Take Your MMOG With You


If you play any MMOG, you’ve probably had the desire to log into your account when you were away from your computer. Whether you might want to search the auction house, check the stats on a piece of your equipment or just chat with your guildmates, it is frustrating to be tied to only inhabiting your favorite virtual world when you are sitting in front of your gaming rig. While you can’t always have your computer on hand, most gamers carry a cell phone that is able to install applications and connect to the web. Wouldn’t it be great if someone could create an application that would allow your phone to log into your MMOG of choice? Well, that someone is AFK Interactive.

“The genesis of the idea was someone in our company said one day ‘If there was an app, that would let me chat with my guild members in WoW and tell them that I was going to be late for a raid, I’d buy that.’ And we thought, ‘You know what? A lot of people would probably buy that,'” Doug Dyer, CEO of AFK, told me at this year’s Game Developers Conference.

Based in Raleigh, NC, AFK Interactive was formed to let you play when you are Away From Keyboard. In partnership with nearby Icarus Studios, the creators of the post-apocalyptic MMOG Fallen Earth, AFK has developed a mobile companion application that allows players to access most game functions on their character. You won’t be able to move around or fight using your avatar, but you can check and send mail, buy and equip items from the auction house, set up a crafting queue and examine the game’s maps. The mobile application launches today for use with Fallen Earth.

AFK is not content to offer this technology for just one game. “We are looking for some other partners to build this for and eventually turn this into a platform that we can offer to any MMOG, social network game, even fantasy sports,” Dyer said. If the buzz at GDC was any indication, we may soon see AFK Interactive mobile companions for major MMOGs in the coming year.

Perhaps the most forward-looking stratagem by AFK is that the mobile application is available now for Android devices and the iPhone, and will soon be usable on Blackberry phones and almost all other handsets. “[The application] hits not only the iPhone, it hits Android, BlackBerry, Brew, Java. We’ve also got plans for Windows Mobile, WebOS and even a web client,” Dyer said. “Because most MMOGs, the big ones, a lot of their customers are in emerging markets and those customers are never going to see an iPhone, they’re never going to see an Android [phone]. They’re still going to be on a handset that’s J2ME [Java] for a long time and the ability for them to buy a virtual good or chat from their phone is going to be huge.”

Not content to merely hear about how the application works, we decided to take advantage of AFK’s proximity to The Escapist offices and see the application in action. Brian Holdsworth, Senior Software Engineer, and Paul Bradley, Director of Quality Assurance, were happy to oblige by logging into the Fallen Earth game client on a laptop and with the mobile companion app on an AT&T Blackberry phone. Once Bradley successfully logged in, he showed us the various tasks that could be accomplished on the phone.

The application uses art and a UI that is consistent with Fallen Earth and the menu shows 6 possible options. The first feature that Bradley showed us was the most obvious: chat. Bradley’s friends list and guild roster was viewable on the phone and when he sent a whisper to a different character that was logged into the PC game client, I could see Bradley’s message appear nearly in real time. He showed us chatting in the clan channel, which will allow you to banter with your guildies even if you’re stuck at your cousin’s Bar Mitzvah.

“You can private chat with any other player in the game, and then if they’re in your friend’s list, it’s a little accelerated because you can see if they’re online or not and you can select to chat with them directly from there,” Holdsworth said. “And then there is clan chat, those are two major chat functions available.”

Mail works just like in the game, where you can send a message – including any items or money that you might to attach – to any player. You can also receive mail on the phone and open any attachments, and the items will be placed in your character’s inventory. Bradley showed us the character sheet, which displayed all of the item slots in Fallen Earth and effortlessly equipped the gun that he had just received in the mail. The auction house allows you to search for an item and place a bid or buy it directly, which Bradley did from the phone and we were able to see the item delivered through the mail system.

“There’s a lot of people who play MMOGs, their whole purpose in playing is the commerce side of it. It’s like a virtual business for them,” Bradley said. “Something like [the mobile companion app] is perfect for them because you can do a lot that stuff completely offline. You don’t have to worry about spending your game time focusing on crafting items or setting up auctions.”

Crafting through the mobile companion application is the icing on the cake. In Fallen Earth, nearly 95 percent of the items are player-created and crafting an item can take five minutes or more real time, so the ability to take care of these tasks on your cell phone is invaluable. Bradley opened the crafting interface and easily set up several items to be crafted in a queue. When the item is complete, it is placed in your inventory just like you had made it in game.

“Instead of sitting in front of your PC, waiting for your 20 items to craft you can just set them up on the phone, and let it craft over the course of the day,” Bradley said. “When you get home, you’re ready to just sit down and play.” The ability to create a queue that contains any number or type of item is also invaluable for the mobile companion app.

In fact, orchestrating the game’s economy using a cell phone is so easy that I wondered if the application would wrongly encourage the “second” economy: gold-farmers and sellers. But Holdworth assured me that the mobile application uses the game’s backend and authentication servers so the potential for abuse is just as secure as using a PC. “Since our application connects to the game just like any other client, we support whatever protection is built into the game. So as far as being able to cheat by using the mobile companion, we don’t see that as a practical concern,” explained Holdsworth.

After a look at the zoomable in-game map on the phone completed the demo by Bradley and Holdsworth, it is very clear that the tool AFK Interactive has developed would be extremely valuable for players of any MMOG. World of WarCraft has attempted to offer similar functionality through their mobile armory and remote auction house applications, but it doesn’t let you do much beyond check your character without paying an extra 3 bucks a month. The mobile companion application that AFK Interactive has created allows you to accomplish nearly all MMOG bookkeeping tasks via your phone and, most importantly, it doesn’t matter what kind of phone you have or make you pay more. Now that the engine is complete, it would be easy for AFK to adapt the application to any game, using art assets and special game mechanics to make the experience feel seamless for players. Fallen Earth players are lucky to have it as an option, and here’s hoping that more MMOG companies take a look at the technology and contact AFK Interactive to implement it for their game.

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