling — what does it feel like to be a Napoleon? — you have to get a lot of people in the game."
Game of War is basically a medieval FarmVille crossed with Risk. You start out with a small city that you improve by building farms, logging camps, mines, soldiers' barracks and more. Each action requires a certain amount of time to complete. It could be minutes, or it could be hours or even days. Eventually, you join an alliance with as many as 100 other players who help you speed up your construction and assist in simulated battles with other people's cities.
The game exists on a single map that includes every player's city, and the action unfolds whether you log on to participate or not. I've been playing Game of War for about a week, and I found it more engaging than its closest analogue, Clash of Clans, a hugely popular mobile game that is helping Finnish developer Supercell to gross millions of dollars a day.
Like Clash of Clans, Game of War is free to play, a business model that allows a minority of players to subsidize everyone else's gameplay, because those players pay for optional items to make themselves more powerful or to make the game move along at a faster clip.
Last spring, three of Machine Zone's games ranked among the top 50 highest-grossing apps in Apple's mobile store. And none of those games had the chat translation software that makes the potential of Game of War so intriguing. A good chunk of the fun I had with the game is the notion that I was playing alongside Kiwi and Aussie and French players in a genuinely worldwide competition.
The translation software is not perfect, mind you. At one point, an English-speaking player tried to explain to me that my battering rams would be destroyed during an enemy attack by typing (complete with misspelling), "Seige die first in defense." The game interpreted it as an attempt to write in German, "Victories first in defense." Machine Zone has eliminated other bugs like the translation of a player's name, "Medusa," into the word jellyfish in Spanish.
Most of the time, however, I had little trouble understanding what French- and Spanish-speaking players were saying, even if on occasion the translations were garbled. This allows monolingual players to engage in global alliances across multiple time zones, recruiting allies in other countries to defend their cities while others sleep or go to work or (gasp) spend time with their families.
Whether Game of War becomes the first truly global game is unknowable. While it is compulsively clickable, it is not the kind of skill-based test most dedicated gamers respect.
But it does seem to have cracked a formidable barrier, perhaps the final one, that stood in the way of everyone in the world being able to play the same game together, all at once.
"I want to intensify competition, and communication intensifies competition," Leydon said. "It's the difference between playing silently with someone online and playing next to somebody."