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?