The following is a free chapter from book two in the Kings and Conquests series Trolls Traps and Treachery
“What exactly is “plan B?'”
N-Gate Five’s Chief Information Officer had found himself in several more than unsettling situations since his boss had become interested in the idea of obtaining a controlling share of Fairly Unusual Games. Martin LeBlanc was no slouch when it came to understanding the vagaries and basic value proposition of modern technology. He and Len Griffin had built N-Gate into one of the industry’s most formidable marketing machines, complete with a portfolio of more than 2000 semiconductor-related patents.
One thing LeBlanc had to admit, however, was that microelectronics were a lot easier to understand than gaming culture, and it seemed his company’s most recent big project was far more dependent on bros and message boards than it was on leading the way in chip design.
Griffin leaned back in his rather expensive chair and stared at nothing in particular. He had made a habit of calling impromptu meetings with senior executives of late, and while many of his biggest accomplishments had taken place in similar conferences, the most recent brand of meeting had been more like a wide-ranging discussion of abstract ideas than business plans.
“Jay had to start his character over. He chose most of the same options and he’s back to level two, but at this point he’s probably hopelessly behind the rest of the player base. Lori is still level 14 and Mike just made it to level 15, but everything they’ve done so far has been in a bubble of our own making. They don’t have enough open-game experience to accomplish much yet. Fortunately, my little team of toadies isn’t the only pot I have simmering.”
“I didn’t expect it would be,” LeBlanc sighed. “Is all this work really worth it?”
“Martin, if we win this video game contest, or whatever you want to call it, we own a controlling share of a company projecting 11-figures next year. I’d say that’s worth the minimal amounts I’m spending to get there.”
“That would be great, if we had some idea how to win. This thing seems like it’s all over the place. Players are cheating, stuff is being sold in the game and out, and the media is treating it all like it’s some kind of worldwide music festival.”
“It is. These things are home to millions of people. It’s where they socialize, and based on what we’ve seen, a lot of them are more than happy to just sit in town and make leather bags, horse saddles and potions all day while they chat with their friends. Only four percent of the player base has exceeded level six, and that’s why I think my back-up plan is so important.”
“I hired a second team of gamers with my own money. I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t want the first team to think they had the option to slack off. I still don’t want them to know. My star player on “Team B’ is level 19 and is about to unlock a whole new set of abilities.”
“How much is this going to cost us?”
“I set aside five million dollars, but until it pays off, it won’t have any effect on N-Gate’s business. I only want reimbursement if we manage to get hold of those shares.”
“What makes you think this guy can succeed where Jay didn’t? What’s your plan for dealing with Wyland and his super-avatar?”
“There’s a lot more going on here than just the contest. I think Wyland planned this out more meticulously than we first believed.” Griffin stood and walked to his in-office wet bar to pour a drink. “Fairly Unusual built three foundational technologies alongside Kings and Conquests. The first is the game’s engine itself, which they developed in almost total secrecy without alerting anyone to their budget, features or anything else. Totally blindsided the entire industry.”
“An awfully big risk,” LeBlanc replied.
Len sipped his Macallan Scotch. “It was a stroke of utter marketing genius. You know I pride myself on pulling the fast one in the marketplace, but the idea of promoting something by keeping it a secret? The sheer magnitude of the announcement forced everyone in the media to cover it breathlessly. That drowned out all the other voices. By the time the complainers and the competition got to the microphone, it was too late. Wyland had four weeks of positive press and enough income to survive the launch window. This guy is going down in history as the only executive crazy enough to use a bankruptcy filing as a PR stunt. That’s just deranged in so many ways. The business equivalent of playing dead, no pun intended. Wyland pulled it off like an 80s magician.”
“How do the other technologies fit in to the marketing plan?”
“Somehow they also developed an augmented reality mobile app that allows players with registered accounts to not only pursue game objectives, quests, crafting and other kinds of entertainment in the real world, it also allows players to identify each other if they choose, meaning Fairly Unusual has taken their own social gaming network out into the real world. That alone is enough to make the company worth buying, but then they went and did something I don’t think even I can wrap my head around.”
“The 3D printers.”
“Exactly. Somewhere along the way, Wyland got it in his head he could turn his own players into a manufacturing division. So he designated certain treasures as “real-world-lootable’ and had them designed not only as three-dimensional graphics, but also as three-dimensional objects complete with ornaments, polished textures and a patented materials science that is years ahead of anything else. Even the experimental firms can’t do what Fairly Unusual can do today. Right now in every living room in America, fifth graders can manufacture their own in-game merchandise.”
Griffin set the drink on his desk, opened a drawer and produced a gleaming translucent crystal sphere set in an upturned bronzed dragon’s claw that formed its base. The dragon scales were made of delicately polished semi-circular layered ebony and the pointed nails were made of solid, flawless poured bronze. The entire affair was set on a circular base of Italian black marble and lettered with sterling silver inlay. He set it on the desk and sipped his drink again while LeBlanc stared.
“This is the Omniscient Dragon’s Eye,” Griffin announced. “It’s a level 14 treasure for any class that advances far enough in the scrying skill tree. Most of the players who get this end up as warlocks. See the way it’s made?” The N-Gate CEO turned the object over and showed LeBlanc the three dimensional reinforced micro-honeycomb lattice used to construct the materials themselves. “See that fine pattern? This process is only possible with Fairly Unusual’s 3D printers. It’s the completely new additive manufacturing process they patented. They didn’t announce this. They didn’t publicize it. Nobody saw it coming. Further, if you look at this material under a powerful enough microscope, you’ll find the honeycombs themselves are all inscribed with tiny logos and patent numbers tied to a unique data key, which is the second process they patented. These things can’t even be knocked off!”
“It’s a physical object, Len. We could get a LASER scanner and convert it to a virtual mesh, then map the materials and reproduce it within millimeters of its original size and shape.”
“Sure, we could get the size and shape and the materials, but ours would be instantly recognizable as the knock-off. We can’t replicate the material or the pattern and we can’t duplicate the data key that corresponds to the patent number and logo. What these guys did is practically magical, Martin. They take a common material out of the real world like Italian marble and they arranged it into a form that makes that common material absolutely unique. I wonder if you realize what this means? This object,” Len held the Dragon’s Eye up for emphasis, “cannot ever be duplicated by any science: Past, present or future. It’s alchemy. Rocks into gold.”
“Where did you get this?”
“It came out of that printer,” Griffin replied, nodding at the Kings and Conquests “treasure station” sitting along the opposite wall near the bookcase. It was a humble-looking device that distantly resembled a cross between a blender and a small refrigerator. “Took an hour to make. Do you know what this is worth? I posted a picture of it on Blibber a couple hours after Mike looted it.”
The classy gold-embossed Kings and Conquests logo was a nice touch, Martin thought. “If it’s unique, I’d say you got some offers considering the hype level right now. Anyone else try to print one of these?”
“Far as we know, this is it. I expect it’s possible to print a second one, but they have to come out of KNC Treasure Stations. Someone offered me $40,000 for this. We could probably make a living just sweeping the game world for these “real-world-lootable’ treasures and selling them at auction. Hell, we could open up a museum for these things and charge admission!”
Martin’s eyebrows rose, surprised at his boss’ sudden energy. N-Gate management hadn’t been this interested in a competitor in ten years. “This really has you wound up, doesn’t it?”
“Martin, the medical device market alone is worth billions. That printer over there can already make rudimentary transistors. It can make electrical circuits. The patent Fairly Unusual obtained on this micro-lattice makes this object nearly indestructible. We took one of the bases off an action figure we printed from the KNC gift shop the other day and gave it to some guys in our fabrication shop. They put it in a hydraulic press and subjected it to six tons of pressure. It didn’t even chip.”
“Why? What makes these things so strong? Did Wyland invent some new alloy or something?”
“Pound for pound, the honeycomb is one of the strongest structures in nature. When constructed to the tolerances that machine over there is capable of, these objects become incredibly resilient. The lattice inside here is 300 micrometers from center to center. This thing could probably stop a bullet.”
“So it has military applications as well.”
“Right now one of the most powerful micro-industrial technologies known to man is being used to make cartoon action figures. I want this. I want to own it all. Our research and development guys could take one of those machines and build the future with it. I’m going to make sure N-Gate is leading the way.”
Martin picked up the Omniscient Dragon’s Eye and examined it, taking care to study the sparkling golden KNC logo, patent and game information hewn into the plaque set in its base. Even the lettering had the same superfine lattice texture. As he turned the object around, a glimpse of lavender light flashed from inside the clear crystal-like globe. He turned it back and saw it again. By positioning it just so, a hologram appeared inside the orb. It was yet another representation of the winged sword-and-shield Kings and Conquests emblem.
“Is it true they’re capable of working with precious metals? We know that’s already possible with current-generation 3D printers.”
“True, but what Treasure Stations do is the next step. The current generation creates a mold which is used to shape the metal. It’s crude but it works. These things superheat gold, silver and about ten other kinds of metals in nearly any combination and then apply it with a high precision jet almost exactly the same as their layer applicator. Their first demonstration of the technology was writing the preamble to the Constitution in 18 karat gold on a piece of black wood. In cursive. They’re planning to donate it to the Smithsonian.”
“Where did they get the funding for all this?”
“That’s a very good question, Mr. LeBlanc.” Len swiveled his chair to look out the window.
“Imagine the merchandising they can do with this. Imagine renting this tech out to the nearest comic book company,” Martin mused, still marveling at the one-of-a-kind treasure in his hands. “Or the nearest aerospace manufacturer.”
“There have been two industrial revolutions, Martin,” Len said as he took in the view overlooking downtown Santa Monica and swirled the ice in his drink. “The first replaced the human hand with the machine and replaced manpower and horsepower with steam power. The second is the one we grew up with. The iron triangle of middle-class economic progress: Mass media, mass marketing and mass production. The engine that built 20th century America. But the fundamental weakness of the second revolution was the fact the first can of soup cost investors ten million dollars and the second can cost them ten cents. It worked, but it was its own barrier to entry. It locked too many people out of the crown jewel of capitalism: ownership. It’s like the blockbuster film business. No room for fun or experimentation because guessing wrong puts the studio out of business.”
Martin wandered over to the Treasure Station and fiddled with the controls.
“But that thing right there on that table is the third industrial revolution. No factory. No need for rail lines and big dirty machinery to get products on shelves. In fact, no need for shelves at all any more, since the advent of e-commerce has created infinite shelf space. Mass production has been replaced by custom production. Right after mass media was replaced by the search engine.”
“And now all that’s left is mass marketing.”
“You know what the funny thing is, Martin? Mass marketing was almost the first to go.” Len looked up from his long gaze at the nearby bay and smiled wearily. “Remember shareware? That was the marketing mechanism that was supposed to turn zero-cost duplication and zero-cost distribution into an advantage, and it almost worked. First company that was successful with it made a million bucks a day.”
“Zero cost marketing,” Martin mused again. “The El Dorado of capitalism.”
“Word of mouth is free and the only advertising worth paying for. Or so I’ve heard,” Len chuckled. “Ultimately, it all comes down to product quality, and I have a feeling when the Treasure Station is through destroying mass production, it’s going to turn around and put a stake through the heart of mass marketing too.”