- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 13, 2002

Planet Hot Wheels (www.planethotwheels.com) strives to combine all the facets of virtual racing in a collector's environment with one of the world's most recognizable brands of die-cast cars.
"The number one thing we are doing is to allow children and adults to go online and store things within a permanent universe," says Keith Kirby, creative director for Planet Hot Wheels.
Racers first sign up at the Web site, then get a moniker, password and code to unlock their first vehicle. From then on, every time a player returns, the customized car is ready to go.
The initial vehicle is just the beginning of a cyber-collection of cars. It costs nothing but time to become a member of the Planet Hot Wheels community, and Hot Wheels cash, or points, are earned every time a player visits. With the points, visitors can play games, win races or explore any of the site's many themed activities.
The many hot spots at the site include the Mech Shop, where players can trick out their Hot Wheels by finding mechanics and auto-body men to paint a car, buy and install a new part or sell a part no longer needed at half the original purchase price.
Players also can cruise over to the Flamin' Pizza joint for a little road-rally racing across a tough dirt track that includes water and lava hazards. Visitors even can take on a live opponent, racing against another Planet Hot Wheels denizen over the Internet.
The more a player explores the site, the more points are collected. Those points can be used to purchase mag wheels, turbo engines, spoilers and many other details that will make the cars the fastest and coolest on the virtual racetrack.
"We are applying a real-world collecting paradigm to this virtual universe and, as in the real world, things gain and lose value over time," Mr. Kirby says. "We do not offer an unlimited number of things. For example, if you purchase a set of tire rims just when they come on the market and before they are hot, you will spend less for them than someone else. As the demand for those rims increases, so does the collectible value of the car you put them on."
Further enhancing the experience, special features such as a missile launcher or entrance into contests also can be earned when one of the special Planet Hot Wheels cars is purchased ($1.99) at a retail store and then the package code is entered at the Web site.
Additionally merging the virtual and real world of Hot Wheels, 12 different Energy Cars ($2.99) will be available next month. When the code contained in one of these cars is entered at the site, a cyber version of the car is generated. The cyber-car then can be customized further in the Planet Hot Wheels world.
All of this has taken a bit of behind-the-scenes magic. As the primary designer, Mr. Kirby had some important goals to meet. He wanted the site to be accessible to almost any computer user, regardless of the power of the user's computer system. He also wanted an individual with the least sophisticated system to be able to compete on the racetrack with the owner of the latest, "state-of-the-art" computer.
First, the site automatically scans the player's computer and detects whether it has the latest Shockwave plug-in (in this case 8.5). If not, Planet Hot Wheels will guide the user through its installation.
"Because we know how difficult and expensive it is to raise a family and that the average computer is a Pentium III, 300MHz with no hardware acceleration, our games run well on that system, but if you have one of the new two-gig computers with a video-three system, the game changes," Mr. Kirby says. "The display windows get larger, and using more polygons, objects get richer, more detailed; lighting becomes more realistic, and so the games visually improve with the better computer, but the person with the megacomputer does not have a better game-play experience."
The site also had to be able to track information from millions of users while supporting tens of thousands of people online simultaneously. Finally, the games and race environments had to look and play as well as their video-game counterparts.
"It took a lot of new technology to achieve this site because it is very sophisticated as to the games and game play," Mr. Kirby says. "The games are beautiful, deep environments, which meant that we needed to physically make the games bigger than most Web sites, which could have meant longer downloads. But we created a new system that pre-loads the game data and assets to the user's machine while they are doing other activities.
"By eliminating the waiting, we are eliminating the boredom that can easily send a gamer to another site."

Write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington DC, 20002; or send e-mail ([email protected]).

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