Richard Garriott has a burning problem. The petroleum rivers on the volcanic planet of Arieki ignite when hit by lasers or flame, but for how long should they burn? "Do we let them burn forever?" he asks himself out loud. "Does the entire river catch fire, or just part of it? Do we program it to reset after 30 minutes?"
Good questions. Garriott is executive producer for Tabula Rasa, a new massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) set to launch later this year. He's creating a world that possibly hundreds of thousands of people will inhabit online, paying perhaps $15 a month. "People take these games very seriously," he says. "They invest their time and emotion in these worlds."
Tabula Rasa—in which players battle relentless armies of aliens—will require the services of more than 100 programmers, artists, writers, and musicians. And petroleum rivers are the least of it: Tabula Rasa will feature multiple planets like Arieki, each with its own characters, landscapes, and weather systems meant to "feel immediate and scary," as Garriott puts it.
All of that, of course, has to be engineered and designed—elevating a relatively small group of programmers to the realm of online deities. "It sounds funny to say, but we are the gods of [players'] worlds," says Matt Firor, a developer of Dark Age of Camelot, another MMOG. "We can shut down servers, make them powerful, make them weak, move them around at will…"
Of course, even deities are fallible: Since Camelot's 2001 launch, players have been able to cast spells through walls, something programmers never intended; the team is still patching walls, one at a time. In tests for a game called Guild Wars, developers inadvertently replaced a forest of trees with naked men. They liked the effect so much that it stayed up for a week.
Beyond their acts of creation (and the inevitable debugging that follows), developers must govern: After warning a team for referring to sexual orientation in its recruiting announcements, game masters at World of Warcraft announced that players must avoid discussing "sensitive" topics—sex, politics, religion—online. Indeed, with an estimated 15 million MMOG players, complications abound. "We're no longer talking about a small group," says T.L. Taylor, author of Play Between Worlds, a book on the social implications of MMOGs, due out in May. "Now we have legal departments, marketing departments, PR!"
Ultimately, "the only way to know you've done a good job as a programmer is when nobody says anything," says Scott Brown of gaming company NetDevil. With Auto Assault, a new car-based MMOG, Brown's team wanted it possible for virtually everything to be blown up. "In [other] fantasy games, you fire off a massive fireball to kill a dragon, but the trees don't catch fire," he scoffs. Not in his. NetDevil had to delay the launch by a year, but when it finally arrives, players will be able to annihilate anything they see.
The gods, one assumes, are pleased.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.