On December 7, 2011, gaming-platform creator Multiverse Network ceased operations. Formed in 2004, Multiverse was looking to change the world of massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) by empowering independent game developers to create their own virtual worlds, with minimal start up costs.

By 2008 Multiverse had acquired licenses for two of the most popular TV franchises in recent history, namely Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly, and had Hollywood legends James Cameron and Jon Landau on its advisory panel. Roll forward three years, and the closure of the company was announced with the following low key statement:

Although thousands of developers showed interest in the Multiverse Platform, Multiverse wasn’t able to achieve a profitable business model. As a result, Multiverse ceased operations in December 2011 due to lack of funding.

In an attempt to examine what happened at Multiverse, I have spoken with some of the key figures in its story. They have shared their experiences of working with the platform, their thoughts on where things went wrong, and their hopes for the future of the virtual world technology.

Between 2004 and 2006, the Multiverse team, headed by a group of Netscape veterans, were building the platform they hoped would alter the face of virtual worlds and MMO games for good. On the back of the MMO boom, which saw future big hitters like Star Wars Galaxies, World of Warcraft and Everquest enter the market, independent developers were keen to take on their own projects, and create their own virtual worlds.

Multiverse created a technology solution to support just that. The platform would allow development teams to bypass many of the prohibitive challenges of game creation, by providing “a comprehensive, pre-coded client-server infrastructure and tools, a wide range of free content – including a complete game for modification – and a built-in market of consumers.“

In return for all this, Multiverse was not asking for payment up front, but instead based its business model on taking a 10% share of revenue, from commercially released games. Corey Bridges (pictured), co-founder and CMO of Multiverse Network, explained the reasoning behind this decision: “We really wanted to make the platform attractive to independent developers. Our thinking was that 10% was more attractive than 30%, and we expected that there would be competitors like BigWorld who would come in with revenue-share models that would undercut us if we went with 30%. So we bit the bullet and went with the low number as a pre-emptive land-grab. Of course, we were arguably too impressed with our own idea – no competitors moved to a rev-share model.”

The Beta build of the Multiverse development platform launched in 2006, and Patrick Hamilton, of Wardog Studios was involved in those early days of the emerging technology. Hamilton speaks fondly of that time, explaining “We had participated with Multiverse during the Austin Game Developer Conferences in 2006 and 2007.  From my standpoint, those were good years, as there was a lot of momentum and positive outlook.  I would say the support from Multiverse for us was great during that time.”

In May 2007, things were looking very positive for Multiverse. The company reported that over 10,000 development teams had signed up to use its platform. Over 150 teams had begun building projects, ranging from fantasy and science fiction MMOs  to educational worlds designed to teach users math, science and the works of William Shakespeare. On the back of its business model, Multiverse raised $4.175 million in Series A funding, to be used to hire additional staff, complete version 1.0 of the platform and launch its network of games the following year.

Multiverse was also making strong connections with Hollywood at this time. Headlines were made when it was announced in Dec 2006 that Multiverse had acquired the rights to produce an MMO based on the popular TV show Firefly. At the time, Corey Bridges said that “Fox’s Firefly series is set in an incredibly rich and exciting universe. It’s going to make a very compelling and unique online experience filled with adventure, humor, and mystery.”

The appeal of a Firefly MMO as a Multiverse property was undeniable. Bill Turpin, co-founder and CEO of Multiverse Network, remarked that “Firefly will bring in even more consumers, making the network that much more attractive to developers of other worlds.”

Multiverse also acquired the rights to produce a Buffy The Vampire Slayer MMO game, in Sep 2008. Academy Award winning producer Jon Landau made the announcement, saying “Multiverse has the vision and expertise to create the type of rich environment needed for the best possible game based on the ‘Buffy’ series. The resources are in place to develop a great MMOG.”

Unfortunately neither of these potentially valuable games came to fruition. On Firefly, Bridges says “That game was such a labor of love for me and the rest of the Multiverse team. Working on the Firefly game was one of the best experiences in my career.” He explains that “for both the Firefly and Buffy games, we had created design docs and budgets, and built functioning prototypes.” However, in the case of Firefly at least, work was halted due to external circumstances.

While the reasons for the cancellation of the Firefly MMO are not entirely clear, Bridges is adamant that “Fox were wonderfully supportive partners. They were thrilled that we were making a Firefly game. Related to that, I can further say that none of the partners involved were unhappy with what we were building.” The cancellation apparently came as the result of “an unexpected legal issue from a completely unexpected quarter. It was arcane and odd and tragic.”

Away from the big name rights acquisitions, work by independent developers was continuing apace on the Multiverse platform. However 2008 saw the start of the global financial crisis, which brought with it problems for developers and platform holder alike.

With Multiverse so geared towards helping out smaller, independent development teams, it was perhaps no wonder that the economic downturn would affect the company’s fortunes more than most. “The world economy went to hell three years ago,” explains Bridges, “which not only froze investment and discretionary spending by big media companies, it made the indie developers, our bread and butter, drop their “extra-curricular” projects, like building an MMO on Multiverse, in favor of putting more time into their day jobs.”

Adrian Wright, of Max Gaming Technologies, was a developer involved with Multiverse from the start of the Beta in 2006. His game, Dark Horizons: The Awakening made it as far as the private beta stage, but sadly never made it to full release. Wright explains how  the global economic downturn affected his project: “We halted production on it because we had to take on work that paid us instead of us spending our money building our own game.”

With independent developers cutting back on their projects, Multiverse was also forced to make financial adjustments of its own. Corey Bridges takes up the story, explaining “as our revenues dipped, we had to manage our cash flow responsibly. So from that time onward, we moved at a slower pace with platform development than we originally wanted. And in the video game business, as dynamic–as full-on chaotic–as it is, moving more slowly makes it difficult to keep pace with the significant changes that occur almost month-to-month….Developing more slowly [also] made it difficult to finish some of the original technology as quickly as we’d planned. So parts of the platform remained not quite finished.“

Jono Vanderkolk, a member of the Multiverse community at the time, says that “general community interaction (by the company) was more or less severed, as Multiverse Inc. had to let go the community staff, so the community developers more or less ran things themselves, in the form of inter-developer support.”

With Multiverse development slowing, the company still had ideas up its sleeve, to help reverse its fortunes. In Feb 2009 it released the first flash-based MMO, a game called Battle: Realms at War, developed by Adrian Wright’s Max Gaming team. The game was launched on Facebook, MySpace, and Friendster, as well as casual gaming portal Kongregate and Multiverse’s own site.

Wright explains “We were asked by Multiverse to use their platform to build their Flash based MMO for MMO players instead of for young kids. Realms at War was much more like World of Warcraft than Club Penguin. We had features [such as] a full skill system and a huge world for players to explore. We were very proud to make a grownup MMO that people could play in their browsers.”

The technology on which Battle was based was intended to be rolled out to Multiverse developers, enabling them to take their own games down this route. As Patrick Hamilton explains though, “While the news for the implementation with social networks [through a flash client] was welcomed, there were continued delays. We were waiting for the source code for this capability, but this was not available and as months went by without [news], I had finally come to accept that we would need to move on.” This was in the Spring on 2009, shortly after Multiverse had received $2.4M in angel funding, to help sustain itself through 2010.

Corey Bridges explains how the change of strategy towards social network integration at this time was made difficult by differing opinions held within the company. “There was the core Multiverse team that saw opportunities to change our strategy, but our board of directors did not agree. Despite their impressive business acumen, the board didn’t have any experience in the video game industry, so they couldn’t accurately evaluate what was happening, or how to adjust”.

The final major project announced by Multiverse appeared in 2009, and again had strong Hollywood ties. The company produced two casual web-based experiences based on the James Cameron film Avatar. These utilized a technology called ‘Remix’, developed by Multiverse, which allowed for simple and inexpensive repurposing of film assets, for use in other mainstream media. Bridges is proud of this project, highlighting the fact that “our AVATAR game for McDonald’s won them a REGGIE Award from the Promotion Marketing Association.”

The Multiverse platform itself remained in an unfinished state in 2009, and many of those developers who had come close to full launch realised they had to move on and find an alternative platform. Patrick Hamilton initially took development of his game, Force of Arms,  to Hero Cloud, a development solution that takes 30% revenue from commercially launched games.

Hamilton has now put development of his MMO on hold though, to focus on making a Force of Arms Facebook app. Likewise, Adrian Wright has also redirected Max Gaming’s resources in other directions: “I think as long as the recession is going on it’s harder for indie MMOs to get finished to conclusion. We currently are focusing more on the Mobile platform while we decide what the right time will be for us to get back into the MMO game.”

With financial concerns coming to a head, and funding running out, Multiverse finally ceased trading in December 2011. “It’s a bittersweet moment, shutting down Multiverse.” says Corey Bridges. “ Obviously, the bitter part is closing the doors. All of us, the whole Multiverse team, fought and bled and worked like hell for years, trying to make the company a success for the employees and investors. But even though the company didn’t grow to be the world-beater that we meant it to be, we can look back on what we accomplished with a lot of pride. We built an amazing technology platform. Even now, it still can handle greater concurrency numbers–thousands per server–than any other competitor. We built some amazing games that were translated into 17 different languages and launched worldwide.”

Bridges calms any concerns about the future prospects of Multiverse employees affected by the closure, saying that “Everyone who was employed at Multiverse has employment elsewhere now. We employed top-notch people, so they were snatched up pretty quickly. As for the number of employees at the end, it was less than a dozen.” As for Bridges himself, he has started a new gaming venture with some core members of the Multiverse team. Bridges says “We’ll probably have our “first playable” prototype game in about a month and a half. We’re not using the Multiverse code or any of its corporate assets, but we’re certainly leveraging the experience and expertise that we gained during that time.” He notes that, as CEO of this team, he will be “keeping us laser-focused on short development cycles” and adds ”we’re integrating social media and mobile devices into our plans from the very smart”, which certainly sounds like a smart move.

The closure of the company is not the end of the story for the Multiverse platform however. With talk of the technology still being relevant, it should perhaps come as no surprise that it appears to have a future, as an open-source project.

Tristan Bacon, Director of Communications for the recently formed Multiverse Foundation, explains how this came about: “I found Multiverse via an article on an MMO website and got myself all excited once I read through the Multiverse website. However, I got to the forums and found a rather empty, yet incredibly spammed site filled with adverts for GHD hair straighteners and handbags. I looked around for a bit, and found that there was a very small group of people still living there, and that’s when I found out the Platform hadn’t been worked on for the past 3-4 years.”

After spending some considerable time researching the platform, Bacon approached Bill Turpin, who gave his approval for Bacon to take over the running of the Multiverse community. Talk then moved to the possibility of opening up the source code of the platform to developers, and “after a few months of discussions Bill agreed to release the entire platform under the MIT license, which was fantastic. We agreed that in September, and the code was officially release in mid-October. It wasn’t until Shane Fischer, now the Head of Foundation Development, had the grand idea of becoming a non-profit, that we started making things more official.”

Bacon has a bold vision for the future of Multiverse as an open source platform, “I want the Multiverse Platform to be the best free option out there, because engines like HeroEngine and RealmCrafter take a percentage of your revenue (assuming you make any). Originally, that was what Multiverse Inc. did, but our aim is to make everything free, and make sure the developers aren’t shelling out on expensive 3rd party tools.”

Multiverse Foundation has begun negotiations with third party companies, to secure discounts for Multiverse developers. Bacon has already agreed a deal with web server hosts Vanquish VPS, and he is in discussion with smaller software providers to get similar deals in place.

Bacon is very positive about Multiverse’s future, and speaking to other key players in the story, there is a consensus of opinion that he is right to feel that way.

Corey Bridges states “I’m thrilled that Multiverse can continue as an open source project. It was always our promise to our developer customers that if we went out of business, we’d open-source the code. I think it can certainly thrive and grow. It still has relevance, and it’s unique in its flexibility.” Adrian Wright is also of the same opinion: “I think the platform will grow as an open source project. There are still many passionate developers on Multiverse, who now can work together to take the platform into the future.”

It is impossible to talk about the future of Multiverse without addressing the future of the Firefly MMO as well. Since the closure of Multiverse Network in December there has been much speculation as to what will happen next with this project. Tristan Bacon states that the Multiverse Foundation is “looking at the possibility of beginning work on the FireFly MMO” but has “not come to any official decisions.” Bacon says “we are in the process of contacting Fox and Mutant Enemy Productions to see if it is even possible, before proceeding with any development or even planning.”

There is one other development team that has been pursuing the idea of a Firefly MMO. Headed by Carl Redl, the fan led team known as Dark Cryo, numbering around 200, has apparently been building assets, and has announced its intention to pursue official endorsement. Beyond that, there have been few official announcements regarding their project.

Despite this wealth of interest in the Firefly MMO, and rumours to the contrary, Bridges assures me that  “no content–either planning documents or concept art or source code–is being open-sourced or transferred to anyone. The open-source Multiverse project has no more access to that intellectual property, or ability to secure the rights, than any other game company.” He notes that the rights to both the Buffy and Firefly MMOs have now reverted to Fox.

Whatever the outcome of the Firefly saga, Bridges reiterates his passion for the show, stating that “as a Firefly fan, I would love to see that game made.”

The Multiverse story is a complex one, which started with a bold idea to empower independent developers, and might have ended seven years later with the closure of the company. Hearing the enthusiasm that the Multiverse Foundation has for taking the project forward though, I would be surprised if there aren’t a few more chapters in the Multiverse story yet to be told.

[Firefly cast images via RavenU/RavenU/Flickr]
[Arch card image via Aranami/Flickr]