Archive for the ‘Business’ Category

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Cluetrain Plus 10: my thoughts on theses 88

April 28, 2009

We have better things to do than worry about whether you’ll change in time to get our business. Business is only a part of our lives. It seems to be all of yours. Think about it: who needs whom?

Is this still a relevant ‘theses’ ten years on?

Let’s start with ‘business is only a part of our lives. It seems to be all of yours’. There is undoubtedly a gulf between a marketer’s work-life and their social-life. In Marketing and Modernity, an ethnographic study of a Swedish pizza company in the 1990s, Marianne Elisabeth Lien states that ‘practically nobody ever enters the marketing department as consumers. Yet the department is filled with people who are all part-time consumers in their various private capacities(original emphasis). This moment of realisation leads her to conclude that as far as marketers are concerned ‘consumers are the ‘ultimate other’’.

Has anything changed since Lien conducted her fieldwork in 1991/92 long before the internet became the mass phenomenon it is and even longer before global brands took an interest in what the internet could do for them? The answer, on the surface, is probably not. Marketing language may be changing to reflect the latest marketing trends, at least in a supplemental way, but the view most marketers prefer of consumers is the one from a distance. Why is this? At a superficial level it’s probably got a lot to do with the culture of most marketing departments, but at a more profound level it has got more to do with the concept of the ‘consumer’ and where it’s expected to sit in the grand hierarchy of life.

Lots of research companies claim not to like the word ‘consumer’ but ultimately ‘consumer’ is a category we tend to put people in if they don’t work in our industry, after all we might ask them about their family, their job, their hobbies, but inevitably we’re interested in what they buy and why. Of course the interesting thing about the term consumer is that nobody really thinks of themselves as a consumer, we may occasionally find ourselves admitting that we are under duress, but beyond the odd ironic slogan t-shirt we see ourselves as much richer subjects than that implied by the term. Despite the importance of consumption in our lives, we tend to see only the act of making a purchase as consumption, once we get our goods home and put them away in their proper place the act of consumption ceases. In light of this it’s understandable why the term consumer has an underlying pejorative meaning, it suggests an individual who puts more value in the act of purchase itself rather than the value of the object purchased. It’s always been a safe way to maintain the status quo, business is what the clever people do, consuming is what the stupid people do. When David Ogilvy in Confessions of an Advertising Man, published way back in 1963, says ‘the consumer isn’t a moron; she’s your wife’, he’s kidding no-one. But things have changed. The reason marketing teams aren’t encouraged to think like consumers is because all that separates them from the commodity obsessed masses is their sales sheets and knowledge of industry jargon. It’s simply safer to pretend that these tentative pieces of cultural capital will hold the dogs at bay.

For the majority of large businesses the growth of the web has done little to change this attitude, if anything the consumer has become an even more unnerving figure, inevitably distorted through media hype of the latest web trend and its most bizarre accounts. But even the companies founded on the web seem to have a rather ambivalent attitude to their consumers – for example, Facebook’s attempts to monetise users so far has ranged from disastrous to ineffectual. So simply being a successful web brand isn’t enough to guarantee an enlightened attitude to the humble consumer. The even sadder fact is that this attitude isn’t exclusive to business people, the people we classify as consumers think consumers are stupid. The Conversation on the web isn’t quite what it was, even in 1999 The Cluetrain Manifesto lamented the loss of innocence Today, we tend to think of “flaming” as a handful of people vociferously insulting each other online. A certain sense of finesse has largely been lost. In the olden days, a good flame war could go on for weeks or months, with hot invective flying around like rhetorical shrapnel’. Having been a part of the great social network site exoduses of the early 21st century I can remember distinctly the allure of Myspace with its legal band profiles, fully customisable html and I can also distinctly remember the jaded comments of friends who were sick and tired of the spam filled inboxes on Myspace, to whom Facebook was a beacon of light. That a lot of this spam came not from businesses as such but bands, club nights, self promoting individuals is no longer a surprise but it was more so at the time. If the web had been all about the conversations, it was rapidly heading in the direction of self-promotion. It seems that rather than businesses becoming more like consumers, consumers were becoming more like businesses. Thanks to the communicative and distributive tools of the internet anybody could advertise themselves and lots of people did. This trend has only accelerated – players of online games form hierarchical top-down organisations, techies develop apps in their spare time, ebay and amazon encourage people to become virtual stores. Even the less commercially minded will cumulatively spend hours updating profiles and uploading photos. If the sprawling chaos of the Myspace profile was the infomercial, Twitter is the streamlined 30 second ad where detail is less important than impact. No wonder business tries to distance itself from consumers when they threaten to move into the territory they’ve spent so long cultivating as their own.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing, the internet gives us greater control over what we consume and how we consume it and theoretically it’s great that anyone can become a business person, but the manner in which most people go about promoting themselves is rooted in over a century of traditional media and traditional media’s tactics, it suffers from the same problems and assumptions, particularly about what consumers will respond to. Hence the proliferation of spam. In the tradition of alternative histories it could be argued that the past 20 years should be known as The Age of Spam. Unlike advertising which has always been the medium of business, spam is the democratised take on one way messaging en masse. If spam was just the tool of the Viagra sellers then it would simply be another form of advertising, the fact that your friends and acquaintances are also more than happy to participate in a bit of ad hoc spamming is what differentiates it from its predecessors. In fairness to the people of the web, there are few proven alternatives to the traditional media format and let’s face it the traditional media approach works even if it’s far from perfect.

Possibly the greatest threat to businesses then is that it is being gradually commoditised, if everyone can do it then the position of expert is eroded if not erased. Perhaps the most insistent example of this is the music industry. When consumers and bands found that it was possible to distribute music more efficiently than the record companies, the music industry’s status was significantly reduced. The situation is hardly helped by programs like The X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent where members of the public are raised to pop star status overnight only to be worthless a month later. It suggests that musical ability and talent is something the public at large are just as capable of discovering as the so called experts.

Finally then ‘who needs whom?’ Consumers, or whatever we call them, still need business, so much of our lives is based around the production, distribution and social status of commodities but business is no longer the behemoth it was it is worth only as much as its latest product or ad campaign, business is having to work harder to matter to people. What does business need to do to change this state of affairs? Well The Cluetrain Manifesto argues that business needs to find its human voice, to be genuine, pure, honest, but if the human voice on the web is intractably coloured by decades of marketing speak then it would seem rather foolish for business to attempt to follow this lead. After all it’s very difficult for sprawling corporations to appear genuinely human, a Facebook profile, Youtube page and Twitter account isn’t really enough to convince us of this. Instead business needs to wow us and amaze us like it did in the post war years with its modern miracles. Business is too content to follow trends set by consumers, when it should be starting the trends or at least trying to. Hopefully this would give marketing departments greater confidence in their own abilities rather than feeling like their place in the world has been usurped by the masses and consumer will cease to be such a derisory term. I think when businesses start aiming to be the experts again that then they will be ready to have a real conversation with consumers about what they are doing and what they should be doing because they’ll have an opinion and the confidence to debate its worth.

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WoW: the last blockbuster MMO?

July 15, 2008

I apologise for the tabloid-esque title for this post, it was actually inspired by an interview with Alex St John at MMOGamer. No’ I’d never heard of him either, until I read the interview, but he seems to have pretty good credentials – he was one of the people responsible for the development of DirectX and is CEO of a hugely successful digital distribution gaming platform, oh yeah and apparently, although he doesn’t say this explicitly, he was involved in persuading Richard Garriot to take his Ultima series into the online sphere and we all know what happened then. So all in all then I believe he’s someone worth taking notice of, particularly when it comes to predicting the future of gaming. His specific quote in refernece to the world of MMOs was:

“We’re going to see a generation of MMOGs that are much lighter, are delivered online, are microcurrency and ad supported, and evolve more dynamically. I think the era of WOW like MMOGs will quickly be displaced by lighter, more versatile communities that don’t require vast server infrastructure”

Now, it certainly isn’t the first time this kind of idea has been bandied about, but its timing seems apt. Age of Conan, despite remarkable sales figures, hasn’t fared so well critically now that players have had time to get their hands on it and the recent announcements concerning WAR are less than reassuring. Does this mean the whole concept of the multi-million blockbuster is flawed in the post-WoW world or are these problems specific to the games mentioned above? Will the cuts to be made to WAR at launch actually be beneficial to the game or, as the complaints against Age of Conan demonstrate, does a game need huge scope as well as depth?

Alex St John, coming at it from something of a business perspective, believes that the benefit of ‘lighter’ MMOs, which I think by this he means browser based, or at least very low spec games, with no or optional subscription, is that developers can build a loyal community with less commercial risk, and that once that community is big enough more content can be added to build depth to the game. Certainly MMOs like Maplestory, Flyff and Cabal are experiencing popularity in the western markets if Xfire’s charts are anything close to representative, although how this is translating into profit is less clear.

Looking at the wide range of reasons players cite as problematic in Age of Conan there seems to be some sense in beginning an MMO with a small, niche community as multi-million dollar games need big audiences and the bigger your audience the more people you have to keep happy and this seems to stretch developers beyond their limits. For the sake of convenience let’s assum that Richard Bartle’s four player types are representative of your ‘blockbuster’ MMO audience and map out some of the most commonly expressed criticisms of AoC:

Achiever – like LotRO, there is a dearth of content at the upper levels, weapon stats that have little affect on gameplay, bugged raids.

Explorers – only one starter area that lasts the first 20 levels, high respawn rates giving players little time to ‘relax’ in a given area, instancing.

Socialisers – little variation in armour models, almost compulsory single player gameplay in early levels, very tough mobs, poor chat interface.

Killers – siege warfare not working, massive class imbalances, problems with the combo system, poor PvP system.

Okay, so it’s a little contrived, but it could be read as an argument against targeting the broadest audience. Just take a look at this poll from the AoC forums. No it’s not absolutely statistically sound, but it seems to sum up most of the problems. It’s aesthetically pleasing and has a good storyline but many of the mechanics don’t work and the customer support is pretty awful. Does this mean that WAR is doomed for failiure, a fate that might prove Alex St John’s prediction true, certainly it might scare off future developers and damage the industry? Or maybe Mythic’s decision to cut some content will actual benefit the launch of the game as Keen points out on K&G’s blog as long as the content they do provide is top-notch.

History has proven that there are always genral problems with new MMOs, usually the launch, which AoC certainly suffered, but as people are quick to point out there were issues with WoW’s launch too. But given that many first time MMO players came to WoW some time after the launch, the latest batch of MMOs may well be the first time they’ve experienced these kinds of problems which when compared to the content rich and stable experience of WoW might ultimately prove too offputting. Could it actually be that WoW has set the bar so high for the mass audience MMO that future titles will face a huge struggle to maintain large audiences and how will that affect Blizzards next MMO? Or do games like LotRO prove that an MMO can do well even if its audience is relatively small by WoW’s standards?

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The Great PvP Debate

March 8, 2008

The PvP debate is not by any stretch a new phenomenon in World of Warcraft, but some of the recent announcements made by Blizzard concerning the rewards that will come with the next patch and an e-sports dedicated server suggest that PvP will play a bigger part in WoW’s future. If players had a sneaking suspicion this was the case, the evidence becomes even stronger following last week’s report on Activision on Gamasutra. At the Goldman Sachs Technology Investment Symposium 2008 Conference (sounds like fun, eh) Bobby Kotick, Activision’s CE, bragged about the future success of his company following on from their merger with Vivendi. Of particular interest to this debate is this quote “They [Blizzard] have a model that is very well developed, they have a very keen understanding of their audiences, and they’re just scratching the surface of opportunity in a lot of areas” and “The business has grown so much… that [Blizzard], like us, have tried to prioritize opportunity, and that probably has been at the expense of expanding [average revenue per user] to the few million hardcore, rabid hobbyist enthusiast World of Warcraft fans who would pay substantially more than probably what they’re paying today for enhanced services like character transfers.”

There have been some pretty shocked reactions at Kotick’s assertions about WoW and the MMO industry, particularly his statement that it would cost anywhere between $500million and a $1billion to successfully compete with WoW which has been derided on almost every blog I’ve read on the subject. So what is Kotick on about in the quotes above? The bit where he says ‘they’re (Blizzard) just scratching the surface of opportunity in a lot of areas’ sounds very much like a nod to the continued emphasis on PvP. The second quote however seems to suggest that Blizzard are realising that they’re pissing off some hardcore players by making rewards (which let’s face it are the heart of the game for most players) easier for less hardcore players to get their hands on, leading WoW Insider to ask the question: are raiders obsolete?

There are counter arguments of course (here and here) and Blizzard *are* gradually making raiding easier by removing attunements, improving badge rewards and even nerfing some raid bosses like Magtheridonut but there is no doubt that PvP rewards are getting better, and it’s easier to do battlegrounds and join an arena team than it is to get a 25 man or even a 10 man raid together. Raiding is costly (potions and repairs), requires dedicated blocks of time, a lot of setup time and organisation and requires success on the part of players, very little is gained for ‘losing’ to a raid boss, other than experience.

As Tobold rightly points out, there is no fundamental reason there are a lot of WoW players doing PvP, it’s just that it’s easier to get better items because you odn’t need to go through the hell of trying to organise raiding parties week in and week out and pay the earth in gold for potions and repairs. Tobold sees the root of the problem as the difficulty players have in getting committed groups together, which is undoubtedly an issue, but only the start of the solution. Sure you’d quickly find 10 or 25 or even 5 players do tackle some group content, but what if you wipe seven times on the raid/instance boss (or even worse, the trash)? Cameron on Random Battle thinks an entirely seperate WoW PvP game is the answer.

For me it isn’t so much about the rewards that players get, but the ease with which they can get them, this is the beauty of PvP, you win even if you lose. Blizzard would do well to design raid rewards so that they players get something worthwhile even if they only take out the trash. Take Gruul’s Lair for example a small pots Karazhan and Zul’aman 25-man raid. The trash should drop enough gold to cover wipe repairs, say 250 gold between the first three trash ogres and should also drop a selection of potions and flasks (or maybe just the ingredients required for them) that could either be sold on the Auction House or kept in the guild bank for future raids, this might annoy alchemists a little, but I know for a fact there is often a shortage of flasks and pots on the AH, at least there is on my server. If this continues to be a problem, make the pots/flasks specific to an instance (like the Ogri’la reputation rewards). My first rule would be: make sure trash covers the basic costs of raiding. Even if the raid group doesn’t down a boss, they shouldn’t feel as though they’ve actually lost anything. Raid bosses should give staggered rewards, so if the party manage to take out Kiggler the Crazed and Blindeye the Seer then wipe they should get gold to cover most of the cost of the wipeand maybe a BoE blue or two (for less advanced players or for disenchanting), if on the second attempt they manage to take out all of Maulgar’s Council but wipe on Maulgar himself, the gold rewards should be significantly higher as should the potions or ingredients, maybe another half decent blue as well. Taking out Maulgar would of course drop the desired epics. With a raid boss like Gruul, the party should be rewarded even if they wipe based on the percentage of hit points he has remaining. For example, at 25% 125gold and 2 pots/flasks, at 50% 200 gold, 3 pots/flasks a blue BoE item, at 75% 250 gold, 4 pots/flasks, two blue BoE items etc. So my second rule would be: reward improvements against raid bosses even if they are not defeated.

Sure, this idea could be exploited by players who have the instance on farm, but limiting the number of times you can get these rewards would go someway to solving this problem and yes there would be more gold floating round the WoW economy but I’m sure Blizzard could think of a new time/gold sync to soak it up (player/guild housing anybody?).

The other point I wanted to make was what the hell was Kotick on about when he talks about “the few million hardcore, rabid hobbyist enthusiast World of Warcraft fans who would pay substantially more than probably what they’re paying today for enhanced services like character transfers.” Does he seriously think anyone would pay a higher subscription fee for this kind of ‘service’? A one off payment, sure, but $20 instead of $15 – no way. What hardcore players would like is to have their dedication recognised, not get taken advantage of for their loyalty.

I can almost picture the scene:

WoW player 1: ‘See that Tauren in the T6 with the legedary weapon’

WoW player 2: ‘Yeah, what about him?’

WoW player 1: ‘Total noob’

WoW player 2: looks confused

WoW player 1: ‘hasn’t got an enhanced services premium account, see?’

WoW player 2: looks confused

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MMO figures and Raph Koster (again)

December 28, 2007

Christmas at last, which means that I actually have time to sit down and write a post. First thing I want to talk about is this post by Raph Koster and this response by Tobold. I’ve written stuff about MMO figures in the past and although I tend to agree with Tobold on this one, I admit that Raph is making a valid point about the gaming industry in general, I just think that he has a particular goal in mind and that this goal has theu nfortunate distinction of winding gamers up. So what is Raph on about?

Take Raph’s new project, Metaplace, it’s clearly an attempt to break out of the ‘walled garden’ MMO concept of which even the ‘casual’, browser based MMOs he mentions so frequently are guilty, it also eschews multi-gigabyte client downloads and claims that users ca build whatever virtual world they like. Now, why would he come up with an idea like this? Well, the answer is clearly, accesibility. Raph wants to make an MMO (or at least provide the software for an MMO) that will appeal to as many people as possible, and from reading through his GDC Prime presentation this appears to be his goal for the game industry as a whole. I don’t think this is a bad thing and I particularly liked the way he highlighted how badly successful women can be treated in the largely male dominated world of gamers, yeah that’ll teach you to be attractive Jade Raymond…

I have done several presentations about gaming, MMOs, virtual worlds etc. to large multinationals over the last year and while they can just about get their heads round Second Life, the second you show them a picture of an orc or a dragon or whatever you generally lose them. Sure, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Golden Compass can top the movie charts but playing a game where you pretend to be a character from one of these IPs is a whole different kettle of fish (unless you’re a kid, then it’s ok). So I understand that when Raph states that Habbo Hotel has a userbase that rivals WoW, he’s trying to normalise a genre or a medium that to most people is still quite weird. I understand that this sounds weird to gamers, can people really be so behind the times that they are oblivious to the steady growth and popularity of gaming over the last decade. The answer sadly is ‘yes’. I think it’s actually worse in the UK than it is in the States, where at least WoW crops up regularly in popular culture. This attitude towards gaming goes some way to explaining why Second Life has persisted in the media for so long despite its relatively low number of active users – it presents a very human face versus the WoWs, EQs, LotROs etc. By claiming that gaming/MMOs are now about branding (when have they ever not been?), celebrity and lifestyle maketing Raph is using langugae that is familiar, if not entirely unambiguous, to a mainstream marketing audience. Add to this Raph’s insistence that you can make great ROI on browser-based casual games vs the triple As of gaming-dom then Raph’s entire stance becomes apparent. I’m also unsurprised that many of the MMOs Raph namechecks are aimed at or have predominantly pre-adult user bases – as I’ve already mentioned it’s far more acceptable for kids to play computer games than adults, in fact I know some adults who won’t even admit to gaming in their workplaces for fear of ostracisation.

I certainly feel that games publishers/developers limit their audiences and can be more experimental with revenue channels, but I can also see why Raph’s spin on things can get gamer’s backs up, despite our growing numbers we’re still considered an odd lot – the lonely, male, loser stereotype predominates – and then along came WoW which proved all the naysayers wrong, has inserted itself into popular culture (moreso in the US than Europe I’m afriad) and is inherently social, and even then it’s being dismissed as second place to some crappy browser game with shit graphics and an audience of faddish 8 year olds who’ll happily gravitate to the next big thing in three months time.

And I think this last point is something Raph should remember. Facebook might be huge now, but so was Myspace three years ago and Friendster two years before that. Already I hear people I know saying that they’re bored of Facebook, that there are too many useless applications cluttering up profile pages. Relatively new MMOs like Club Penguin, Barbiegirls and so on have yet to prove themselves over the long term and although Habbo has made it past the seven year mark I have rarely encountered concurrency greater than a few thousand suggesting it might have an infrequent if large user base. At the moment the way in which ‘eyeballs’ are measured is very crude, but as more money is invested in these mediums they will become more sophisticated and then these kinds of figures will struggle to stand up, while the figures for a game like WoW will look very impressive indeed. It’s interesting that the new Nielsen Ratings of time spent already prove that Second Life users spend far more time in Second Life than Facebook users spend on their pages, the same can only be truer for WoW.

I’d like to write a big long paragraph on transmedia, given what Raph presented at the GDC Prime. WoW is one of the most interesting  transmedia MMO brands out there, what with a TCG, novels, a new comic, toys, boardgames and a film on the horizon. It’s certainly up there with Halo in my opinion and given its openness to popular culture I can only imagine it becoming more transmedia-like as time goes by. As much as Raph is keen to push the games industry in a more progressive direction he should probably focus on the fact that in the AAA world of MMOs WoW remains the exception not the rule.

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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.

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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!