Postmortem - the UTOPIA Story
This is an account of events that took place between July and December 2009 around the development of the MMOG UTOPIA with the game development system Gamestudio/A7 by oP group Germany. The described events are not what a game developer encounters every day. Nevertheless, this account - as bizarre as it may appear - is factual and based on written documents, emails, and telephone records that we've taken during that time period.
18+ WARNING: This web page contains references to SEX AND POTENTIAL VIOLENCE. Please do not read on and LEAVE THIS PAGE IMMEDIATELY when you're below 18.
The request is forwarded from Conitec to us, and the next day I speak directly with the company's president, Mr. Mathias N. from Zurich. He's personally responsible for the MMOG project. Although they've never been active in the game business, they already seem to know a lot about multiplayer technology and the online game scene. I also learn that the company's assets are close to one billion US $. This gives some assurance that funding won't be an issue.
We had not developed game content anymore since 1998. But a billion dollar client sounds quite good. And I would really like to start a big project again - especially a MMOG.
But first we have to show some demos, and set up a test server for proving our engine's multiplayer capabilities for this project. I suspect that the company is seeking quotes and demos from all major 3D engine developers. We put together a quick-and-dirty test server at a nearby colocation service, and run test connections from all over the world. The network responds fast and appears to be rock solid so far.
Two days later. - The president is on the phone again. I realize that we seem to be seriously considered. Has Gamestudio already kicked all competitors? I rather suppose that the others just haven't set up something fast enough. The president wants a ballpark figure. I have to tell him that development costs for a large scale MMOG can be up to 2 million EUR, or even more, dependent on the size.
He doesn't faint.
A Gun for Hire
Next day. - Today, after an oath of silence, I'm informed about the real purpose of the project. We have to wipe out a competitor, a MMOG named Utherverse. It's a 3D social community with a sex focus. Virtual sex is big business. Utherverse boasts 4 million users. Our task is to deliver a competing product that wins over all subscribers, and reroutes Utherverse's multi-million annual revenue into our client's pockets.
Of course, Utherverse must under no circumstances learn of our plans too early (if someone from Utherverse reads this, please rest assured that the danger is over now). I must maintain strict silence during the first months of development, and am not even allowed to tell our own developers the true story. For distraction, the MMOG has to get a spiritual/esoteric focus, with the sex stuff only to be added at the last stages of development. I wonder what that sex stuff might be: how do you do sex in a virtual world? I have a feeling that I'll learn that soon.
But first, this turn of events requires some contemplation. Do I have a problem being paid as a hired gun for killing a competitor? Competition is part of all business. As long as fair play is maintained, anyone is entitled to enter any competitor's terrain - so I think. The financial aspect, of course, also contributes to calm second thoughts.
Next day. - The president wants to meet me face to face. He also needs ASAP a detailed concept with a business and marketing plan, and a binding quote for a ready-to-run MMOG business complete with office, server park, and trained personnel.
But there is a problem. We've looked into Embassy Flight and Ground Service and found nothing substantial - no website, no business activities, no assets, nothing but an incorporation on the Marshall Islands and a listing in some countries' gold trade registers. In such a case we must insist on upfront payment. We must also charge for the concept and the quote.
To my surprise they have no problem with this. The president even offers to bring my reward in cash in a suitcase to the meeting. For our bookkeeper's sake I have to ask for a regular bank transfer.
Next day. - The name UTOPIA is selected for the project. The president also gave me a user account in Utherverse for testing the salacious services of our competitor. I'm surprised to find the account set up as if it had been used since years. I have hundreds of friends, tons of virtual outfits, and even own a nightclub "King Morph" in the "Red Light Center". A brief test of graphics, frame rate, and response time reveals that Utherverse is no match for the A7 engine. Truth to be told, it's probably no match for any modern engine.
Some days later. - We're finishing the technical concept. Other than Utherverse, we want to offer an extremely reliable service, meaning near-zero downtime and no single point of failure. So the server concept is essential. We'll need lobby servers, level servers, database servers, look-up servers, watchdog servers, update servers, backup servers, servers for the website, the voice chat, and the load balance distribution. Fortunately there's no fighting between avatars, so the level servers can be very simple. It's even discussed to use A7 only for the clients, and a simple Linux program for the servers. But in the end we settle for a conventional A7 client/server system for security reasons.
Next day. - I'm in pretty good mood because the advance payment arrived! Nothing generates more trust in a client than prompt and generous payment.
This is the day of my meeting with the president. We agreed to meet in a restaurant in the German town Stuttgart, halfway between our two companies. Mathias N. turns out to be a nice guy, with a matter-of-fact way and not without humour. He finally explains his company's mysteriously low Internet profile: secrecy is their secret. They don't advertise. Their air transport services and their gold trade and mining operations in certain African countries are of a kind that you don't want exposed to the public. Therefore no one will find them in the Internet (well, until now I guess). The president also reveals that he's the main shareholder of the company. This makes him one of the 100 richest people in Switzerland. But due to his company's low profile, he can move freely everywhere without bodyguards.
I start describing our concept. However our client is not interested in tech stuff today. He's going straight into the project's priorities. The Utherverse engine does not support threesome sex. Here we have the chance to do something better, something advanced, something never achieved by mankind so far. Maybe even four- and fivesomes. He explains the details. I'm soon learning more about sex variants than I ever dared to ask. And not only I: the president has a far-reaching voice and is also entertaining the tables around us in the restaurant.
The Sex Contract
Next week. - A virtual sex community largely depends on high-quality, high-resolution motion animation of avatars having sex in various positions. We just need to produce more and better sex than Utherverse. Not to forget the accompanying audio in seven languages.
For the animation I have to call motion capture studios all over the world. The typical dialog goes like this:
Nice Lady: Lighthouse Studios, what can we do for you?
We finally find a studio in Poland that offers 35000 seconds sex with face and fingers at an acceptable price. The president makes clear that he'll personally fly over to Poland for supervising the production.
Some days later. - The quote is ready. Development costs, hardware, licenses, setting up a business headquarter, and training employees sum up to a total investment of EUR 1.2 million.
I email the Excel sheets and wait. Normally, the reaction of a client goes like this: "I've just received your quote. I'm still sitting on the floor where my doctor had to revive me with an adrenaline injection. I am deeply disappointed with you."
The telephone rings. The president has just received my quote. He is deeply disappointed with me. Only 106 levels? Only 1.2 million? I really must learn to think in greater categories. I promise to make it better, and send an addendum with more servers, more employees, and 211 levels, at a total of 1.5 million EUR. Now our client is pleased.
Two days later. - They want to make a contract with us.
But for obvious reasons we can't do a seven-figure contract with a secret organization that has no visible business activity. The president understands the problem. He offers to accept personal liability and sign as a contract partner. This settles the issue. The project is divided in five milestones, the costs in 15 separate payments, and for 1.5 million we commit ourselves to deliver a ready-to-run virtual sex community to go online in November 2010.
The president has a final advice for me. They are used to do business on a more personal level than other companies. And they have special contacts. This project should better not fail. Otherwise, no matter how hard I try to hide, they'll find me everywhere in the world. A failure would be the biggest mistake of my life.
Some days later. - The president told us that they are now going to rent the Utopia headquarters close to Zurich. We won't need them before next year, but a good opportunity for office rooms just came up. They also found a data centre in Zurich where the server park can be installed.
We're meanwhile beginning with the necessary engine modifications, and start looking for artists and level designer teams for the 211 levels.
Utopia is under way.
Or so it seems.
The Fall of Utopia
Several weeks later. - There are easy clients and not so easy clients. Not so easy clients call every other day with new ideas and concerns. Today, the president is worried about the oral sex scenes. In Utherverse the girl's head often obscures the proper view to the action. I promise to place the camera so that the view isn't obscured in Utopia. - Why couldn't they have contracted us for a plain World of Warcraft clone?
The other operations of Embassy Flight and Ground Service seem to proceed well. Sometimes while the president is on the phone, he's simultaneously talking to people on the other lines, and has no problem to speak French, English, and German at the same time. From his side of the conversation, I get the impression that his partners are very important persons - like the Congo trade minister, or the Saudi Arabia Secret Service prince. While he's discussing some operations in Africa with them, he's giving me instructions about sex details. I only hope that the princes and ministers don't understand German.
Next week. - We've long since received concepts of the lobby level from most of the level designer teams. But the president suddenly got a new idea: The lobby must look like the airport Zurich entry hall. Problem is that the airport Zurich entry hall is utterly unusable for a MMOG lobby. But the guy who pays is always right. The president gives the Marlin Studios team of Arlington, Texas, the demanding task to design a lobby level based on hundreds of airport Zurich photos. Like the other developers, they just know about their assigned part of the MMOG, and are unaware of the project's real subject.
Next week. - A payment by our client is late. It's the first really big payment, intended for covering the next eight weeks development, for buying the hardware, for third party software licenses, and for contracts to other developer teams.
Some days later. - The payment is overdue, but right now the president is traveling in the Republic of Togo in important business, and can't launch the transaction from there.
Next week. - The president is still in Togo and still unable to pay. Now we're working without payment since two weeks - precisely the situation that I wanted to avoid. I can see from the president's IP that he's really in Togo - but why is this a payment problem? Can't he just call his bank? I email him that we must stop all development if he doesn't soon get his act together. I also offer suggestions how to pay from Togo, for instance by sending us a bank debit mandate and his credit card data.
Next day. - We're met with an ominous silence. No further emails from the president.
I call his company. The phone isn't picked up. His private cell phone isn't picked up either.
Up to this point they closely followed the development, and the president called often, even several times per day. Such a sudden silence is alarming. In a country like Togo, the first thing coming to mind is abduction - or worse. But no: I learn from a reliable source that the president is still alive. He's still enjoying his freedom. He just doesn't communicate with me anymore.
And also the company's email and Skype accounts aren't answered anymore. Neither are the company phone lines, no matter at which time I call and with which caller ID. What happened with their Africa business? What if the Congo Trade Minister calls, or the Saudi Arabian Prince of Secret Service? I imagine that those guys are mighty pissed when no one answers their calls.
The Mystery Deepens
A week later. - We've meanwhile stopped the project. Still no luck to reach the president or anyone else with Embassy Flight and Ground Service. And of course they're still not paying their bills. If they wanted to stop Utopia, why haven't they just told us, instead of jumping off the face of the earth?
Can it be that the funds for Utopia didn't exist at all?
Some investigation is required. The only street address we've got is the president's private home. The company also has a P.O. box on the Marshall Islands, but apparently doesn't reveal their own real address to the populace. But certainly a billion dollar airline and mining business can't be run from home? I've seen photographs of their air fleet - the Lear jets and helicopters must be located at some home base, most likely at the Zurich airport. So the headquarters should be around Zurich.
Shall we hire a private detective? But wait, among the stuff we've got from them is a document showing a different address on a small precious-looking company seal. Is this the company's true address, only revealed to select customers? With the help of a magnifier glass I can identify a location in Kloten, close to the Zurich airport. And thanks to Google Earth, we now finally get a glimpse on the company headquarters!
What did this mysterious organization really plan with Utopia? Aside from the strange sex focus, the project appeared serious. If they had not the funds to finance it, why have they started it at all? The money they've paid us so far, as well as their other expenses are lost to them. Will we ever know what happened?
Well - maybe. Aside from our claim of several week's payment, there are even higher claims from Marlin Studios and other parties involved. And we have mighty allies: the Swiss authorities are experts in shedding light in such mysterious affairs.
Maybe the last word is not yet spoken on Utopia.
Disclaimer. To the best of our knowledge, the described events are factual and accurate; however we can give no guarantee or warranty, express or implied, to the correctness or completeness of all information therein. (c) 2009 by Johann Christian Lotter, oP group Germany GmbH, Birkenstr. 25-27, 63549 Ronneburg, Germany. Contact: info (at) opgroup.de. This text is public domain and can be freely copied.