Have Modem, Will Travel

by Joel Smith & r & You and your group of Horde members are locked in a vicious struggle with an Alliance party of dwarven warriors and a night elf druid. Slowly you're being pushed back into the outskirts of Tauren Mill. You call for reinforcements; soon a raiding group appears out of the mist. You recognize a couple of them. The troll at the front is Zhurgot, your younger brother. And behind him an orc shaman, Vyx -- that's actually a woman named Nadia. She lives in Brussels.

Such is the beauty of the Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG), say Nate and Austin Brantingham, the twin brothers and Spokane natives who are the brains behind gamerZunion, a Mead company quietly promoting itself as the next big thing in online gaming. It's all about community. Unlike wildly popular console video games like Grand Theft Auto and Halo, where you play against the computer (or, sometimes, a buddy sitting next to you on the couch), with MMOGs, you can sit at your computer in your North Spokane apartment on a Tuesday night, picking popcorn out of your teeth while onscreen you tour fantasy vistas alongside characters being controlled by hundreds or thousands of players in Chicago, Oslo, Melbourne or Bogota. You know some of them by name (or at least their onscreen handles). You work on missions with them. You help each other out. But you've never met them before in your life.

Though they represent only a tiny fraction of the video game industry, the popularity of MMOGs like World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy Online has been rising exponentially for the last several years, with millions of players around the world joining one another on strategic missions and high-seas escapades.

And that network of bleary-eyed, caffeine-fueled gamers is about to get even bigger -- at least, if the Brantinghams have anything to do with it.

This is how online games work now. Say you're an MMOG fan. You're into fantasy games, and you hear EverQuest is pretty good. So you buy the game (probably for around $60) and start putting down $15 a month to play it online with thousands of others around the world. After a couple of months you get tired of EverQuest. It's not your cup of Mountain Dew. So you try out World of Warcraft. Another $60 purchase, another set of $15 monthly charges. Same story.

Here's how gamerZunion thinks it should work. You don't know which game you'll like, or maybe you're an aficionado and you like to dabble in several different games. But you're not too keen on buying several games, and paying several monthly subscription fees. So you come to gamerZunion, a kind of portal into the world of MMOGs. You pay a flat fee, and you get unlimited access to all the games in their stable -- the fantasy games, the high adventure games, the space games, you name it.

It's that idea that the brothers Brantingham are banking on. "The ability to dabble is empowering," says gamerZunion PR man Austin. He adds that a player coming to gamerZunion will be like a kid showing up at Chuck E. Cheese's. "They're there for the skeet ball, but there's so much else to do," he says.

And not only are there more games to choose from in the gamerZunion world, but when gamers log in, they can join in on forums and dialogues with people from any game in the collection. They can talk to people about strategy in Warcraft, then inquire about special weaponry in a forum full of Guild Wars players.

To people who know nothing of such games, that may sound only mildly interesting. But to the Brantinghams, it's positively revolutionary -- and not just for gamers. The project first began when the brothers, long fans of video games, tried to create their own game. Halfway through development, they started thinking ahead to how they would produce and market it. What they found, says Nate, the company's CEO and a former student at EWU and at Gonzaga's Hogan Entrepreneurial Leadership program, was a video game industry that was stacked against the little guy, against small independent companies.

That's the second prong of their plan, he says. Not only would gamers get access to a plethora of games, but smaller game companies, by joining the portal, would get their product in front of a population that's hungry for new challenges. And that, he says, has never been done before.

The Brantinghams are thinking big already. They believe they can make Spokane the MMOG hub of the known universe, attracting other big gaming organizations to the area and blowing up Spokane's annual GameFest into Hoopfestian proportions.

But first they've got to tackle one tiny problem: where to start. With a staff of only three (the two brothers plus technology officer Tye Hooley), it may prove an uphill battle trying to attract the kinds of big-name game companies that will attract gamers (and vice versa). The makers of World of Warcraft alone, Nate calculates, pocket as much as $30 million a month. Even if gamerZunion can someday net them $1 million more per month, by exposing their game to rabid players with all-access passes, that's just a drop in the bucket.

It was difficult enough just pulling off a demonstration at Valleyfest last weekend. Working with Eastern Washington University, Cyan Worlds and the Liberty Lake Internet Exchange, gamerZunion set up 10 monitors running their prototype portal and Cyan's classic game Uru.

After a quick set-up -- tables rolled into place, computers connected and powered up -- the bank of computers was ready to go. A couple of young boys -- 12, maybe 13 years old -- grab a couple of seats. A few parents and some teenage girls hesitantly approach the displays. They look at the keyboard and then at the screen, unsure what to do. A gamerZunion staff member quickly approaches them and explains the game and how to move. Pretty soon, they're running around the virtual world and exploring: 12 people, mostly strangers, sharing a virtually empty world.

Still, the Brantinghams are hopeful that they've got what it takes to revolutionize the industry. At least, they say, they've got the wherewithal. They're still looking for the cash and the games and the gamers and the publicity. But no worries, says Nate. He believes players will flock to gamerZunion eventually.

"It's like going to Costco. You pay for more muffins than you can eat, but you can't pass up the deal," he says. "If we build it, they will come. We're pretty confident about that."

Josh Smith contributed to this story. Visit: & lt;a href="http://www.gamerzunion.com" & gamerZunion & lt;/a & to learn more.

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