Archive for November, 2007

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From ‘Awe’ to ‘Order’: Changing Percptions in MMOs

November 25, 2007

Like many MMO players my first (AAA) MMO was World of Warcraft, and I remember distinctly just how excited I was as I finished creating my character, hovered my cursor over the ‘enter world’ button and, with some trepidation left, clicked. After a deep breath, I think I said something outloud to my girlfriend along the lines of ‘Ok, I’m going in’. The music kicked in with its now overly familiar drumroll the loading screen appeared and the empty bar began to fill up and I was finally dropped into the vivid orange environs of The Valley of Trials. It’s difficult to describe in words how thrilling my pre-70 days in Azeroth were, I was playing pretty casually and didn’t join a guild until I’d explored by myself for a while. Even a six hour slog through the Wailing Caverns with the ‘PUG from hell’ didn’t damage the feeling that I was exploring a ‘whole new world’. One of WoWs greatest achievements in my opinion was the way in which virtually every ‘zone’ felt so different and unique, it hardly mattered that the climates of neighbouring zones were often inappropriate, instead it just increased the anticipation you felt about going to the next zone. Even relatively quite areas like Dustwallow Marsh and Desolace oozed atmosphere and danger. It wasn’t just the zones that made Azeroth so awe inspiring: the first time I visited Orgrimmar I literally just had to stop and stare, it was like seeing something out of the coolest dream I’d never had, walls that must have been hundreds of feet high, festooned with spikes and dragon bones from which hung huge red banners. And then I saw ThunderBluff…

Having hit level 70 some time ago I see the world through very different eyes. I’ve seen pretty much every zone (having rolled Alliance characters just so I could look around their starting areas, have been into most instances outside of raiding content and completed the majority of quests relevant to my class. Azeroth, or rather Outland, as that’s where I spend most of my time, isn’t so much a land of adventure any more but an optimisation project. Completing daily quests isn’t a matter of how or if, but how quickly and efficiently I can do them. From there the next task is to loacte the best location to farm, based on proximity to where I completed my dailies, auction house prices and number of other players operating in the same area.

It brings to mind an interview I read recently on Ugo Trade with Cory Doctorow, in which he discusses the internet as a ‘reverse surveillance’ society: “Surveillance is all about when people in authority know a lot about you. Instrumentation is when you know a lot about the world”. And coincidentally he uses Joi Ito’s World of Warcraft screenshot to demonstrate what he means.

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In this image the actual 3-dimensional world is almost entirely obscured by abstracted information (you can see the full-size image here). This image reminds me of the metaphor for cognition Maturana and Varela use in their book The Tree of Knowledge: Biological Roots of Human Understanding. They argue that perception isn’t constructed through internal representation of the outside world like a camera obscura, but is governed by an autonomous nervous system that is constantly attempting to maintain a balance that maintains life. They use the metaphor of a person who knows the world only from the inside of a submarine (i.e. no windows) who knows the world only through the dials and measures within the submarine, such as fuel gauges, depth monitors and the like and responds to the world through these abstract mediums. Raiding being one of the most intensive online activities there is, this example is of course very extreme, but conceptually it’s no different from ‘feeds’. Feeds don’t just filter web content, they rationalise it – they can be ordered into categories, they can show images and text or just titles and so on. You can argue that social networking sites do something similar with one’s friends, Youtube does something similar with video and so on.

The interesting thing about what Cory suggests is of course its ‘Bottom-Up’ nature. Traditionally the rhetoric of rationalisation – science, industrialisation, capitalism etc – have been ‘Top-Down’ concepts enforced on society from above and his point is that this is exactly what attracts people to virtual worlds. At the same time this rationalisation of virtual space also removes the ‘romance’ of the experience, the escapism and immersiveness, although there is no doubt that the rationalisation process can be equally as immersive as anyone who has participated in a raid encounter will tell you. However many gamers find rationalisation frustrating, sometimes players want to feel theyhave just saved the world from a demonic invasion, rather than just successfully completing a series of pre-determined tasks. Which is something I’ll be covering in my next post…

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Post VWF Thoughts: the value of an avatar

November 6, 2007

A topic that cropped up several times at the virtual worlds forum was the idea of interoperability between virtual worlds. Anyone remotely interested in virtual worlds will have picked up on the collaboration between IBM and Linden Labs to do just that. Without explicitly stating so, it is assumed that this would allow avatars to cross between virtual worlds, although the word ‘avatar’ is sometimes replaced by the word ‘identity’ which is something entirely different. The question to my mind is: what are the actual benefits of this interoperability? Raph Koster voiced his concerns on this issue on his blog, the comments provide further insight into the issues.

Interoperability is clearly a big issue and the technical details involved go well beyond my knowledge, so I’m going to focus on a peripheral issue that I feel could benefit users and businesses – the value of an avatar. It is well-known that one of the most compelling aspects of virtual worlds is, well to be blunt, showing off. The raft of kids MMOs and microtransaction MMOs we’ve seen lately are driven by a business model that encourages players to purchase new and better items, whether functional or aesthetic, so they can impress other players (as well as complete more difficult quests, for narrative driven MMOS) and one of the reasons why an MMO like Ultima Online can persist for 10 years is because players don’t want to leave behind characters that are the result of days, months, maybe even years of play.

While social relationships (friends) are often the deciding factor on whether a user stays with an MMO or goes, this is a factor most virtual world producers have very little control over (although see this great post from Tobold). New platforms such as Metaplace have been built with the idea of expanding the presence of virtual worlds, and presumably therefore avatars, across the web, and several social networking sites for MMO players have been launched during the last couple of years with more to come. We can also count features such as Blizzard’s The Armoury for World of Warcraft players as a means of making avatars more publicly salient. The problem with these features is that the audience to which they make avatars visible is still relatively limited to those who are already players of MMOS.

Virtual world platforms like Active Worlds and Scenecaster have sensibly created Facebook apps. But while they focus more on the presence of a virtual world, a Second Life Facebook app, Second Life Link has been developed that creates a mini-profile for your avatar, including information about your home, if you have one, your favourite destinations and friends who also use Second Life. It feels rather like a networking tool rather than a publicity tool, for example it doesn’t give the option to display favourite outfits or skins, nor does it display avatar, home or favourite location images on the main page of your profile, but it does recontextualise avatars in a more public space. With the opportunities present in mobile (see Minifriday and MoiPal) I’m surprised there hasn’t been a more determined move by MMO producers to get players’ avatars onto mobile screens or even onto RL goods like t-shirts, posters and perhaps ultimately 3D versions of your avatar.