Archive for October, 2007

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Virtual Worlds Forum 07: an overview

October 28, 2007

So the first Virtual Worlds Forum has come and gone and overall I’m happy to say I thought it went very well, even if I did have to get up at 7.30 in the morning to make it on time. One of the most surprising things about the conference was the sheer number of ‘suited’ men present, easily more than 50%, maybe as much as 80%. I guess some of the suited men could be counted as suited geeks, but I assume it represents the degree to which the business world is taking virtual worlds seriously.

Given that I keep a very sharp eye on what’s going on in the world of virtual worlds I still managed to come across ‘new news’ and there were some very good debates that I wish had gone on longer than they did. By far the best of these panels was the last one on Wednesday afternoon: ‘The future is blurred: social networking meets virtual worlds’ that featured notable personalities like Cory Doctorow and Aleks Krotoski, to name but two, during which the differences, similarities and possibilities for crossover were thrashed out in an entertaining manner, thanks largely to Cory Doctorow’s witty metaphors. I was happy to note that Corey Bridges, co-founder of the Multiverse Network, refused to make a distinction between virtual worlds and MMORPGs, instead putting ‘game worlds’ and ‘social worlds’ under the umbrella term ‘virtual worlds’. What wasn’t really debated was the degree to which most so-called ‘social virtual worlds’ rely on games as a core way for players to generate currency with which to participate in the virtual world economy and the social play this entails. The real difference between a World of Warcraft and a Club Penguin (apart from the demographic) is the existence of a pre-determined narrative, but more on that in a future post. I was also very pleased to see Corey repeatedly state that, thus far, World of Warcraft is the most successful virtual world, in business terms and by and large player numbers.

There were also some interesting new virtual worlds on show, the two that caught my eye in particular were MoiPal, from Ironstar Helsinki, and Papermint from Avaloop. The former is a web and mobile phone virtual world, with the usual avatar creation and personalisation process, the difference being that your avatar, or ‘Pal’ as Joachim Achren described it, has some agency of its own so when you’re not in world it wanders off to new places and makes new friends along the way. Upon return to MoiPal’s world you’ll find messages and pictures from your Pal about his or her adventures and a list of new friends. Papermint, a very stylish 2D/3D virtual world, was described as a ‘social gaming’ world by Barbara Lippe. I’m not quite sure what the range of games available are, but Barbara told me there was a game where you could ‘have sex’ and ‘give birth’ although I’m not sure whether she was winding me up a little on that one.

The news earlier this year that Mindark, makers of Entropia Universe, had licensed their software to CRD (Cyber Recreational District) funded by the Chinese government was big, and at the conference we got the chance to hear a little more about it. Although I’m still not 100% certain of all the details as Robert Lai’s presentation was rather rushed, I spoke to Robert and Frank Campbell and Christian Bjorkman from Mindark and they explained that the Chinese virtual world will be part of the Entropia Universe in the form of different planets (hence the ‘universe’ moniker) and that the business model will be built on both virtual and real world goods, although again I’m not certain exactly how this will operate. Being a large state sponsored organisation I asked abou the size of the Chinese MMO market, which I was told stood at about 9 million (a large market, but a small percentage of the population) so I was interested to know if there was a large marketing budget which I was assured that there definitely was. Frank also noted that as the virtual world market expands marketing budgets would have to grow across the industry.

As an industry and business event the outlook was as you’d expect very positive and a bright future was envisioned by all. Well almost all. The second of the opening keynotes speeches on Wednesday by Lord Triesman of Tottenham, on the subject of IP rights was perhaps a little on the conservative side for many in the room, the whole issue being something of a grey area for the virtual worlds industry. His assumption that it was business that needed protecting from IP abuses was rather naive given the ambiguous nature of property in this context. Richard Bartle also brought things down to earth in the closing panel debate on the future of virtual worlds. His concerns included the dilution of virtual worlds through an overcrowded market, the loss of virtual world building skills and the many misunderstandings about what virtual worlds are by newcomers to the industry. As co-inventor of virtual worlds back in the late 70s, I can’t imagine what it must be like for him to see what his playful and experimental creation has evolved into.

The final thing I want to mention was the presence of the Electric Sheep Company, who were unsurprisingly keen to promote the CSI:NY – Second Life crossover project they continue to work on. The first episode of the tie-in aired on Wednesday night, unfortunately over in the UK we won’t see this for some time, but according to the ESC staff  present the opening night had gone very well. Grace McDunnough of Phasing Grace blog notes two reports on new sign-ups – 200 every five minutes and 13,000 per hour, which sounds fairly significant, although if you read the comments in Grace’s post that is purportedly somewhat less than was expected. It would be interesting to know how many people downloaded the OnRez viewer to support these figures. Incidentally, for some in depth info on this collaboration go to Henry Jenkins’ blog where you’ll find a detailed two-part interview with ESC (part 1 and part 2). The transmedia angle was also one that was little discussed at the conference, although, again, I’m sure this will be a big topic of debate at future Virtual World Forums.

For more detailed write-ups of the Virtual Worlds Forum, check out the Techdigest blog, they were blogging as the talks/panels/showcases were happening. There are also podcasts from some of the talks on the Virtual Worlds Forum website (day 1 and day 2).

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Putting the Transmedia in Virtual Worlds

October 17, 2007

The only reason I use the word ‘transmedia’ without flinching is because Henry Jenkins bandies the word around as though it never was in fashion. And also because no-one has thought up a less crap alternative, so I will proceed to use it without shame.

I was aware that there was some kind of CSI-virtual world crossover event, but the details announced at last week’s Virtual Worlds conference in San Jose sound even more interesting than I expected. Anthony Zuiker’s (CSI’s creator) ambitious and ARG-like approach to Second Life is extremely refreshing, he seems to have grapsed how 3D interactive spaces can be used to augment stories and therefore take their audience with them. This is something I’ve been excited about seeing attempted for some time as I’m sure is the case for many others. One of Second Life’s biggest failings for me has been its lack of ‘narative’, for want of a better word. The roleplaying sims tend to be fairly exclusive and even adventures/quests, like IBM’s black box feel low key because there seem to be no buzz surrounding it, taking away the feeling that as a participator you’re part of something big.

It will be interesting to see just how successful something as mainstream and old media as CSI will be in the virtual world context. I have my fingers crossed though, because should it work it will undoubtedly open the gates for many other fiction driven IPs to try similar things. As Reuben Steiger CEO of Millions of US stated “What doesn’t really exist are case studies that we can point to … and say,’ Look, here’s a hit that was produced out of this fledgling media’… There are ideas out there that are really, really exciting, but they’re going to require risk taking. The more hits we have, the less risky it will seem.” Naturally, not every TV show will necessarily be able to pull something this big off but there are plenty of alternatives, for example Kaneva have the rights to recreate the Family Guy house in in-world, where users can watch family guy epsiodes, for example.

A concern that crossed my mind was that the potentially mass audience that CSI migh introduce to Second Life would be lost once they tried to figure out the notoriusly difficult-to-use interface. Zuiker stressed that he intends to make it as easy for the Second Life virgin as possible through “shorter download times and an avatar of Zuiker to walk visitors through the virtual Manhattan” , but the big news is Electric Sheep Company’s OnRez viewer that claims to dramatically simplify the UI experience. This is significant , and long overdue, news in itself so it’s no surprise that it ‘s not the only web browser available, Japan’s 3Di recently announced the Alpha of their Movable Life viewer, albeit with mixed reception from users, InDuality’s web browser is also compatible with Club Penguin, Blink 3D and X3D, and back in July a UK student pulled together a Ajax Second Life browser.

Together with Metaplace, Whirled and the BB’s TV-virtual world crossover, 2008 promises to be a very interesting year for virtual worlds although not all agree that the encroachment of big, old media into previously ‘native’ communities is such a great thing, the former examples make it easy for users to make their own virtual worlds without necessarily giving access to large companies, so it sounds possible that there will be something for everybody.

In other Transmedia news, the first few pages of the World of Warcraft comic are on show at MTV’s Multi Player blog and Halo 3 scares the movie industry!

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‘Engagement’: Virtual Worlds 1 – Social Networking Sites 0

October 11, 2007

In true reportage style, I’m going to start with the bad news. I won’t say too much about the Yankee groups recent assertion that Second Life has failed to live up to its hype, as Wagner Au over at New World Notes has done more than enough to discredit their findings, and the fact that the Yankee group have pulled the report says it all. Again, it concerns me greatly that companies like the Yankee Group are paid large sums of money to comment on something with which they clearly have no experience whatsoever.

In direct contrast to the Yankee groups flawed findings, The Guardian recently reported that Second Life users spent on average 5 hours 29 minutes per month in-world in contrast to Facebook users who on average spent but 2 hours 32 minutes using the software in the UK. Linden Labs metrics suggest this figure is significantly higher, which suggests that Nielsen//Net Ratings may have made a similar mistake to that of the Yankee group.

Anyone interested or involved with virtual worlds will likley be unsurprised by this ‘finding’, after all the famous ’20 hours a week’ average for MMO players is touted with some frequency. But I wonder what the time spent playing figures are like for the growing market of casual MMOs (Barbiegirls, Club Penguin, Habbo etc.) touted as the next big things by various virtual world luminaries? Traditional MMOs, like World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online, EVE Online etc. have always been seen as the choice of the more hardcore gamer who spends a lot of time gaming anyway, and the same is probably true of the majority Second Life users so I have my doubts that a more casual audience will match the dedication these kinds of players show.

But of course, hardcore gamers are a minority and gaming per se is still a relatively engagement intensive activity. This article in The Escapist points out what the economic benefits of casual gaming are, but what about the ‘attention economy’? Interestingly during the keynote speech yesterday at the virtual worlds conference Chris Sherman asked “how do you make the user experience work for users with short attention spans” in reference to the apparent success of kids virtual worlds. There is clearly some concern that just like Heelies or Friendster a given virtual world will just be flavour of the month and then disappear into obscurity, but for now the strength of virtual world platforms over social network sites lies in the of overlooked fact that they look like and contain games. The concern should be that social networking sites will realise this and bring virtual world features into their friendship oriented environments, as many of the apps on Facebook  already do.

Of course crossover virtual world platforms like Metaplace might iron out these distinctions, and virtual world Scenecaster has already launched its app on Facebook (that as yet I haven’t got working!) so such a distinction might be moot. The competition might end up relying on which company can bring out the next ‘must-explore’ virtual world.

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The untimely death of ‘orcs and elves’

October 4, 2007

Virtual worlds news has an oddly titled article by the name of ‘virtual worlds are overtaking the games industry‘. Oddly titled because it rather falsely distinguishes between, ‘game’ MMOs and ‘social’ virtual worlds, a distinction I’m thoroughly opposed to and I’m glad to say Raph Koster agrees with me on this one. The biggest difference between World of Warcraft and MMOS like Barbiegirls, Habbo or Second Life is that the former requires a lot more space on your hard drive and is therefore a lot prettier. I would add that it requires a better specced computer but Second Life also requires a pretty good rig to run it with even a modicum of smoothness.

So the point of this article seems to be that ‘social’ virtual worlds will bring about the death of ‘game’ MMOs. Hmm. Yes, Habbo has 7.5 million users, but World of Warcraft has 9 million, Barbiegirls.com had 4 million sign-ups, how many of those that will stick with it is unknown especially with soon-to-be launched rival Be-bratz. The article also fails to mention Runescape which is a hugely popular browser MMO with something in the realm of 5 million users and is squarely set in the traditional ‘orcs and elves’ fantasy environs.

Quoted in the piece was Christopher Sherman, Executive director of the upcoming Virtual Worlds Fall Conference and Expo, who states that “The game industry may have created the idea of online entertainment, but the days of orcs and elves ruling the online space is drawing to a close. There will always be a place for platforms that just want to allow users to play a game together, but now interaction is key. Community is key. The content revolves around and facilitates the community. Treating the online environment like less of a game and more of community or virtual world is key. Major media companies are now looking at anything they do as online entertainment – with a virtual world tied to it.”

To be fair to the context of this quote, it all sounds like a PR blurb designed to make virtual worlds sound more mainstrea- friendly, but I think the marketing distinction between virtual worlds and MMOs is probably more damaging than helpful. Interestingly the first presentation at this months Virtual Worlds Forum conference in Europe asks ‘Virtual worlds, MMOs, ARGs – what’s the difference? ‘ so we’ll see if the speakers decide to tow the official line on this one.

My main problem with this distinction is that the virtual worlds Christopher namechecks aren’t simply socialising spaces. The main public spaces in Barbiegirls, Habbo and others like Gaia and Club Penguin are socially oriented and often consumer oriented, but games make up a significant proportion of the activities users can engage in, and it is these games that give users points/virtual currency with which they can buy virtual items. These games may be tailored to younger or female audiences but they are nonetheless games and are crucial to the virtual world economies and the status of players therewithin. One of the failings of Second Life, often quoted as the exemplary social virtual world, to increase its user base is that newcomers often quicjly tire of the world because there is nothing there to engage them. Anyone who’s spent any time in the orientation areas will be used to hearing/seeing new users asking ‘what can I do? where are the games?’.

Secondly, as Alice Taylor points out on her blog, players of World of Warcraft spend a great deal of their time shopping and socialising and some of the most prized objects are pets that are obtained through TCG cards not through completing quests or ‘fighting monsters’. The whole point of MMOs is to bring together social and gaming features as the two combined encourage greater engagement and longer playing hours, particularly when there are goals to be acheived, items to be won or purchased and social spaces in which to show them off. Of course ‘Community is key’ but I see little in the way of the organised guild structures you see in World of Warcraft emerging in Habbo or Club Penguin because these facilities currently don’t exist. MMOs There has more of these options available as users can organise their own events. Which isn’t to say that the social and community functions in MMOs like World of Warcraft are perfect, Tobold points out just some of the improvements that could be made, and new and upcoming features such as voice chat and guild banks seem to suggest that Blizzard are taking note.

If anything the community aspect of all MMOs needs to be considered in more depth. Kaneva CEO Christopher Klaus laments the lack of successful official MMO/game sites and suggests that the “overall community (should be built) into the game site itself” an idea that seems to run contrary to the web 2.0 UCG ethic that Christopher Sherman proposes. Maybe Klaus envisons something along the lines of the Halo 3 community features that allow players to send recorded game clips to one another for example. The point is that both gaming companies and virtual world companies need to look at the social engineering and community features they provide if they want users to stick with them, although it is improbable that this would stop users making their own websites and certainly shouldn’t be perceived as a ‘problem’.

By emphasising the social and the community aspects of virtual worlds/MMOs I get the feeling industry figures like Sherman and Klaus are trying to present them as graphic versions of social networking sites like Myspace and Facebook, a sound stategy given their overwhelming success and value, but if they’re not careful the less well informed marketers will assume that games = bad, when the contrary is in fact true.

I have no doubt that open virtual world platforms like Metaplace and Whirled will successfully bring MMOs to the massess, but I also think games and gaming and the elements that make them so compelling such as competition, collaboration and status will be a crucial part of their success. Socialising is a compelling pull for todays’ huge web audience and has a proven track record, but I doubt that the engagement factor of socialising is as intense as it is when gaming. The much quoted avergae of 20 hours a week play time in World of Warcraft surely outnumber the time spent on Facebook by the most avid user. As Amy Jo Kim puts it: internet applications should follow game mechanics in order to be successful. Does anyone doubt that the success of Facebook is at least in part the numerous game-like apps that allow users to interact with each other in multiple ways?