NYT On TSO

Amy Harmon [registration required probably] picks up the story first broken by the Alphaville Herald. [Edit: The article revealed that TSO's subscriber base has fallen to 80,000, so it is gone from the 100K group list at left.]


Comments on NYT On TSO:

J. says:

In other news, Professor Peter Ludlow of the University of Michigan is getting yet more ink on his work as Urizenus, the Dr. Twister of TSO:

http://news.independent.co.uk/digital/news/story.jsp?story=481707

Who in the hell cares about TSO? It was a dumb idea from day one. Take the god element of The Sims, the part that made it such a runaway hit, and turn it completely on its ear by making players BECOME "The Sims", then charge them a monthly fee for the privilege. Only thing that rivals it in the "durrr" category was "Majestic".

Posted Jan 16, 2004 1:04:18 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

The article in today's Independent, to which J refers, also merits a mention in their leader/editorial section (in the last of 3 pieces - traditionally the "funny" one). It reads:

"Real life is, of course, for people who cannot take too much of computer games. A furious dispute has arisen from the online version of the Sims, which is a game allowing players to be pretend people in a pretend world. The editor of the imaginary Alphaville Herald, Peter Ludlow, has had his account terminated, and Electronic Arts, the game's publisher, is accused of suppressing free speech. One day we may discover that we are all pixels in the computer game of a Greater Being. Until then, for those who are upset about the "termination" of Mr Ludlow, we have a simple message: get a (real) life."

I despair.

Richard

Posted Jan 16, 2004 4:12:43 AM | link

Ren says:

J>Who in the hell cares about TSO?
I do.

J>It was a dumb idea from day one.
Take possibly the best selling PC title of all time and turn it into an online – is a pretty good idea.

As you note there were issues with the implementation – all of which are interesting.

The fact that TSO might have hit a very different demographic and been the mainstream hit that everyone is searching for is interested, so is SSO the Herald, the radio stations etc et

Yeh I care.

Ren
www.renreynolds.com

Posted Jan 16, 2004 9:40:49 AM | link

Alan Stern says:

Regarding the quote from that 3rd piece in The Independent, I suppose that means we should eliminate all forms of entertainment such as movies and books?

Also, I vaguely remember from my brief sojourn over the ocean that The Independent is a somewhat odd, wildly-skewed newspaper. (Even more so than the newspapers we're used to on this side of the water.) I think it was The Independent that once included an audio CD with a few Oasis songs if you bought that day's edition (which I did, for the CD). I could be wrong, though, it's been a while.

Posted Jan 16, 2004 10:41:17 AM | link

F. Randall Farmer says:

I was Live Producer for TSO for several months, starting just after release. We saw these problems emerging, and I'd started to plan what I called a "Scouring of the Shire", which I thought was needed to maintain our T:Teen rating. My staff was great at ferreting out the accounts that were causing the most trouble, such as the heads of The Sims Mafia and The Sims Shadow Government.

But it never happened. EA consolidated all online operations, and drastically reduced all product staff (including myself). At that point, TSO fell into the trap that so many stagnant-growth online games fall into:

Work is optimized around reducing customer churn (by releasing easy-to-implement incremental content) instead of around acquiring new customers (by meeting the wants of new users). This leaves the community with no fresh blood, and it inevitably turns in upon itself. Also, the customer support staff ends up looking bad no matter what action they take, as every action is interpreted as ‘taking sides’ instead of enforcing TOS.

It has always been well known what the staff at TSO thought would turn the product around: User Generated Content. Luc Barthelet (Maxis CEO) even ran a BBS to discuss how important this feature was with customers! User Generated Content is what keeps the Sims new and fresh even though it is nearly a decade old.

Is this risky strategy? Sure! But it was clear even a year ago that the current strategy was not going to succeed. There.com and SecondLife.com have had user-generated content from the beginning and are somehow managing the risk (even if they aren't making much money.)

Randy

Posted Jan 16, 2004 1:51:12 PM | link

Edward Castronova says:

Terminating F. Randall Farmer as your live producer - I've never met him, but I sure as hell know the name. You have to wonder about business decisions like that.

As for the Independent's editorial: Believe me, some people at the top of intellectual hierarchies are starting to get nasty about how this whole area really, really, really isn't important, can't be important, musn't be important. Change is scary. And this is Big Change.

Posted Jan 16, 2004 4:41:33 PM | link

J. says:

>Take possibly the best selling PC title of all time and turn it into an online – is a pretty good idea.

Rarely.

I have a problem with just about every implementation of -any- well-established oeuvre as a game. Usually my problem is with people taking licenses like Star Wars and trying to make them into games. Sometimes it works, like Bioware's treatment of KOTOR -- when they consciously skirt the limitations of the established mythos (in this case, putting the plot 1,000 years before anything in the movies.) Other times, like Star Wars Galaxies, it's essentially hammering a square peg in a round hole (making players jump through extra hoops to become Jedi so as not to remind everyone that SW is essentially a super-hero universe, and completely taking the Stars out of Star Wars.)

But putting that aside, The Sims is -already- an online game with user-generated content -- people build Sims skins and other content, and trade them like playing cards over the Internet. That's fun. That's engaging. That's -free-. That's also nothing like TSO.

This is not a bash of those on the live team who tried to make this dog of an idea work. I believe there's a market for "graphical MUSHes" (i.e., non-competitive, so as to skirt the whole PvP vs PvE quagmire everyone else has to slog through,) but when you try to depend on player-generated content, you've got a long, long road to hoe. Anyone who's run a MUD can tell you how hard it can be just to get it -going-, let alone police it, even if you have the most creative and driven players in the world. If it's that hard to manage in a free setting, how was it going to be done in a commercial arrangement?

Again, it's not to say that somewhere in a parallel universe, TSO wouldn't have worked. And I'm not even bashing EA for touting what sound to some people like good ideas -- but their track record just plain sucks. I already said Majestic, but what about Motor City Online? Or Ultima Online 2?

Someone really needs to re-evaluate decision-making in EA's online department. Start with game concepts that someone might actually want to pay money for.

Randall, Luc isn't CEO of Maxis anymore, is he? And Gordon Walton's back in Austin working for Sony now, huh? How much did that pre-release media blitz cost the PR department, again? Cover of Newsweek and all?

Dumb idea.

Posted Jan 17, 2004 6:07:56 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Edward Castronova>As for the Independent's editorial: Believe me, some people at the top of intellectual hierarchies are starting to get nasty about how this whole area really, really, really isn't important, can't be important, musn't be important. Change is scary. And this is Big Change.

I've had 28 letters published in The Independent over the past 7 years (http://www.mud.co.uk/richard/letters.htm) so I wrote them another one on this subject. They declined to publish it, but it might make Monday's issue I guess - they do sometimes delay. Maybe I shouldn't have accused them of pandering to their smug, laugh-at-the-geeks middle class readership...

Richard

Posted Jan 17, 2004 7:10:17 AM | link

Ren says:

J,
Your initial augment was:

J>Who in the hell cares about TSO

As you have posted twice in this thread on matters that related directly to TSO one answer to your question seems to be: ‘you’.

Though on the matter of The Sims as an online game and specifically a multiplayer game in I am not sure if you agree with me or not. My argument is that, in principle, making The Sims into an online multiplayer game is a good idea – I’m not arguing that this implementation is good. And by good idea I’m saying that the game could be something that lots of people enjoy playing and some people make money out of.

You say:
J> I have a problem with just about every implementation of -any- well-established oeuvre as a game.
And
J> Again, it's not to say that somewhere in a parallel universe, TSO wouldn't have worked.
And end with
J> Dumb idea.

So do you think that TSO is a bad idea in principle or in implementation?

Ren

Posted Jan 17, 2004 9:43:22 AM | link

Ren says:

Richard > so I wrote them another one on this subject.

Me too.

Oddly the editorial contradicted the thrust of the article that it was linking to. The article ended with the line “In other words, it is much more than just a game“ so the writer did seem to take on board the basic social and economic points, despite the odd error of fact and deviation from the English language on the way.

Ren
www.renreynolds.com

Posted Jan 17, 2004 9:48:07 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Ren>Oddly the editorial contradicted the thrust of the article that it was linking to.

Yes, this is what particularly annoyed me. It was as if the leader-writer wanted to reassure the readership that hey, it's OK, these are 2D people you don't need to worry about with your own rich and fulfilling existence. Here, read something about tourists in the Finnish town of Kemi instead.

The Independent's article has strong similarities with the NYT's article, for example the James Grimmelmann quote. Sounds like they bought the article but didn't buy its sentiments.

Richard

Posted Jan 18, 2004 7:13:50 AM | link

Dr. Cat says:

I agree that user created content is a big part of what's needed to reach the "holy grail" of a game that can break out of the hardcore gamer niche and reach a mass market audience. I think it'll be hard to get a big corporation to brave those waters early on, though. EA, Sony, Microsoft, Time Warner AOL, etc. all have such large established revenue streams from other stuff that even reputation damage and bad PR from some new gaming venture can have a significant financial impact on them. They also are big enough to own or rent a lot of lawyers that will warn them not to take such risks, and it's easier to get conservative when you've spent years having a lot of assets and a top dog position in the market to protect. Companies like Disney skirted around the idea of even having a game where people could chat with each other until just recently, knowing people would cuss and have cybersex if not watched every second - something that's hardly in keeping with the Disney image. The Sims Online certainly has plenty of that too, and they know that adding user created content will add x-rated artwork and lots of copyright violating uploads to the mix. Two things I'm sure EA would rather not deal with.

There.com, Second Life, and my own Furcadia are all from companies that don't have established multi-billion dollar revenues doing other things to jeopardize if they develop a reputation as havens for "pirates and perverts". So that's where you'll see this admittedly large risk being taken.

I also think it's a lot harder to jump-start a content utopia in a subscription based environment. While I look back and wish I'd started some kind of game in the mid 90s that had subscriptions, rather than a free one - since that's where the Big Bucks have been at so far... When you're relying on user created content, it amounts to charging the people who make your game valuable a fee for doing so. Linden Labs is at least trying to do something about that now, and pay their best creators rather than being paid by them. But so far none of the early efforts in this area have achieved the kind of explosive growth seen by something like Geocities, which was a totally free user created content haven. In Furcadia, I consider the majority of players who don't buy any of our optional add-ons to be providing us the service of entertaining our minority of paying customers. It did enable us to triple in size each of our first five years with no marketing other than word of mouth, and I think at 40,000 regular players we're currently the largest MMORPG based on user created content.

I had hoped when TSO came out that it would grow the market for everyone, even though the best I could hope for would be a distant second to them, if they acheived the kind of subscriber numbers they were hoping for. It's unfortunate the project took the path it did, and that user created content is unlikely for the future. But online games are probably still a market where some of the big future innovations are going to have to come from small, independent developers. The big companies would rather milk the Everquest, Ultima Online, Lineage type of "cash cows" for the hardcore gamer market that likes those. It's a less risky approach to the market.

Posted Jan 18, 2004 2:07:14 PM | link

J. says:

Ren: So do you think that TSO is a bad idea in principle or in implementation?

In principle. The implementation was only as good as it possibly could be, because in principle, the idea was dumb, and doomed to fail without a miracle of design. No miracle happened. Thus, failure. My comment on the parallel universe was 99% sarcasm.

I further assert that if you think trying to make TSO was a good idea just because The Sims was a successful game, you lack adequate perspective on what makes a good game concept.

Dr. Cat: ToonTown beta implemented a "friends" system that generated random six-character sets that you had to give players out of game. If you didn't have a code for a certain person, that person's chat dialogue would come out as "meow meow" or "woof woof" (depending on what toon they were using.) There were a stock list of messages that could be understood without the friend code, like "let's go" or "follow me". I haven't played it since beta, but I assume it's still in. It was also in the multiplayer of the "Treasure Planet" game made by Barking Dog.

Posted Jan 18, 2004 6:56:54 PM | link

Brask Mumei says:

"ToonTown beta implemented a "friends" system that generated random six-character sets that you had to give players out of game."

I was always curious to play ToonTown to:
1) Devise a protocol to exchange the 6 character sets given the in-game talk possibilities.
2) Successfully use the protocol to talk to a random person.

The second one would be particularly fun, as one would have to try and communicate the protocol itself using the limitted set of talk commands. (Or, other forms of interaction - such as the playing of various gags, etc.)

- Brask Mumei

Posted Jan 18, 2004 7:35:35 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

The Independent has published my letter of complaint about their TSO editorial; what's more, they did it in the #1 slot for the day.

http://argument.independent.co.uk/letters/story.jsp?story=482882

Richard

PS: I didn't tell them that Essex University was in West Bergholt, they made that up all by themselves.

Posted Jan 20, 2004 2:42:56 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Further developments...

As a result of my letter in The Independent, I've been invited to participate in a discussion on BBC Radio 4's "Today Programme".

For those unfamiliar with the set-up in the UK, this is the premier forum for serious news discussion in the country - it's what our politicians listen to (and was where the initial news report appeared that eventually led to the Hutton Enquiry and thus the potential upcoming resignation of Tony Blair if the enquiry finds against him).

I'm quite chuffed!

Richard

Posted Jan 20, 2004 11:27:32 AM | link

Peter Ludlow says:

Wooot! Great letter, Richard!

On the discussion of why TSO doesn't work while offline Sims does, this thread has convinced me that the key diff really is that in offline sims one gets to be a kind of Greek god, with absolute power over the sims in your dominion. You can starve them, put them in bed with each other (or engineer events so that this results) etc. It occurs to me that the power gamers in TSO are the one's who try and bring this element to the game by a kind of meta-game of manipulating other sims and organizing them in certain ways. This is true not just for the sims mafia leaders, but the griefers who prey on the newbies that can be locked in a room with dead birds etc. Just a thought.

Posted Jan 20, 2004 11:28:20 AM | link

pseudonym says:

Too funny. From the Reason.com blog, illustrating that some political pundit types make the connection:

"Officially," the Independent reports, "the reason for Professor Ludlow's expulsion was that he included links in his inside-the-game newspaper to outside websites, including one that gave players instructions on how to cheat. What Professor Ludlow and a growing band of academics and sympathisers believe, however, is that his efforts to publicise the tawdry fantasy activities of real-life teenagers were becoming simply too uncomfortable for Electronic Arts to stomach."

Meanwhile, I'm told that someone won an upset victory in a live-action role-playing game held yesterday in Iowa. I'm hazy on the details, but this was apparently the first installment of a traveling tournament, with the next match to be held in New England next week. One presumes that this game includes no extortionists, no whores turning tricks, and no scamsters who start out friendly then steal your money -- right?

Take heart, Richard!

Posted Jan 20, 2004 3:58:03 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

I made my appearance on the Today Programme this morning, as a direct result of the letter I wrote to The Independent.

Let's just say it didn't go to plan...

http://www.mud.co.uk/richard/today.htm

Richard

Posted Jan 23, 2004 9:10:19 AM | link

Peter Ludlow says:

Lol, the first lesson I got from that is that 'erm' is much more distracting in written from than when it is part of the spoken word stream.

For those of you who missed it, here's an NPR story in the aftermath of the NYT story:

http://here-now.org/shows/2004/01/20040121_13.asp

I know that BBC Radio also did a story recently but I haven't heard it yet. Does anyone have a pointer to that one?

Stories by MSNBC and CNN are in the works.

Posted Jan 23, 2004 2:04:26 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Peter Ludlow>the first lesson I got from that is that 'erm' is much more distracting in written from than when it is part of the spoken word stream

Yes, but also the space in writing is much less distracting than the pause in speech. I managed to screw up that way quite a bit, too.

Most annoying for me was that Susan Greenfield got a book plug and I didn't, even though it was me they approached first. She was the person from their list whom they thought would be able to debate the issue of what happened to the Alphaville Herald, then she didn't talk about it at all (except some odd reference to sacking at one point).

If they ever invite me on the programme again, I'll make sure I answer the question I was expecting them to ask, even if they don't actually ask it. It works for politicians, it can work for me.

Richard

Posted Jan 23, 2004 3:43:20 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Peter Ludlow>I know that BBC Radio also did a story recently but I haven't heard it yet. Does anyone have a pointer to that one?

All I've seen recently was in their technology magazine about a month ago. You probably know about it already (since it links to your home page), but here it is anyway.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/3334923.stm

Richard

Posted Jan 23, 2004 3:58:45 PM | link

Lauren Michele says:

My children and I LOVE The Sims. I work in the tech sector and prior to The Sims refused to play PC games. Afterall, I spend all day looking at a PC screen, why on earth would I want to do that in my spare time? However, after installing it for my daughter, I became instantly hooked. I also managed to hook several other friends. Imagine our ELATION when we heard about TSO! Now we could play together. Instead of sending screen shots of our houses and email about what our Sims were up to, we could visit each other - perhaps even build a business together.

Unfortunately, the TSO implementation fell far short of the original game and we left the beta very disappointed. I purchased TSO when it released for myself and each of the kids but none of us played more than a few weeks. In the end, the games/accounts where unsubscribed. A few weeks ago I heard about TSO II and the online contraversies and decided to give it another try. You can read my experiences here. Not much has changed since I first abandoned the game last year. I messing around on TSO here and there now to distract myself from some cancer issues that I need a little relief from on occassion. But TSO just doesn't deliver more than 30 minutes of amusement at a time - if that.

Lauren

Posted Feb 11, 2004 7:00:57 PM | link