Joystiq reports on a recent talk by Thomas Bidaux of NCsoft Europe at the Develop UK event where apparently it was revealed that 'everything we think know about MMOs is wrong'. Mr. Bidaux has a number of opinions about how MMOs are going to be revolutionized, turned on their heads even, via platform innovations (though anyone who played Everquest on the PS2 might be a bit skeptical that this is a positive move), Xbox Live style persistence in terms of player rankings and achievements, novel payment models, and yes, 'a lifestyle revolution' enabled by our experiments with Web 2.0, 'collective intelligence (e.g. Wikipedia) and viral content (e.g. MySpace)' that 'provide opportunites for community and collaborative efforts'.
The 'lifestyle revolution' is the one that intrigues me the most because I think it hints at something quite interesting, without having any tangible referents whatsoever. But maybe what he means is that the whole basis for the MMO might change, based on our collective experiences with social software, collaboration and the like.
During my research trip to Asia last year, one trend emerged in Japan that struck me as quite striking: the rather pervasive idea in the game development community of the MMO as a small subset of a larger community experience, rather than the game as the hub around which community grows. Although I hadn't given it a great deal of thought till then, it struck me as very intuitive that a social network should be paramount, and that the way MMOs have developed elsewhere is actually quite counter-intuitive, encouraging the growth of communities with quite ephemeral characteristics, the pick-up group being symptomatic of a need that is otherwise unfulfilled because of a lack of community-centrality outside of guild constructs. One Japanese company, GaiaX , is creating a community platform that is basically MySpace on steroids, where users also have the option of inviting their friends into a variety of play activities, including MMOs. Their management have developed this strategy from the ethos that connecting people, especially in Japanese culture (where connection is a really big problem), is of core importance; the activity that unites people is secondary, but it's the primacy of the social network that must be fostered.
Ever since I visited them and gave some thought to this approach, I've thought it strange that we give so little credence to the importance of the social network, whether it's been made explicit or not. I have lost contact with countless in-game friends who jumped to another game and had no way to leave forwarding info. And how many communities were lost when worlds like AC2 ended? And what about the frustration when an in-game friend gets lost in the black box of another game that one hasn't subscribed to?
Author Steven Johnson, a guy who likes games but doesn't research games per se, has even complained about the separation between the various virtual worlds. I heard a talk recently in which he suggested that we need, at the very least, an open communications standard between worlds, much in the same way that Compuserve, Prodigy and AOL once walled off their subscriber base only to be forced to open the gardens once open standards for e-mail like SMTP emerged. City of Heroes/City of Villains, for instance, implemented a global chat function, allowing communication across characters and across shards, in an update last year. This was rendered particularly necessary in that environment given the average CoX player's propensity for dozens of toons (really quite seductive given the range of customization options that the developers apparently delight in enhancing). Global chat in this case allows players to communicate one-to-one across servers and toons, or to join up to five global chat channels that allow for cross-server coordination. So is this a trend? Will we see developers opening up further and creating communication protocols that allow for cross-shard and cross-world communication? Will SOE add that capability to their multi-game packages, then create Xbox Live type tools that allow one to manage friends globally? (Wait! Do they already?)
If I might speak for him (and hope that he speaks up here), Jerry Paffendorf is also passionate about this topic. He made the excellent point in an earlier TN discussion about trends that the walling of virtual worlds will be increasingly unsatisfying, that a big part of the future will be "the ability to communicate externally to the MMOG or digital world you're in (IM, email, pics, social software, etc.)", also pointing out that Second Life users can already send e-mail or Snapzilla pics to the outside (ideas akin to, but well beyond /pizza) and that the Matrix Online allowed (allows? has the Matrix imploded yet?) integration with AIM. And obviously, external tools like IM, Teamspeak, Ventrilo, Skype, etc. create community hubs that cross those boundaries, though I find it striking that players use those tools to circumvent a lack of in-game options that could otherwise allow them to create the sort of community dynamics they want. The problem, as I see it, is that few MMOs are designed for sociability first, and for gameplay second. This is not to say that this approach, in terms of design, is even feasible, but I have found it striking how few developers can answer the question of how they think about sociability, or even recognize that this in an issue (Rich Vogel, who worked on SWG, was one of the few I've talked to who could). Community features are often tacked on, as if in afterthought, when in an MMO environment, they should really be central.
And this is where I have to plug ethnographic research methods. How will we ever know how to design for sociability if we haven't spent time really understanding how the communities that do exist emerge, how do they self-manage, how do people self-organize? (but this is probably another post, as this one is already getting much too long).
But let's say we do figure all that out. What does the Metaverse look like in terms of technology architecture? Is it, one big crazy behemoth, or like the Internet, are there actually a bunch of small metaverses that are not consistently navigated by the same people (as in the English-language Internet vs. the Chinese-language version), but the basic architecture and open standard protocols allow for interoperability and communication to whatever degree desired? And how will that be accomplished? Will it take a total MMO platform? And if so, are we then talking about skinnable worlds all based on the same architecture? Perhaps the back-end of the Metaverse is the virtual world equivalent of Amazon's business services, spinning fully-branded user experiences off of one tightly-integrated, hugely interoperable back-end? Heck, even Microsoft and Yahoo have recently merged their IM clients. Are we on the cusp of becoming one big interoperable digital family?
Here's why I care about this. I am so, so tired of rebuilding my social network in every new service, social software site, IM client, and game that comes along. When is someone going to give me some persistence, allowing me to filter for levels of friendship/professional relationships, but maintaining one common repository of social network data from whence all these activities can emerge? Of course, to play devil's advocate, leading with community can mean creating a sort of social echo chamber. But there must be ways to introduce serendipity into the system.
But all you people know way more than me... I just like to ask the questions. Can the MMO be turned inside out, even if only in a few limited ways?