A world to conquer

RTP studio stakes claim in online multiplayer games with 'Fallen Earth'

CorrespondentOctober 23, 2009 

Not many people know this, but tucked away in a quiet corner of Research Triangle Park is a blasted, dystopian wasteland where refugees fight for scraps, mutant cannibals run wild and civilization is just a dim memory.

No, not the cafeteria at GlaxoSmithKline. We're talking about "Fallen Earth," the post-apocalyptic virtual world created and maintained by RTP game company Icarus Studios. "Fallen Earth," you see, is a video game -- one that thousands of people play simultaneously via the Internet and their personal computers.

Technically speaking, "Fallen Earth" is an MMORPG, or Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game. And besides being the industry's most unwieldy acronym, that is also electronic gaming's most recent and profitable trend. Popular and established MMOs like "EverQuest" and "World of Warcraft" have millions of players around the globe, each interacting in real time through a technologically mediated, mass consensual hallucination. For $15 a month.

It's all part of the game business for Icarus and the 20 or so other video game companies that operate out of RTP. "Fallen Earth, " officially released just last month, is aimed at capturing a corner of the MMORPG market that has not yet been forcefully occupied by the existing industry behemoths. By setting the game in a freshly imagined, painstakingly detailed virtual world, Icarus developers are staking an MMO claim for one of gaming's most enduring genres -- the post-apocalypse story.

Set in the Grand Canyon circa 2156, after a deadly virus and nuclear holocaust have devastated the planet, "Fallen Earth" features 70 frontier towns and has more than 1,000 square kilometers of territory to explore.

Icarus' offices in RTP, on the other hand, total 18,000 square feet and are filled to bursting with more than 100 artists, programmers, game designers and the army of other technical and creative professionals needed to create and maintain an MMO. Icarus handles all aspects of the game in-house -- a rarity in the industry. Walls are plastered with concept art and hard-copy screenshots; cubicles are lined with action figures and movie posters.

"It's always a bit intimidating to do something new, and this is the first title for many of us at 'Fallen Earth,'" said lead game designer Lee Hammock. "But if you're doing something you love, it doesn't seem as much like work -- or as difficult. We know that we want to start small and grow steadily, so our goals are much more achievable."

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