December 2005 | Main Page | February 2006

Lipsticking The Chicken

Joel (Spolsky) on Software has a fine new start to a promising series of articles on software design ("Great Design: What is Design...").  His perspective is outside of game development and its industry, yet unsurprisingly, there are similarities.  After all, there is software in "them hills."

How should we parse the distinctions between the design of the MMOG as game vs. the design of the MMOG as an application?   As with all software -- especially those structured around deep human-computer interactions -- distinctions among different types of design (domain vs. engineering) are tricky and to a degree, artificial.  In the end it is always about the art of the possible.  Yet it is still worth considering these relationships from time-to-time in the hope that we may better parse the constraints imposed by one form upon the other.

Then there is a point about chickens and  lipstick...

Joel starts out by comparing art and function in software design.  He draws an analogy between brownstone architecture in New York City ("the elaborate carvings, gargoyles, and beautiful iron fences?") and how their embellishment was the work of individual craftsmen and not part of the orginal specification (do "beautiful fretwork" here).   The crisp claim is:

That's not design. That's decoration. What we, in the software industry, collectively refer to as Lipstick on a Chicken. If you have been thinking that there is anything whatsoever in design that requires artistic skill, well, banish the thought. Immediately, swiftly, and promptly. Art can enhance design but the design itself is strictly an engineering problem.

By an 'engineering problem' Joel goes on to explain that he means a system of decisions based on requirements (function) and trade-offs (e.g. cost-benefit per feature).

It might be easy to dismiss this nuts-and-bolts perspective as irrelevant to a theory of virtual world design.  What are the requirements of fun?  What are the trade-offs of immersion?  How to measure the ludic?  It doesn't apply, right?

But this would be misleading.  While we can quibble to the degree, in the end, every elf-in-tights you have seen is presented to you atop a vast pyramid of engineering (and game) design choices.  Put it another way, given an infinitely better computing environment and platform (pick your metrics) , would virtual worlds look and feel as they do now?   

To what extent is current virtual world design "a hack" to technology - is the MMOG a clever art, snake-like in tall grass (periodically capable of establishing a magical relationship with the users) whilst navigating elephant legs ?

First let's start with an easy premise.  In any domain of software with any community of users for any application, the expectations, the shape of requirements always involves at least some 'art'.  Even the most stodgy applications (oh, financial, logistics), where those systems intersect people some degree of fuzziness finds it's way.  After all, why is so much energy exterted (or should be) in human factors when building user interfaces?

But back to virtual worlds.  Raph Koster noted in A Theory of Fun:

The best test of a game's fun in the strict sense will therefore be playing the game with no graphics, no music, no sound, no story, no nothing.   If that is fun, then everything else will serve to focus, refine, empower, and magnify.  But all the dressing in the world can't change iceberg lettuce into roast turkey.

All turkey, no lipstick.

Do we wonder enough the design of the fowl, or do we spend too much time on the lipstick?

Comments (28)

And the sign said...

Want to have a WoW guild that welcomes gay/lesbian/bi/trans players? Better not ask,and not tell. In Newsweekly reports on Blizzard's censorship of guild names and descriptions. Cory Doctorow comments, as does Jason Schultz.

UPDATE 2/7/2006: Kotaku reports that Blizzard appears to be backing off; Lambda Legal applies pressure. Thanks, Naomi, for the link!

UPDATE 2/10/2006: In Newsweekly reports further on Blizzard's changing position; includes plans for a recruitment channel, GM sensitivity training.

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But is it Pr0n?

TN reader and president of Blacklove Interactive Kelly Rued asks whether:

I guess the argument might run like this: if two people having sex is it not pornography so is it porn if they happen to use avatars.

I would suggest that this should depend on who is viewing it. Certainly if there is a record of it, just as if there is a record of physical sex act, then this is a work and it it liable, based on its particular content, to fall under the category of pornography.

But what if there is no record and no one other than the two people involved ever see it – are they mutual and simultaneous creators / consumers of pornography, if so, why is this not the case in regular life; does the mere fact of mediation mean that there is a ‘work’ hence we have a legal category shift. In fact does the EULA comidification of data under the notion of ‘work’ force this shift?

All of which leads us to the broader question of whether categorizing it as pornography would serve a useful purpose, is this another law that needs re-evaluation in the light of virtual spaces?

Comments (11)

Magic Vessel of Cheerios +5

RIT Professor Andy Phelps, creator of the MUPPETS project, has a great  essay comparing parenthood to RPG play.  It is a great read and delves into one of my favorite topics: the tension between "play" and "work":

At a superficial day-to-day level the process of managing life with a young child can be viewed as a game, a steady process of learning the ins and outs of the event/response pattern of the world around you.

And it can be just as rewarding. When she was screaming in the mall and I whip out the Magic Vessel of Cheerios +5 and hand it her, I have this weird tingle of happiness that I was able to anticipate her desires and have come well prepared to the situation. Not unlike the ending of an RPG in which you have all the items, spells, and armor to defeat evil and save the world. We place intrinsic value on the first, call it ‘good parenting’, while the latter is merely ‘wasting time.’ But what if the way we waste our time was helping us do the important stuff better?

Read the whole article here.

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Invidious Comparison

Every now and again we host a “Friends of Terra Nova” cocktail party at one of a number of undisclosed locations. The last one we hosted was aboard our yacht (the “Acqua Nova”) which happened to be tied up at the Piton moorings near Cap d’Antibes. In looking around, some guests noted the gaudiness of the other boats, and began talking about conspicuous consumption and the meaning of ownership in the real world and in the virtual worlds. We hurriedly convened a Roundtable to discuss the issue; the following transcript is a lightly edited account of what took place.

The tape recorder missed the first part of the conversation where a number of people referenced Thorstein Veblen’s “The Theory of the Leisure Class.” In that work Veblen coined the well-known term “conspicuous consumption”, but more generally proposed that economic value in work came about through the separation between exploits and drudgery: initially exploits in battle or hunting come to be signified by trophies and booty, and then in time this material wealth came to stand for the honorable activity itself. As a result, as a leisured class emerges honor attaches to those who have greater material wealth than others. Thus “invidious comparison” becomes a fundamental feature of ownership, since the psychological and ethnological value of an item is determined in large part by the fact that some people are not able to access it, and some are.

The participants in this conversation were Tim Burke, Julian Dibbell, Roger Fouts, Dan Hunter, Eric Nickell, Alan Prosser (our boat builder, and a serious MMOG player), Mark Wallace and Dmitri Williams.

[Editorial note: The abrupt end of the conversation occurred when Prosser knocked the rapporteur’s dictaphone into the waters of the Mediterranean.]

Dan Hunter The invidious comparison we can make to the size of those yachts over yonder, or even better to those poor people who don’t own a yacht, is similar to something I see a lot in World of Warcraft. It’s the PvPers who insist on having some kind of glowing enchant on their sword. I’ve pretty much lost track of the number of times I’ve seen something like: “WTB lowest priced fiery red sword enchant” in the trade channel. It’s not about the utility of the fiery red enchant, it’s about the way it looks as against my pitifully non-glowing sword. It’s kinda like the way that rare hair dies operated in Ultima Online: no ostensible value, except by way of a signifier that “I have it, and you don’t”.


Tim Burke
I’ve long thought that this is the single most interesting thing about MMOG economies: the (often substantial) value of purely aesthetic or symbolic goods.


Julian Dibbell
Agreed. Though surely what’s most interesting about the phenomenon is how rare this most virtual aspect of real life economies is in actually virtual ones. The full panoply of symbolic goods—brands, industrial designs, art objects, collectibles, and above all, curiously enough, intellectual properties—is only dimly reflected in MMOs.

The most robust example I can think of is the “true rares” market in Ultima Online—odd bits of sloppy programming that survived in the database and became collectable as curios. Their value, in turn, was contingent on the ability to show them off in your house, which I guess is why the phenomenon never really turned up anywhere but in real-estate-crazy UO.

Bourdieu would have a field day, but it’s curious that there’s so much more grist for his mill in real life, than in these spaces that are so fundamentally symbolic and so relentlessly about distinction, class, level, and so forth.


Alan Prosser
Yes, I think that’s right. The virtuality of the virtual seems like a really appealling topic, until you realize how virtual the real is, and that actually seems more interesting. Especially with regard to appearances, group identification, money, and so on.


Mark Wallace
On aestheticized value, I wrote on similar topics for the Escapist not long ago. While I’m aware Veblen is not the most well thought of thinker these days, I do think he’s one of the most fun. I also think I may be overstating the argument and taking it a bit too far in the piece, but I still maintain there’s a lot more conspicuous consumption that goes on in MMOs than we usually think of. Which doesn’t surprise me at all, really. I think at a deep level the games are about individualism and identity as much as if not more than they are about progression. You can level up just as easily (more easily?) in a single-player RPG. But there wouldn’t be anyone there to see you do it. That’s not the only difference between single-player and MMO-player, of course, but it has a bearing here, I think.


Tim
The rares market in Ultima Online is the shining example of this. But what’s interesting is that the drive to aestheticized value is so strong even when the tools provided are so thin. In Asheron’s Call, the single hottest market for a long stretch was in different colored armor drops. People would pay fantastic amounts in various informal currencies in order to get the right mix of armor colors (of armor with roughly equivalent properties) to fit their desire for customization.

In World of Warcraft, check the price on the white wedding dress in the AH. People want that puppy just because it looks different. WoW has so very little in the way of unusual trophy items and aesthetic goods, which I guess goes along with the sparseness of character customization.


Julian
Point taken for sure, Mark. And maybe that’s one explanation for the dearth of more explicit examples like rares and wedding dresses—conspicuous consumption and intangible value so suffuses these spaces that there’s almost no point for players to reinvent it there. Building a brand or an IP regime in a level-based MMO would be like having the Steamwheedle Cartel build a little goblin-tech computer you could play Zork on.


Prosser
I used to think that the hair dye stuff was all about the “conspicuous consumption” social aspect of the game and the way the virtual thing signaled something about your different status—you got the cool pet or flashy armor to stand out in a group—same thing with the capes in City of Heroes, etc.

I’m now a little skeptical of that. There’s something to it, of course, but I don’t know how much, because there’s something else going on. I know of players who have numerous virtual pets, and they like to have at least one of them running around after them at all times. How much is it that they want other people to see the pets running around after them, and how much is it that they just like seeing the pets running around after them? My guess is that these guys would be buying them in a solo game too.


Mark
It’s not all about conspicuous consumption, of course. But as to the pets: That’s because they’re not all that rare. In the context of, say, World of Warcraft, there are certain pets that are more easily available to one faction than to the other, and these bring a great deal of money on the auctionhouse. People may be paying all this gold just to check them out, but I’d wager there is also a not insubstantial degree of invidious comparison that’s driving the price up. In any case, it’s not just that other people see you, it’s also that you know you’re better / different than the people who don’t have these rares.


Eric Nickell
Conspicuous consumption should be included in the broader category of recognition for achievement.

On my previous server, I bought and frequently displayed a Crimson Whelpling, consciously and deliberately, as a marker of wealth.

On my current Horde server, my character has a prairie chicken as if to say to the cognoscenti, “I know how—and have bothered—to accomplish something that is non-trivial.” The hoi polloi do not even understand the magnificence of my chicken, but what are they to me?


Prosser
Mark, you suggested that there is a substantial degree of invidious comparison that’s driving the price up. On the other hand, you could explain it by simple scarcity—if the Alliance has pets A, B, C and Horde has D, E, F—then, if ABCDEF are similar but not perfect substitutes, you’d fully expect the price for the rare thing to be higher because it is more scarce to that group. Not to say that this isn’t somewhat about the value of “import” status, but there are two stories.

Mark, you also said that “it’s not just that other people see you, it’s also that you know you’re better / different than the people who don’t have these rares.” But is there any way to parse that out from the more general state—ie “seeing X on my toon gives me pleasure regardless of whether it gives others pleasure—despite the fact that I know X is rare and not possessed by others?” Could there even be negative utility to possession of a rare?


Eric
There are several factors here that need to be teased out. Seeing an orc with a white kitten running around behind them does not tell you why they purchased that kitten. Are they deriving pleasure from watching the incongruity of the burly orc and the frolicking kitty? Or is the primary motivation to have something unique and rare? Or, slightly different, to display something costly?

To some degree, these questions get at the heart of why people are playing MMOs in the first place. Or part of the heart.


Mark
Prosser, I don’t disagree, there’s definitely more than one story at work. I just think there’s a certain amount of “cool utility” (for lack of a better word) that is missing from the equations.

Actually, there’s something of a control group to be found in character customization in single-player games, especially those few for which downloadable content is available for purchase. I haven’t followed this very closely, but it’s my understanding that this content is proving fairly popular. While this vacates my conspicuous consumption argument, it also calls into question scarcity as a sole or even dominant measure of value, at least in this one context. If you’re buying things with which to customize your single-player-game character, you’re not doing so because they’re scarce, you’re doing so because they give you more pleasure by virtue of the fact that they differentiate you from the general issue. I’m sure there’s some sound economic explanation for this (which I’m happy to hear and concede to), but I prefer to think of it as some kind of “cool utility” that has more to do with our notions of individuality and expression than with anything competitive. Perhaps it’s just that (WARNING: sweeping generalization ahead) in order to feel we’ve realized ourselves as individuals we need to feel we are “rare.” Which puts us right back where we started, more or less, but changes the tone of the calculation somewhat, in my view, and in any case is interesting to think about.


Dmitri Williams
Here’s a testable hypothesis: people seek to be different in a normally distributed fashion. On one tail are those who do whatever others do. In the center are varying degrees of individuality. On the far tail are those who do whatever no one else does by design.

World of Warcraft, for example, doesn’t enable a lot of the variance we’d see in, say, how people shop for clothes in real life. What little variation that’s there comes in the middle and you only get a few diehards (whom we’ll call “chicken wranglers”) who go to serious lengths to get out on that far right tail. Other games that allow for more customization show this normal curve in all of its varying glory.


Mark
The other thing all this reminds me of is Richard Bartle’s thinking about how MMOs help us explore/determine our identities. The question Eric raises, of why people show up in these places in the first place, is important. If, as Richard maintains, it’s to explore who they are, then the auctionhouse can’t be separated from that, I think. If that’s the case, then the value of your MMO dollar (in subscription fees) is affected by how much identity value you get out of your time in-world. I’ll leave it to someone else to tell me whether this simply circles back to the original scarcity argument, but I still feel like it’s a slightly different calculation, at least in tone if nothing else.


Eric
The kind of self-exploration Mark discusses tends to be interesting to people of certain personality bents. That’s not to say that it’s completely uninteresting to others, but I think there’s a case to be made for creative, intuitive types to want to explore edge cases and individuate, and for other personality types to prefer to excel by meeting community standards. Dmitri’s idea of a distribution of variation could be explained very well within a personality-preference framework. With Mark, I would argue for a broader set of motivations to play MMOs than exploring identities. In fact, one could argue that WoW’s break-out popularity might stem in part from a de-emphasis on roleplaying and exploring identity, the very things that helped attract previous generations of players and developers, but may be either uninteresting or even intimidating to a broader audience.


Roger Fouts
This is an interesting discussion. I would think that there are many different reasons for obtaining these adornments. To me it fits into the category of nonverbal communication called self-presentation. With self-presentation (clothes, cars, make-up, hair color, etc) we are making a statement about ourselves. Nonverbal communication is our loudest form of communication and in some circumstances accounts for more that 80% of the meaning in a two-person conversation. So it could be an “exploring who they are” in the same sense of a teenager doing this with the latest, radical styles. In addition, it could be the individual making a statement about a variety of different topics. With my toon I am perhaps rationalizing his plain attire as a cool form of understatement, and kid myself that my coolness comes from my battle skills… But the coolness of the Alliance praire chicken did evoke some envy.


Mark
Eric, you argued for a broader set of motivations to play MMOs than exploring identities, and I don’t completely disagree. But I’d just point out that exploration of one’s identity doesn’t have to be a motivating factor (at least, not consciously) in the decision to enter a virtual world. I would maintain, though, that once you’re in there, what’s happening is, at least in part, an exploration of identity, not through hard role-playing but simply in the fact that inhabiting an avatar loosens the constraints of who we are in the broader world (i.e., if we think of “the broader world” as encompassing both the physical and virtual). If that weren’t the case, if virtual worlds didn’t expand who we could be, I wonder whether we would visit them at all.

Just to clarify: I don’t equate “exploring one’s identity” with “role-playing.” In fact, I think sticking strictly to “thee, thou, thy” probably limits the kind of exploration one can do. Now, chicken wrangling, on the other hand, that is an exploration of identity. Seriously. What’s so cool about that chicken that you had to have it? What does it say about you that you went to the trouble to get it? What does it say about me that I think the prairie chicken is one of the coolest things in the game, but that I just can’t be bothered to get myself one? If the chicken is so cool, why doesn’t everyone want one? Do you respond to being ganked with anger, sadness, pain, humor, disappointment or an unstoppable desire for revenge? How close to or distant from your avatar do you feel? Does seeing a level 60 kitted out with the most über gear make you more committed to getting some yourself, does it make you want to give up, or do you have some more neutral reaction, perhaps just marvel at how cool he/she looks? Etc.

These are all pretty simplistic questions, but I just include them here to illustrate the kind of identity exploration I’m talking about. Come to think of it, if I remember my readings correctly, much of play is about exploring one’s identity in such ways. If you’re not a gold farmer, I bet most if not all of what you do in virtual worlds feeds into those questions in some way.

Roger brings up the excellent example of a teenager in their rebellious phase. These are the kinds of things we get to re-explore in these places.


Prosser
I think this is kind of the heart of the issue. The interesting thing about MMOs qua “games” is that, according to handful of ludologists out there that care about this stuff—MMOs don’t seem to be games. They’re too open ended.

The level advancement track that we’re all on does seem a little bit like a game, but at the same time, it feels a little bit like knitting or dancing—where’s the real challenge in getting to level 60? There is no challenge, unless you really want to do it “well,” whatever that means for you.

At the same time, I think the difference between MMOs and other games can be overstated—just because bowling has clear rules and win/loss conditions doesn’t mean that the social practice of bowling is just about those aspects of the game—people can bowl, or play many other games, for a variety of reasons that aren’t part of the formal rule structure.

I guess what’s most interesting to me about virtual worlds is the way we tend to drift between various sources of pleasure in playing. For me, one day, it’s all about the fishing and exploring new places, another day, I’m trying to level by grinding or playing with some new gear I bought, another day I’m doing quests and enjoying some hokey narrative, another day I’m just hanging out in a glorified chat room—most of the time I’m doing multiple things. The MMO as a database offers all sorts of affordances for play, and I think most people move between them.

One more thing. Dmitri noted how stripped down customization options were in WoW, and I think that’s a really interesting point. I wonder if this might be a reason for its popularity. It seems to me that the future potential of these spaces is to give players much more agency in fashioning their “self-presention”—maybe not as far as Second Life offers or requires—but I think City of Heroes is a good example of how a great degree of self-expression can actually be made to fit into a unified theme.

World of Warcraft feels lacking to me in that way—it seems to treat the player as a content consumer in something approaching the traditional video game or even movie industry model—this works in its own way, but to people interested in the art of virtual world spaces, I wonder if the success of World of Warcraft isn’t a little bit of a disappointment. But maybe some people are overwhelmed by worlds with greater demands on their agency, and so WoW is a type of helpful baby step toward something more rich.


Dan
You know, this doesn’t explain the guy in Ultima Online who had 10,000 white shirts and who…


[There is a smack sound on the tape at this point, and voices become muffled. The last discernible sounds seem to be the clink of icecubes, some laughter, and a faint “cluck cluck”. Tape then cuts out]

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Chen Nian to IGE: Eat me, Western barbarians!

And so the culture wars in item trading begin. I simply had to post this, from Pacific Epoch:

Virtual Item Trading Site Founder Chen Nian: IGE Will Fail In China

Chen Nian, former Joyo vice president and current chairman of online virtual item trading website Uoyoo.com told Sina on Tuesday that no multi-national Internet company will achieve success in China's virtual item trading market, including leading US online game virtual currency and item trading platform Internet Gaming Entertainment (IGE). Chen said that IGE's biggest weakness is its lack of understanding of China's online gaming and virtual item trading market. Chen confirmed that Uoyoo.com has expanded its business to some game servers in Taiwan. Chen said Uoyoo.com will directly compete with IGE in the international market. According to Chen, Uoyoo.com is targeting 100 million Yuan in revenue in 2006. Chen said Uoyoo.com was jointly invested by himself and Kingsoft CEO Lei Jun.

Comments (31)

"100K Group" lists? (Or, 'The Numbers Game' Part 2)

You may have noticed that the sidebar of virtual world sites on the left has
been changed.  No longer does it include groups for games/worlds with 100,000
or more users, but now just includes an alphabetical listing of some of the virtual
worlds that one or more Terra Nova folks have been to. 

This was the subject of a lot of discussion between TN authors and is
something we think is worth discussing here.  In short, what's a user and
why do we care?

As discussed in "The Numbers Game" topic recently, there's considerable
debate about how to count users for talking about virtual world populations.
Do you count all registered users?  Those who have logged in in the past
week or month?  Those who have paid for a subscription or some dollar-level
of items?  There's widespread disagreement on this and any number of vested
interests desiring one answer or another.

Further, the question has come up: why do we care what the population is?
The fact is, people do care for a variety of reasons -- people want
to know what's hot, which worlds are shriveling up, and whether their
favorite is popular with others.  From a business POV, developers want to
trumpet the growth of their world (again, popularity is important to us
herd-beasts), and others want to know if virtual worlds overall are growing
out of their niche, if their growth comes from cannibalizing those that came
before, or if these worlds are truly edging into the mainstream. 

It's fair to say that there's a wide range of opinions on whether number of
users -- however defined -- is a useful measure of a virtual world's value
in any sense of the word.  There's been some concern that Terra Nova isn't
the place to rank VWs by population, or to try to define what that
population might actually be given that we have no way of verifying what a
VW operator says. 

What do you think?  Is VW population important or interesting to know?  Is
it something worth pursuing and reporting?  Should Terra Nova or some other
group try to come up with an industry standard way of measuring (and
verifying) VW population?  Or should we forget about all that and look
instead at which worlds provide the most interesting and immersive
experience along whatever lines matter to each of us personally? 

Comments (37)

Virtual Transvestitism: An Introduction

Transvestitism is common in virtual worlds.  That, if nothing else, is undeniable. 

While it may be hard to effectively determine just what percentage of toons are actually controlled by cross-gender players, transvestites have a presence in all types of online social environments.  Whatever the details of their personal experiences, these virtual cross-dressers are using the medium of cyberspace to experiment with the bounds of gender ideologies and performance... whether they like it or not.

This post will hopefully be the first in a series exploring tranvestitism in virtual environments.  Today's topic: Where and how does virtual transvestitism take place?  On worlds, chat rooms, forums, and console games...

Online gender-bending as we most commonly encounter it today -- in Second Life, for example, or World of Warcraft -- is in some ways quite complicated, but in other ways rather simple.  Men and women who present cross-gender in these worlds seem to be more open to the idea that their transvestitism has meaning.  Not that it necessarily carries some huge psychological or philosophical weight, but that virtual gender choice reflects, in one way or another, not just the avatar but the player behind it.

Perhaps this is due in part to the fact that, in such worlds, sex is a staple of interaction.  Sex may not be the act of sex, per se; it can also include any sexually-charged situation, such as flirting, gift-giving, etc.  Whatever its form, when sex is recognized as a pillar of a virtual culture, it becomes harder to insist that the choice of an avatar's gender -- an avatar that will then go out into the sexual environment -- is without implications.

In other online spaces though, the unity of representation and intention remains less clear.  In forums, for example, male posters often use female images for their "avatars."  Here, more so than in virtual worlds, it's debatable whether these images are actually avatars, representative of the speakers, or merely aesthetic accompaniments.  As may be expected, it seems forum-goers who use cross-gender images commonly do not consider themselves to be practicing transvestitism.

A similar case could be made for cross-gender presenting in a game like Second Life. After all, who said a toon must represent the user, or even a character the user is role-playing.  Couldn't it too be purely aesthetic?  The same argument could even be used for tranvestitism through name choice in chat rooms.  As a culture, we expect names to describe ourselves.  But do they have to?

Yes, of course they do -- or so some would say; labels, whether visual or textual, define the face you present to the world.  And that's exactly what transvestitism is about: presenting an altered face.

But what happens when the altering isn't done by the player?  Virtual worlds, chat rooms, and forums all allow users to decide how they appear.  In most console games though, character gender is predetermined.  In order to play, gamers must fill the gendered skin presented to them.  Men become the Samus Aran, blond bombshell.  Women become Duke Nukem, a towering muffin of muscle.  Is this tranvestitism?  Or more to the point, how could it not be?  Players have the ability to choose what they play, and they're choosing to cross gender lines. 

Virtual transvestitism is all around us, just waiting to be poked with the metaphorical stick of good old-fashioned curiosity.  Tune in next time for the exciting continuation: Who's cross-dressing?

Comments (56)

The 99

According to Naif al-Mutawa, superheroes fall into two archetypes Judeo-Christian and Eastern. The DC / Marvel types are outcast loaners with many powers but a fatal flaw and often a mysterious past. Pokémon types have only one power each and need to work collectively.

Enter, The 99, superheroes based on Islamic archetypes reflecting the 99 attributes of the Islamic concept of God (see NYT piece for a bit of background).

MMO to follow? City of 99 Heroes? 99s vs 88s?

I’m sure that the mix of religion and pop culture will be controversial on all sides of the equation: propaganda on one side / disrespect on the other.

But what I’m interested in, and maybe those better versed in Islam can advise, is whether there is anything genuinely different in these archetypes and whether they might, in an MMO context, lead to innovative game design.

Comments (16)

Which Broader Market?

Phrases like "broad market" or "mass market" are common when people talk about the future of MMOs.  Many of us (but maybe not all -- see below) have a desire to see virtual world-games move beyond the current fantasy model (often somewhat pejoratively termed "men in tights" games).  From a design POV, doing so allows us to explore new forms of online games that haven't been touched.  From a business POV, doing this gets us out of the perceived niche of single white male gamers without social lives and hopefully significantly increases the number of people playing MMOGs overall. 

The problem is, when we talk about "broad market" I think sometimes different people mean very different things.  Which broader market do we want, if any? 

For example, when I talk about creating an MMO that will attract a broader market, I mean one that women (especially) and men with families, jobs, and mortgages will want to play.  A game that doesn't presume or require 10-20 hours or more per week to be engaging -- but which hopefully doesn't turn away such players either.

OTOH, apparently not everyone means this.  I've been thinking about the quote from Nancy MacIntyre, SWG's  senior director at LucasArts as given in the NYTimes article from last December about the game's "New Game Experience." 

She said in part, "We really just needed to make the game a lot more accessible to a much broader player base." Okay, so far so good.  But then she said, "There was lots of reading, much too much, in the game. ... We wanted more instant gratification: kill, get treasure, repeat."; Hmm.  That style of gameplay hardly sounds like something that's going to attract people currently playing The Sims, Zuma, or other WoW-widows.  OTOH, it sounds like just the ticket if their use of the term "broader player base" is really code for "console game players."

Now maybe that's what LucasArts/Sony Online are trying to do, and I'm not trying to argue that's necessarily a bad thing.  There are a lot of console gamers who could potentially be turned into subscription-paying, item-buying MMO players.  But is that really a broader market, or is it really just mining the predominantly young adolescent male market even more deeply? 

Finally, there's another group that needs addressing, and that's those who are, whether they know it or not, deeply uncomfortable with attracting any broad market at all.  These are the dyed-in-the-wool gamers who like the fact that the time they've lovingly spent to raise their main character to level 60 is typically equivalent to, say, the time spent in class during a little over a year of full-time college -- or if you like, three months of full-time work (according to PlayOn).  In fact, as we've seen in discussion after discussion (ad nauseum) here focused on RMT, current "core" players so jealously guard the time investment required to succeed in current games that anyone who would want to circumvent this (the 'more money, less time' model) is viewed as a cheater or worse (this is not an invitation to morph this thread into yet-another-RMT thread). 

Do we want a broader market for MMOGs?  A lot of people say it, but do we really mean it?  And if we do, which market do we mean?  Do we mean the growing market of older women players, or of couples playing together, or do we just mean those core gamers whose minds the industry has already captured with consoles (and who have yet to be distracted with actual life)?

If we decide we do want to address a market that looks beyond those who are typically already playing online games, are we willing and able to create games that will attract millions rather than tens of thousands of players?  Can we increase the broad market demographic beyond being just a sub-niche of MMOGs overall? 

Comments (50)

Small ad. Big news?


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So does a currency become ‘real’ when you can buy physical stuff with it? Even if that stuff is, irony or ironies, a video card?

Props: to FlipperPA for doin it and Aleks of gamesblog for spottin’ it

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Portables Go Online, Instantly Get RMT

The Nintendo DS hand-held is wireless-enabled and takes 30 seconds to get you online. If you're playing Animal Crossing: Wild World, you can invite a friend's character into the world that lives on your machine. For the right dollar price, Edge reports, your friend can bring millions of bells, the local currency, and give them to you.

The game and system are targeted at the 8-17 set, a big market. Nintendo has shipped over 10m DS systems. Animal Crossing: Wild World had over 1m in sales for the year and was Japan's top selling game, despite being released only in November.

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The Zerg Beyond

A while ago Clive Thompson forwarded an essay on language and lingo development based on computer game experiments conducted by Bruno Galantucci (also see The Economist article).  The conclusion was that necessity was the mother of invention; given need folks would find a way to communicate.  Clive then went on to emphasize this interesting question: is the spark of communication all about copying? 

Jim Rossigonal recently published an excellent recap of the Korean gaming scene.   It is first-hand and well-written.  I was struck by Jim's observations about how Starcraft has become a "self-perpetuating phenomenon" in South Korea...

Jim notes that those who started out playing it have grown old with it.  The hint is that when nostalgia and habit is mixed into the cocktail of  constant media attention -- televised tournaments, and the celebrity of its participants -- StarCraft cannot help but become professional entertainment and big business.  "Zerg Idols" indeed.

In The Zergling Rush (of your dreams), "massing players" was cited as a collective expression of enthusiasm in game worlds that transcended StarCraft.  It was cited as a desire by a group to push and to generate excitement.  Hooliganism of a virtual flavor.   The question here is whether zergs can push in from the outside and not just emerge from the inside.  Jim Rossigonal seems to suggest that too much enthusiasm in Korea encourages a narrower view of the computer game:  some genres and titles are apparently hard to come by. 

A very long while ago I asked of virtual worlds whether the language that evolved there leads to simpler (and perhaps too simple) places:

"Dude" could be just another word.   However, just maybe in our quieter reflections while we wonder the cultural connections of our human mimicry ..."dude" is there, a creature swimming a greater current.  Should virtual worlds strive for more complex and variated social cultures?  Or does that get in the way of casual gaming?  Are we simply too tethered to the real world with its utterances, short punctuated syllables and all?

Today, I wonder whether those simplifications are in part perpetuated from the identities we choose on the outside (cultural and personal) and the enthusiasm we embrace them looking into the arena of our virtual worlds.   Enthusiasm encourages mimicry begets conformity.  The greater the zerg pushing in from the outside, the greater the homogenization of the inside?

Comments (11)

How a Gold Farm Works

Mindy Basi, AKA Kwill of Kwill's Quill and a PhD from University of Illinois (see a summary of her work on race, gender, and MMORPGs in the middle of this page), emailed me about a discussion happening on the EverQuest boards. The thread, here,  is invaluable for the openness with which the writers discuss the day to day reality of running a gold farm. A behind-the-scenes look that also clarifies how RMT effects end up imposing costs on all the players. What a tremendous resource . Mindi: /thank /bow.

The tagline of the story is that professionalization and low-wage foreign competition are driving American mom-and-pop gold farmers out of business. Mom and Pop are unhappy. Should we care?

Here is a most informative post in the thread:

-----BEGIN QUOTE-----
I guess I should mention, as I failed to in my last post, that I have been in the process of dismantling my "business" since Christmas. You may wonder why I do not just fold it up completely and immediately, but that lies in needing to make sure that those I am responsible for, are taken care of. I expect to be completely done within the month.

This is going to be long, but I'd like to explain what my business essentially was, and my views on things in general and why what is currently going on is quite serious for EQ. Not just for the plat sellers like I was, or just those who rely on bazaar gears and trading to equip their character, but also those at the raiding level. While it certainly impacts raiders the least, it does eventually.

I started selling about 7 years ago. I started on my home server, amongst a few other sellers. At the time EQ was EQ, no expansions, fairly new, and you could sell 1,000 platinum for $500. I got into selling because of a GM at the time who I spoke to on occasion who was selling platinum and other items from places like mistmoore, guk, and solusek b. This was at a time a GM was an unpaid volunteer player, and the kinks hadn't been worked out as far as the EULA which forbid the buying and selling of intellectual property.

My tax return for that year which has salary from 2 months of my job which I quit to make this my full time business, showed $150,623.78 after expenses. By this time I had made another character on another server and bought myself another computer and was playing on two. I killed guards in everfrost and sold the weapons to vendors and then bought items from players, or sold the platinum. That's the entirety of what I did to make that income.

There was more and more competition coming in on a weekly basis, and I never made so much as I did the first year, even though I had to work more and more. Like any business if you are one of the only places around for that product, you'll make a killing compared to being in the face of extreme competition.

Fast forward a bit, I started to look for employees who were already selling platinum and items, who wanted a bit more security in what they did and the advantage of things like health care, a more steady paycheck, and the advantage of information exchange on where and how to make the best money in EQ.

Over the years I eventually had 16 employees on 7 servers, and the business was approaching $800,000 a year in income with hardly any costs associated with it beyond paying those 16 people, and health care.

I always operated the business in a strict manner that if I were to ever find out an individual cheated or exploited, or macroed, or duped, or scammed or acquired their coin or items in any other way than fully legitimate means within game, that they would be fired on the spot. I am happy to say that I never had to terminate anyone for this, but sad to say I did lose a husband and wife pair who quit to run the cheese tradeskill exploit as they felt they could make more doing it. It was fixed within two weeks after they quit, and had already been extensively reported.

We weathered various exploits which came and went, and prices which were steadily falling. It's what happens as more and more platinum enters the game, or more and more get into buying and selling. We always kept up, though, until some time into Gates Of Discord, at the end of 2003, when the first major major problem to hit, happened.

Back then prices on platinum had been near $200, per 100k, at the beginning of that year. Within two months, the price fell on the secondary market from $200 per 100k, to $25 per 100k. The problem? There were many guesses and many claims, but it was a combination of many issues. For one there were tradeskills which could be run under a macro for profit. There were many people doing this and using offset hacks to warp around or use combiners like the forges from somewhere outside the zone boundaries so you could not see them. Ever run up to a forge back then and find it was in use but nobody was standing there? Well, now you know what was probably going on. With a macro you could make a few hundred k a day per server per character you had doing it. 40 + servers at the time, times $100 a day per server, and you'd be fairly rich in short order at a steady diet of $120,000 a month. At these prices, at the time, there was room for about 5 times this business in the overall market, at about $500,000 per month. The income on the secondary market was a large percent of what Everquest took in in subscription fees, and this was right about the peak of EQ subscription.

Not only were there macros, but there were rumors of a "banker dupe" which were probably untrue, and there were also rumors of an offset hack to make the server think you dropped to a negative amount of money, which would put your character at a very very large positive amount of money. I believe the latter more, because the banker would require inside help, and while it's possible I don't think it's probable.

I lost 10 employees at that time. 100k platinum was a large amount back then, still, and to make that consistently on a daily basis with a couple of people was difficult. Since many of my employees were husband / wife teams of players with families to support, they could not afford to remain in a situation where their income was cut down to about $25 a day.

It was fixed, of course, but it is interesting to note that once it was fixed prices never returned to $200 per 100k, but rather went to $75 per 100k at the most. Enough platinum had entered Everquest to drop prices by more than half outside of the game. The effects were very very noticeable in game as well. While the issue was still present, ornate armors and the like which were top end droppables at the time, were reaching wild prices of 200k platinum and up, and they were selling. After it was fixed, top end items which had gone for 25k to 40k each, were now near 75k to 100k each and remained there for quite some time (before the top end item price went up again, and not down).

If you look back, this time period also marks the beginning of the decline of Everquest subscriptions. To be fair this was also in the midst of Gates Of Discord, but I can't help but believe the tidal wave that ripped through the bazaar may have contributed to that happening. It certainly would be frustrating to be saving up for some gear as a casual player, only to find the things you were saving up for nearly doubled or tripled in price within weeks, while your platinum didn't come to you any faster. Part of what my business was, was understanding what my customer's needs were. And many were just your average casual player who bought a bit of plat, 10k or 20k, here and there, to work on some tradeskills or to pick up a new hat or pair of boots in the bazaar. I dealt with a sea of emails at the time, from such customers, who were extremely frustrated at the whole mess, and many who outright quit as they were then almost forced to buy platinum to keep up their level of playing that was fun for them, and that made the game no longer a game to them.

My other customers consisted of the stereotypical plat buyer that people seem to dislike. The guy who goes out and spends $2000 on platinum (which gets you about 15 million platinum right now, or which got you 4 million platinum a couple months ago). These were the people with lots of money or who just had EQ as their main hobby (we all have one of those money sink hobbies to an extent) and had no qualms about spending such money on a videogame as it was fun for them to do so. Then there were the guilds, or guild officers and leaders who would buy platinum to pay for their guild's armor pieces, or high end players who would buy platinum for rare items like amulet of necropotence, mask of tinkering, blade of carnage, or other things their guild did not actively kill, or which were almost required for individuals to make it in a high end guild as they needed a "taunt weapon" or the like.

So anyways, after this great decline, things were very stable for the next year and a half. Prices in and out of game were stable, increasing and decreasing on the order of between 10 and 15 percent per year, which is normal. Prices on platinum dropped from $75 per 100k in late 2003 to $50 per 100k in mid 2005. I spent more time speaking with other sellers, and more time diversifying how we obtained platinum until the point where we, 8 people, were the sole supplier on 4 post merge servers, for everquest platinum to the big three sellers. There was no reason for them to lie to us about this, of course. They did have other sources of platinum at a rate of about 50k per day from people selling bits and pieces here and there, or they'd get a million from someone now and again, but they did not have the steady flow on the 4 servers from anyone else at all other than us. This was about $500 a day per server, or about $180,000 a year, divided amongst 8 people. It was barely manageable when you factor in health insurance and taxes.

In July of this year, one of the big sellers we dealt with, with a name starting with "G" (as I'd rather not mention them here lest people think I am trying to get them more business) told us and their other suppliers that they no longer had any need for platinum from us. They closed off any buys from people, and dropped their price from $50 to $40 per 100k on the market, and instead of having varying amounts for sale per server, they had millions on every server.

Being in the market as we were, it was quite an obvious move to make when a seller would get some sort of single source supplier who could meet all their needs. This is something which happens in games like World of Warcraft, where one supplier might cover all servers with 400 Chinese employees paid low wages to play the game and farm coin for hours and days at a time at a steady rate. EQ has never had that "problem" and even if so, they would be limited to making platinum in the bazaar, as EQ is not modeled as such that you can make money by farming monster kills and getting plat from NPC vendors. This was not a possibility, as a mass influx of chinese farmers would also be noticed within game, unless they were doing Dragons of Norrath crystals, in which case there is not sufficient market for crystals only, in order to supply what this seller needed.

Besides, crystals were a big part of what we sold, and nobody was selling close to as many as we did, not even 10% of as many as we did. As a matter of fact, being in this business we were required out of necessity to know the best places and items to sell for money, and not one of those areas had anyone or anything that could come close to what we were doing.

The general consensus was that this supplier got ahold of a dupe somehow, or they had a supplier who had one. When I say dupe I mean any hack, or macro or any way for someone to get money for nothing in game, and certainly something which is not "available to everyone."

We didn't fuss too much about it, though. We adjusted to the prices, kept a watchful eye out for any other issues, and kept up business as usual.

Until September / October. This is when the major problems started. Two new sellers appeared on the auction sites. These sellers were unknowns, new accounts who had millions upon millions of platinum for sale across any and all servers at crazy pricing. Their price? $25 per 100k if you haggled a bit with them, and they could give you as much as you wanted. 10 million wasn't an issue. 20 million? not a problem. In addition to these two sellers, old time sellers who had been gone since the last dupe era in 2003, and had not sold platinum since then, suddenly re-opened shop with millions per server. The amount available per server shot up from a typical million or 2 million listed at a time, to nearly 30 million platinum listed at a time. This all happened within a week. Resellers dropped their buy prices by 30%.

And it stopped again within 3 or 4 weeks. They disappeared, dried up, gone overnight. We honestly figured it had been fixed. But sure enough within the week the "G" named seller had millions per server for sale, and even more of it than they had before. They still denied all sales TO them but they had as much as you wanted to buy from them, and they had a new low price. After a couple weeks the other sellers started reappearing with similar pricing, and it has remained that way to this day. At times they get banned, then they come back. They formed a sort of conglomerate, and they keep in contact and fix prices so they are not competing too much with each other or completely killing off the market, which as they like to point out, they could if anyone wanted to mess with them, as "we can sell it for $1 per 100k and make money, just keep that in mind" which was mentioned to me when I tried to list up at a price less than theirs.

This has been going on for 3 months now, for the most part unchecked. SOE is aware of an issue, but seems unable to find out what it is and put a stop to it. They do ban the seller accounts from time to time (although it appears they have not since before Christmas) but it is really fruitless to do so as the sellers are back up again the next day with tens of millions available for sale. They can't ban an account which these guys have not yet created, and if it's some sort of hack that SOE has not yet found, all these guys have to do is fire up an account, dupe up 20 million, and they are good for a week until SOE gets back around to catching that account. At like $10? per account, plus a game card, I doubt they care other than a minor nuisance when one gets banned.

I find it absolutely amazing that SOE does not know what this is and how to stop it. I can't imagine they don't want to stop it. But I also have to wonder if they are taking it as seriously as it really is. No it's not a case of a bunch of kids running around buying up all the ornate armors and high end items with duped plat, pushing prices through the roof, but it is and will continue to speed inflation within the game, as the platinum entering the game in this fashion is not gotten by killing monsters or trading in the bazaar. The higher the amount of plat in the game is, the more they will need to design more plat sinks in the game be they tradeskills which cost huge amounts to skill up, or armor pieces which require you buy expensive components from NPC vendors.

The conglomerate of sellers, which just lowered pricing yet again, is arguing amongst themselves and and likely will drop prices again soon due to a new seller with millions per server, who obviously has access to the same exploit or something similar, who is selling for less than them that they now must compete with. $5 per 100k is a very real estimate of what this could get to. With the out of game market being roughly $600 per day per server, or about $4 million per year, if prices reach $50 per million that's looking at 4.3 billion platinum entering the game on a per server basis per year. Already at current pricing about 1.5 billion illegitimate platinum will be entering the EQ world this year. If you do not think this will have far reaching impact in game, it most certainly will.

To explain, since many do not understand the difference between someone who sells plat they make in game legitimately, and someone who sells exploited platinum, there is a very large difference on the server economies between the two. A seller who sells plat they make in game legitimately removes platinum that is already in the market, sells it for real life money, and this platinum then enters the market again. The net effect is zero, and the market is completely unaffected. A seller who sells duped plat, never removes money from the economy, he just adds money to it. So if a duper sells 1 million, there is now 1 million more platinum within the global economy.

Everquest is actually fairly well designed to ensure that money entering the game is only slightly more than money exiting the game through things like tradeskills, reagents, coffins, potions, soulstones, gems, high price armor completions, etc etc etc. With a little bit more money entering the game than exiting, you encourage mild inflation, which since EQ has no real banks or reliable investments which give a return over time, this encourages spending rather than hoarding of money. This increases trade and player interaction and is very good for the overall health of the game.

Double or tripling or more, the rate of platinum entering the economy without a matching increase in the rate it exits the economy, would and will have a huge effect on inflation within the game. For instance if we say every day that 5,000 people play EQ on a server all who make an average of 1,000 platinum, and spend an average of 750 platinum, the net result is about 1,250,000 platinum which enters the game per day per server. If on top of that a duper is injecting 5,000,000 platinum into the game, that platinum is not checked against normal costs. The 5,000,000 does not have the normal 3,750,000 drain the other players are faced with, thus instead of the normal amount of 1,250,000 platinum entering the game per day, there is 6,250,000 platinum entering the game per day. Also since this 5,000,000 platinum likely enters the bazaar immediately spread among a few people, while the 1,250,000 is spread among the 5,000 players and trickles in, the effect is multiplied to extremes. While the normal intended inflation might be 5% per 6 months, you get much much higher inflation rates. As little as 1 year ago, the "best" items cost 100k or so barring any oddities, on average. Now you find the best items are approacing 400k, to 500k. You can't take a look and say "well I can get an earring of solstice cheap now! there is no inflation!" because an earring of solstice is an old low demand item, and there are a multitude of better alternatives for that same slot. When golden tickets are running 1 million on some servers, and only because that is the most people can charge for one on a trader, there is inflation because these were 200k a year ago on the high end. When a mask of tinkering is 1 million platinum when they were 250k a year ago on the high end, there is inflation.

You can also see the effects here if you wish to read some other threads. Expect to see more and more of these types of requests for "another coin type" in the near future.

<http://eqforums.station.sony.com/eq/board/message?board.id=Veterans&message.id=160977>http://eqforums.station.sony.com/eq/...sage.id=160977

http://eqforums.station.sony.com/eq/...sage.id=160791

While many psts deal with Firiona Vie, there are listings in there of many items which are selling for 1 million plus on other normal servers as well. It is interesting to note, also, that due to the "all droppable" nature of Firiona Vie, that the out of game platinum market for that server is over 5 times what it is on a normal server, with thousands of dollars a day in activity. Also notice which server is hardest hit by inflation and which server has the most platinum flying around, with a population relative to other servers which is much smaller. If you know what you are looking at, you can see problems with exploitation, and their effects on trading, on Firiona Vie first. It's the smoking gun when it comes to these things, a virtual crystal ball that players on other servers can take a look at and see a bit of their future when it comes to the bazaar.

And this all certainly does effect every player. The time it takes to do so and the degrees to which it does, are all different. For the legitimate plat seller, it affects them the most, to be honest with you. With gradual inflation of up to 15% it does not, but with drastic inflation they can't keep up because inflation in game is a bit slower than deflation out of game. Thus while that item that sold for 100k last month might get 105k this month on average, out of game that 100k is worth 50% less. Working at McDonalds becomes more profitable, and it becomes non sensical to sell platinum.

For the casual player who does a bit of buying and selling the the bazaar, selling low end common items to save up for higher end nice items, they are impacted as the low end common items which are not high demand to begin with, sell for less and less or remain stagnant, or at very best inflate very very slowly, while the good and better items inflate at a pace which they can't keep up with unless they play more, or spend more time "farming." For some this is how they play and this is how they have fun, and such outpacing and inability to keep up can push them to quit.

For the new player, they have a few options. They do not have the pool of players to group with, and the game at their level beyond the very early stages, in the void of 15 to 60, is designed around early EQ. It's designed around an influx of coin and items which is old and pre 2003 exploit and pre today's current exploit. To a seasoned EQ player it may seem trivial to save up 1000 platinum if you work at it in an evening, but to a new guy, that figure is astronomic and daunting. Pretend you are level 25, give yourself 1000 platinum, go to the bazaar, and try to equip up to a level of gear you could solo / duo with (because it is highly unlikely to find people to group with at that level to make out a group). I doubt you will be able to do it, and where is a new level 25 guy going to get 1000 platinum anyways? If they have knowledge of the game to the extent that that is possible they are not new to EQ or have inside help anyways. This limits, more and more, the introduction of new players into the game. Of course, there's always the option for these players to go buy some platinum, but should that be almost required? Exploitation drives the new player away, and reduces the attractivness of the game to them.

For the average player in a guild, with some raid gear, and who plays a few nights a week, trades in the bazaar a bit, does a few tradeskills, has some twinks, and on and on and on, it's just standard inflation. You are the beginning of the plat drain. The coffins, the high cost tradeskill components that must be purchased from NPCs, the soulstones, the gems, the portal fragments, the gate potions, the 500 plat for ornate armor on turn in, the 10,000 plat for qvic armor on turn in. These things are here and at higher and higher costs in order to remove first and foremost, the normal player injection of platinum into the game through legitimate means, but they are also there in order to remove the platinum from past and current exploits from the game. You pay a premium on this stuff because Joe Macro over there exploited the game to make his $200 a day back in 2003, or because that duper over there exploited the game for $25,000 a week for the last 3 months and is continuing to do so.

For the raider, you pay like the average player, though you have access to the high end droppable gear in order to offset that cost. You can get stuff that is worth hundreds of thousands of platinum, and you can easily cough up the 10K for a piece of Qvic armor. It doesn't affect you as much because you buy and sell on the high end, and the high end is the most inflated and the plat sinks to counter it have not yet been introduced, and when they are they won't be too difficult to deal with for you, the top end raider. There is some effect, not monetary, from less new players sticking with EQ, and average players getting frustrated with inflation on their way up to your guild and quitting before they reach that level of play. The downsizing of eq associated with less accounts (I do not claim exploitation to be the ONLY reason for this) and it being more and more difficult to find good players to fill your ranks.

But it does affect everyone. Turning a blind eye to it does fine in the short term, but the effects do reach everyone eventually, and the longer it is left unchecked the worse that effect will be.

As I said earlier I am getting out of "the business" and won't be selling platinum and items for real life money anymore as soon as next month. I am still concerned with the state of the situation, though. It has nothing to do with my own income, as it has teetered on low profit and a waste of time for over a half a year now. I've more concern as a player. While I could write another novel about how I think in a proper system, the out of game trade of items and coin for real life money helps a game more than hurts it, it's not the issue here. As a long time player of EQ, who will remain playing for fun only and not as an income, it is in my best interest to get exploitation stopped for how it may affect me as a player and not how it may affect how I feed my family or pay my mortgage.

Happy New Year, and another update for you all.

I've obviously been keeping after this issue and I'm sad to say that it has not stopped, but gotten increasingly worse since I last posted.

A second exploit was discovered and fixed since my posting, which involved ornate rogue pants, summon poison (no drop no sale) combine with tradeskill seal, and get back a poison that sold to vendors for around 275 plat. Since this could be summoned per 15 seconds, that's 275 plat x 4 per minute, or about 1.5 million platinum per day. This is when run with a macro of course.

This required a level 46 rogue and ornate pants with poison skill. Something which could be made up in a couple of days.

Though this fix seemed to stop the problems for a few days, they resurfaced which lends credibility to the fact that there is indeed another exploit out there not yet discovered and fixed.

Price dropped again at the beginning of January, marking now the seventh price drop in 3 months. Buy prices for the main player in the market dropped down to $13 per 100k on most servers and they are the ONLY reseller who buys platinum, and sell prices have dropped an average of $5 per 100k over the past two weeks. This is a 20% drop in just two weeks. 100% drop over a 6 week timeframe.

From some of these guys you can now purchase platinum for $150 per million with a small amount of haggling. If it continues to drop at the rate it is going, $50 per million is about two months away at the worst case, four I'd guess at best. Also the amount of platinum for sale has skyrocketed, going from suppliers having totals of about 4 million, to most servers having 20 to 30 million for sale at a time just since my last posting.

It takes time for the effects of this to be felt in game, but each expansion there usually are more and more platinum drains put into the game because of activity such as this. Who pays? The players do, not the exploiters. The exploiters walk off to the bank with a $25,000 weekly check, while the players have to dig up more and more plat for their tradeskills or quest armor, or, as the exploiters would love, have to buy from the exploiters as it becomes the only reasonable source of platinum.
-----END QUOTE-----
From http://www.eqclerics.org/forums/showthread.php?t=20815

Final comment: note that Firiona Vie, the RP server to which many turned in naive hope at one time, has become the benchmark server for RMT analysts. Bitter irony.

Comments (159)

Just Say No to gold farmer ads

Journalists often talk about the wall that's supposed to exist between editorial and advertising, and I say 'supposed to' because more and more, in all kinds of journalism, that wall has been breached, often for questionable ends. But now it seems the scaling of that wall has resulted in something that many magazine readers will appreciate -- the editor of PC Gamer has announced that the periodical will no longer accept ads from companies like IGE. Honestly, I'm amazed.

Comments (98)

Predictions for 2006

With a 0.550 batting average for 2005, clearly I wasn't reaching enough with my predictions, so for 2006 I'm going to live a bit more on the edge. Without further ado, 10 fearless predictions for 2006:

1) A winning candidate in the 2006 US Congressional elections will have campaigned in an MMO or virtual world
2) Apple's share of the PC market will double to 5%
3) Second Life's peak concurrency, currently at 5000, will reach 20,000
4) WoW will end 2006 with fewer players than it has today
5) Peter Ludlow won't send me an autographed copy of "Only a Game"
6) A Second Life resident will begin selling a service for exporting SL items to a Fab Lab (such as Berkeley's Squid Labs) in order to create them in the real world
7) A Virtual Research Foundation, based in a virtual world or MMO, will be created to gather games and virtual world research, create research standards, and provide funding to researchers
8) The US Democratic Party, in an attempt to capture the "family values" vote, will demonize games during the 2006 election cycle
9) A business or service in a virtual world will successfully file for a trademark
10) A Terra Nova author will testify before Congress about virtual worlds

Comments (42)

Digital Communities 06 / Prix Ars Electronica

We received the following details and thought it worth sharing:

For the third time, Prix Ars Electronica, the foremost international prize for computer-based art, is starting its call for entries for "Digital Communities" projects. The category "Digital Communities" has been a great success in its 2004 and 2005 editions and is singling out for recognition projects of great sociopolitical relevance.
The Digital Communities category is open to political, social and cultural projects, initiatives, groups and scenes from all over the world that display contentious commitment in coming up with smart, successful ways of deploying digital technologies to solve social problems. Particular emphasis is placed on a project's degree of community innovation, its sustainability and its use of technology in a way that makes good sense and is attuned to the needs of the people meant to benefit from it. Digital Communities projects should make it easier for people to access technology, networks and the Digital Commons.
We would like to ask you to help us "spread the word" in your community by circulating the information as widely as possible. We also would be very glad if you could help us identify some projects, which in your opinion should participate in the competition.
For a detailed description of the category, please consult our website
http://www.aec.at/en/prix/communities/communities.asp.
Find the winners of 2004 at http://www.aec.at/en/prix/communities/winners2004.asp and winners of 2005 at http://www.aec.at/en/prix/communities/winners2005.asp

Comments (1)

BDSM in a World without Pain

It’s hard to feel pain in virtual worlds; in fact, it’s downright impossible. Simulate any other facet of life – love, childbirth, the perfect pair of shoes – but experiencing physical pain is out of bounds. No amount of roleplaying can recreate it. Real-life pain requires a real-life body, one thing virtual worlds just can’t provide.

Not that anyone seems to be complaining. Virtual life has its advantages, and one of them is freedom from real-life restrictions like pain. This freedom makes online environments ideal spaces for experimentation, both personal and sexual. Needless to say, virtual worlds are rife with exploration of all kinds, much of it kinky. But in worlds without pain, what happens to those very masters of kink, the men and women who know pain best, virtual sadomasochists?

Strangely enough, nothing. There are plenty of online BDSM communities practicing today. Just club-hop through Second Life and you’ll see that soon enough. Sensual contraptions straight from a torture chamber line the walls of semi-private rooms. Xcite! has begun selling floggers with realistically drooping tails. Half the women on the street are calling out with their enormous, kinky boots, “Come on, hurt me!”

But you can’t. In Second Life, I can’t even hurt myself. On a slow Monday evening, I strap my avatar into a S/M device that sends an enormous spike through my vagina, over and over and over. Imagination and projection are important here, certainly, but even in the mood, I can’t feel a thing. My avatar looks bored. The BDSM I’m used to, real-life BDSM, stings, burns, bleeds. This doesn’t even tickle. If S/M depends on physical sensation, then what’s this?

Maybe that’s the problem: we expect to feel. We wonder, how can something so often dependent on physical action transfer to an electronic environment? But it doesn’t just transfer, it transforms. BDSM in cyberspace becomes what it’s been at its root all along, a matter not of pain, but of control.

Indeed, virtual sadomasochists sometimes act out the infliction of pain through toon or text play, but much more commonly they focus on domination and submission. Faux-torture devices may seem absurd, but voluntary in-world slavery is both feasible and happening. Collarings are taking place. People are living the lifestyle, even without the bruises.

Even real-life BDSM, though often steeped in physical response, has its basis in the language of control. Sub/dom, bottom/top, slave/master – pain may be involved in these relationships, but what makes it enjoyable is its place within a hierarchy of power. Pain is the manifestation, not the determiner, of control. The person in charge wields control; pain simply follows.

Besides, control might not be as simple as control over another person. Many gamers get involved in online BDSM because they “couldn’t, wouldn’t, shouldn’t” do it in real life. They’re actively exploring their sexuality in ways their nine-to-five would never allow. In that case, what does virtual sadomasochism offer but control over ourselves?

Comments (51)

Welcome Bonnie Ruberg

We're really fortunate to have Bonnie Ruberg join our happy band of ne'er-do-wells. Ordinarily when an author joins us I try to write some witty commentary about the subject matter that she is going to cover. But since Bonnie is perhaps the leading (and definitely the most interesting) writer on sex and virtual worlds...well, let me just say that all the earlier drafts of this announcement were likely to get me divorced, fired, or jailed. So let me use her own bio to announce her, and just say "welcome" from all of us here at Terra Nova central command:

"Bonnie Ruberg is a video games writer who specializes in sex and gender issues in both virtual worlds and real-life gaming communities. She's a regular commentator for The Escapist, a contributing journalist for Wired.com, and a reviewer for The Onion A. V. Club. She has also done work for Gamasutra, Slashdot, and GameGal, among others. Her sex-related ponderings can be found at her games blog, Heroine Sheik.

As far as her personal MMO addictions, she mostly sticks to Second Life, where she enjoys dabbling in (and spying on) online sexuality. As in real life, she is a virtual redhead with a problem with authority. She is also currently on a quest to find the perfect pair of kinky SL boots. Much of her game writing deals with virtual worlds; the most recent thing she's published that deals exclusively with an MMO is a Wired piece, "Cyberporn Sells in Virtual Worlds." She is also in the process of putting a longer piece on male MMO transvestitism. When not gaming, or writing about gaming, she's a student at Bard College working toward her degree in Creative Writing and Gender and Sexuality Studies."

Comments (9)

The Prisoner

In the past week or so there has been much discussion (e.g. Slashdot) regarding Second Life's use of a corn field as a novel means of punishing misdemeanors. 

Violators apparently are placed with corn-ears-above-their-head, without communication to the rest of the (virtual) world and in front of a large black-and-white television playing the 1940's film "Boy in Court."   Clickable Culture describes the precipitating event with some thoroughness and asks:

...whether or not The Corn Field is an effective remedial measure compared to a standard suspension. Yaffle supposes "it's a little better because it made me laugh, but not a whole lot better. There's nothing you can do there except ride a tractor and watch a boring movie, which was black and white anyways." 

The Boing Boing discussion references VZones and their use of "the void" as a similar virtual world example.  Also, Boing Boing coined the phrase "prison simulator"... 

Yet this tale seems like it should say less about a prison than of the relationship between a punishment and a prisoner.  Just as child time-out (a disciplinary method) is all about technique and little about location or decorum.  With child time-out often the professional discussion emphasizes the need for punishments to be exercised within a larger context of rewarding good behavior.  One is said to reinforce the other.

Would virtual time-outs be more effective were they applied within a framework that also rewarded good behavior?  Or is membership and participation in that world reward enough?

Do a good deed, a plus-up?

Beyond the novelty of a corn field and black-and-white TV, a prisoner in a corn field means judges, and rewarding those who do well means managers.  That developers must occasionally punish harshly for rules infractions is sadly necessary and justified.  But does that easily extend to the subtle.  Might easy time-outs and modest nudges connote a social engineering that at the margins can invite greater alienations (or at least headaches) as yet another level of winners and losers are chosen?

Where am I?
In The Village.
...
Who are you?
The new Number 2.
Who is Number 1?
You are Number 6.
I am not a number — I am a free man!

(The Prisoner).

Comments (14)

The Early History of Real Money Trades

A while back, Peter Edelmann wrote to us about the early days of Real Money Trades (“RMT”). He said:

“I came across this in one Mark Wallace's Escapist pieces:
"Out-of-world sales of gold and other virtual items have been going on since the early days of text-based "multi-user dungeons" and other online spaces, in the late 1970s."
Which got me to thinking about the earliest documented cases of RMT. The late 70's seems a little early - and it would seem widespread external markets didn't emerge until Ultima Online (post 1997/98). I wouldn't be surprised if there was some informal RMT taking place much earlier - possibly even the mid-1980s (like in Habitat or the GEnie worlds) - but I haven't seen any documented cases. Any thoughts about this?”

Well we thought that it was a perfect question to ask our resident gurus who were there at the beginning of this thing and who are responsible for much of what we take for granted in MMOGs and VW design. So we decided to have a fireside chat with our very own Richard Bartle and Jessica Mulligan. For those who don’t know them, Jessica and Richard claim to be extra-terrestrials from the far future, sent to our Earth to interfere with the timeline and prevent the galaxy-wide RMT wars of the 39th century. However Richard is best know for programming the world’s first multi-user dungeon—MUD1—with Roy Trubshaw between 1978 and 1981. Jessica’s worked on numerous online games including the original NeverWinter Nights on AOL, Warcraft II Online, and Ultima Online. We grabbed them on their way back from holidaying at Richard Branson’s private island.

Terra Nova: Thanks for chatting with us. Nice tans. So, has RMT really been going since the early days of text-based MUDs?
Jessica Mulligan: Since the first MUD didn't even go live until 1978-79, that may be a bit too early. After MUD1 went up on British Telecom in 1984, there may have been some item sales, but I rather doubt it; the game reset every 180 minutes, so any sale would have lasted 3 hours, tops. More likely, a character that had achieved Wiz or Witch would be sold, except that players that reached that level were very jealous of the status. I don't know that someone who hadn't earned it would have been allowed to hang out.
Richard Bartle: RMT was highly uncommon in MUD1. The game reset periodically, so there was no point in buying objects as they wouldn't survive the reset. I know of one case where someone bought a wizard character, but that would be the late 1980s, not the late 1970s; the character was obliterated when the sale was detected, anyway, as it was only a half-assed thing. The guy wanted a wiz, someone else was about to lose his modem or computer or whatever, and so he sold it to him it. But they both knew it was only a matter of time before what had transpired would be detected and the character would be zapped to oblivion.

Oddly, the very earliest occasions where people powerlevelled other players' characters were not about money. Men did it for women in the hope or expectation of some kind of emotional or physical relationship. There's an example of it mentioned in "The Cybergypsies", I think, where one player spends all hours building up a wiz for a woman, when it's obvious she's just using him. He left the character just short of reaching wiz, so she could do the final step herself, yet she told him to do it—not because she couldn't do it, but to put him in his place as her thrall.

Terra Nova: When did you first notice RMT?
Richard: The first sales I know of for sure were in the game Shades. There was quite a scandal when it broke. Again, it was character sales rather than object sales, but there was also an "I will play your character to wizard level" scheme available. I'd guess this was about 1987, plus or minus a year. There's a reference to a Shades-related incident in "The Cybergypsies", which provides some more details but it’s hazy as to the date. I think that 1987 is probably about right.
Jessica: I directly experienced my first case in March, 1989, in GS II on GEnie; a player sold his character for $2,000 US. At the time, it was an enormous sum. I found out later that character and item sales had been going on for about a year before that. Character and item sales were pretty common on GEnie (GS II and GS III, Dragon's Gate, Stellar Emperor) and CiS (British Legends) and AOL (Club Caribe, GS III, Dragon's Gate, NeverWinter Nights) from 1989 through about 1994. Richard could probably tell you if it was common in British Legends on CiS in the early-mid 1980s, but that was a version of MUD1 and also featured resets. I suspect planet sales were rampant in MegaWars III on CiS from 1983 to 1992; they certainly were in Stellar Emperor on GEnie from 1986-1994, and that was just MegaWars with the serial numbers filed off.

Terra Nova: What sort of scale are we talking about for RMT in the 80s?
Richard: It wasn't rife. Even twinking wasn't rife, because the wizzes would jump on anyone who they suspected of doing it. Because we had a much higher admin/player ratio than is possible in today's vast worlds, we could ensure that people didn't do anything that we felt sullied the game. It was important that the only people who got to wiz were those who deserved to be wizzes, and wizzes were therefore jealous of their status. If they saw someone cheating (and anything like this would have been regarded as cheating) then they were swift to react. Most virtual worlds of that era were the same; as far as I know, only Shades had what we'd now call RMT incidents, and although I'm sure a lot of it went on in secret, it would still be nowhere near the levels we see today in even the "cleanest" large-scale commercial worlds. Whether this is because it was harder for people to find a marketplace in the olde days I don't know; Shades had tens of thousands of players, so I don't think there was a critical mass issue.

Terra Nova: Did this strike you as strange at the time, that people would pay money to play the game for them? And did you take any steps to change the design of games to account for this?
Richard: We did consider that people would do it in MUD1, but laughed it off; what kind of idiot would buy something that would only last until the end of a reset? It would be like buying a sandcastle built below the tideline! We knew people could play one another's characters, and if they were up front about it we didn't mind all that much so long as they played roughly equally (or if one played substantially more than the other, that person alone got the wiz). We didn't program in anything to prevent people from getting/paying their friends to make wiz for them, though, we simply banned the practice and FODded anyone we found engaged in it. Customer service is SO much easier when you can do that!


Terra Nova: Were you surprised when eBaying took off in a big way, in games like Ultima and Everquest?
Richard: I was disappointed more than surprised. I knew it could happen, I'd hoped it wouldn't happen, and I'd hoped the developers would have put up a more spirited defence. It wasn't to be, though. They set the precedent, and now we're all having to live with it whether we want to or not.

Comments (6)

May it please the court

I served as an expert witness in the case of ESA v. Blagojevich, better known as the Illinois video game case, last fall. Many readers here have had experience with the legal system, IP, First Amendment issues. I had not, and found the whole process pretty eye-opening. From the legal n00b point of view it was hard not to notice the worlds of law and academe not so much colliding, but talking past one another. The goals and methods are radically different. (The lawyers here may commence giggling)

Still, explaining how MMOs work to a federal judge is partly entertaining and partly intimidating ("Yes, your honor, that is what a fed ex quest is."). If I ever needed proof that the fun and games we study here are serious, this was it.

Some examples:
In science--social science especially--we rarely "prove" much of anything. We find evidence that supports a hypothesis and thereby a theory, but we almost never claim that we have (ahem) the smoking gun. So it was especially odd to be on the witness stand and be asked about clear evidence. Did I think that the evidence to date proves that video games cause aggression and violence? No, I don't, but even being asked about "proof" made me realize that I was not in Kansas anymore.

Also, the social sciences aren't much of an adversarial system. Imagine the following exchange taking place at an academic conference: "Isn't it true, Dr. Smith, that you really didn't study X at all!? In fact, what you studied and can talk about is something completely unrelated!"

Of course, it would liven up conferences.

I should note that the various expert witnesses assembled--regardless of side--felt a sense of comraderie. The best-known proponent of the violence-from-games side is Craig Anderson, and I have to say that while I disagree with many of his conclusions, he was quite a nice fellow.

In any case, I thought it might be useful or interesting for anyone interested in the legal side of video game legislation to be able to see some of the materials from the case. I've dropped everything I got (depositions, court transcripts, complaints, the final opinion, etc.) here.

These are all part of the public record. Note for teachers: I used them as part of a mock trial in class last term and the students got a kick out of it.

Comments (13)

Law and Virtual Borders

I'm reading James Grimmelmann's wonderful essay on the interpenetration of real and virtual worlds (here's a link ) -- and you should too.

The paper builds on a distinction that I think is absolutely critical between the cyberanarchist (law should stay out of virtual worlds) and unexceptionalist (law is already a part of virtual worlds) legal positions.   The paper quite rightly rejects both of those, and moves forward with a middle road. 

James's compromise is this: Virtual worlds are intrinsically connected to -- and enrich -- the real world.  But, much of this enrichment derives from a different and evolving set of values.  Can we get both? Sure.  James points out that a "measure of independence" for virtual worlds gets us most of what we need, but that we must also recognize the legitimate interests of real-world communities in protecting their denizens.   James recognizes not only interconnectedness, but reciprocity: both virtual and real worlds have values and interests that must be respected.

To my mind, we can also look at it this way: the question is not whether law CAN penetrate virtual worlds.  The fact that real people are involved with virtual worlds alone means that law ALREADY governs virtual worlds.  If I send a credible death threat via World of Warcraft, the police will have every reason to knock on my door, just as if I'd said it in person, or said it via email or telephone.

But what the law CAN do, it often OUGHT NOT to do.  How do we make "good" law?  Often it's by asking the local constituency -- the people most affected by the set of laws -- to vote!  This is the entire precept of local self-governance, and of vertical federalism.  The fact that virtual worlds are as much an industry as a community shouldn't hamper this -- we let industries develop common standards all the time, and the custom and practice of the industry is routinely given legal weight.

So -- does law penetrate virtual worlds?  Manifestly.  Should it walk softly and defer to community standards in an attempt to respect self-governance? Absolutely. 

Comments (24)

I, RealmStalker, being of sound mind...

Ted and I had a conversation last month in WoW that has stuck with me. We are all familiar by now with the explosion of exchange in virtual worlds, whether of the moral (gifts, reciprocity) or market varieties. But what about inheritance? In these worlds, that appear able to persist beyond not only the duration of our interest in them but also, perhaps,  our mortality, will there come a time when we want to find the right home for the valuable, but also particularly meaningful objects we have? But the possibilties don't stop there. Consider bequeathing an avatar...

Rather than the power-leveled, commodified items, characters, and currency for sale, let us consider for a moment what bequeathing an avatar might mean. We may find that to do so helps us think through some of the thorniest issues about both avatars and the nature of things of value in synthetic worlds.

The apparent nature of the avatar as both a representative, or even form, of the self, on one hand, and as a separable object, on the other, has provided a particularly intriguing duality for researchers. In Synthetic Worlds (2005, p. 110), for example, Ted considers the extent to which an avatar may not only represent a user in a world (to others and to the user herself), it can also come to bear a history, with specific experiences, objects, and credentials attached, irrevocably, to it. Thus, there are attributes which accumulate within the avatar itself, as an artifact, that cannot be transferred out of it.

I thought about this further in connection with a broader project of mine to  understand the various forms of capital that are created in virtual worlds: market, social, and cultural (you can find the full essay here). In the course of that, a connection to the ethnographic literature sprang to mind. The avatar bears a striking similarity to formalized, inheritable ritual roles, such as are passed down in the Tsimshian potlatch of the Pacific Northwest. The Pacific Northwest potlatch is famous, of course, as an example of the destruction of material wealth by a lineage ("house") in order to achieve status. But the most recent work on the Tsimshian (Roth, 2002) emphasizes their potlatch not as an occasion for the spectacular destruction of excess wealth, but rather as an event about the inheritance of "names", the ritual offices held by houses, and specifically individuals within them, which contain an extensive set of obligations and powers. They are represented materially by robes, blankets, and headdresses, and they are passed down only under the proper conditions, involving extensive material outlay, and this effort is itself risk-filled, subject to all the contingencies of any large-scale and involved social drama.

These names have the same dual characteristics as avatars: at times they are objectified (such as in the objects above, or when listed as part of the lineage’s property), while at other times  they are directly and inextricably associated with the unique capacities and idiosyncracies of the persons holding them at any given time. As Roth writes (2002, p. 132-133), “The dual nature of names as objects of wealth and as personages…corresponds to the dual nature of a structure of names as both a store of wealth and a social structure of individuals.”

While avatars are currently strongly associated with individuals and therefore do not (yet) index a social structure within synthetic worlds in anything but an embryonic way (through their association with guilds, most obviously), the dual principle which Roth notes applies nonetheless: avatars have characteristics of objects or property and characteristics of personas. Certain avatars, as powerful figures in guilds and the like, have acquired similar obligations and relations. Might we yet see the day when these avatars are transferred, with great ceremony, to other users as a matter of course within virtual worlds, as their original owners pass them along due to death or other life changes?

The French anthropologist Maurice Godelier has called inheritance and exchange the "twin foundations of society," the two primary means through which culture is transmitted through space and time. If we take seriously the notion that synthetic worlds are persistent, and that the things of value made within them are not limited to commodities, then the first "willed" avatar transfer can't be far away.

Actually, given how things normally work around here, I would ask: has this perhaps already happened?

References

Castronova, Edward. (2005). Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Roth, Christopher F. (2002). Goods, Names, and Selves: Rethinking the Tsimshian Potlatch. American Ethnologist. 29(1), 123-150.

Comments (19)

The Numbers Game

There’s been an interesting backchannel discussion between several TN folks about the numbers of people in various online worlds. Or at least, the numbers publicly claimed and what they might mean.

Many of us track these census numbers almost like we track the stock market, especially for “traditional” MMOs. This has made SirBruce’s mmogchart.com very popular in a certain segment of the population (even though the data is currently out of date); it’s common to see graphs from his site appear in business plans and market analysis reports. 

There’s a general sense among many MMO/virtual world observers that the size of the market has been woefully underestimated -- almost all of us were surprised by how quickly World of Warcraft leapt to over a million subscribers for example, and I don’t believe anyone would have predicted a year ago that the game would have over five million subscribers by now. 

At the same time, there remains a sense of disbelief in some quarters (notably old-school game companies and many VC-types) that the market for MMOs/VWs is as big as its made out to be. 

So the question is, how many people really play these games, and what do the various numbers mean? 

In our discussion, Betsy Book highlighted the populations of several ‘social worlds’ to demonstrate their popularity, perhaps underestimated by the core gaming (“there are games besides WoW?”) crowd.  These included:

Almost any MMOG would be ecstatic to have populations like those cited by Habbo Hotel or Coke Studios. But are those realistic numbers? Do they really mean anything?

How many of HH’s 40M members are old defunct accounts (I know at least a few are old ones of mine). Similarly I doubt that CokeStudios really has 4M active users – they say those are “registered users” and that’s a very different thing. As Daniel James said recently here on TN, “Puzzle Pirates has had over 1.3M 'users' if you count registered accounts” but actually has “substantially less than that, however, at ~23k subscribers/equivalents.”

In response to the question about the difference between registered users and actual users, Betsy said, “I think registered number of users does measure at least casual interest, while concurrent users measures ongoing/active interest. … If even 5% of registered habbos are active users, that's 2 million. Not bad. The Habbo picture is further complicated by the fact that there are 16 versions, based in different countries.  At this very moment there are 12,518 kids in the UK hotel and 6,287 kids in the US Habbo Hotel.”

IMO, citing “registered users” goes back to the “getting eyeballs” theory of the dotcom bubble of the 1990s – the trick for a business is to somehow turn that casual interest or those eyeballs into revenue. As countless companies found out, that’s much easier said than done. For a free VW, registered users may measure casual or novelty interest; whether this can be turned into long-term somehow paying users is a much different question.

Along these lines, there’s no reason to think that HH has 5% active users over 0.05% (not to hang this on Betsy; her suggested 5% was an arbitrary number).  But using the concurrent population numbers Betsy cited for HH as a snapshot, between the US and UK there were about 20K online – at a 10-20% concurrency that makes for an overall active population of between 100-200K – or about 0.25-0.5% of the “total” population they claim. It’s more likely that HH has an active population of about 150K or so between the US and UK, so double it for the rest of the world and say it’s somewhere around 300K.  Not bad, but this is a drop in the bucket compared to the 40M claimed. 

In a similar vein we discussed Second Life’s 100K+ members, a figure which I and others have questioned here on TN.  Cory Ondrejka said that SL’s “concurrency numbers are rapidly approaching 4500, about 17,000 residents were in SL in the last 24 hours, and 50,000 in the last 30 days… If you go back even 90 days you get about 90% of the accounts having logged in.”

From the POV of a typical MMOG, these figures seem not to match up.  If you have 100K active members, you’d expect to see 15-20K or so online at any given time.  But SL reports far lower concurrent numbers than that – in the range of 4%, albeit supported by a long tail of unique logins over time. How far back you choose to go and call someone a “user” is difficult to assess; in a typical MMOG if someone logs in only once every 2-3 months that’s okay, so long as they’re paying their subscription.  In a world like SL however, they may not be paying anything – but this may be offset by those who are effectively paying much more than the typical MMOG subscription. 

Toward the end of our discussion, Jessica Mulligan sagely observed, “’registered users’ is an illusion.  A far more relevant figure for a commercial online game is ARPU/Month, or Average Revenue Per User/Month.” 

I think this nails it: between the US and Asia, people have tried to figure out how to compare subscription revenue with game-room revenue for traditional MMOs, and have more or less settled on concurrent users as a way to make apples-to-apples comparisons.  But as worlds like SL show, different usage models (different gameplay) create different concurrency patterns.  No doubt SL has many freeriders among their 100K, just as Neopets, Habbo Hotel, Runescape, and other free-to-play worlds do.  But the question is, what is the average revenue per user per month?  From a business POV this is the key metric, and also the sticking point.  And as Cory noted, this is something that no one will publicly talk about. 

Many of us believe that MMOGs are just beginning their real growth - that along with game worlds, there is a growing and broadening market for more social (non-men-in-tights) VWs. But I know from experience that this notion is a hard sell with investors. Apparent successes like SL help, but the shadow of WoW is long and the ghosts of TSO and There.com (both of which also touted big population figures – for a while), as well as non-monetized worlds like Coke Studios, haunt any such discussions.

How can we accurately assess a world’s population size?  This is important for both reasons of social research and commercial viability.  It is important that as MMOs continue to grow as a cultural phenomenon that we neither downplay their impact nor over-inflate their growth.

Comments (32)

Virtual World Philanthropy

Randal Moss of the American Cancer Society is actively interested in ideas about encouraging philanthropy within virtual worlds, and about using virtual worlds in the ACS's fundraising activities. Below the fold is the announcement about how the ACS is expanding its presence within Second Life. It's obviously a great organization and a great idea, so I recommend it to you.

Apart from providing the announcement the ACS is interested in feedback about how it might use VWs in its fundraising generally, and so it (and we) welcomes feedback in the usual way below. One idea that was mentioned is a kind of "estate bequest" for those leaving their favorite game and donating the RMT profits to the ACS.

God knows what the devs would say about that.

Other information can be found at Randy's blog and updates will be posted there in the coming weeks and months.

[Update 12:16pm: Forgot the URL. Go here for more info]

-----

The American Cancer Society, building off of its success with the first virtual Relay For Life in Second Life, is expanding its community presence in the virtual world in 2006. The Society has plans to purchase an Island and create a center for ACS related activities. The goal of the Virtual ACS Office is to provide the residents of SL with cancer related programs ad services including education sessions, peer support groups, advocacy activities and fund-raising opportunities. The goal is to engage the residents of SL in the same way that we would engage any community. Our proposed time-line is to have this Virtual Office constructed and running by the beginning of summer 2006 to coincide with our second annual Relay For Life.

The Relay planning committee is already working on ways to improve the event for the residents. In the 2006 Relay there will be opportunities for team fund-raising, and sponsorship fund-raising. We look forward to more people waking the track, more fantastic campsites, and more interactive activities. As the only virtual walk-a-thon we are actively looking for ways to draw on the benefits of holding this type of event in a virtual world. We are open to ideas and suggestions from Terra Nova readers and hope to post updates here throughout 2006.

Randal Moss
American Cancer Society
Futuring and Innovation Center
404-329-7573
[email protected]

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The Drop Kick

On Jan 1, Doug Flutie of the New England Patriots "produced a single point on a play that was deemed obsolete in the NFL (National Football League) at the outbreak of World War II."   The Boston Herald went on to note:

Flutie, 43, very likely played in his last regular season NFL game... was bemused by the fact that his final contribution to the NFL would be the reinvention of an extinct play.

Furthermore, quoting Flutie:

“That was fun and I was pretty fired up about just scoring an extra point. I was fired up that it went through, and to be part of that was fun. That’s what football is supposed to be.”

This is just where it starts.  Eve-Online, World of Warcraft and Kabuki theatre is where this strays...

The Wikipedia, (amazingly) updated so recently after the event, described Doug Flutie's drop kick as a non-strategic move and a farewell gesture.  It also noted that the drop-kick

...(is) often used as a surprise tactic. The ball would be snapped or lateraled to a back, who would perhaps fake a run or pass, but then would kick the field goal instead... This method of scoring worked well in the 1920s and 1930s, when the football was rounder at the ends (similar to a modern rugby ball)... In 1934, the ball was made more pointed at the ends. This made passing the ball easier, as was its intent, but made the drop kick obsolete, as the more pointed ball did not bounce up from the ground reliably.

Bill Littlefield in the week after the play described Doug Flutie' gesture as a reach to an era when American Football was a sport of amateurs.  This would be in contrast to our era when professional sports has turned play into work filled with specialists in teams min-maxing yields.

What of the MMOG experience?

To start, we may approach this via the wry question T.L. Taylor once posed, "but is it play":

All those instances where the fiction of the game collides with "real" lives. The buying and selling of virtual goods for offline money. The obligations, passions, even anxieties. Are all those players really players in any strict sense? Or are they doing something else?

And therein lies a well-established Terra Novan argument: when you overload the real world and real personalities onto the virtual (RMT, powerplaying), well, the roles are diminished and role-playing forgotten.  Sin ensues.

However, for the sake of discussion, I'll muse an *alternative* strawman. Namely, that if the blur between work and play is indeed upon us, perhaps it says less about the activity than the demeanor of the participant.  And that in turn speaks less directly to the superficialities of the space within which one participates than to the careful freedoms it affords.

By way of illustration, how can a place such as Eve-Online be construed as a playful place were it to be strictly judged by the color of one's actions?  It is a dark space of vast distances and abstract avatars in a kabuki punctuated by moments of pounding brutality and intricate economic subtext. Very little seems at first like P*L*A*Y.

Were I to claim here that the nuance of Eve-Online is more playful than an MMOG world such as World of Warcraft (WoW), would you believe me? To some this may sound an unscrupulous suggestion, WoW is after all the darling of the MMOG evangelists - it is casual, cartoon-like, and attracts millions. But my thought goes as follows.  WoW (and too it symbolizes so much in the genre) is a place that reeks of fun and playfulness on the surface, but once ensnared players are led into a deception that spells W*O*R*K.   Eve-Online on the other hand is Icelandic with Calvinist overtones - yet in its straightjacket there is opportunity to find one's own way towards a demeanor of play.  One represents a fall into an abyss, the other, a rise from one to redemption...

Bill Littlefield cited specialization as one of the factors undermining the amateur and playful demeanor of American Football.  Perhaps it is.  Perhaps too it is also the specialization of the roles in MMOGs that has undermined the sense of play in the MMOG.  One spends so much time mastering the Warrior that one dare not stray too far from the stricture of role lest they be branded as not knowing how to play a tank.  One dare not squander mana in friviolous spells as a priest lest they be branded as risking the party.  Et cetera.

Superficially, Eve-Online is a poster-child of role-specialization in the MMOG today given the millions of unattainable skill points that could be allocated.   But oddly, it doesn't feel that way.  The roles players adopt are not discrete, but instead blend continuously over occasion.  One day one may engage in trading, another in hauling, or "ratting" or guard duty, or just plain...  If the separation between roles is, say, 5% of some measure of ability, and that 5% is furthermore so easily fungible with the cost of business, it seems to strangely invite the kind of freedom an instance crawl in WoW rarely does:  does over-specialization choke play?

...

I'm not sure I believe all of my presentation above, yet, I feel like I might one day.  As Tim Burke implied, there can be no *uberness* without distinction, and an important distinction in many MMOG spaces is a convergence upon specialized knowledge reinforced by roles.   The players then take it from there, self-selecting groups to min-max their yields.

Would Doug Flutie dare drop-kick on a Raid today?

In a vague way, it seems like the missing MMOG hero may be due in part to the drive towards overspecialization.  After all,  if heroes were created then realized rather than to spontaneously emerge in a circumstance, would they still be heroes?  To be "out of the ordinary" requires perhaps an element of improvisation involving choice and a grace too.

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BBC News does MMOs

This evening the BBC ran a 10min+ segment about MMOs and SL on Newsnight, its flagship serious news program. A part of the show was even ‘broadcast’ from within SL. For anyone that knows anything about MMOs the report was un-amazing. From a data point and media coverage point of view it was staggering.

A summary can be read here and the report can be streamed from the page (warning – the video contains moving images of Philip Linden).

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The Taxman Cometh?

It's official: The IRS has its eyes on your virtual gold.

Well, sort of official, anyway. And maybe more like just the corner of one eye. But as Yours Truly reports in the latest issue of Legal Affairs magazine, IRS advisers specializing in the arcane field of barter income recently offered the opinion that any trade of one virtual item for another--gold pieces for thick leather, uber drops for plat--could very well constitute a taxable, income-generating exchange according to the IRS's rules on barter.

I repeat: Not dollars for dragon scales. Not sterling for staves. Every blessed, innocent, RP-consistent trade of one virtual good for another, so long as each good has a determinable fair-market value (and name one that doesn't these days).

For assurance that such a ruling would indeed be consistent with the
IRS's present and past practices, you can RTFA or just take my word
for it. In any case, there are sure to be plenty of voices raised in
blood-curdling objection to the very notion, and if you want to join
the chorus, feel free. But what I'm hoping for from this uniquely
well-informed crowd is a discussion that takes seriously the idea that
tax authorities the world over may one day track trades in virtual
gold as routinely as they track income in foreign currencies--and
seriously contemplates the consequences.

Would this be the death of the industry? The last nail in the coffin
of immersive game play? How hard, or how easy, would it be for
developers to monitor in-game trades and issue year-end 1099s to every
player? Dare we think the unthinkable? Dare we pretend it will never
happen?

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New Year's Scoring

It's that time again, to grade my predictions fom last year with the painful certainty of actual knowledge. Read on for the painful details:

1) A digital world property case will make it the courts in the United States.

It amazes me that this still hasn't happened (although I've met several folks who are trying to pursue them), but for 2005 it didn't happen.  Not a good start.

Score: 0-1

2) Legislation will be proposed that is intended to "stop" "piracy" and/or to "protect" children but that actually threatens online games.

I'll take the first bill of many that fits this definition, California SB 96, covered in great detail by Ed Felten.  Back to 0.500.

Score: 1-2

3) Guild War's experiment with a non-subscription model will be successful.

This is a tough one, since Guild War has sold over 1 million copies but Chapter 2 hasn't been released yet.  I'm going to take a partial on this one and stay at 0.500.

Score: 1.5 - 3

4) No US MMO will exceed 1,000,000 customers.

Oops.

Score: 1.5 - 4

5) A major online game will embrace a secondary market for digital items.

SOE cames through, pushing me back to 0.500.

Score: 2.5 - 5

6) A non-licensed, non-fantasy MMO will be successful [edit: and have over 100k users].

We only made it with a few days to spare, but SL topped 100k residents in December!

Score: 3.5 - 6

7) A non-game company will integrate a digital world into their CAD/CAM process.

Nope, at least not that I know of.  Back to 0.500.

Score: 3.5 - 7

8) A reality TV show based in a digital world will launch.

Again, not that I know of.  Drat, under 0.500.

Score: 3.5 - 8

9) 7 or more Terra Nova authors will be at the same conference at least once.

Thank you, Ludium 1!  Back to 0.500.

Score: 4.5 - 9

10) More of my predictions will come true than Uri's.

We'll have to wait until Uri does his grading, but until then I'm at 0.500.  If Uri did the same or better, I'll drop to 0.450, or about the same as last year.  Predictions for 2006 on the way soon.

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Little Timmy, Uber At Last

We haven't just been talking on the Terra Nova backchannel about the evil or lack thereof of the Horde, but also of our visceral personal reactions to the social psychology and symbolic content of gameplay in synthetic worlds. I've lately been revealed to my TN colleagues as, well, something of a powergamer in World of Warcraft (though, cough, fellow Terra Novan Joshua Fairfield has me beat all hollow). I've been reflecting about that development some, because it's never been my orientation in any previous game of this kind, even back into my pen-and-paper prehistory. There's no doubt that the relatively friendly levelling curve and design of World of Warcraft is what has allowed me to develop this posture in the game, of course. Old-school powergamers laugh at the idea that anything in WoW could be regarded as such. But I'm still thinking about what I've learned through this experience in terms of my larger analysis of synthetic worlds.

I levelled an Alliance rogue to 60 fairly quickly on a PvP server when World of Warcraft first came out. Somewhat as a consequence, I was invited to join a guild that grew into one of the two dominant Alliance guilds on the server, largely focused on raiding endgame instances. I was by no means the alpha rogue of the guild, but I did participate fairly heavily in its activities before travelling last summer. When I got back from my trip, I decided not to re-up, needing a break from the game, but also partly because the guild had grown even more since I was gone and felt more formal and less socially "sticky" as a consequence.

In every other persistent-world MMOG I've played (and I've played almost all of them, most fairly heavily), I've always belonged to odd eclectic little guilds, and largely ethnographically observed the dominant powergaming groups from the outside looking in. My underlying sympathies have always been with what I've called the "moral economy" constituency in synthetic worlds, those players who feel distant from a powergaming, utility-maximizing sensibility for various reasons, whether because they're role-players or simply because they resent the way that barriers of time and repetition are the primary means of making gameplay challenging or difficult.

My experience in World of Warcraft has given me a much richer emic understanding of how powergamers navigate a synthetic world, and the sources of pleasure and satisfaction they find in it. I noted at the end of my 2001 paper that even critics of the utility-maximizing or powergaming approach needed to work harder to appreciate the creative power and fervent energy that many players invest in that style of play, rather than simply dismissing it as "catassing".  That was an injunction rather than an accomplished engagement on my part at that point.

Concretely in my recent experience, I've found that while labor-time is still the major thing that separates "uber" players from the rest of a server population (WoW endgame raids are extremely time-consuming, and a raiding guild demands a great deal from its members), it's not just a matter of labor investment or attitudinal orientation. On my current second run to 60 as a Horde rogue, I'm levelling even faster by a good margin: both knowledge of the game systems and technical proficiency in playing a class make a big difference, and significantly compress the relationship between time investment and achivement. I'm able to see a much wider gulf between players who simply don't know how to play (and yet who may be quite high in their level) and those that do. The conventions of skilled gameplay matter much more to me than they have in any other MMOG. In part, that's from discovering the meaningfully exciting "high" that comes from a supremely well-played endgame raid. I worked through Molten Core with my earlier guild largely simultaneously with other dominant guilds in the game, and so we had to discover step by step how to work the strategies that have now become standard. There really is a pleasure to be had in that achievement, which I couldn't have imagined in other game experiences I've had.

More importantly, I got enough of a sense of the sociology of powergaming from the inside to unsettle some stereotypes I had developed about the players most attracted to that style. One thing I saw from the inside that other researchers had already noticed were the political skills needed to sustain a guild of this kind, something that Nick Yee's interview with a major WoW guild leader also pointed to. Of the three dominant guilds on my original server (two Allliance, one Horde), only one survived as a dictatorship (and it predictably fell apart eventually). The other two, including my own, were sustained by an inner cadre of dedicated players whose political and interpersonal skills I found to be fairly impressive. Also as Yee's informant indicated, the stable core of the guild largely consisted of mature adults, almost all but not exclusively men, many with families and most with stable jobs, not of the 20-year-old-living-in-parental-basement of legend and rumor. The kinds of players I had tended as an outsider to identify as representative "powergamers" did indeed belong to the guild as well, but they tended to be marginalized outsiders, teetering perpetually on the edge of being kicked out, and eventually they often were unless they played a class in high demand. (My server had an entire guild composed basically of the players rejected from the two dominant Alliance guilds.) Most of the stable core members played a good deal, but not nearly at the level of excess that I had loosely expected.

This is not to say that I now believe that MMOGs should be designed by and for the powergaming sensibility. In fact, I would say that not even the powergamers that I met believe that: most of them were also  dissatisfied with the limitations of existing synthetic worlds, most of them were looking for more meaningful and aesthetically rich experiences, most of them hankered for persistent worlds with consequences that went beyond levelling up and accumulating wealth. What they did, they did well, and enjoyed, but the stable backbone of my guild shared in many ways the assessment that World of Warcraft was a conventional, minimal risk design with very clear limits to the satisfactions it could deliver against the untapped possibilities of virtual worlds as a whole. In the end, my heart still belongs to the "moral economy" players and to those who constantly push designers for better, richer, more emergent gameworlds--but now I feel much more confident that many of those who approach MMOGs as powergamers feel the same.

This experience has also been important for me in more precisely locating the misanthropic side of MMOG gameplay. I think after playing Ultima Online, Everquest and Dark Age of Camelot, I was more inclined to think that there was a correlation between powergaming and visible misanthropy in gameworlds, the kind of behavior that Edward Castronova mentions near the end of the recent Terra Nova thread on the evil of the Horde.  Ted mentions a player  who came up to him and  positioned himself so that his dance emote appeared to simulate coitus with Ted's character's pet.

Any of us who've played MUDs and MMOGs actively have a long personal catalogue of bad behavior we've seen, various kinds of substantive and symbolic griefing. Any given night reading Barrens chat on your average World of Warcraft server is like an encyclopedia of all the dysfunctions a modern human being can display: racism, sexism, ignorance, flaming stupidity, you name it, and it'll appear eventually. Some of it is just people putting on a show and trying to get the goat of other players, some of it more depressingly appears to be absolutely sincere in its backwardness.

One of the feelings I've long had in various games and virtual worlds, all the way back to various text MUDs and MOOs, was a sociological queasiness. At various times, I've asked myself, "How did it come to this, that a major form of personal leisure and academic study for me concentrates on a type of social experience where I am constantly relating both to people with sensibilities and backgrounds very much like my own and to people who appear very much like the people who beat the crap out of me at school from 3rd grade right up to high school?"  There have been and still are many times where my nerve endings tingle during a gaming session and I think to myself, "If this guy and I were both in sixth grade together, he'd steal my lunch money and smack me into a cinderblock wall for good measure." I don't remember having that sensation with pen-and-paper games back in the late 1970s: that was all geeks all the way down.

Once upon a time, I would have said that gameworld misanthropy correlated with powergaming and with player-vs-player servers or models. Now I'd say that neither of those intuitions are true. That leaves me searching for a better sense of the roots or sources of misanthropic and griefing behaviors (as are we all), but it's useful to discard less informed suppositions. Useful not just because it focuses attention on other possibilities, but also because it's made me aware that behaviors I've sometimes perceived as omnipresent or dominant in many virtual worlds are in fact much more marginal and isolated than I might have previously believed, that much of the antisocial signal in many synthetic worlds may be coming from a very small set of sources.

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Daedalus Links

A new issue of The Daedalus Project is out. Some highlights:

- A much revamped and elaborated version of "Yi-Shan-Guan" on tellings and re-tellings of the gold farmer story.
- A New Disorder is Born: an opinion piece on "gaming addiction" and why only certain media forms get labeled as being addictive.
- More numbers on the "playing together" issue. This time looking at the reverse side. Of all the players who do have romantic partners, how many actually play with their romantic partner?
- A look at the previous gaming experiences of MMO players. How many already had extensive video gaming backgrounds before MMOs? How many were table-top D&D players?

All this and more at The Daedalus Project.

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Lindenomics and liability

In introducing Point to Point (P2P) movement in Second Life, Linden Lab fundamentally altered the economic structure of the virtual space. In response to protests Linden has offered to buy back land as a form of ‘compensation’. Taken together with the recent FBI reports is this the dawn of a liability culture within Second Life heralding a new form of virtual space?

First some background (anyone with SL experience can skip this bit).

Lindenomics of Location 101 

In changing from Point-to-Telehub to Point-to-Point movement Linden changed some of the fundamentals of the social and economic dynamics of Second Life. Or to put it another way, it is alleged that the change is costing some users of Second Life a significant amount of money in the immediate term through loss of revenue, and in the longer term through the loss in value of the land that they ‘own’. Prominent Second Life user Anshe Chung, for example, estimates her losses at $25,000 USD (yes you read that right).

Some Second Life users are not simply annoyed about this, they want compensation. What’s more, The Herald reports that at least one legal justification has been forwarded as basis for the claim.

According to The Herald, Second Life user and lawyer katykiwi Moonflower suggests that Linden were selling telehub sims at the same time as developing P2P code which constitutes misrepresentation under US contract law. Quoting katykiwi The Herald says:

In a move that has surprised many Linden have offered to buy back parcels of land – though this offer has a number of date and location restrictions, does not concede any legal liability and is at a price which many might not find acceptable. Here is an extract from the announcement:

I wonder what kind of potential liability this chink of greenback light (I note the world ‘compensate’ in the post, though one assumes this is for unhappiness and is a gratuitous offer) might open Linden up to.

Here I think it is useful to look at a broader liability culture that is starting to arise around Second Life. On the one hand, as reported by The Herald and covered here on TN, there are suggestions that Linden have turned the details of ‘griefers’ over to the FBI. Now these users were using basic building and scripting tools provided to them by Linden and used them, so reports say, wholly within Second Life – this raises questions of what Second Life is, who is legally responsible for what and who should be compensated if this goes wrong.

Jump cut to the end of the recent Herald article, Second Life user Aimee Weber is quoted as saying "The next time content creators suffer losses from Linden actions, I will lead a charge the likes of which SL has never seen before until our losses are repaid".

In order to understand the growing liability culture I think one also needs to understand a number of disputes that have been occurring between Linden and its user base and how these reflect on the nature of what Second Life is and Linden’s relationship to it. One thing that it is important to see is that Linden both operates a market and is an actor in that market. Irrespective of how Linden actually act, this is leaving them open to all kinds of accusation of malpractice, favoritism and market rigging - all of which I have personally heard from SL users.

One example of this is the virtual currency the Linden Dollar. Long time TN readers will remember the discussion that I had over Linden and 3rd Party currency exchanges with Cory and how the leading independent exchange GOM closed down and Linden’s own exchange started up (c.f. RIP: Gaming Open Market?).

The current state of play is that third party exchanges still exist. The current SL client now has a blue ‘L$’ symbol with the mouse-over text ‘buy currency’ which takes the user to Linden’s currency exchange. Given the discussion over P2P, can currency traders make similar claims on Linden. That is, that if they had an account and bought currency using that account, the purpose being to operate a currency exchange, at the same time as Linden were developing their own currency exchange, is there a similar ‘detrimental reliance’ at stake.

All this leads me to two conclusions:

I would like to spin these conclusions out into something grand. To suggest that there are lessons that we can draw across virtual spaces generally. But I'm not sure that this is the case. Other spaces just do not explicity invite people to literally set up shop within the world, to build businesses based upon its architecture and trade in their own intellectual property. But I'm not sure this makes SL any the less profound or its birth pains any the less interesting.

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Unlived life

I recently had a character powerleveled, for some research that I'm doing. This morning I logged on to that account for the first time to have a look at the results. I have to say that I came away disoriented, and vaguely disturbed.

As promised the character was leveled as high as possible, and had a chunk of money in his kit. But of course he had all manner of other things in his backpack, many of which I had never seen before, and had barely an inkling of what purpose they might serve. There were a series of quests still in his log that were unfinished, presumably because the character hit the level cap and was, appropriately abandoned. It felt like wandering about the deck of the Mary Celeste, wondering just what happened here. But most disconcerting was the friends' list, which included people whom I'd never met and who happened to be on right now! I toyed with the idea of chatting with them, but since they were evidently gold farmers, I thought that it would just scare them off.

I feel a little weird about using this account now. I know that it's "mine" in the sense that I'm paying the monthly fee. But it feels nothing like "mine" right now. It's roughly akin to a week I spent in a vague acquaintance's apartment in London when he wasn't there: I wandered around touching the things that I had formal possession/bailment of, and which I was entitled to use; but which nonetheless felt foreign and odd and imbued with the ineffable character of someone else. (I ate out a lot during that week). As I looked at the various objects that "my" character now possesses I was struck that each object comes with a history, and it's a history that I haven't lived. Someone else has lived the life of this toon, and it seemed wrong to be taking this on. Not "wrong" in the sense of morally wrong, just "wrong" as in a category error.

No doubt in time the account will feel more like mine (or more likely the research assistant who's account it will soon become). But I wonder whether other purchasers of power leveling services feel the same disconnection. If nothing else this experience has reinforced for me the sense that I don't want to have anything to do with power leveling on characters in whom/which I've invested any part of my self. And it points to an understanding of how I happen to identify with my toons (but your mileage may vary, of course)

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VWR 2005 Round-Up

I’ve spent the past few days going over traffic stats for Virtual Worlds Review  and thought I’d share 2005 world rankings for those interested in the social virtual worlds scene.  VWR’s Top 10 Social Virtual Worlds in 2005 were…

[[[[ drumroll ]]]

1. Habbo Hotel
2. Playdo 
3. Coke Studios 
4. Dreamville   
5. Dubit  
6. VZones 
7. Virtual Magic Kingdom 
8. Mokitown   
9. Active Worlds   
10. Voodoo Chat   

Rankings were determined by assessing which review and gallery pages received the highest monthly average pageviews over the course of the year.  Because VWR traffic is primarily driven through search engine results, world pageview totals are affected by review page placements in search engine rankings.  Not surprisingly, a Google search for all of the Top 10 world names returns a first-page result for its corresponding VWR review page.  A world with a more generic name (e.g. The Palace, The Manor, There, Traveler) may be receiving less VWR traffic simply because a name search does not return a high VWR listing.  Yet there are others that do return first-page search results and are still always at the bottom of the list, so I think it’s safe to say that the VWR Top 10 list indicates a persistent general interest in these ten worlds.

One thing that immediately struck me about the list is that it’s an interesting mix of old and new worlds, with decade-old VZones and Active Worlds holding their own against newer, shinier worlds.  The newest (and by far the shiniest) world on the list is Virtual Magic Kingdom.  The VMK review page was consistently popular in 2005, debuting at #7 in June and coming in at #7 for the year.

Habbo Hotel dominated VWR in 2005.  In fact, I would have to say HH generally dominated the social virtual world market, with a mind-boggling *40 million* members.   HH pages on VWR regularly received twice the amount of traffic that other worlds received on VWR in 2005.  I believe other sites may actually be benefiting from HH’s popularity, as search keyword phrases such as 'sites like habbo' are showing up in the referral lists lately.

While there’s no way to verify the ages of site visitors, I’ve long suspected that kids and teens pwn VWR.  Most of the Top 10 worlds target the youth market either directly or indirectly (for example, Active Worlds is all-ages but has a popular AW Teen area and the AWEDU program for educational projects).  2005 VWR traffic is significantly higher during school vacation months.  Plus, I regularly get emails from names like 'brittany420' and 'cooldude69' that say things like, 'omg ur site totally rox can u give me free furni?'  Case closed.

Speaking of free, 9 of the Top 10 worlds offer free basic access to registrants.  Free access = high traffic. What a shocker!

More interestingly, 5 of the Top 10 worlds actively incorporate in-world advertising.  In fact, Coke Studios, Virtual Magic Kingdom and Mokitown exist solely to promote their sponsors.  Habbo Hotel and Dubit regularly create themed rooms and special promotions for advertising partners. 

VWR site sessions were typically between 2 and 4 minutes long in 2005.  I’m actually happy about this, as I don’t want visitors hanging around too long.  The main goal of the site is to provide newbies with basic information and then get them exploring the virtual worlds themselves.  Get 'em in, get 'em out, get 'em avatars.

Overall, VWR traffic increased 22% in 2005, with August being the busiest month of the year.  It’s the teens, I tell you. They’re taking over.

My hope for 2006 is that VWR will continue to help those interested in visiting social virtual worlds find new worlds, new experiences and new communities.  In 2006 I’d like to see more 3D worlds on the Top 10 list.  I’d like to see social worlds become more innovative, with new and interesting features that distinguish them individually while challenging competitors and creating new industry standards.  I’d like to see more academic analysis of social virtual worlds.  I’d like to see them being taken more seriously in general.  While some may write many of these worlds off as 'kid-stuff' 40 million habbos can’t be ignored.  If nothing else, I think the popularity of avatar-based online social experiences will continue to grow in 2006.  And yes, kids and teens will be leading the way. 

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Welcome to oh oh ooooh6

Sex sells – but will it sell enough to support five MMOEG / MMOVSGs that are scheduled to be released 06?

[note: this is an adult themed thread and many of the links will take you to content that is ‘not safe for work’]

For those with better things to do than keep up with MMO acronym variants: the terms MMOEG (MMO Erotic Games) and MMOVSG (MMO Virtual Sex Games) are used pretty much interchangeably for a genre of multi-player online game that gives primacy to some aspect of sex or sexuality (actually there are many more variation on the acronym theme and the inevitable augments over which one is best).

This year’s potential (I say potential as it’s never a good idea to count your MMOs before they are hatched) new entrants are:

Commercially the question that I think hangs over these games (like a dildo of Damocles one might say) is: What’s the point?

Well, sex. Obviously. But the problem that these MMOs face is that if cyber-sex interests you there is no shortage of ways to explore it. From email and IM to creative use of text and emotes in vanilla MMOs – cyber sex is almost always an option. What’s more MMOs avatars are getting ‘sexier’ all the time (if you are interested in what can be done with current avatars keep your eyes out for wowadult which is specialising in WoW based machinima porn). This tension is explored in lenght on MMORGY by Isabelle Pavlov in her piece Better Sex Thru MMOG or MMOVSG?   

Moreover, if what comes out of the box in an MMO does not fit your desires you can always grab yourself a Second Life account (props to Linden for joining the 100k group btw) and create whatever body, animation, location and devices you want. Also there's probably a significant group of like minded people to interact with.

While the question of whether any of these ventures will survive does come down to the basic question of this business, such as: Is it any good, what is the minimum size of community needed to make the experience work AND sustain the business model? The answers are not that simple to determine. This is because there are a number of roles / market niches that MMOEGs might address. which is illustrated by looking at the range of approaches the current crop of hopefuls have taken.

Naughty America, for instance, is basically an online dating service. As their press blurb says “This is the evolution of online dating…the chance to meet real people in the real world”. The structure of Naught America seems geared up to facilitate ‘real’ encounters as well as virtual ones - the blurb also mentions WebCam. Though with a press release that states “A massively multiplayer online world that allows players to do what they've always wanted to: be naughty.” the marketing department are being either heavily disingenuous, naive or targeting a market that knows just about nothing about online gaming - which is interesting in respect of MMOs and the mainstream. 

At the other end of the spectrum we have Sociolotron which encourages role play and actively discourages real-world contact based on that play. The guidelines make this clear, stating “You must not use the system to plan or start a real life relationship”. While it’s debatable whether Socioloron is a good game it’s certainly trying to be an MMORPG just with a lot of adult option. On the game side there is perma-death and the developer(s) provide the mechanics for a system of player self-governance.

An MMOEG that looks like it will sit in the middle is Blacklove’s Rapture Online. Rapture is attempting to facilitate online eroticism and Blacklove seem to be trying to create a genuinely quality product, but I fear Rapture might fall between the cracks being too convoluted for match making service and not broadly gamey enough for MMOers.

I wonder thought if any of this will have an impact on mainstream MMOs.  Sex and virtual environments is not new and few publishers seem like they want to add adult themes to their MMO (here I’m really thinking of graphical environments as I think there is more choice if one is talking about text spaces) and so cut out a sizable demographic. But focusing on killin ‘n skillin seems to me to be excluding a lot of possibilities and nuances that could really enrich an MMO, so maybe adult shards with some those options added in might be a way to go. Of the games out there I would encourage people to look at the mechanics of Socilotron for inspiration for ways that sex and its consequences can be integrated into game play.

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