Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

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A web without games

June 13, 2007

web_20.jpg

There’s an interesting post on Lee McEwan’s blog showing the Future Exploration Network‘s mapping of Web 2.0.

The thing that struck me is the total absence of computer games, particularly the lack of MMORPGs. Second Life is in there as the virtual world poster boy, but sits somewhat awkwardly between the ‘social networking’ axis and the ‘content sharing’ (sharing?) axis.

While MMORPGs have been around since before web 2.0 they’ve positively flourished after it, starting with Everquest, moving to World of Warcraft, not to mention the hundreds of browser MMOs now available. Perhaps the 3D web, is too web 3.0 for the web 2.0 landscape or perhaps the ‘G’ word frightened them off. G as in ‘game’ that is. While there are just, if not neccesarily accurate critiques of the games industry, the same criticisms can be levelled at those web gurus who ignore the value of games to the growth of web 2.0. In fact the growth of the casual games market the success of the Wii and the even greater success of the DS suggests that games should be taken more seriously, not less seriously.

Gaming communities have long been some of the most consistent and strong on the web and through activities such as modding, addons and machinima have become some of the forefront developers of user generated content, including some of the first UGCers to see genuine commercial benefits from their activities, such as Counterstrike for example.

While some companies, such as EA, may be floundering in the face of web 2.0 and the growth of casual gaming, games have long been at the heart of opensource ideas, such as id’s Wolfenstein and Doom games and remain so. The thing to remember is that it is the hardcore enthusiasts who are responsible for some of the best UGC gaming content, it’s never going to come from the casual gamer, but the same is true for web 2.0 staples like Digg and Wikipedia.

So, I know which map I’m sticking with…

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What MMORPGs say about ‘stories’: part 1

June 12, 2007

As much as I want to focus on the practical details of MMORPGs and virtual worlds and provide good hard evidence for the trends and claims that abound, I wholeheartedly believe that abstract thinking is a necessary part of the process, I’m not some crazed positivist, honestly. I’ve divided this post into two sections, because I have two discrete ideas in mind and to include them both would result in one ridiculously long post.

These posts are about the role of ‘story’ or ‘narrative’ in virtual worlds and its relevance to media and advertising in terms of immersive entertainment. I was very surprised by how popular my idea of turning adverts into quests was at the MRS conference and it suggests to me that companies are receptive to the idea of high level interactivity when it comes to media franchises and brands. So this first post will focus on the idea of multiplicity – that brands and media have at their hands technology that will broader their user/audience bases through offering a more personalised experience.

In academia there has been much debate about how to reconcile ‘narrativity’ with ‘interactivity’; a narrative has traditionally been attributed to a storyline that operates from a single perspective (the author’s) even if the story includes lots of characters with different perspectives – so from a readers perspective all the seperate events and characters are drawn into a coherent story by the author. Because of this academia has struggled to incorporate the interactive nature of digital culture into this definition of narrative (Marie-Laure Ryan’s Avatars of Story is a good starting point). Sociological/cultural definitions of narrative have been less prescriptive and have beeen far more willing to discuss narrative as a personal activity (see cultural studies), the problem is that neither of these definitions is particularly relevant to immersive media, the former is too limiting the latter too idiosyncratic.

The literature concerning narrative in computer games has acknowledged that designers have usually combined a degree of freedom within a bound storyline or at least some kind of end goal. These narratives can be linear, or what is referred to as ‘hub’ or ‘sandpit’ based, the latter giving players more freedom in terms of how they progress. Some games may even incorporate two or more endings depending on decisions made earlier in the game.

Massively multiplayer games have added a further level of complication to narrative authority as designers have to make more options available, players may make very different decisions about how they progress and players may even create their own narrative threads.

Brands and media franchises have often been reluctant to let the public reinterpret their meaning, which, with the current focus on UGC, is in the process of being re-addressed by some sectors of the industry and viciously protected by others. What MMORPGs have explored the pitfalls of providing the rough materials for people to create their own narratives out of somebody else’s story. As a comment made on this Terra Nova post states:

“The MMO designers craft is to create interesting opportunities for players to share experiences and create stories themselves rather than telling them a story directly”

Now, I know that Second Life isn’t normally considered an MMORPG (I’m going to dsicuss this in more detail in a future post) and Linden themselves don’t provide any ‘end-game’ or narrative themselves (apart from the start zone), but content providers do need to look at how MMOs like World of Warcraft construct narratives if they want to provide a genuinely engaging experience for residents, beyond shopping, gambling hanging out etc. I think this is especially pertinent to brands who are effectively competing with Second Life natives, many of whom invest far more time in their businesses.

Currently many of the branded sites (although by no means all) seem to be using Second Life as a 3-dimensional space for 2-dimensional content. So they have a store, with objects you can buy or occasionally get for free, much like a conventional online store. Very few sites seem to have full-time staff (Pontiac being one of the exceptions) so there is no on-site presence, communication with the brand occurs through Instant Messaging and it seems responses are slow. Given the preonderence and skill with which Second Life natives are running their own businesses, plus the lack of strong IP protection for brand names (I bought a great unofficial Iron Maiden t-shirt today) puts most branded sites at a distinct disadvantage.

Where branded sites do excel is when they run events, such as an interview, a concert or a single, book or film launch (for example today’s attendance at the Desmond TuTu interview at Reuters Island was very good). But clearly following these events numbers decline again. Now, I’m well aware that numbers are not the be and end all when it comes to measuring the success of brands in Second Life, and brands certainly get huge kudos from running events like the ones mentioned above, but where they seem to be losing people is when it comes to the casuals.

Now I’m not sure what the statistics are on this and perhaps Linden Labs have some nice data concerning this, but I imagine many newbies in Second Life will head to branded locations out of familiarity and will have little knowledge of scheduled events – and when they arrive they will find a deserted ‘ghost town’ store, and this is unlikely to encourage them to stay in Second Life or return to the branded site in question.

To boil my argument down to one point, I believe Second Life needs NPCs and lots of them! This thought is partly inspired by this post on Terra Nova and the latest podcast on the Warhammer Online website. The former discusses the way that NPCs bring consistent character to a virtual world, the latter the kinds of random world events people in virtual worlds may encounter.  NPCs may have very limited vocabularies and behaviour but they help bring a virtual place to life by introducing players to the values and ideals of specific locations. This is an element sorely missing from many of the branded sites in Second Life, there is no feel for what the brand represents and in most cases there is no way to interact with the brand apart from buying from them. Brands need to think about the characters in their ads the atmosphere they invoke. 3D software  and the possibilities of scripting events can be exploited to a far greater degree than they currently are.

In this article from yesterday’s International Herlad Tribune Jospeh Laszlo from Jupiter Research suggests that ‘you actually have to think more like a bricks-and-mortar retailer than a virtual retailer’. I’m not quite sure what he means, but if he means that you have to give a RL store ambience, character and personality then he’s right on the money. As this post on Nobody Fugazi’s blog states, you have to think about the product! The product is never just the commodities sold in store, the product is everything the customer experiences whether they make a purchase or not and currently this falls far short of how most big brands create their RL retail, or even their online, experience.

I’d recommend that any brand planning on opening up a store or even a site in Second Life should look at how MMORPGs like World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online handle characters and story and consider injecting some of their influence into their own efforts.

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An apt analogy after all…

May 27, 2007

This post ‘cleverly’ weaves three of my interests together; MMORPGs, Heavy Metal and Fantasy Literature and all begins with a quote I read on Last.FM in regards to a track by the (incredibly cheesy) metal band Blind Guardian.

I recently picked up ‘A Twist in the Myth’ by said band and noticed that one of the tracks was called Otherland, a name shared by a series of novels by Tad Williams about a super-life-like virtual world. Reading the lyrics to the song my suspicions were 90% confirmed but I just wanted to double check so I did a Google search and came up with a few relevant links. The one that caught my eye was a comment left on Last.FM that said “I know it’s based off the book “Otherland” but the lyrics also describe World of Warcraft quite well”. Let’s take a look at some of the lyrics he’s referring to:

They rule the land
They are in command
They hold all strings in hand
They are invisible
Out of sight
They’ve designed
A secret place
To play their games
A world they’re in control
Divine law
Divine law
Be aware
Now
Mind your steps
We are uninvited guests
They may find and catch us
Don’t forget
Do what I say
Now connect
Don’t even ask
Until we’re out of it
Everything’s at highest stake
Come take a look
We are in
Take a breath
But don’t forget
It isn’t real
It isn’t true
An illusion
Nothing more

You’re part of the game
You’re slave to the grind
Oblivion
Is your key to the Otherland
You’re part of the game
You’re cursed
You’re damned
By now you understand

You’re part of the game
You’re slave to the grind
Oblivion
You’re welcome to the
Otherland

I think it’s safe to say that Blizzard won’t be using this song in their next advertising campaign.

My first thought was that this guy is an ex-WoW player who bitterly resents the hours he whittled away in Azeroth. Then I remembered what so many of my guildies have told me about their continued attraction to WoW. Many openly acknowledge the psychologically addictive nature of WoW, but continue to play anyway, the reason being that they’ve made close friends there.

“There is no end point – no end story for me to reach. Only the next epic item after item after item.”

“The key question for me tho is ‘What keeps you playing WoW?’ to which I respond ‘The people I play along side’. If it wasn’t for TT (the guild)… I would have quit ages ago.

In the first book of the Otherland series (I have yet to read the second, third and fourth volumes, they’re all f**king huge) one of the main story arcs (there are several) features Renie Sulaweyo, whose younger brother is left comatose after some rather unsavoury virtual world experience. Renie ends up getting caught up in some very nasty business in her efforts to help her brother, but she gets through it (well the first volume anyway) because her friends (one or two of whom end up giving their life) are there to help her.

So, while Blizzard might not be quite as evil as those in control of Otherland, maybe the comment the guy made on Last.FM referred to the fact that often only your friends get you through WoW.

Here’ s Blind Guardian in all their glory: 02_blind_guardian-otherland-amrc.mp3

 


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Deep MMORPG discussions *begin rant*

May 24, 2007

While I’m building up to the release of the findings from my own research, I’m enjoying looking for other people’s MMORPG thoughts. Raph Koster’s brain (or blog, in this case) is naturally a good place to start.

Now don’t get me wrong, Raph has clearly had a lot of hands on experience in the industry and could probably squash me like the noob bug I am, but he does occasionally get caught up in academic issues, along with many of the other veterans. Most of the time I honestly really enjoy a bit of hardcore theory or conceptualisation and I freely admit to reading Terra Nova on a daily basis, but sometimes I get a bit frustrated with discussions about subjects such as ’emergent gameplay’ or ‘narrative’.

A big part of the problem is that academic terminology tends to be extremely ambiguous and to make matters worse academics tend not to notice (or refuse to notice) that this is the case. So we see endless debates where nobody will back down, concede a point or even compromise for fear of being wrong, when actually nobody is wrong because there was no definitive definition in the first place! (For example, compare the definitions given in this paper and this paper)

Now back to my main point. In this post Raph gets on to the subject of ‘immersion’ – yes, one of those academic terms that no-one can quite pin down. He believes that the future of virtual worlds lies in those of the non-immersive kind, like My Mini Life and Club Penguin. If I understand correctly, by this he means virtual worlds that will exist in your browser rather than in a browser of their own.

Firstly, it’s quite possible that the two could co-exist quite happily if we imagine the former cater to the more hardcore audience and the latter for the more casual audience. This would see virtual worlds heading in the same direction as the rest of the computer game industry, i.e. no-one is saying that the success of casual games on Nintendo’s DS is going to be the death of games like Crysis, Gears of War or Halo 3.

Secondly, if we’re completely honest there are very few forms of media that are wholly and all-consumingly immersive. It’s been well-documented that virtual worlds aren’t replacements for real-life. Sure there are moments when you’re playing that you do sort of forget that your just staring at a computer screen, but they are probably far less common than those moments where you’re totally cognisant of your UI, the desk you’re sitting at, the cup of tea you’re drinking next to your computer and so on. But these don’t ruin the game experience, these are all parts of the game experience. Likewise, so are guild websites, WoW forums, Thottbot and so on.

It seems to me that immersion is one of those academic hangovers from the days of the ‘virtual reality’ craze that nobody bar the obsessive academics involved in trying to develop it ever asked for. People play in virtual worlds because they want to enjoy the thrill of a computer game with other people, if it happens to be more immersive and time-consuming it’s more likely an outcome of these two features rather than the reason people start playing in the first place.

*End rant*

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A Time of Change?

May 23, 2007

On all accounts 2007 will be an interesting year for the MMORPG world, Lord of the Rings Online was released just over a month ago and we have Age of Conan and Warhammer Online to look forward to as well.

One of my research interests is what makes guilds stay together and come apart,  and where people go when they leave, so from this perspective the most interesting thing will be the affect these  rivals to WoW on player communities. Will core guild members stick together in new MMORPGs, or will whole new guild memberships be born? How many people will actually become players of two MMORPGs, or possibly even more? Either way it will be fascinating to see just how strong ‘virtual’ communities can be.

Another example of behaviour change that might be occurring, noted by arch-MMORPG blogger, Tobold, is the possibility that LOTRO allows for more relaxed/less time intensive play compared to the frenetic levels many experience in WoW . Unsurprisingly there is a mixture of agreement and disagreement in the replies to his post, but enough people agree to suggest there is something happening here.

Whether LOTRO is offering an escape from the competitive, all consuming nature of WoW or whether it’s because there is as yet no end-level content to aspire to in LOTRO remains to be seen, but there’s the possibility, as a few commenters point out, that you’re never quite as rabid about your second MMORPG (WoW being the first for many, myself included).

This is a subject I’ll be keeping my eye on, as it may determine how future MMORPG titles decide on release content or how a particularly gameworld/franchise impacts player involvement, amongst other things!

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The Problems of Researching ‘Escapism’

May 22, 2007

I want to explain in a little more detail what I mean by researching ‘escapism’, because otherwise this blog might get a bit confusing.

I’m a big fan of Henry Jenkins’ writings particularly his concept of the ‘aca/fan’, and although I’m not an academic, I am by profession a consumer researcher (my academic background is in archaeology and anthropology) and the research I do here will often have a commercial angle, at the same time I’m writing as a fan/player/reader of the subject of my research. As Henry explains, in academia this cross-over is frowned upon by many and although this is probably less the case in commercial research it still lingers in the background (for a very interesting debate on this subject see Florence Chee’s post on Terra Nova)

The purpose of this preamble is to explain that there is effectively two sides to this blog:
The first is the more commercial angle, where I’ll be posting my thoughts/research findings from MMORPGs/Virtual Worlds such as World of Warcraft, Second Life and Lord of the Rings Online. I see these worlds as the most contemporary form of escapism and also as places of increasing interest to businesses.

The second is my more personal interest in the concept and ‘practice’ of escapism – a pretentious way of saying fantasy and sci-fi media – which  is something I’m just very interested in but could also beI  tied in with understanding MMORPGs/virtual worlds.

In amongst all this there will be random tangentially related bits and pieces such as my artwork, music I like etc.

So this blog could work and be really interesting or it could fail and be totally chaotic and confusing – we’ll soon see!

Anyway I think ‘escapism’ covers most if not all aspects of this blog so I’m sticking with it for now.