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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