Archive for August, 2007

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Virtual Worlds and Computer Games: Destinations or Starting Points?

August 27, 2007

Having not had a chance to post anything for the past fortnight, I feel a little cheap returning to a subject I covered in my last blog post but as the business roles of virtual worlds and gaming evolve I think these are important moments to take not of along the way.

The first piece is an example of Hollywood/virtual world crossover; John August’s ‘The Nines’ (you can see the first nine minutes here and the trailer here), which involves some virtual world elements (note ‘The Sims’ style icons over people’s heads in the trailer), incorporates Second Life in part of its promotional ARG (alternate reality game). Although the Second Life element makes up just a part of the ARG, August himself stated in an interview (in SL) that had he known more about SL would have played a bigger role (I’m not cynical enough to believe he was saying that just to keep his audience happy).

The other news of interest came from Yves Guillemot, CEO of Ubisoft, furthered the claim that they intend to push into ‘film’, promising a short CGI piece as support to the upcoming Assasin’s Creed game. In past interview he has also stated that they see their competitors not just as other gaming companies “but books, films, the internet, theatre and music.”

This echoes the sentiment expressed by Neil Young of EA games in Kristin Thompson’s book ‘The Frodo Franchise’:

“If you think about the way EA has to grow to be the next great entertainment company instead of just the best game company, we have to move further along the continuum of intellectual-property ownership. It’s our objective ultimately to be creating intellectual properties that would move onto other media – that would move into film, move into television, move into books. Just like the film studios’ motivation is to move to games, to own game companies”

Ubisoft’s and EA’s angle on this may seem overly ambitious but I’m intrigued to see what they come up with. To be frank though it comes down to money: if the gaming industry wants to rival, say, Hollywood then it needs to find more sources of income beyond hardware and games. While all eyes are on Hollywood’s annual blockbuster releases these represent only a fraction of their income, the rest coming from licensing agreements for merchandise, TV stations and, yes, computer games.

While Hollywood benefits from game tie-ins, many of which are very desirable from the perspective of the games companies the same cannot be said for the desirability of games franchises by Hollywood. While EA paid something in the range of $10million a piece for the rights to make games based on ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and Harry Potter’ films, Eidos received just £1million in licensing from Paramount for the rights to make ‘Tomb Raider’ (whether this included rights to the sequel I’m uncertain, a seperate deal will be negotiated for the third). To make matters worse most computer game adaptations have fared poorly at the box office movie, Tomb Raider being one of the few exceptions*. Hopefully Halo or even the World of Warcraft movies can change that. At the moment few games spawn successful merchandising lines, although the first Halo novel ‘Halo:The Flood’ got onto the best-sellers list when it was released in 2003 and Th WoW TCG seems very popular. But, and this is the main point; do people other then the players of these games actually buy these things? I imagine not.

Thinking about how to explain this problem I came up with the idea of ‘Destination’ and ‘Starting Points’. ‘Starting Points’ are media that drive people to other media, these other media being ‘Destinations’. ‘Destinations’ may be starting points for some, but usually a niche or minority. Virtual worlds and computer games are starting points for a minority, probably a growing minority, but a minority all the same, which means that media that originates from them tends to be limited in terms of audience. This problem is compacted when said ‘Destination’ media fails to impress the broader audience at whom it is aimed. For example, I doubt many of those people who were not players of the Doom computer games who went to see the film adaptaion were impressed enough to go on and try the games. As noted above upcoming films like Halo might alter this dynamic. Second Life is in a similar position, regular media coverage has encouraged somewhere in the region of 8 million people to try it out (give or take a few thousand multiple accounts) but only 500,000 or so to stick it out. As a ‘Destination’ it lacks, what they call in the industry, ‘stickiness’.

Ubisoft and EA have a big challenge ahead. Will the CG Assassin’s Creed ‘film’ be anymore than a glorified ad for the game, or will it generate revenue, will it be sold to media companies as a piece of programming? It’s interesting to compare computer games to other niche media genres. Comic film adaptations barely existed following the success of the Superman films of the late 70s/early 80s (Captain America, The Punisher adaptations barely registered on the popular culture radar, along with the Spider-man TV series of the early 80s), but the broad appeal and commercial success of the first X-Men film in 2000 changed the attitude of both Hollywood and filmgoers toward this genre. Even relative failures such as Daredevil, Hulk and Superman Returns have done little to damage enthusiasm for the genre (at least not from the studios’ perpectives). Figures from 2002, the year Spider-man topped the box office saw comic sales up by 10%, success may be seen to stem from a number of factors including promotions such as ‘free comics day’ but surely the massive mainstream success of the Spider-man film had some influence on these figures. Undoubtedly yes, but to what degree is less clear. Marvel’s third quarter report from 2002 showed a big increase in sales but was somewhat ambiguous on the issue of what those sales constituted: licensing and toys demonstrated increased sales, as for publishing sales (comics and graphic novels), Marvel were a little more sketchy on just how great increases were. Ironically enough, in terms of the stock market Activision benefited more from the Spider-man franchise than Marvel did seeing a 12% rise in stock versus Marvel’s 5.5%.

On paper Marvel had a great ‘Starting Point’ in the Spider-man movie, and unlike the X-Men films it maintained much of the traditional comic book look and feel, including an only slightly modified spandex costume, but this didn’t bring the same broad audience to the comic/graphic novel ‘Destination’ point. This might have been a distribution issue and Marvel themselves had been struggling to maintain their market since the mid 90s (see this great two-part article for more on this), but these are the kinds of things companies expanding into unexplored media pastures need to consider. Given that comic books and computer games have similar core markets I think that Ubisoft and EA need to take note of Marvel’s plight.

*Read Kristin Thompson’s ‘The Frod Franchise’ for more details (sorry to go on about this book but it is absolutely amazing!)

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Media that Crosses the Line

August 11, 2007

The recently released Transformers game tie in with the film of the same name was like Spider-Man 3 before it, something of a disappointment if most reviews are to be believed, and it’s probable that very few people are surprised about this. As usual movie/game synchronicity is seen to be the blame here with some reviwers commenting that the game felt incomplete. Computer games based on film franchises are typically seen as a short-term merchandising investment hence the need to match release dates with the film releases, short-term might be good for the film studio’s pockets, but it isn’t good for gamersor more importantly the reputation of franchise based games.

There is hope though, and I use ‘hope’ optimistically but cynically. The current US box office smash ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ won’t be accompanied by a gane title of the same name, instead the game entitled ‘The Bourne Conspiracy’ won’t be released until 2008 the reason being that “… we didn’t have enough time to build a quality ‘Ultimatum’ game and come out with it at the same time as the movie. So we decided to do things differently, something new.” Whether or not this results in a quality game is another question, but it’s a turn for the better.

The other franchise game that caught my eye is Ubisoft’s Beowulf (see the game videoclip below). Although the game is due out at the same time as the film (November, I think) so a rushed release could still result in a sub-standard game, but in an interview in this month’s Edge magazine provided some hope. Rather than follow the film narrative which will show an aged Beowulf recounting the tales from the past 30 years of his life, the game will fill in the gaps between the events Beowulf tells. This promises to give players plenty of opportunty to battle various monsters from Anglo-Saxon and Nordic myth using the many combat moves available while improving standing with Beowulf’s thanes and this his reputation as a strong and generous ruler. The step Ubisoft have taken that differs from many franchise games is rather than creating filler content to pad out the gaps between ‘boss fights’, they have chosen to make the filler material the core content of the game, which will hopefully give it more variety.

A great book for insights into movie-game relations is Kritin Thompsons’ ‘The Frodo Franchise: the Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood’ (which arrived on my doorstep just this morning, thank you Amazon). A very well respected practitioner of film studies, Kristin was allowed unprecedented access to many of the cast and crew of The Lord of the Rings films, including marketing, fansites and communities and a whole chapter dedicated to the process by which the computer games were made. This account shows the great difficulty EA had in getting access to props and designs from the film-makers, for example there is a request sheet for the ‘Mouth of Sauron vocals’ which as yet didn’t exist and a request that the in-game Shelob design be altered because it was too similar to the ‘top-secret’ design used in the film, which needed to remain a secret until the film’s release (the computer game of ‘The Return of the King’ was released before the film’s debut). There’s a great quote from Neil Young, executive producer of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ games for EA, concerning the problems they faced – “It was a big deal, because it meant that we essentially had to produce high-quality software on a very compressed schedule. If you think about it what the games are, they’re like an action-reel highlight of film of the actual movies themselves, and I think given more time, the games would have had different dimensionality”. This last point sums it up for me, both ‘The Bourne Comspiracy’ and ‘Beowulf’ are attempting to do something different from the film with their game content. In the former, the game developers are doing something radically different in the latter they are actively adding new content to the Beowulf story (in both the film and the book!). Given that prior to ‘The Lord of the Rings’ games there was little interaction between the film making and game making process and that has now become a norm, maybe the two franchises above will set a new precedent that will vastly improve the quality of games based on franchises.

There is a great three part interview with Kristin Thompson on Henry Jenkins’ blog here, here and here.

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The Growing Role of ‘Real Life’ in Virtual Worlds

August 9, 2007

Everyone who plays an MMO will know that ‘real life’ is often a big part of the virtual world experience. Just one example; Nick Yee’s study found that 70% of people played with someone they knew in real life and many people get into an MMO because their friend’s play it. On top of this there are of course hundreds of thousands of blogs, websites and forums dedicated to discussing virtual worlds, the problem is that very few real life brands seem to be aware of these facts.

A good example is Blizzard’s World of Warcraft trading cards game where certain cards come with codes that give players access to unique in-game items, like pets or mounts, very important in an environment where characters can end up looking very similar. According to Virtual Worlds News Mattel are taking a similar approach with their Barbiegirls.com MMO by selling ‘accessory packs’ that contain fashion accessories and virtual currency. I think this idea is actually superior to buying real goods in virtual worlds simply because there are more people in real life who might be tempted to try out an MMO if they saw a product on a shelf in a shop or on a website. The other problem emerging from research I’ve done in Second Life (although I’m still collecting data) is that while almost everyone I’ve interviewed plays with browsers open in the background very few are clicking through to websites, blogs etc. Although publications like the Avastar with something in the region of 100,000+ readers prove that people will click through to downloadable PDFs it suggests that there are issues here that need to be dealt with.

Now why couldn’t those brands going into Second Life do something similar? It seems that currently the kids toy brands are moving faster than the adult targeted brands (see Now 67 in Habbo Hotel) possibly because there is less stigma amongst children about paying for things that aren’t ‘real’, but this ignores the mainstream popularity of virtual goods on sites like Facebook or virtual currency on fast growing sites like iminlikewithyou. As yet these sites don’t charge for virtual goods but it’s only a matter of time til they or similar sites do, then maybe we’ll be able to buy packs of virtual goods in Tescos.

Update: according to this article SOE plan on releasing a TCG for Everquest II, called ‘Legends of Norrath: Oathbound’, that as well as offering unique in-game goods lets players play it in the game world itself!

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MMORPG Chestnuts: Death

August 3, 2007

No not a new food in World of Warcraft, I’m talking about those subjects that come up over and over again in discussions of MMORPGs and typically involve a good degree of chin-stroking in the process.

Today’s MMORPG Chestnut is the rather unsavoury subject of ‘death’.

Prompted by a rather strange article in the Technology section of The Guardian called ‘why do we have to die in games‘, it’s certainly not the first time this subject has come up. Apparently a lively debate about the ‘sacred cows’ of MMORPGs took place earlier this year at the Indie MMOG conference that included a discussion about ‘death’ chaired by Richard Bartle himself. For old-school MUDers the merits of perma-death are still worthy of discussion, even as the rest of the rapidly growing MMORPG population wince in frustration at the prospect of another corpse run.

I have to admit I don’t get what the debate is about, sure games designers should always challenge conventions, but in doing so they need to consider what benefits doing something other than the convention will bring to gameplay other than being ‘unconventional’. Let’s be realistic, in most games you don’t really die, if you did the game would surely be over, instead of death players simply have to reload or go back to a save point.

There are of course games that weave ‘death’ into gameplay, the classic example being Legacy of Kain: Soulreaver, where the protagonist Raziel can move between the ‘material plane’ and ‘spectral plane’, this ability is often used to solve puzzles throughout he game. When Raziel’s body is destroyed on the material plane he shifts into the spectral plane and must feed on souls of the dead to increase his energy levels then must find a portal to return to the material plane. So technically Raziel never dies, can’t die in fact. As the Wikipedia article puts it “he is beyond death; the greatest potential setback he faces is mere displacement”.

A similar device is used in the game Prey where the hero Tommy can spiritwalk where he moves into the spirit realm a where amongst othe rthings he can wield a spirit bow. Like Raziel, when Tommy’s material body is destroyed he shifts to the spirit realm from where he can return to the material plane by killing the spirits of the dead.

Dying in World of Warcraft seems little different from the two scenarios presented above, it just hasn’t been explained in the same way. Your character’s body shifts from the material realm to the spirit realm from where you can choose to be resurrected by the Spirit Healer and take significant damage to your equipment or run back to where your corpse fell and resurrect there. While death in WoW hasn’t been used as a mechanic in the same way it was in Soulreaver of Prey it doesn’t take much to conceive if Blizzard making a quest that actually required a sojourn into the spirt realm, maybe into the afterlife itself.

The reason computer games have ‘death’ is as many have said to maintain the level of challenge, if you die you know you have to do better next time, but also because it is universally recognised it adds a degree of gravity to the act of failing. The reason perma-death is a bad idea is that it’s too much like reality, games no matter how seriosuly people may take them, are still escapism, which is perhaps why Chore Wars isn’t as exciting as grinding primal earths in Nagrand,