Archive for July, 2007

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Do computer games even want to be art?

July 31, 2007

I’ve been considering whether to state my perspective on the ‘games as art’ debate that recently kicked off between Clive Barker and Roger Ebert (although I don’t think the two have actually engaged in conversation on teh subject). But a couple of blogs got me excited about the prospect again, this articulate critique of Ebert and this whimisical piece from Wired.

To be fair to Ebert, he is from a different generation, it’s not like I’d expect my grandad to apprecaite computer games, and most of my parents generation are also deeply ambivalent about the medium, so it’s difficult to expect him to back down at this stage.

That computer games have already crossed into the official medium of art has been acknowledged by neither Ebert or Barker, perhaps because on the global stage the 2004 Turner Prize entry by Langlands & Bell entitled ‘The House of Osama Bin Laden’ was a relatively minor event (read more about it here). It’s not as though one example of computer games as art will change the perception of the old guard, as anyone from the UK will tell you, the Turner Prize is as much an opportunity for the tabloids to vent their disapproval of contemporary art as it is the artworld to celebrate it. But undoubtedly fine arts courses across the world are rife with interactive 3D digital mediums and it is only a matter of time until the medium becomes part of the cannon.

I’m sure at this point Ebert would acknowledge all I’d said then smugly point out that the Turner Prize is not considered ‘high art’ or at least isn’t considered so by him. My first problem is that Ebert doesn’t explain what he means by high art and to be fair to him once again, Barker doesn’t define what he thinks art is either.

Ah, the eternal problem, art is all about taste, nobody can define what art is, it’s subjective etc. We all know that’s just not true, Bourdieu proved it in the 80s and despite the attempts of more recent writers to argue the contrary this argument holds about as much water as Duchamp’s urinal.

Gallery owners, the academy, art dealers etc. are hugely influential in deciding what constitutes art. Far from making people “more complex, thoughtful, insightful, witty, empathetic, intelligent, philosophical (and so on)” these are precisely the qualities many art appreciaters wish to be associated with, whether they truly possess these qualities or otherwise. The artworld is elitist, exclusive and very money driven so I’m not sure I’m keen to see computer games get co-opted into this particular fraternity.

The truth is that while the ‘interactive 3D medium’ will become a respected style in the art world in decades to some, computer games won’t, because they’re commodities and commodities only become art in rare circumstances, much like ‘primitive art’ where some pieces are considered gallery worthy and others only museum worthy (see books like The Social Life of Things and The Traffic in Culture for some good examples).

The debate then becomes not about high art or institutionalisation but how computer games stand in relation to other commodity ‘artforms’ like books, TV programs, films, paintings, sculptures etc. Currently they are probably at the bottom of the heap, with books at the top, the real challenge is to change this anachronism.

As far as I’m concerned I don’t want computer games to become art, look at literature, painting and sculpture there is a hardly a work of the last 50 years that is seen to compete with ‘the classics’. At least computer games are seen as progressive rather than soulsearching for some non-existent gold age, I don’t want to imagine the gamers of 2407 rhapsodising about Pacman and how the games of their day just can’t compare, I want them to be as excited about the latest releases as I am about Crysis or Spore now. I think it would be very unhealthy if computer games were considered art – it would only result in more boundaries being set in place just as the goal has become to break them.

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Second Life, Second Chance

July 30, 2007

Yet another article lamenting the failure of real life brands to work in Second Life and yet another rebuttle from Wagner James Au.

To be fair to both sides the article from Wired doesn’t discuss any of the success stories and Wagner isn’t overly ready to admit that Second Life hasn’t been as lucrative as it could have been for many of the brands who’ve decided to give it a go. But as more moderate voices have reminded us, it is still early days for virtual worlds and to be fair there are just as many expensive marketing mistakes made in real life as there are in Second Life.

I got quite excited when I read Wagner’s post on New World Notes – ‘Wired and the Long Tail of Second Life Marketing’ – I thought he’d had some insight into how businesses could use Second Life to extend their tales as it where. This wasn’t his point sadly, but thinking of Second Life in Long Tail terms is probably a good start for any business.

While Chris Anderson’s point was that storage space and distribution logistics need no longer limit a sellers’ inventories, as a concept the Long Tail is more than that; it’s essentially about getting more people involved with a brand without incurring huge overheads. I’m still quite shocked at the amounts of cash spent on Second Life presences ($500,000 a year quoted in the Wired article, but I’ve heard higher from ESC employees!) and there are certainly cheaper ways of doing it. The first problem with most ventures into Second Life is that they are thought up be people who are unfamiliar with the medium, the second problem is that these ventures aren’t thought up by anyone with imagination. I know that’s harsh, but take a look at the real life branded presences in there, they might have very stylish builds, but that’s where the imagination ends.

Take a look at this.

I know it isn’t in Second Life but there is no reason why Second Life couldn’t do this kind of thing – it’s called KateModern and it’s a blend of social networking site, drama and ARG and it comes from the makers of Lonelygirl15. One of the crucial elements that KateModern uses that Second Life is worryingly thin on is story. I’ve been proposing that Second Life needs to be considered in the light of other virtual worlds like World of Warcraft or Lord of the Rings Online, that ask players to engage with stories. While your typical Second Life ‘native’ caries out business, socialises etc., a quick glance at the number of sign-ups vs permanent residents shows that the former far outnumber the latter. Newbies need engagement and fast, they want games/tasks/quests etc. For many newcomers to Second Life a brand is a first port of call and in this sense it is the reponsibility of brands to make sure they want to stay.

For example the makers of KateModern could have decided that one of the characters has a Second Life residence that hosts multimedia and clues to the events portrayed on Bebo. As the story develops the Second Life set itself could change, perhaps clever players could learn when and where said character was going to be in Second Life where they could question/interrogate his or her avatar. In this context Second Life is just another channel with different interactive benefits.

Importantly companies going in to Second Life need to look at how they can use other mediums like Bebo, Myspace, Facebook, Youtube, blogs in tandem with Second Life. Part of the truth is that brands need to become content creators as much as product/service providers if they really want to see success.

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Music in Virtual Worlds

July 27, 2007

Having not posted for a week I missed the two big pieces of news; World of Warcraft crossed the 9 million player threshold, putting to silence all the ‘is WoW going down?’ posts from last month. The other, less positive (for Linden Labs), news is that gambling has been banned in Second Life, surely one of the more popular and lucrative activities that took place there.

In other news, and perhaps more interesting in the evolution of real life/virtual world crossover, is the deal EMI have struck with Habbo Hotel which will see Now 67 (a[n awful] compilation of chart music) played at the specially opened Summer Beach Cafe.
Some will say it’s a sign of the music industry’s desperation, the only information I could find on compilation sales was from 2005 where there was a significant drop (15.7%) in sales, the BPI putting the blame on DIY compilations and, erm, piracy. Personally I think it could work, even though from my understanding little came of the launch of boyband 365(?) in Habbo last year (I think the problems with that one are fairly obvious).

I was planning on writing a post on the subject of music in virtual worlds anyway, so this is a good opportunity to elaborate. When I’m working I like to listen to music, but sometimes music with lyrics breaks my concentration, so I like to listen to soundtracks, the odd bit of classical music or electro/techno type stuff. Naturally the soundtracks to World of Warcraft and The Burning Crusade are albums I regularly turn to on these occasions.

As WoW players will know, most zones have music that is unique to them so unless you choose to turn it off, you’re hearing for however many hours you spend in that zone. So when you listen to the music on the soundtrack albums you find yourself having vivid flashbacks of the experiences of your time in that particular zone. As soon as I hear the opening notes of ‘Stranglethorn Vale’ my heartbeat speeds up as I recall the heightened excitement of being in a zone where I’m rubbing shoukders with enemy players. Of course this is no different from real life where you associate certain songs with people, places or a time of you life. My point is that these songs become more important because of this association.

The other factor is that people can spend a great deal of time in virtual worlds, so when it comes to music they’re potentially captive audiences and the more they hear a song the more they’ll associate it with the great time they’re presumably having in which ever virtual world they happen to be in.

What I think EMI have done right this time is to take music that many people will already be familiar with and that they are likely to hear in real life as well as in Habbo Hotel. The problem with music in virtual worlds, like the World of Warcraft soundtracks, is that it’s easy not to notice it’s impact, it becomes little more than background ambience. Hearing it in a different, real life context reminds listeners how significant that track is which hopefully translates into a purchase. The one problem is that with a compilcation album people might just download their favourite tracks…

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Good news for virtual worlds, shock?

July 19, 2007

I managed to miss this article from The Guardian (3pointD.com spotted it thankfully), a pleasant contrast to the kinds of pieces we’ve been seeing from the LA Times and co.

It’s nice to see people genuinely speaking about virtual worlds as ‘part of the internet’, this is exactly the way they need to be discussed in mainstream media. If companies want to genuinely integrate virtual worlds into their brand campaigns they have to think about them as connected mediums, not isolated events. In contextualising virtual worlds as part of the internet it might also have the benefit of making them seem more accessible!

The other piece of news that could be good for virtual worlds is Nielsen’s decision to rate web site popularity by time spent as oppose to page views. Virtual worlds, particularly the game driven MMOS, are renowned time-sinks and with the eventuality that is in-game advertising the commercial future for virtual worlds could be very rosey indeed.

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The IP Advantage in Virtual Worlds

July 19, 2007

While I’m still thinking about the benefits of being a 3D virtual world and whether or not developers have taken full advantage of the medium, I’m going to turn my attention back to how a well-known IP/brand can be extremely advantageous.

I’m talking about BarbieGirls.com and Nicktropolis specifically here, the former claimed to have 3 million sign-ups in its first 60 days of existence and according to Raph Koster this claim is grounded in fact! The latter, according to this rather good piece in the Guardian, has over 4 million users (I’m assuming this figure came from the Wikipedia article) since January this year, although the beta was around from 2006.

Presumably the key to these virtual worlds’ success is that they are very, very well known and very, very popular brands for their demographics. What they certainly are not is groundbreaking, they could well be based on the same software for all their similarities, isometric virtual worlds, limited avatar customisation, earning virtual currency through games and of course socialising. To be fair, the audience probably don’t want and would struggle to cope with ‘groundbreaking’, I imagine that this is most users first virtual world experience after all. But rather than seeing their simplicity as a problem perhaps it is actually key to the success of a virtual world based on an IP; as much as I hate going over old territory would Star Wars Galaxies have been more successful if it had simply followed the Everquest MMORPG model?

I haven’t seen any figures for Lord of the Rings Online although it’s clearly sold well, and there is much debate about Jeffrey Steefel’s quote that LoTRO is “…probably the second highest volume ever for an MMO”, but so far it seems to have been received far more positively than both Star Wars Galaxies and The Matrix Online despite being described as little more than World of Warcraft in Middle Earth’s clothes by many of its detractors. Maybe when it comes to well-known and well-loved IPs it’s enough to give players the opportunity to interact with their favourite world and be part of the story without complicating things too much or taking away from its ‘spirit’, to use the fanboy term.

It will be interesting to see how forthcoming IP MMORPGs such as Age of Conan, Warhammer and Pirates of the Caribbean work out. The first 2 are less well known IPs than say Lord of the Rings or Barbie so it may be that they can innovate with less to lose. I know little about the Pirates of the Caribbean MMO, but as it is Disney produced I’m expecting them to take a fairly orthodox approach, backed by shitloads of marketing of course.

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Why go 3D?

July 18, 2007

The LA Times is the latest site to remark on the business ‘cooldown’ in Second Life (Techcrunch also covers it here) , Wagner James Au has been quick to jump in pointing out the discrepancies in the article, but if there’s one thing to be said it’s that Second Life has had it coming. I could argue that more clarity about user numbers could have saved Linden from this kind of backlash, but to be fair it probably would have happened anyway and that has as much to do with companies going in there with little ambition or knowledge of what they were doing. And that’s fine, this is ‘Stage 1’ in the development of open virtual worlds so failure is to be expected and lessons learnt.

So what next? The alternatives to Second Life suggested in the LA Times article certainly don’t offer solutions to the problems encountered by brands in Second Life.

Gaia Online might claim to have a bigger user base, but it is a much less flexible a virtual wordl, offers fewer opportunities for interaction, has more limited UGC opportunities and is largely occupied by teens (apparently). But perhaps something can be learnt from Gaia’s inclusion of games for which players are rewarded with virtual currency, a ‘storyline’ that offers quests, a very simple user interface and the fact that it’s browser based.

Entropia Universe I have yet to try out (promise I will!), but from what I understand it has fewer users than Second Life and requires a heavy investment in RL cash. So although it has a back story and a skill system, features that help guide and direct players it doesn’t feel like this virtual world could be the next big thing. Of course the Chinese version could be very successful, but at this moment in time that’s a different story.

There I’ve tried out, although not in great depth. Like both Gaia Online and Entropia Universe it has fewer sign-ups than Second Life, offers fewer customisation and UGC options but is browser based and seems very easy to use. Again it feels as though it’s core users are teens though.

So the alternatives don’t suggest that success in these virtual worlds will be had any easier than in Second Life, the graphical style of both Gaia and There probably won’t appeal to anyone over the age of 16 and Entropia sounds like it requires far more effort than the casual player will want to supply. So in my books anyway Second Life is still the best option at the moment, and I think companies just need to re-think (and I mean seriously re-think) what Second Life can do for them and perhaps more importantly what they can do for Second Life.

One thing this whole debate has made me think about is the importance of ‘3D’ in virtual worlds, encouraged by this post on Faster Future. Gaia online and other VWs like Runescape have fairly admirable user bases and are browser-based (although Second Life  might soon be browser based itself) meaning that kids/teens can use them on low-end computers in libraries and at school, but would adults be as attracted to a 2D/isometric world (I’m assuming Cyworld has a high number of adults, but if I understand correctly it’s primarily a social networking site along the lines of Myspace/Facebook, with a virtual world element). Thinking about my first 3D experiences from the days of Wolfenstein and Doom, it certainly increased the sense of immersion together with the fixed first person perspective, who doesn’t recall jerking their head violently to avoid an imp’s fireball? But what about for platforms that are largely social in nature where immersion is a less integral factor? Sure many of the arhcitectural and clothing designs in Second Life benefit hugely from being 3D, but when the numbers of people who can master these skills is so small does that really matter?

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The Second Life Bubble

July 10, 2007

So the marketing surge into Second Life seems to have slowed down amidst the many less than successful ventures some RL brands made into it. To be fair it’s probably a good thing, hoepfully it means that brands considering going in there will be more cautious and spend a little more time thinking about why exactly they’re doing it in the first place.

It’s also a time to reflect on what went right and what has gone wrong and what the solutions to these problems are. In relative terms there are popular, and therefore successful, sites but in comparison to say web traffic the weekly numbers are relatively low. I know not everyone agrees with Tateru’s method of collecting data, but her figures aren’t too out from the other data collection sources as I understand it. In her latest set of figures IBM sit at the top of the RL brand pile with almost 10,000 visits a week, but the first question is is this enough to convince other companies to come in, and secondly what exactly is it IBM want to get out of their presence and what do they actually get out of it.

Engagement is obviously something we can attempt to measure in both a qualitative and quantitative way, butmy issue with this approach is that engagement, if it is working effectively, should go beyond the confines of Second Life. My greatest concern about brands going into Second Life is that they consider it a self-sustaining ecology, that you can go into Second Life and, following the initial PR fanfare, not have to worry again about telling people you’re there. This is a logic that consistently goes against the grain of what brands strive for in real-life – salience and awareness – and this can make or break a brand. Having a great Second Life site is no good if nobody knows it’s there. In some ways Second Life appears to be the most porous of virtual worlds but it isn’t treated as such by those who stand to benefit from this fact the most.

Second Life isn’t a bubble, it isn’t an alternate reality, it’s not a fun simulation of real life it is one more node in a network of nodes that includes both new and old media, ranging from blogs to Sunday supplements and it should be treated as such. Its 3D engine may allow for different kind sof interactivity from a webpage, but a blog offers a different degree to a static website as does a wiki, but all three of these formats link to each other for mutual benefit.

The other issue realates to the otehr question I asked at the end of the second paragraph: what do brands want out of Second Life? If they just want to be part of the next gen, 3D, web 3.0 cutting edge then they’ll have to be satisfied with being a very small part. Brands need to set themselves concrete goals about what they want to achieve in Second Life and integrate this into their overall strategy, only then will they be able to say whether or not they have been successful or not.