Chicago: Home to Virtual Mafia

From its origins as an empty “.org” domain name, co-founders and developers Aaron Grublesky, Andrew Heidgerken and Anthony Buglio have created a viciously vociferous base of users from across the globe. The site was recently named to FHM.com’s 100 Greatest Online Games.

“The traffic growth has been explosive,” Heidgerken said. “We now have more than 2,400 individual gamers per day with nearly 4,000 registered users on the site who spend an average of 30 minutes per day on the system. Mafia.org is attracting nearly 100,000 online player minutes per day.”

The growing popularity of Mafia.org is a microcosm of a larger trend in online gaming. As the market for competitive online community gaming has exploded, it has also attracted major investment dollars from technology kingpins like Sony and Microsoft. Each company has invested billions of dollars in “traditional” online PC games and in online enabling their respective PlayStation 2 and Xbox gaming consoles.

Microsoft entered the online fray with extreme force in late 2002 by spending hundreds of millions of dollars in the launch of its Xbox Live system, which links thousands of active Xbox players together in real-time competition. According to James Allard, general manager of Microsoft Xbox, Xbox gamers logged more than one million hours in the first week of play.

Though online gaming is turning out to be highly lucrative for both corporations and game publishers alike, externalities do exist. Many of the games are violent and have a strong tendency to be addictive to users who seek social interaction through immersion in fantasy worlds. Sony, for example, operates one of the largest, most profitable and arguably most addicting online gaming communities through its EverQuest system.
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The no-frills textual interface to online gaming site Mafia.org.
Screenshot courtesy of Mafia.org
“Excessive time in fantasy worlds such as these can create social withdrawal from the reality of the world,” said Dr. Yosuf Hakimi, a Chicago-area adolescent and child psychiatrist. “Especially in children, it can impair a child’s normal development in coping with real situations.”

Dr. Joshua Nathan, a psychiatry resident at Brown University, added: “A problem with excessive online usage for kids is that they just don’t interact with their peers in a socially constructive manner. In terms of adults, it probably wouldn’t be harmless for them, but for kids, it has more detrimental potential.”

The time spent speaks for itself: “Some of our more hardcore users spend in excess of eight hours per day on the system,” Heidgerken said. “They are addicted, but there is also a real sense of community and camaraderie between players and teams.”

Of all the Web sites in all the towns in all the world, why did Mafia.org happen to walk into Chicago – the notorious outpost for the early outfit? Co-founder Buglio says Chicago has been a “perfect fit” to launch a mafia-themed online video game.

“I grew up on the south side of Chicago in an Italian neighborhood. You would hear all sorts of stories about how Al Capone used to hang out at this place or that place. All these tales and legends gave us a great base of ideas when we started constructing the site.”

The game, coined “Mafia” or “M2” (version 2.0) by its rabid users, is a virtual and real-time simulation of climbing the ranks of the mob. At the beginning, you start as a lowly “thug” with no money in your pocket and are left to figure things out on the dangerous streets of Chicago.

As you progress through the game, your character grows in wealth and power by committing various petty crimes and selling drugs. Users cheat, lie, steal and kill their way through 11 successive and hierarchical mob ranks ranging from “thug” to “godfather”.

“It’s really in the spirit of all these new games that are out now like Grand Theft Auto, Max Payne and Dead to Rights,” Heidgerken said, “except that Mafia.org has a stronger community element and is more textually violent instead of visually and graphically violent.”

With each successful crime, your character earns cash to buy more drugs and influence additional crew members. As in real life, the more power one acquires, the easier it is to build wealth and gain influence with the lower ranks. In the same vein, with more power comes a higher profile and a greater chance to be a target of a “hit”.

With each unsuccessful crime, your characters can find themselves in trouble with the law or possibly dead. The ultimate aim is to become the “godfather” of a city. Currently, there are only five cities in the game: Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New Orleans and New York. Mafia.org, however, has a twist: Unlike other video games, death in Mafia.org is final. When you are dead, your character is gone forever.

“This game is not like Xbox’s Halo or Grand Theft Auto in that sense,” Heidgerken said. “It is not like EverQuest where you can have your character resurrected. This is like real life. If your character dies, you need to start all over.” He added: “At least you get to start over.”

Some of our more hardcore users spend in excess of eight hours per day on the system. They are addicted.
– Mafia.org co-founder Andrew Heidgerken
Though technically not a dot-com, the founders do have commercial aspirations for the game. Like many dot-coms, though, they’re not devoid of daunting challenges along the way.

“Because we wanted to build a critical mass at first, we haven’t charged our users anything for access to the system,” Heidgerken said. “While we do want to make this commercially successful at some point, we don’t want to do anything to alienate our users.”

Heidgerken says the logarithmically growing user base has overwhelmed several attempts to build a server and hardware infrastructure capable of reliably servicing the users – a small observation that has cost the founders personally to maintain their operation. Mafia.org’s younger demographic of users (largely under the age of 20) has created another problem: hackers.

“With a name like ‘Mafia.org,’ it’s a calling card for your 12-year-old hacker out there,” Heidgerken said. “So many times it’s a real-life battle with our users for control over the site.”

In potentially commercializing their site, the Mafia.org team has set up an online clothing store called MobWare, where individuals and gamers can purchase stylized Mafia.org merchandise online. As the site gains traction, game publishers may be a revenue source as well.

“We would like to get larger gaming companies to advertise on the site,” Heidgerken said. “We know our demographic is valuable to them.” Heidgerken swears the team won’t resort to any old-school Chicago tactics if that doesn’t work.
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