Magrathea (London branch), 3rd December 2004: the first publicly-available version of The Universal is here! The Universal is a free, massively-multiplayer online game set in a virtual 3d universe of worlds owned and run by other players. Created by Games For May, an independent team of volunteers from the games industry, The Universal brings a totally unique approach to the popular massively-multiplayer gaming genre.
"The Universal is completely free to play, unlike other titles that charge players to maintain their alternative virtual lives," said Mitchell Goodwin, creator and lead programmer. "What’s more, The Universal gives players a unique chance to participate in game design and development without needing any programming knowledge. Other games let you customise your character: we offer the potential for players to own and customise an entire world in the game universe."
The Universal will run on a low-spec Windows PC with a fast dial-up or (preferably) a broadband Internet connection. To get started, players just need to download the client software from The Universal website, http://theuniversal.net.
Endlessly varied free gaming: when you first play the game, you start in space in a single star system, with a range of worlds to visit and explore. By playing on worlds you can earn galactic credits which you can use to improve your space vehicle, fly to new star systems and...well, that depends on what you find when you get there. Each world can be a totally different experience: some are cool, some are weird, some are easy, some are dangerous, and some are just daft places to sit and chat to your mates while you watch monkeys playing in the sun. If you don’t like what you see on one planet, you can just launch your spaceship and play somewhere else.
In-depth economy: trading is an important part of many worlds. Players start with a set amount of cash (Sheckles and Denari, the standard units of planetary currency in the game) and can trade in almost anything to build up their business empire. Players can also use cash to upgrade their vehicles, buy handy goodies like radars and jetpacks and add weapons and ammo to their characters.
Free-form combat: worlds in The Universal can include land, sea and air combat as well as "robocrow" fighting – fast-paced, top-down arcade style shoot-em-up action. Combat can be first-person or third-person, with a wide range of camera settings, and with Deathmatch (over minutes, hours, days or even weeks), Capture the Flag, King of the Hill and other modes, there are loads of game styles to keep bloodthirsty players happy.
Racing: racing games feature on many worlds as players compete to get anything from an F1 car to a tractor through the checkpoints, either against other players or against the clock, with prizes for winning races and getting the best lap times.
Bizarre subgames: there’s nothing quite like Hornball. With two goals, two teams and a large bouncing ball, players have to use the horns on their vehicles to honk the ball into the net to score points. If you haven’t seen six tractors vying for position to honk it in from twenty yards, you simply haven’t lived. But that’s nothing compared to Ultrakricket. Forget the familiar thwack of leather on willow – in The Universal, you get the not-so-familiar thwack of grenade on druid, and the occasional massive explosion when the ball goes off.
Going down the pub: every gamer needs a break from time-to-time, and many worlds in The Universal include a pub that sells virtual beer and provides a range of familiar distractions: arcades, quiz machines, chess and pool, with more being added all the time.
Chat and music: The Universal includes a built-in chat client and music player for .mp3, .wav and .ogg files, and allows world owners to stream radio channels to the players on their world. There’s no need to run additional chat and music software – you can do it all from within game, or just minimise the game to a window (or the Windows taskbar) and use it as dedicated chat and music player software.
Be the mad creator: not only do you get the run of an entire virtual universe, but it’s possible to own your own planet and customise it almost any way you like. Each world in the universe is owned and run by other players, which means every world you visit is like a 3d equivalent of a website, blog and multimedia gallery, all rolled up into a big game-shaped ball. World owners get the immense kudos of controlling the destiny of players on an entire virtual planet, and get to exercise their powers of game design without programming experience or knowledge of 3d modelling and game artwork. Almost everything on a world can be controlled through simple settings, from the strength of gravity to the effects of starvation, from tax bands to the colour of the sky.
About Games For May (it’s game development, but not as we know it)
Games For May is an independent development team made up of volunteers from the games industry, graphic design, sound, web coding and related disciplines – and, most importantly, from members of The Universal community itself. The core team is based in the UK but has members around the world. Being independent means the team can come up with unusual, off-the-wall and sometimes plain daft ideas that the gaming community loves, but that would never happen in a large software house with revenue and publisher constraints and "design-by-committee" processes.
This freedom has enabled The Universal to open up areas of game design to its players that are often jealously guarded by large games companies, with a particular focus on simple settings-based control of almost every important aspect of the game. Player contributions also make up an important part of the continuing development of The Universal – from 3d models and textures to sounds, gameplay tweaks, new game types, economy settings and more. The result is a community of players and designers that all form an integral part of the game universe, and a constantly evolving game experience that’s light-years away from the endless release of "cookie-cutter" games produced by the mainstream industry.