The "Wohlers" column is authored by Terry Wohlers for Time Compression.
This column was published in the March/April 2009 issue. 


Gaming + Additive Fabrication = Big Business

by Terry Wohlers, President, Wohlers Associates

The use of additive fabrication technology to produce video game characters and player avatars is growing at an almost unbelievable pace. Previously, a few models related to the virtual world of Second Life (www.secondlife.com) have been produced, but the activity has been negligible. It’s been absolutely fascinating to watch new businesses in this area flourish over the past year.

In December 2008, Electronic Arts (www.ea.com) and Z Corp. (www.zcorp.com) announced a partnership to produce one-of-a-kind products called “Spore Sculptures.” EA is the largest maker of interactive entertainment software and rolled out its Spore game in September 2008. From nearly the beginning, the software was designed with additive fabrication in mind. Millions of unique Spore creatures have since been created. While I’m not a player of video games, I made several creatures using Spore Creature Creator. I found it easy and entertaining to use. I produced my first creature in a few minutes without any instructions or guidance from anyone. The CAD software industry could learn from the simple drag-and-drop features built into this product. Z Corp.’s role in the partnership is to manufacture color models for Spore game players on its 3D printers. A Spore Sculpture, which measures up to 4-in. high, sells for $49.50. To see a range of Spore creatures, Google “Spore” and then click Google’s Images option.

Harmonix (www.harmonixmusic.com) and MTV Games (www.mtv.com/games) are working with Z Corp. to transform avatars from the Rock Band 2 game into physical models. Each 5-in. to 6-in. tall model, called a Bandmate, reflects the player’s digital rock persona and style and includes a musical instrument. Players can select from a range of poses when placing an order. The service was announced in October 2008 and the price is $69.

FigurePrints (www.figureprints.com) is another example of how the video game industry is embracing additive fabrication technology, and of those cited here, the most developed from a custom product manufacturing perspective. FigurePrints is a company whose business is built around the wildly successful World of Warcraft (WoW) game from Blizzard Entertainment (www.blizzard.com). More than 11.5 million people currently play the on-line game, with total subscription fees of an estimated $1.9-billion annually.

WoW players have taken the passion of game playing to an entirely new level. According to Ed Fries, founder and CEO of FigurePrints, WoW has even been responsible for marriages and divorces. WoW players spend enormous chunks of time playing and strengthening their characters. In the process, the look of the character changes considerably. To some extent, the character becomes the player, and because of this, Fries believed that players would pay $100 or more to have a replica made. And, he was right.

I had the opportunity to spend time with Fries in late 2008. I learned that he created his first video games for the Atari 800 in the early 1980s. He joined Microsoft in 1986 and spent the next 10 years as one of the founding developers of Excel and Word. He left the Office team to pursue his passion for interactive entertainment and created Microsoft Game Studios. Over the next eight years, he grew his team to over 1,200 employees, published more than 100 games, and co-founded the Xbox project (www.microsoft.com/xbox). In 2004, Fries retired from his vice president position at Microsoft to serve as a consultant and advisor to a range of publishers, independent game developers, and media companies. Fries then formed FigurePrints. By December 2008, the company was manufacturing more than 2,000 custom products monthly with multiple color machines from Z Corp. This is impressive when considering that the company launched the service 12 months earlier.

In less than a year, FigurePrints grew to become the largest and most successful business of its kind. Expecting that the company could not meet demand, Fries established a lottery system for selecting customers. Fries said that tens of thousands of WoW players are joining the lottery each month, each hoping to get a chance to place an order. I do not know of another manufacturing company that is faced with a similar “problem.” Customers can choose from more than 50 different poses, thousands of armor sets, and tens of thousands of items and accessories. In the future, Fries expects to broaden the service by giving customers additional options. Examples include mounting your character on a horse, positioning it in a fight with a monster, or having it stand on a dead character. Initially, the price for a FigurePrints model, measuring up to 8-in. high, was $99. Fries decided to raise the price to the current $129.95.

Few would have predicted that the 3D printing process from Z Corp. would become one of the most popular methods of additive fabrication for the production of custom products. Its competitors are watching the gaming business closely and trying to determine how they might play a role in this fast-growing and exciting business.