GDC 08 Round-Up: Nokia, Vivox, CDC and PlayXpert

Some of the most impressive and innovative developers at GDC do not directly make MMOs, but instead operate behind the scenes to make games better. Every year, these companies seem to fill two booths for every one that has a game in it. This year, we took the time to see a few of these companies and present a round-up of some of the more noteworthy stories we heard.

In the first part, we look at VOIP providers Vivox, MMO importers CDC Games, the novel PlayXpert and a riddle from Scott Foe of Nokia:


It felt like Vivox was in every third booth. Voice Over IP (VOIP) support has become a staple of online games and MMOs, and as companies flirt with different solutions, the Boston-based Vivox seems to have taken the lead as the premiere VOIP solution for online worlds. In successive appointments on the first day of the show, we heard from SOE, EVE Online, HeroEngine, Fallen Earth and PlayXpert who have all incorporated Vivox into their strategy. The company also has deals with Second Life, online website Stratics, Wizards of the Coast and others.

At GDC, Vivox announced a deal with Sony Online Entertainment that could have far-reaching implications in how gamers communicate online. We profiled what that means for SOE with CEO John Smedley yesterday, but the deal is also a big one for Vivox.

“It’s fantastic,” said CEO and Founder Rob Seaver. “These guys have always done a tremendous job.” Naturally, they were tight lipped on the exact implementation. Ultimately, it is up to the client to decide how best to integrate Vivox’s technology into their product.

“[SOE has] phenomenal ideas about how they can build features around a better voice we can provide,” Seaver told us.

Aside from SOE, Seaver was also excited about the community adoption of their service in EVE Online. After an initial slow start, CCP and Vivox dropped the extra fees and included their voice service for free to all subscribers. Since that time, it has caught on more readily and continues to improve.

Vivox is also responsible for a new level of surreal in Second Life, to whom they provide VOIP support. The trailblazing virtual world has set up phone booths throughout Second Life where users can actively send SMS messages to real world telephones, who can then call them back in-game.

The technology to call out exists, but for legal and design reasons this seemed like a bad idea; the last thing LindenLabs or Vivox needed was prank 911 calls from Second Life. So, they settled on SMS, and call in. They have not quite hit the day where Second Life has its own area code, but this feature still represents yet another blurring of the lines between reality and virtual worlds sure to raise some eyebrows.


Sometimes at big shows, you run across a company doing something so simple, but so useful that is blows your mind that no one has ever really done it before. That was the case with PlayXpert. I had never heard of them, but since they were in a booth with a couple companies I was seeing, I decided to drop in and see what they were doing. It was enlightening.

PlayXpert is a non-obtrusive user interface overlay that can be used in any PC game to control essential windows programs without changing screens. That’s a fancy way of saying it lets people bring their instant messengers, media players, web browsers and other key programs into their favorite MMO. And, of course, they have a deal with Vivox to be their default VOIP provider.

According to CEO Charles Manning, PlayXpert has been carefully designed to play well with both in-game EULAs and system resources. While the explanation got quite technical, the basic idea is that the program insinuates itself over the game at such an early level that game operators do not mind and PlayXpert have worked with developers to make sure all is on the level.

The program itself is just an extra UI window with virtually no performance hit onto itself. The only resources it consumes are those of the programs it runs. So, for example, if someone chooses to run Winamp through PlayXpert, then the resources necessary to play the MP3 are, of course, in use.

To begin, PlayXpert has a built in messenger client that is not unlike Trillian. It allows people to login to their MSN, Yahoo, AIM, Google, ICQ and even Station accounts all through one central UI. On the media side, there is support for Windows Media Player and Winamp. They embedded a Mozilla browser and aside from Vivox (which is free to anyone using PlayXpert), people can also manage their Ventrilo and TeamSpeak.

Their business model relies on corporate sponsored widgets and licensing to game developers rather than advertising or direct user charge. For example, a site like WarCry could sponsor a widget that gives the latest MMO news. We could even, if we chose, sell advertising in our application. However, PlayXpert will not integrate advertising into its core areas.

Manning also has high hopes for direct deals with games where they use the technology to provide these services directly and include it in their game with a UI consistent to the rest of the title. More and more frequently, game developers have moved to bring web into their games so players can read guides or do whatever they need without alt-tab. PlayXpert hopes to save them the time.

Finally, Manning has great plans to open up his project to non-commercial modders. While a website like WarCry, which is supported by advertising, would need to sponsor a widget, online groups are free to go nuts and make widgets free of charge, which can then be distributed to those who want them. For example, a guild could create a widget that brings people to their forums and give it to all members so they can stay in touch while in the game.

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Nokia –

I still admit I have no idea what exactly happened when I got tossed into a little white room with Nokia Senior Producer Scott Foe. They sat me down, had me play a web-based trivia game (which you can try yourself at and then kicked me out with a flash drive to show for it and a firm promise not to lose it.

What was the appointment all about? Here’s what I figured out: Clearly, Foe – who previously did Pocket Kingdom, one of the first mobile MMOs – is at work on something new and one would assume it’s called Project White Rock.

The flash drive is white and it comes with 25 MP3s by the nerd-band “8 Bit Weapon” who do spoof music in the style of old-school video games. Each one is labelled as part of the “Project White Rock Soundtrack” and include such classic hits as “2D Died”, a lament of the day 2D gaming died set to the tune of “American Pie”, except with old fashioned, Atari-style computerized music. The band’s website includes a list of three unannounced 2008 Nokia projects.

The flash drive also includes a folder called “Keychain” with some unreadable data files and a warning to keep them safe.

So what is Project White Rock? Well, a quick look at coverage tells me that no one quite figured it out and I can only assume that was the whole point. Others seem to have hints that this is some kind of cross-platform (PC and Nokia hardware) project, but beyond that, who knows.

They get points for originality and the fact this may be one of those industry secrets that actually is a secret. So, in the meantime, enjoy the trivia.

CDC Games

With Lunia, an MMO import, CDC Games kicks off their new North American web portal This is a single sign-on, single currency, multi-game platform. All of their titles are intended to be free-to-play, supported by micro transaction or purely free web-based mini-games.

The website itself is completely unlike the normal portal, it draws from a Manga style and scrolls right to left. At first, this can be disorienting, but according to CDC (and a poll they showed us) they have had a strong positive response. As their games are generally Asian localizations, the theme fits. They also intend to support it with upcoming Manga strips produced specifically for their website.

Aside from Lunia, the company kicked off their website with four completely free flash games and will soon bring in 16 Pounds, an MMO bowling game built in South Korea but, the company says, with North America in mind.

Like many localization dependent companies, CDC was quick to highlight their commitment to good translation and localization. In their case, they employ native Koreans living in North America to do the first pass, then run the results through actual gamers for clarity.

Lunia is an arcade oriented MMO, with a distinctly Asian art style. It was a big success overseas and CDC boasted it can even be enjoyed with a gamepad. They hope to bring it out of Beta into full release early this year.

Until Next Time…

There were a lot of smaller companies at the show this year and we will continue the round-up in the coming days with a look at Simutronics’ HeroEngine, GameRail and some other tidbits unearthed from GDC. Check back tomorrow as we dive back into the MMOs with a look at what Nexon – the developer behind MapleStory – is up to next.

Full Disclosure: Nokia is represented by TAP Interactive on Project White Rock. TAP is owned by Themis Group, the same parent company as WarCry.

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