”This arrowy thing is a Barracuda spaceship, and these little spheres are asteroids,” says Tarqüínio ”Tarq” Teles, pointing to a jumble of wire-frame outlines floating on a computer screen. ”This is how our server sees the world. It keeps track of planets, ships, stations, everything. Shut it down and you shut down the universe.”
This is the virtual universe of Taikodom , a science-fiction online game that Hoplon Infotainment, a small company in Brazil, plans to launch next month. Teles, Hoplon's hyperenergetic 37-year-old CEO, says that Taikodom will allow tens of thousands of people to play together in a sprawling virtual galaxy. The game is Brazil's first incursion into the rapidly expanding market of massively multiplayer online games, or MMOGs. It's a genre made famous by powerful franchises such as Sony Online Entertainment's EverQuest and Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft . But Teles and his team are not intimidated.
”Our secret weapon is fun,” he says, ”and we Brazilians know a thing or two about fun, right?”
A visit to Hoplon's office helps confirm Teles's claim. The start-up is based in a lush island city named Florianópolis that's just off Brazil's southern coast and only an hour's flight from São Paulo, the country's business center. With pristine beaches and a bustling town, Floripa—as the locals call it—is known for its laid-back surfing scene and vibrant nightlife. If you're lucky, you may run into supermodel Gisele Bündchen in one of the trendy local clubs.
On this scorching November afternoon, sipping a caipirinha on the popular Brava Beach is an enticing idea. But over at Hoplon, nestled atop a wooded hill on the island's north bay, the window shades are down, and the only tan the T-shirt-clad staffers are getting is from their computer screens. They hunker down in cubicles cluttered with Star Wars bric-a-brac and Frank Herbert novels, churning out Java code and three-dimensional models in hopes of meeting their tight launch schedule.
Just four years ago, when Teles and three friends—Tiago Luz Pinto, Carlos Eduardo Knippschild, and Cristóvão ”Cristo” Buzzarello—started developing Taikodom , they worked out of Teles's one-bedroom apartment. Now, after recruiting 72 employees and raising over US $10 million in venture capital funding, they're hoping to capture a fraction of the booming MMOG market, which reached $3 billion last year and should double by 2012, according to game industry research firm DFC Intelligence, in San Diego.
But if there's one factor that really sets Hoplon apart from other independent game developers, it's the unusual game server the company adopted. Clusters of PCs are the workhorses behind most MMOGs. Hoplon, however, plans to run Taikodom on an IBM System z machine. For the uninitiated, that's a mainframe. The Brazilians have partnered with Big Blue to develop a server optimized for large-scale multiplayer games by fitting a System z with Cell processors, the nine-core parallel-processing chips that power Sony's PlayStation 3. IBM calls this bit-crunching beast the gameframe.
The two companies claim that their machine can do a better job than conventional servers at handling the two most demanding computing tasks in an MMOG: transactions and simulations. In Taikodom , the first job involves things like keeping track of each user's spaceships, weapons, and virtual money. The second involves things like calculating the trajectory of objects and checking for collisions. Today's typical game clusters handle both types of tasks, and they can host a few thousand users at a time. Add more and the servers slow down, and users experience lags in the game.
Games with lots of players like World of Warcraft have gotten around this problem by splitting the work among multiple clusters, creating duplicate worlds that don't communicate. That means one subscriber can't rendezvous with another unless they arrange to play on the same group of servers. IBM and Hoplon think they have a better idea: the gameframe's hybrid hardware can divide the workload more effectively and hold all the users in a single universe.