Archive for May, 2007

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An apt analogy after all…

May 27, 2007

This post ‘cleverly’ weaves three of my interests together; MMORPGs, Heavy Metal and Fantasy Literature and all begins with a quote I read on Last.FM in regards to a track by the (incredibly cheesy) metal band Blind Guardian.

I recently picked up ‘A Twist in the Myth’ by said band and noticed that one of the tracks was called Otherland, a name shared by a series of novels by Tad Williams about a super-life-like virtual world. Reading the lyrics to the song my suspicions were 90% confirmed but I just wanted to double check so I did a Google search and came up with a few relevant links. The one that caught my eye was a comment left on Last.FM that said “I know it’s based off the book “Otherland” but the lyrics also describe World of Warcraft quite well”. Let’s take a look at some of the lyrics he’s referring to:

They rule the land
They are in command
They hold all strings in hand
They are invisible
Out of sight
They’ve designed
A secret place
To play their games
A world they’re in control
Divine law
Divine law
Be aware
Now
Mind your steps
We are uninvited guests
They may find and catch us
Don’t forget
Do what I say
Now connect
Don’t even ask
Until we’re out of it
Everything’s at highest stake
Come take a look
We are in
Take a breath
But don’t forget
It isn’t real
It isn’t true
An illusion
Nothing more

You’re part of the game
You’re slave to the grind
Oblivion
Is your key to the Otherland
You’re part of the game
You’re cursed
You’re damned
By now you understand

You’re part of the game
You’re slave to the grind
Oblivion
You’re welcome to the
Otherland

I think it’s safe to say that Blizzard won’t be using this song in their next advertising campaign.

My first thought was that this guy is an ex-WoW player who bitterly resents the hours he whittled away in Azeroth. Then I remembered what so many of my guildies have told me about their continued attraction to WoW. Many openly acknowledge the psychologically addictive nature of WoW, but continue to play anyway, the reason being that they’ve made close friends there.

“There is no end point – no end story for me to reach. Only the next epic item after item after item.”

“The key question for me tho is ‘What keeps you playing WoW?’ to which I respond ‘The people I play along side’. If it wasn’t for TT (the guild)… I would have quit ages ago.

In the first book of the Otherland series (I have yet to read the second, third and fourth volumes, they’re all f**king huge) one of the main story arcs (there are several) features Renie Sulaweyo, whose younger brother is left comatose after some rather unsavoury virtual world experience. Renie ends up getting caught up in some very nasty business in her efforts to help her brother, but she gets through it (well the first volume anyway) because her friends (one or two of whom end up giving their life) are there to help her.

So, while Blizzard might not be quite as evil as those in control of Otherland, maybe the comment the guy made on Last.FM referred to the fact that often only your friends get you through WoW.

Here’ s Blind Guardian in all their glory: 02_blind_guardian-otherland-amrc.mp3

 


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The Advertising Crusade

May 25, 2007

I’d heard about Google’s plan to collect data from players of MMORPGs (here, here and here) but as it was old news and I hadn’t picked up anything from any of the MMORPG blogs I check out I thought I’d give it a miss.

Then I found Nicodemus’s post on Kill Ten Rats and decided it was worth posting about after all.

Without sounding big-headed I think Google need to read my MRS presentation (scroll down a few posts, if you’re reading boys). Then, as Nicodemus rightly points out, they probably need to try playing an afternoon (or better still six months) of World of Warcraft.

Now it’s possible that we don’t really know what Google have got planned and that the media have got the wrong end of the stick but if The Guardian have got it right and if “you’re the sort of gamer who explores every inch of the environment, you might see ads for trekking holidays on in-game billboards” then it’s safe to say Google are officially, utterly braindead.

While I firmly believe that player and avatar are essentially the same person in MMORPGs (“it’s still me behind the keyboard” Pabloleafiss) and the interaction between players makes this more the case than in single player games, it does not correlate that in-game a player will be motivated by the same things that motivate them in RL.

Let me simplify this. Google seem to believe that the behaviour my avatar displays in game is a reflection of my needs/motives/attitudes in RL. To start with this correlation may or may not be accurate, many people find a different side of their personality comes out in MMORPGs, an adventurous avatar doesn’t always equal and adventurous player. But supposing it is true that most peoples’ playing style reflects their RL life, surely then Google are doing the right thing.

Well no, to be honest. Let’s apply Google’s logic in a different context. Say for sake of argument you are the kind of gamer who enjoys exploring every inch of the game world and coincidentally in RL you also enjoyed actually enjoy trekking holidays, theoretically speaking Google could sell advertising space alongside the path of your favourite countryside walks, guaranteeing to those sellers of walking equipment who chose to pay for the space that they’d definitely hit their target audience.

Now imagine this idea in practice: our gamer/trekker has escaped the confines of his bedroom to journey into the great British countryside and is  confronted by a stretch of billboards following his favourite footpath as far as the eye can see, is he impressed by these cleverly targeted adverts? No, he’s shouting obscene words and throwing things at the billboards and storming off to the car park so he can return home. Later through gritted teeth he explains to Google that they’ve completely ruined his day out and his favourite pastime (apart from gaming) because the beautiful views of the rolling landscape have been obscured by billboards and the wonderful feeling of calm and escape he gets from wandering around in the countryside has been utterly destroyed. Basically it is totally inappropriate to put advertising billboards up in contexts that are not suitable!

The problem with this kind of targeted advertising is that even the most accurate data isn’t an entirely accurate representation of anybody as a human being. Say for example Google work out from my in-game chat that at the moment I’m listening to a lot of Death Metal and Thrash Metal by bands who formed in the late 80s and early 90s, they’d have pretty tightly defined data perhaps even a few band names. So the next time I’m in Orgrimmar there’s a letter in my postbox and I open it and find an advert telling me that there’s a new compilation of Pestilence tracks, a new Deicide album and a link to a website that sells more of this kind of music. My reaction would be ‘I’ve got all Pestilence’s albums so I’m not interested in hearing some of their tracks in a different order, I was never even a big fan of Deicide back in the day, I’m certainly not now, and the link is useless to me as I can’t copy and paste it or save it in Del.icio.us, more importantly I’m off to the Auction House and then I’ve got 7 more quests to complete in Nagrand and I’ve got to get a good night’s sleep on top of that’. Delete.

This kind personal targeting of adverts always runs the risk of trying to be too clever, but it’s ‘intelligence’ is based on a very limited set of data. It will eventually learn that I have all Pestilence’s albums and that I don’t like Deicide, but by that time I’ll be so pissed off with it that I’ll be naturally ill-disposed toward it.

There are probably exceptions to the rule, maybe some areas of Second Life could become advertising friendly and the more casual virtual world environments are probably relatively well suited to it, but on the whole brands should view MMORPG as opportunities to engage people and show them they understand what each individual game world is about and what my immediate needs are as a player in those game worlds.

Brands going into Second Life are beginning to realise this and rather than replicating their RL presence in virtual form are trying to engage users through playfulness (Calvin Klein) or User Generated Content (Coca Cola). Admittedly the success of these examples has been questionable, but it’s a step in the right direction.

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Deep MMORPG discussions *begin rant*

May 24, 2007

While I’m building up to the release of the findings from my own research, I’m enjoying looking for other people’s MMORPG thoughts. Raph Koster’s brain (or blog, in this case) is naturally a good place to start.

Now don’t get me wrong, Raph has clearly had a lot of hands on experience in the industry and could probably squash me like the noob bug I am, but he does occasionally get caught up in academic issues, along with many of the other veterans. Most of the time I honestly really enjoy a bit of hardcore theory or conceptualisation and I freely admit to reading Terra Nova on a daily basis, but sometimes I get a bit frustrated with discussions about subjects such as ’emergent gameplay’ or ‘narrative’.

A big part of the problem is that academic terminology tends to be extremely ambiguous and to make matters worse academics tend not to notice (or refuse to notice) that this is the case. So we see endless debates where nobody will back down, concede a point or even compromise for fear of being wrong, when actually nobody is wrong because there was no definitive definition in the first place! (For example, compare the definitions given in this paper and this paper)

Now back to my main point. In this post Raph gets on to the subject of ‘immersion’ – yes, one of those academic terms that no-one can quite pin down. He believes that the future of virtual worlds lies in those of the non-immersive kind, like My Mini Life and Club Penguin. If I understand correctly, by this he means virtual worlds that will exist in your browser rather than in a browser of their own.

Firstly, it’s quite possible that the two could co-exist quite happily if we imagine the former cater to the more hardcore audience and the latter for the more casual audience. This would see virtual worlds heading in the same direction as the rest of the computer game industry, i.e. no-one is saying that the success of casual games on Nintendo’s DS is going to be the death of games like Crysis, Gears of War or Halo 3.

Secondly, if we’re completely honest there are very few forms of media that are wholly and all-consumingly immersive. It’s been well-documented that virtual worlds aren’t replacements for real-life. Sure there are moments when you’re playing that you do sort of forget that your just staring at a computer screen, but they are probably far less common than those moments where you’re totally cognisant of your UI, the desk you’re sitting at, the cup of tea you’re drinking next to your computer and so on. But these don’t ruin the game experience, these are all parts of the game experience. Likewise, so are guild websites, WoW forums, Thottbot and so on.

It seems to me that immersion is one of those academic hangovers from the days of the ‘virtual reality’ craze that nobody bar the obsessive academics involved in trying to develop it ever asked for. People play in virtual worlds because they want to enjoy the thrill of a computer game with other people, if it happens to be more immersive and time-consuming it’s more likely an outcome of these two features rather than the reason people start playing in the first place.

*End rant*

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A Time of Change?

May 23, 2007

On all accounts 2007 will be an interesting year for the MMORPG world, Lord of the Rings Online was released just over a month ago and we have Age of Conan and Warhammer Online to look forward to as well.

One of my research interests is what makes guilds stay together and come apart,  and where people go when they leave, so from this perspective the most interesting thing will be the affect these  rivals to WoW on player communities. Will core guild members stick together in new MMORPGs, or will whole new guild memberships be born? How many people will actually become players of two MMORPGs, or possibly even more? Either way it will be fascinating to see just how strong ‘virtual’ communities can be.

Another example of behaviour change that might be occurring, noted by arch-MMORPG blogger, Tobold, is the possibility that LOTRO allows for more relaxed/less time intensive play compared to the frenetic levels many experience in WoW . Unsurprisingly there is a mixture of agreement and disagreement in the replies to his post, but enough people agree to suggest there is something happening here.

Whether LOTRO is offering an escape from the competitive, all consuming nature of WoW or whether it’s because there is as yet no end-level content to aspire to in LOTRO remains to be seen, but there’s the possibility, as a few commenters point out, that you’re never quite as rabid about your second MMORPG (WoW being the first for many, myself included).

This is a subject I’ll be keeping my eye on, as it may determine how future MMORPG titles decide on release content or how a particularly gameworld/franchise impacts player involvement, amongst other things!

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The Problems of Researching ‘Escapism’

May 22, 2007

I want to explain in a little more detail what I mean by researching ‘escapism’, because otherwise this blog might get a bit confusing.

I’m a big fan of Henry Jenkins’ writings particularly his concept of the ‘aca/fan’, and although I’m not an academic, I am by profession a consumer researcher (my academic background is in archaeology and anthropology) and the research I do here will often have a commercial angle, at the same time I’m writing as a fan/player/reader of the subject of my research. As Henry explains, in academia this cross-over is frowned upon by many and although this is probably less the case in commercial research it still lingers in the background (for a very interesting debate on this subject see Florence Chee’s post on Terra Nova)

The purpose of this preamble is to explain that there is effectively two sides to this blog:
The first is the more commercial angle, where I’ll be posting my thoughts/research findings from MMORPGs/Virtual Worlds such as World of Warcraft, Second Life and Lord of the Rings Online. I see these worlds as the most contemporary form of escapism and also as places of increasing interest to businesses.

The second is my more personal interest in the concept and ‘practice’ of escapism – a pretentious way of saying fantasy and sci-fi media – which  is something I’m just very interested in but could also beI  tied in with understanding MMORPGs/virtual worlds.

In amongst all this there will be random tangentially related bits and pieces such as my artwork, music I like etc.

So this blog could work and be really interesting or it could fail and be totally chaotic and confusing – we’ll soon see!

Anyway I think ‘escapism’ covers most if not all aspects of this blog so I’m sticking with it for now.

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New World Knowledge

May 19, 2007

Wagner James Au has been doing some very interesting things on his Second Life blog, New World Notes. Recently he has begun posting visitor numbers to RL Second Life sites, here and here, and has produced a tentative typology of Second Life users, here.

It’s not surprising to see that the native sites are more popular than the branded sites, what is fascinating to have verified is just how much more popular they are, especially game sites such as Midgar and particularly City of Lost Angels. It seems that even when brands do it right in Second Life they aren’t doing it right enough!

I guess the next step would be to find out why people are visiting these sites, what they think when they get there and whether they intend coming back or not. I’m going to attempt to come up with some tentative answers to these questions myself in a few weeks time.

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Virtual Pilgrimages

May 18, 2007

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Image courtesy of Foton

I have a huge backlog of stuff I want to write about, much of which is a little out of date, but I’m going to post a few of the more interesting bits.

One of the MMORPG blog posts that caught my eye was by Foton over at AFK Gamer where he explains how hard it was to get a glimpse of Strider in Lord of the Rings Online . I think we’re well used to the idea of ‘pop culture tourism’ and ‘secular pilgrimages’ but the idea of a ‘virtual pilgrimage’ runs particularly hard against the grain because of it lacks what is traditionally thought of as the essential attribute of a pilgrimage – authenticity.

Relics, the graves of dead rock stars etc. are revered because they are strong material links to a famous individual or cultural phenomenon, they’re power lies in their assumed authenticity and they give people the opportunity to get close to somebody or something that would normally be out of their reach. In his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ ,Walter Benjamin referred to this authenticity as the ‘aura’ that came from something’s unique presence in space and time. But with fictional characters or places there clearly  is no original. Authenticity has to be constructed so the fact that LOTRO Strider bears a strong resemblance to Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal, undoubtedly the most universally accepted face of Strider,  surely has a strong influence on this sense of authenticity . Likewise the fact that Turbine have rights to the official Lord of the Rings Online name lends them more authenticity than if it was a fan-made unofficial game.

LOTRO isn’t the first virtual world to bring fans close to their heroes, MTV’s Virtual Hills and Virtual Laguna Beach, Virtual Worlds modeled on the MTV TV shows of the same name. In these VWs players can hang out by the same pools and shop in the same shops they see on TV, and occasionally even meet the ‘cast’ of the show in avatar form. Interestingly enough I use the word ‘cast’ in parentheses because both these shows are ‘reality’ shows, so the ‘characters’ are in fact real people who have allowed cameras access to portions of their lives (I’m not going to get into the ‘are they acting or aren’t they debate’ here), but in adopting avatars they allow for a degree of accessibility for fans of the show that would wouldn’t normally be the case .

I believe that many brands who want to get involved in the whole virtual world phenomenon need to take note of how successful LOTRO and Virtual Hills and Laguna Beach are by giving access to places and people that appeal to their fans. Many brands have iconic adverts that could easily be recreated in a VW such as Second Life, in fact players could actively participate in an advert as I suggested in my MRS presentation. There have been some attempts to do similar things already, for example as part of the promotion for the film 300, Spartan style weapons and armour were made available to Second Life residents so they could re-create scenes from the film in their own particular way and the L Word’s Second Life presence seems to be doing pretty well if the numbers of visitors are anything to go by, so brands that desire a more intimate relationship with their customers should take this approach to marketing very seriously, even if it does require a bit more time and effort.

Anyway, it’s early days for virtual worlds in the eyes of mainstream media, so hopefully we’ll see more of this in the future.