Archive for June, 2007

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What MMORPGs say about stories: part 2

June 29, 2007

My first post on this subject can be boiled down to adding AIs or NPCs to branded sites to make them feel ‘alive’ as far too many branded sites currently feel like ‘ghost towns’ something even the most popular branded sites continue to suffer from. To be sure, NPCs are no replacement for real people, but in a world like Second Life, where visitors are operating in numerous different time zones this isn’t always possible.

This post covers the subject of world building, not in a ‘on the 7th day…’ way, but in terms of developing coherent background stories for branded sites, so that visitors are better able to engage with them. Most branded sites incorporate imagery and aesthetics from their promotional material and advertising campaigns, and while these elements create ‘consistency’ with the brand they do little to engage visitors, apart from reassuring them they are in the right place. To illustrate the latter point compare the imagery Vodafone make use of on their Second Life island with that from their “make the most of now” advertising campaign.

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The Mayfly ads were visually striking and the butterflies on their island presumably reference that campaign. This is ‘continuity’ which is necessary, especially for brands, but the idea behind the ad was that the mayflys only live 24 hours so they need to make the most of it, the Second Life presence doesn’t seem to develop this story any further, on the contrary the island feels very laid back and relaxed!
The growth of ‘immersive entertainment’ has been particularly beneficial for film franchises, the recent Spider-Man 3 game topped the games charts for several weeks, despite mediocre reviews for both the film and game. Undoubtedly the games based on Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Transformers will see success in the games charts. Part of the reason for their success is undoubtedly their familiarity, but beyond this obvious benefit, they give players the opportunity to experience the story plus some. Clearly Second Life doesn’t offer the same scope for story development as a full-blown computer game, but even taking this into consideration most brands haven’t explored the 3D interactive medium as much as they could do.

Henry Jenkins recently wrote an insighful post on his blog about the way in which franchises are having to develop more complex stories in order to engage their fans. He discussed how film critics took issue with the complicated and exposition-heavy story-line of Pirates of the Caribbean: at World’s End whereas he, as a fan, found these elements the most appealing aspects of the film. Fans, enthusiasts, loyalists, whatever we want to call them, are the people who are most likely to interact with brands in new media platforms such as MMOs, so content made for these platforms needs to be made for these people first and foremost. Transmedia approaches are the next big thing in Hollywood and although they are still a relatively new phenomenon non-media brands should take note of their methods and successes.

The mantra for transmedia success seems to be ‘stay true to what your brand is about’, because inevitably different mediums – TV, cinema, online, books, MMO etc – require different interpretations. Take Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar for example, in this MMO it would make no sense at all for players to adopt the identity of any of the named characters from the books or films like you can in teh single player computer games, but the quest system and storlines are built to make the player feel as though they are participating in a greater effort. It is Middle Earth on a different scale, where you meet everyday people who have been affected by the growing power of Sauron and the problems you solve for people are often at this everyday level.

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In the MMO medium detail is essential, it communicates story implicitly. The images below show a few examples of this. The first images are from the city of Shattrath, in World of Warcraft. Without going into too much detail the city houses refugees from every imaginable race in Azeroth who have fled from various displaced and corrupted groups. While snippets of the story are picked up from quests the imagery used tells the story with great clarity – dank lighting, makeshift tents, crates and boxes, shoeless children running around.

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To prove that it isn’t just RPG driven MMOs that can use this kind of imagery, The Great Fissure in Second Life is a very good example of what can be done to convey a story without explicitly telling it. Something bad obviously happened here that pretty much rendered civilisation obsolete.

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Goingback to Vodafone’s TV and MMO presences – wht didn’t they take some of the enviroment that they used in the advert and translate that into a virtual experience – sure this might be a little much for the average ad viewer, but it’s highly unlikely the average ad viewer would be in Second Life. riding the butterflies could have been a genuine adrenaline rush, the vegetation could have been thick and lush, the ‘make the most of life’ theme could have been translated into some gaming/puzzle elements. The fact is that if non-media brands want to go into Second Life and leave a mark they’re going to have to talk to the kinds of people who write stories and create games otherwise they’ll just blend into the background noise of UGC built content.

 

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More on the numbers

June 27, 2007

I was directed to this post on the Meta Metaverse (nice name) blog from New World Notes. It’s posts like this that make me feel like the whole ‘number of users’ debate is actually going somewhere!

If I’m interpreting Meta correctly, he’s saying that we need to think about users in a different way to traditional media, traditional media being measured by ‘eyeballs’, primarily because eyeballs mean ad views and ad views is where the money is made. MMOs/virtual worlds aren’t like TV programs, magazines of even websites, ‘engagement’ is a much more significant factor and is, of course, much more difficult to measure.

For example, a seller in Second Life needn’t log in on a daily basis, but they are still contributing something dynamic to the world. In World of Warcraft there are hardcore raiders who put in tens of hours a week and casual players who put in maybe ten hours a week. Neither of these perspectives even begin to take account of ‘out of world’ activities that relate to the MMO, such as blogging, websites, professional interests, modding etc.

The problem is that numbers are still the metric by which businesses measure success. Stating that Second Life has 7 million residents or that World of Warcraft has 8.5 millions players is old media business language and the MMO genre is still new enough that it needs to be translated into these terms to have relevance.

This problem isn’t restricted to the MMO industry, the advertising industry, one of the great proponents, if not the great proponent of ‘engagement’ struggles internally and externally with the concept of ‘engagement’ because it’s a bit ‘fluffy’ when compared to good hard numbers. I think it’s fair to say that MMOs represent that most engaging form of media to date, so it may be that advertising can learn a lesson from their study, rather than vice versa.

As a starting point I imagine that the mobile phone industry has a more nuanced model for their user-base, that includes ‘oranges’ and ‘cherries’ not to mention hours of talk time, numbers of SMSs sent and numbers of users of more advanced services that could be modified to accomodate a better measurement of MMO users (anyone?).

I just found a great quote on Collaborate Marketing on data overload:

“We don’t really care about all the things falling over Niagra Falls. Maybe we only care about the tree branches, or the fish, or the rocks, or the people in barrels.  If we focus on those things most important to us and track them, we can deal effectively with data overload.”

Good point!

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Old Skool Fantasy Post

June 26, 2007

Gamasutra have an iteresting article about failed games with a link to a series of fascinating blog posts by Joe Ludwig who worked on the never-released Middle-Earth Online. One thing in the article that stood out was a reference to a never-made Warhammer MMO (pre-Mythic’s WAR) which is described as having “…a darkly realistic style, something that hearkened back to Games Workshop’s earlier more baroque style.”Anyone who has read my earlier posts about artists that have influenced my own style will know that I’m a huge fan of John Blanche‘s and Ian Miller‘s work for Games Workshop.

I’m sure that the non-realistic, ‘cartoony’ style of World of Warcraft has had some influence on its popularity because it has such a recognisable style and is therefore more salient than games that aspire to photo-realism. While the early Warhammer style shares some similarities with WoW (WoW borrowed many of it’s aethetic flourishes) it was darker, more organic and grittier. Even the humans looked pretty monstrous and ‘corrupt’ and I’ve always felt that a game with this aesthetic would look stunning. In fact a Warhammer game with witch hunting, political and physical corruption and all the elements that were found in the roleplaying version of the game would be brilliant. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that the Warhammer ‘world-story’ was a somewhat wasted on the wargame.

Look at these images below. Ok the quality of artwork may not be as polished as you would expect from a contemporary game release, but there is a raw style there: big shoulder pads; dramatic skies; impractical armour and weaponry; huge attention to detail etc.

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Anyway, I was going to write a post based on this article from the Guardian gamesblog, but I managed to miss the radio show with Steve Jackson (Fighting Fantasy, as if you didn’t know) and Austin Grossman (Deus Ex). So I know that this blog gets a lot of views for the John Blanche post, so I’m going to treat everyone to some of his work from Steve Jackson’s epic Fighting Fantasy series Sorcery! truly the best FF books ever written and still immensely enjoyable to play today, combining the classic FF karma-free logic of un-deserved death with a cheat-frustrating magic system. Just imagine these images in 3D and if there are any modders reading this please make something that looks like this…

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Turning Terra-Novan

June 25, 2007

There are some great reports and toplines from the Virtual Goods Summit3pointD have some here, here and here, and Raph (again) has some good links on his website too.

That this conference takes place is great, but for most people virtual goods, and paying real cash for them is probably the weirdest thing ever. I’ve chatted with two people in the last week from large global companies, one of whom was in telecommunications, both of whom really struggled to get their heads round the idea, and by that I mean they just couldn’t understand why people do it. Obviously I’m working on a way to explain it, but the first thing I wanted to do was work out why people have such a problem with it, to be fair, I once thought the same way too.

He’s my answer so far, I apologise if it’s all a bit ‘academic’ and Terra Nova-esque (hence the title) but there is a core point which I think is fairly straightforward. That is that people struggle with the idea of ascribing agency to something that doesn’t have it. So when a non-gamer says to a gamer, for example, something like ‘how can you spend so long playing that game it’s not real you know’ what they mean is those bunches of pixels you’re claiming are trying to kill you aren’t, they’re just programmed to do things that look like they’re killing you. Gaming, virtual worlds etc are seen as a step or two up from imaginary friends or playing with toys.

Now maybe this is nothing new, but I think those from the theory side of gaming and virtual worlds need to remember that ‘work’ and ‘play’ might make nice binary opposites in a text book, but in reality ‘not working’ doesn’t equal ‘playing’. The anthropologist Victor Turner in ‘From Ritual to Theatre: the human seriousness of play’ makes a distinction between ‘work’, ‘play’ and ‘leisure‘. I’m sure pedantic readers will point out that ‘work’ and ‘play’ are nouns while ‘leisure’ is an adjective, but I think it accurately captures the nature of leisure-time as leisure activities are often very passive, and the most popular activities tend to involve watching other people ‘work’.

True, there are more active leisure activities like gardening, sports, trekking etc. but when we look at the medium of fictional worlds, most adult leisure time is spent viewing the work of others – reading books, watching film or TV shows, going to the theatre and so on. When it comes to gaming and virtual worlds people have much more active involvement with the fictional world. I believe it is this activity which brings it into the fold of ‘play’ properly. The person at the keyboard has to actively suspend belief – the T-rex is actually trying to eat me and I have to behave as though such an activity is really happening; eg. rather than seeing it as pre-programmed AI, the T-rex’s motive is hunger.

Everybody in life probably ascribes agency to things that don’t have it (see Alfred Gell’s ‘Art and Agency’ for a really good exploration of this) but they’re rarely made public (pets are the exception here!), it’s a particularly modern ideology that sees this behaviour as irrational and superstitious. For example, hardcore fans of TV or film series are often seen as slightly odd because they attribute real emotional states to emotional states portrayed by actors.

In MMOs of course it isn’t all about AIs, people interact with other people through avatars. Yet this still requires a degree of suspension of belief, particularly from an outsiders perspective. To the outsider viewing an MMO, people aren’t talking to each other they’re talking to warriors, wizards, furries etc, in their mind it’s on a par with talking to your friends through their toys rather than directly at them.

So paying real money for items for an avatar looks to outsiders like buying clothes for Barbie! “Why does your avatar need shoes, it’s not like they’re going to get sore feet if they don’t” – the assumption being that is why you purchased shoes for them.

The relationship a person has with their avatar is quite Marxian, it’s all about time and labour – the more time you spend with and doing things to your avatar the more it feels like a part or an extension of you and the more you want to treat it as such. The solution is to get outsiders to actually try it out and this is perhaps one of Second Life’s failings, even with the tutorials beginners often don’t have a clue what to do and why they’re doing it. Sure, that’s not exactly Linden’s fault but many people I’ve spoken to have tried Second Life out and become frustrated after 30 minutes or so and therefore have never experienced first-hand what an avatar is all about.

For more anthropologically inspired virtual world thoughts check out Jen Dornan’s posts on Terra Nova.

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Another post with Raph Koster in

June 19, 2007

I finally got round to listening to Raph Koster’s talk from this year’s Game Developers Conference. As usual I felt like 50% of what he said made sense while the other 50% was a bit off. I always feel like an arse when I say stuff like that, after all he is Raph Koster, but sometimes, well to be honest a lot of times, I think Raph does get carried away with an idea, without really thinking about it too carefully.

There’s some great stuff in there, particularly his debunking of ‘the games industry is like the movie industry’ comparisons. While both have blockbusters and huge budgets, the money making process is very different for the studios whose products make alot of money well beyond their launch date. And his insistence that the big players in the games industry need to take note of the ‘open-ness’ of the web and the business models it employs is spot on.

But there are several arguments he make that just don’t ring true for me. Firstly he compares innovation in the games indutsry unfavourably with the web, games he says have become about making ‘better aliens’ rather than coming up with truly innovative ideas. Clearly he isn’t being literal here, and to be honest this probably is true for lots of games, if not all. But more to the point, most web 2.0 start-ups are based on previous innovations, look at how Slashdot’s approach has been adopted by Digg and Reddit, the latter may not be wholly original, but they are still considered very successful. I’m assuming Raph is deeply immersed in web 2.0 apps, and is familiar with this, but he fails to mention that web 2.0 is based on certain persistent ideas.

Secondly, Raph was back on his ‘low-budget, casual games are the future’ crusade, again. Undoubtedly the casual gaming market will be the major growth point in the games industry for sometime and sites like Kongregate and Club Penguin have proven you can make a lot of money out of this. But was Raph suggesting that big budget games should no longer be made? Sure, there are loads of crap games made with huge budgets, but there are also lots of very good games with big budgets, and many of these games are adopting business models that incorprate paid for add-on content. One book Raph didn’t mention (and he mentions quite a few) is Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture, I think if he’d read this he’d be better able to understand that new media doesn’t replace old media, but that the two operate togther.

Thirdly, using some rather reductivist logic Raph claimed that the way games look is pretty much irrelevant. Here goes: so he begins by claiming single player games are a historic anomoly, which is probably something of an exaggeration but I know what he meant. Then he states that games are therefore inherently social, again I can agree with that, but then jumps to the conclusion that games can therefore be stripped down to ‘player A vs player B’. From this logical extreme goes on to imply that big budgets can be abandoned because ‘A vs B’ is all that matters, better aliens are not important, ‘games are systems’. This ties in with the whole ‘story/mythology’ angle I’m always going on about. Sure, I can get hooked on a flash game for a few hours (the last one being the game on the BBC’s Robin Hood site ), but I’m probably not going to go back there, I’m certainly not feeling that this site is going to encourage any ‘love marks’ (see further down) or loyalty out of me. Whereas a well crafted game like WoW, LotRO or Oblivion will make me far more passionate because I can see the amount of care and attention that has been put into bringing a world to life for me.

Fourthly, his remark that Blizzard killed the MMORPG genre because they spent a lot of money on WoW is a little unfair to say the least. Maybe Blizzard are guilty of reinforcing the ‘fantasy’ setting stereotype, but their investment has benefitted the genre as a whole because WoW actually grew the potential MMORPG audience. Many of the new and forthcoming MMORPGs may not be revolutionary, but then as I’ve already discussed neither are most web 2.0 apps.

And finally (one day I’ll write a short post, promise), and this is a bit of a persoanl bugbear of mine, Raph used the term ‘love marks’ – a marketing term I hold in even lower esteem than ‘touchpoints’ or ‘insight’. ‘Lovemarks’ is a term dreamed up by Saatchi & Saatchi (the ad agency who gave us Tory Britain [sorry, that was below the belt]) and refers essentially to the degree of emotional engagement consumers have with a brand, if consumers are passionate about a brand that counts as a ‘lovemark’. As an example Raph states that EA aren’t as ‘cuddly’ as Apple, fair enough, but Microsoft isn’t cuddly either and neither is Myspace, but plenty of people talk about Blizzard with that kind of passion. True, Blizzard get a lot of stick (see the WoW forums) but so does Apple (see these Apple forums): passion goes both ways. Myspace used to be the darling of web 2.0, now it’s an orgy of spam and browser-crippling profile pages and Facebook is the new beau. Web 2.0 isn’t perfect and the games industry can learn from its mistakes as much as its successes.

Hmm, I’ve just realised that I disagreed with considerably more than 50% of what Raph said…

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World of Warcraft in ambiguous figures shock!

June 18, 2007

There have been several posts proclaiming the beginning of the end for World of Warcraft; most notably The Guardian Gamesblog, GigaOm and Raph Koster’s blog. To be totally fair, only The Guardian post carries any apocalyptic overtones, the other two posts examine World of Warcraft in the context of the life cycle of an MMORPG. The point of debate is this chart from WorldofWarcraftRealms:

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Has WoW plateaued and is about to start a steady descent as Raph suggests or are we seeing something different here?

Technically speaking, the graph is actually ambiguous on this point, it shows concurrency, that is numbers of players in-game at the same time, not actually numbers of players overall. Yeah, concurrency peaked with the release of The Burning Crusade expansion, but concurrency is still higher than it was before the release of The Burning Crusade. The progress of the graph does suggest that numbers are in decline although it doesn’t hint at how they will pan out. Concurrency could drop to a level that remains higher than pre-The Burning Crusade, it could plateau to numbers that are roughly the same as pre-The Burning Crusade or they could drop below it!

Raph assumes that the figures represents the typical curve of the life of an MMORPG, but will WoW buck the trend and break the rules as it did with number of subscriptions/players. I guess we’ll see in another 12 months, although of course there should be another six month old expansion pack around by then. Wagner James Au on GigaOm, thinks that these figures could indicate that WoW is actually losing players.

If people are leaving WoW in big enough numbers to make this sort of impact, naturally the big question is why?

Raph seems to think that The Burning Crusade simply sold to existing players rather than bringing many new players to the game and that following its immediate release players habits changed – basically they played more, consuming the new content like the plague – then reverted back to their normal playing habits.

Coincidentally, Tobold posted this blog entry on Sunday – Sending a Message to Blizzard: World of Warcraft Account Cancelled. Tobold’s reason for leaving WoW, and it’s been some time coming, is the lack of content for the more casual player, top-end requiring massive investments in time to gain attunement to various high-level raiding instances. Interestingly he expects he’ll be back with the next expansion, which fits with Raph’s view that MMORPGs can go on forever, unless someone decides to pull the plug.

If people are genuinely leaving WoW in greater numbers than those joining then the problem of asking why is that because it has such a broad range of players there probably isn’t one simple reason why. For example Tobold’s decision to leave was influenced by the fact that the core of his guild seems to contain more hardcore players while he is a more casual player and he just doesn’t want to have to catch up with them. This is an aspect of the game that Blizzard has very little control of, unless it decided to incorporate a ‘Looking For Guild’ channel, with settings such as ‘casual’ (15 hours a week tops), ‘very casual’ (10 hours a week tops), ‘semi-casual’ (20 hours a week tops) etc.

Finally, the competition seems to have swayed Tobold away from WoW, in particualr Lord of the Rings Online, a game that offered a less time-heavy alternative to WoW and, from the way he talked about it, a breath of fresh air.

As a qualitative researcher, Tobold is a great case study, he shows that there is never one answer to a problem and that some problems are within a companies control – more casual content for The Burning Crusade – and there are those outside it – guild clashes, for example.

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What do we mean by ‘Virtual World’?

June 15, 2007

Photosynth looks like an amazing piece of technology, but I’m not quite following Techcrunch’s logic in this post. It sounds to me as though they’re confusing a 3D environment with a virtual world. Photosynth may allow people to build a photorealistic representation of the world, so it easily goes that this is virtual but is that actually the same as what we mean by a virtual world?

The three basic rules for virtual worlds as I understood it were that it had to be persistent, social and have a dynamic economy. From Blaise’s speech it sounds like a social element in the form of tagging is planned and I guess it would be simple enough to implement chat/message functions as well. The ‘persistent’ bit would be straightforward enough, the world would be constantly changing as more people added photos to it and presumably those photos would also incorporate changes to the real environment such as grafitti, new buildings etc.

But I’m struggling a bit with the dynamic eceonomy bit. Maybe I’m being too conservative and a dynamic economy isn’t an essential component of a virtual world, or buying and selling, virtual or otherwise, could be added to the 3D representations of RL earth. Of course if in-world virtual goods were being sold there would have to be something to sell them too, avatars or 3D representations of people’s houses, businesses or flats (all sorts of issues here, but I’m not going to get caught up in that right now).

But I believe there is a fourth rule that makes a 3D space a ‘world’ and that isit needs to have some kind of mythology, in the broadest sense of the term. I came across Bob Sutor’s (IBM’s vice president of standards and opensource) blog at 3pointD, on it he is in the process of outlining 10 virtual world requirements. Although he’s only at number 4 so far, and he already agrees with me on the NPC and AI front, bt I’m also hoping he acknowledges the role of mythology.

Virtual worlds need a sense of history and ideals, they need to feel like they are more than just pretty 3D graphics and economies or they’d feel like a glorified Myspace or Ebay. Obviously this is easier for worlds  like Lord of the Rings Online and World of Warcraft that have tight fictional boundaries, but in many ways it’s true of Second Life – it’s modelled on Neal Stephenson’s Metaverse and many of the residents view it that way. Whether mythologies exist for players of other MMOs I don’t know, and my argument hinges on that fact, but what kind of mythology would a 3D world based on photosynth have?

Would it ever acheive a status beyond that of a very accurate replication of RL earth or would it develop its own agency, a kind of alternative or counter-earth if you wish?