Posts Tagged ‘World of Warcraft’

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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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Gender ‘swapping’ in MMOs

March 26, 2008

As usual I’m totally late on the subject of this blog entry, namely the Nottingham Trent University study ‘Gender Swapping and Socialising in Cyberspace’ . Richard Bartle provided a fairly damning appraisal of both the newspaper reports of the study and the scientificness of the research on his blog. The problem with reports like this is not so much the failings of the study itself, but the distortion of the findings created by the media response, that inevitably errs on the side of sensationalism. Sure the sample used in the study wasn’t huge and many of its findings repeat those of previous studies, but all in all the conclusion is fairly positive. Richard Bartle points to this article from The Guardian (I’m rapidly losing respect for you, you know) which opens with the quote ‘millions of internet users are using computer games to perform virtual sex changes, according to new research’ which sums up the mainstream media’s attitude. Before I start waffling about my own thoughts on this I want to say that ‘gender swapping‘ is a bloody awful term. The dictionary definition of swapping is ‘to make an exchange’ i.e. one party gives up possession of one item in exchange for another. People who play MMOs do not swap gender. If I choose to play a female Orc, I do not cease to be a human male, my gender doesn’t change. Sure, it sounds like pedantry, but I think it’s important that academics (and the media) acknowledge that identity in online contexts is supplemental – I add something to my identity, but I don’t take anything away. In other words I remain a human, male at core but additionally in World of Warcraft I am a female Orc and a male Tauren.

Why gender has become such an issue in MMO studies is interesting in itself, particularly when players also have the opportunity to play as non-humans of varying degrees and take-up occupations that range from stabbing people in the back to summoning demonic entities. The Guardian can happily announce to the world that MMO players ‘perform sex changes’, but they don’t seem as keen to announce that players can make ‘race changes’ or ‘occupation changes’. Okay, so gender is anchored in real world physiology and culture and therefore seems more relevant to a mainstream media audience, but if as the NTU study suggests that Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft normalised the female avatar than why is it still such a big deal in MMOs? The answer is of course lies with the fact that players interact with one another and are relatively anonymous and it isn’t always clear that a female character is being played by a male player or vice versa. What’s interesting about the findings in the study, is that many of the players who play genders opposite to that of their own, have clearly played genders the same as their own. The women who claim they get less hassle as male characters have clearly experienced hassle as female characters and the male players who play female characters know they’ll get fewer gifts as male characters than female becuase they’ve played male characters. Players make decisions about their characters based on their experiences in the game world, they are not necessarily tied to identity issues they may be having in real life.

This is true not just for gender, but aspects such as race and particularly class as well as things like talent and skill builds. A player of an MMO might start the game playing a healer, only to decide later that they prefer tanking, something they could only learn by playing both classes. That most MMO players have numerous alts is not even touched upon in this study even though it’s a major part of the MMO experience and is surely as relevant to identity as gender. Choice of character is tied to what players want out of the game, the fact that they have choice and the option to play whatever combinations there are available is something exclusive to MMOs. In real-life we might spend our childhood years dreaming of being a fireman, only to find we’re better suited at being an accountant once we reach adulthood, we might possibly go through two or three career changes but our range of experiences is pretty finite. In MMOs this is less problematic, players can experience many lifetimes, from birth (level 1) to retirement, multiple times. Retired characters can also be brought back from retirement and suffer none of the issues of ill health that plague their real life counterparts. What would have made for a more interesting study would have been to look at players’ histories of character development: the number and kind of alts they have, their first character, how often they play their characters, what made them try a new character out and stick with it or abandon it and so on. If academics are going to look at gender in MMOs they need to look at the bigger picture, then they might find that it’s not just female characters that get hassle, so do certain classes and talent builds (e.g. hunters), while some classes are more priveleged, e.g. tanks and healers as well as the pressure players may get from guilds and friends to play certain classes. Pressures aren’t related exclusively to gender but a lot more complex and unlikley issues.

(Edited for shit spelling and poor grammar)

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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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Who’s the biggest geek?

February 28, 2008

I excitedly posted about the soon to be released World of Warcraft Minis on my guild forum a few weeks back, to which I got only one response. So I was pleased that Rock, Paper, Shotgun dedicated an entire post to the subject. What was most apparent was the seething ambivalence that surrounds spin-off merchandise. Many of the responses in the comments section displayed a distinct for not buying tie-in merchandise and a n admission of shame if they claimed ever to have boughti it. Even, the author of the piece, Kieron Gillen sheepishly admitted he was snobbish towards fiction based on computer game IPs.To save you reading through the comments here are a few that stood out:

“The only bit of supplemental games related cruft I’ve ever bought outside of my callow teens is the new Warhammer 40,000 Dark Heresy rpg game book thing. No intention of ever playing it, just liked loved the background fiction it presented in its words, pictures and layout. It’s really quite classy, and, as a result of being so impressed, I’ll probably wind up accumulating all the other background books as they dribble out over the course of the rest of the year. Curiously, and this references the peculiar snobbery about the whole business, I’d never buy any of the novels or other frightful tat, though.

“I used to read D&D fiction before I came to the realization that it was mostly quite dreadful.

“I once made the mistake of Wiki-ing Dawn of War. Having never played anything in the 40k universe outside of the rather thin on the ground (story wise) Space Crusade when I was about 10, I spent the next few hours clicking around and soaking it all in. That I was actually supposed to be revising at the time was of no concern. Cracking stuff, in a very cliched, popcorn way”

“And the miniatures? Maybe. I’ll see how I feel when they do come out. It’d be nice to have a one of Thrall (<3), but spending money on things I’ll only ever look at seems a bit banal.

As I admitted in my post about Warcraft fiction, I’ve felt exactly the same kind of condescension towards game based novels, but I’m still curious as to why that’s the case. My first thought is that sci-fi, fantasy and gaming are all subjects that are looked down upon by mainstream society. Yes gaming is gradually pulling itself up, but there is still a fair majority of genrally middle aged and up types who don’t get it and the popular media still portrays it as the passtime of choice of the lonely antisocial teenage male. Fantasy is accepted if it’s for and about kids, but the second it’s aimed at adults it’s seen as the choice of lonely antisocial twenty or thirty something males. So given the lack of credibility with which these genres are taken it’s as though the fans make up for it by creating a strict hierarchy of the credible and the uncredible. It very much reminds me of the ‘Geek Hierarchy’ diagram that was floating round the web a few years back. I’ve helpfully added a new box to it…

The quote above that most caught my eye was the last one “…but spending money on things I’ll only ever look at seems a bit banal”. This statement in a world where the album artwork from Sonic Youth’s ‘Daydream Nation’ album is expected to sell for £2.5million. Is it that for a generation of gamers anything that isn’t programmed with AI and immersively interactive isn’t considered worth paying for, or is it an extreme form of conservatism in the vein of Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’? To filter Benjamin’s argument down to its basic point, he suggests that because the traditional artwork was unique in space and time it was unarguably ‘authentic’ and that the act of reproducing it so any old person could have a replica hanging from their wall and that this ineffect reduces the ‘aura’, in other words the authenticity, of the original. The strange thing is that computer games are commodities, digitally reproducible commodities at that, they are far from being unique pieces of artwork. But to be fair authenticity is a relative term, after all a unique pice of art is still a manufactured work. Authenticity in popular culture refers to the most original medium, in the same way that film adaptations of novels are usually seen to be inferior to the novels they’re based on. Books and models based on games are seen to be inferior to the games they’re based on. Perhaps the reason why is that these kinds of IP extensions are seen by the fans as milking the franchise, by dispassionate third parties in order to make money and therefore because they’re commercially driven as opposed to passionately created  they threaten to dilute the original work. And perhaps the other fear is that once you start buying the spin-offs you won’t be able to stop, but that’s another story.

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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.

joichiitowowpost.jpg

 

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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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!

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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?