Did We Ignore the Rise of the Personal World?

In a week when Sony has announced yet more delays (another in a longer series of gaffes that has spawned endless humiliation) in the development of their much hyped virtual space, Home, and when even the roar from WoW’s success seems to be fading into an echo, a reminder about the incredible success of a little game that could...  Like All in the Family or this year's indie darling Once (or the Aeron chair, for that matter), it almost never got made 'cause people making decisions about such things didn't believe Will Wright (who doesn't believe Will Wright?!) when he said it would be the best thing ever. Cause after all, who the heck would want to play in a virtual dollhouse?   

The Sims franchise has now sold 100 million copies (in 22 languages and 60 countries) since 2000. From a recent NYTimes article sent to us by Tripp Robbins (who also notes how strange it is that videogame articles appear in the television category):  

All told, the franchise has generated about $4 billion in sales or an average of $500 million every year for the last eight years, placing the Sims in the rarefied financial company of other giants of popular culture like “American Idol,” “Star Wars” and “Harry Potter.” 

I’m in love with Will Wright, I am going to confess (though there’s no chance for me as his fiancée is way more beautiful than even my best avatars). I saw him speak at the Game Developer’s conference a couple of years ago: not about games, nor game design very specifically, but rather an exploration of his intensely nerdy passions for astrophysics and exo-biology and how they relate to game design (Spore, of course). He’s a game designer that gets underneath the covers, really thinking about what makes the game experience unique from other media experiences, and how he can design games that provoke and inspire. Pride, accomplishment and guilt, for instance, are emotions that videogames have the power to evoke in spades (I had to stop playing Age of Empires because I felt guilty for burning the little digital peasants out of their houses), but that are rarely present in other media (except perhaps if you’re watching An Inconvenient Truth, I suppose). As a relatively new medium still struggling to find ‘its language’, reminders like this are important… in the game designer’s rant at GDC this year, for instance, several of the talks explored the idea that there is still so much more to be done with videogames in terms of engendering emotions that are positive (as Clint Hocking said, why isn’t Medal of Honor about honor, or Call of Duty about duty?), and fostering experiences that are a step beyond the videogame equivalent of B-movies and T-and-A fests.

Now as much as I like to talk about videogames being more meaningful,  I know that Terra Nova is a blog about virtual worlds. And I believe in the social power of virtual worlds.  I have often pronounced to audiences that gaming has traditionally been a social activity, and once computer networks evolved sufficiently people gravitated towards playing with one another in a variety of time-tested ways (do you know people who still play Solitaire once they have an Internet connection?). I have even ventured to say that once people have the experience of gaming socially, they are less inclined to go back (I backed this up with the assertion that people even play single player games socially, as I did with all my single player games back in the day). 

But maybe I’m wrong. What is it about the experience of the single-player Sims game that surpasses all else?  Is it just the allure to demographics outside the core gaming audience?  Or some sort of mysterious je ne sais quois that is unlikely to ever be replicated? This quote from the Times article got me thinking...

“What we’ve discovered is that the Sims is a very private experience for a lot of people,” Rod Humble, head of the Sims studio, said in a telephone interview last week. “It’s private because it’s set in real life. Rather than on a console in the living room where everyone can see, you generally play on a handheld or on a PC in the study, where no one can look over your shoulder. You get to tap into this wonderful childhood imaginary game, which is ‘What if I could create my own little world and all the people in it and watch them go through their business and jump in and change things when I want?’ That is a pretty personal fantasy.” 

Okay, but won't people want to share their personal fantasies?  I mean people do already.  So why then did the Sims Online fail so miserably? Our own Mia Consalvo has a theory or two, all neatly documented in her chapter From Dollhouse to Metaverse: What Happened When The Sims Went Online (in the Player's Realm anthology).  She notes that she enjoyed the Sims much more than the Sims Online, for instance, because she tends to be a more solitary player.  But why?  One reason is that solitary play allows one to construct a magic circle (for lack of a better metaphor) that doesn't have to look like a Venn diagram where players are constantly constructing, reinforcing and arguing about the boundaries between those two play circles.   It is precisely the necessary overlp of the circles that creates so much conflict in MMO environments (more on this here and here).  A truly satisfying game experience allows one to construct whatever type of circle they want, unfettered by gameplay or other social norms that might otherwise influence their freedom of expression:

Given an artificial situation, players can experiment, allowing them to see ‘what happens’ when a Sim nags another Sim for too long. There are no real consequences involved. Yet when the other Sim is a real person, even if it’s a person I do not know, my feelings change. I can nag a computer easily—another person is more difficult. And likewise, even if I really wanted to have my Sim slap that other Sim (or just peck her on the cheek), the other Sim now has the opportunity to refuse. Not that the computer AI couldn’t, but it was different somehow. These changes in my expectations for what is acceptable behavior are perhaps my own, not shared by others. ...It is possible that because TSO is so similar to ‘real life’ that I have transferred my behavioral norms—just as I wouldn’t expect to be able to slap a stranger on the street IRL, neither can I do so in TSO. That norm is not so pronounced in other types of online games, where situations are more fantastical, and different behavioral norms already more established. But the underlying point seems to be that players either bring with, or invent, expectations for interactions, when other people are involved. And these norms have consequences for how they behave. Whether that is a good or bad thing I can’t say. But it does suggest that the ‘look and feel’ of a virtual world can inspire in players certain behavioral norms, and as we see the rise of more non-sci-fi and fantastical MMOGs, behavioral norms will likely change, as both the environment and player base change as well (Consalvo, 2007, p.  22).

(So this, of course, makes me think about solipsism (those of you who know me know that I have a pet theory about us all living in a big virtual world, and we have also discussed it elsewhere here)… is this world I live in a personal universe? Do any of the rest of you lovely people exist? Oh, dear, I hate it when my brain meanders into existential territory that leaves me depressed. So unfair. And anyway, I don’t care if all of you really exist or not ‘cause I love you anyway…)

The point is that game experiences can and should be about the stories that people create themselves, not about the stories that others choose to tell them.  And what's lovely about this is that there is a huge body of literature amassed in recent years that addresses the possibilities of storytelling and personal narrative for transformational purposes.  What it makes really clear to me is why people can find sort of basic and boring emergent environments endlessly fascinating, while many of us are left scratching our heads: what the heck is the appeal of grinding through several tens of thousands of creatures that need killing. Well, of course we know that no one would play WoW if there were no other people involved... but that has more to do with the state of evolution of single player games (the status quo plus people is better than just the status quo), and the fact that videogame narratives can now be constructed on the fly by all sorts of people at the same time.  But what about the next evolution?  Can it trump the MMO?

Soon (!) I will have the option of designing my own personal Sim universe, designed with lots and lots of love by my favorite Will Wright. What could be better than that?  And looks like they might have learned their lesson:

Spore is unique in that while it has multiplayer elements involved there will be no direct live contact with other players. Players' created content gets saved to a master server and will be downloaded by the client-software of other players. In this way, a player will interact with the content created by another player in a non-intrusive manner.

I can show them my sandbox, but they can't mess it up.  Is that the best of all worlds? My universe is unpwnable.

Comments on Did We Ignore the Rise of the Personal World?:

Andy Havens says:

"Well, of course we know that no one would play WoW if there were no other people involved... "

Uh... Diablo?

I think the difference in joy, for many people, between The Sims and VWs/MMOs is that your goals in a game like The Sims are, in many cases, self generated. What is a "successful dollhouse?" Sure, there's stuff in The Sims that announced, "I did a good job." But any other players' ideas of what a "good" game of The Sims might look like will interfere (or at least contrast) with what *you* were trying to do with the game. It's the difference between art and sport.

The reason Sims Online failed, I think, is because it basically glommed together all these individual, self-guided game spaces and tried to bind them together with some social stuff. In a space like SL, the "social stuff" is the whole reason for being there, in many cases. But in The Sims, it was, essentially, extra.

I've wondered, though, if you could have an MMO sim game where the goals were creative at a group/guild level. Your class might determine what kinds of things you can contribute to various projects. Artisans can create textures. Engineers create scripts. Dancers create animations. Architects do floor plans. Politicians debate over boundaries. In that case, success will be a group issue -- both in the definition and the occurrence. Maybe then, "simming" in an MMO will be more successful.

Posted Apr 25, 2008 5:54:32 PM | link

Lisa Galarneau says:

Diablo is an interesting one, 'cause I played lots of solo Diablo before I ever played it cooperatively, but then found I couldn't go back... Do you really think people would play single-player WoW? I just don't think the gameplay holds up. In 1995, maybe. But not now.

Good point, though, about sociability being something that should be designed for from conception. And yes, your model encourages a unique economy where people can not only offer a variety of products and services, but can contribute to the building blocks of the whole game. Funny that it harkens back to the original medieval notion of a guild much more so than what we refer to as guilds -- much more about creating collaboratively and building a discipline that allows everyone to advance their skills collectively.

I'm still thinking about your suggestion that it's fundamentally art vs. sport. Occam's razor? So nice (and humbling) when the world can be deconstructed so neatly.

Posted Apr 25, 2008 6:31:02 PM | link

Nate Randall says:

Just a quick note on TSO. It is back, under the banner of EA-Land and now contains user generated content, real cash economy, etc... Seems like the project is very beta but may be worth a look.

On another note, my wife has taken on a rather heavy solitaire habbit lately playing a few hours a night. Odd for a Virtual World Journalist!!

Or is it? Casual gaming is something sorely missing from the seriousness surrounding VWs.

Just some thoughts. I enjoyed your post!

Posted Apr 25, 2008 8:30:58 PM | link

catherwood says:

Once again I'm asking myself why Myst Online: Uru Live failed. The notion above that "solitary play allows one to construct a magic circle..." is the essence of MOUL versus offline Uru: Ages Beyond Myst. I was never into The Sims, but I can imagine that the transition to Sims Online was similarly awkward as it was for Myst players. Maybe players "raised" on solitary play just cannot be weaned over to group play, and that it makes no sense to chase the wrong audience. MO:UL sat in a no-man's land between great solo exploration and group adventure, never really appealing to either end of the spectrum.

Posted Apr 25, 2008 10:31:50 PM | link

CherryBomb says:

Nate, if TSO was a design failure, EALand is a design catastrophe.(Especially as to the real cash economy) I am watching it unfold in morbid fascination.

Posted Apr 25, 2008 10:52:17 PM | link

Andy Havens says:

Lisa: I don't mean to belabor the point, but a couple million people (me included) played "Elder Scrolls: Oblivion," which has almost no social bits. It's a single player RPG that worked very, very well. I probably had more fun playing it than I did in WoW, even though I spent more time in WoW.

Posted Apr 26, 2008 1:04:56 AM | link

Lisa Galarneau says:

@Andy: You're not belaboring... I think I'm not being clear. What I am saying is that WoW, as an RPG, isn't strong enough that people would play it alone. Obviously there are lots of examples of RPGs that are. Now, if WoW made it possible to recruit NPC team-mates (as GuildWars does), that might be a different story (I played a lot of GuildWars alone once I discovered that it's easier to recruit henchmen than to try and cobble a pick-up group together, and almost as much fun). But a single-player, solo-ing WoW? I'm not so sure. Even those who like to spend lots of time in solo play are 'playing alone together' for a variety of reasons.

It's almost not fair of you to bring up Oblivion, as it's obviously such a kick-ass game. :-)

Posted Apr 26, 2008 12:38:13 PM | link

Tripp says:

(That would be Tripp Robbins, not Roberts, who sent the article link, btw, Lisa...But I'm glad you found it interesting)

I'd argue that there are two types of experience being discussed: the solo play and the social play. Those are the two poles and much land exists in between the poles. I suspect people choose different ones based on mood and temperament. (I do, anyway.)

But you're also talking about an interesting tangent: creating the story vs. watching it. I think it'd be a mistake to say that people don't enjoy watching or listening to or reading stories that others have made. Sometimes, that's what people want (and will, I venture, continue to want for a long time). But it's very cool now to be able to participate in the story/stories as well.

Since we've crossed into the territory where game designers can make games where emergent game play is aimed for, not just incidental, the "I get to MAKE new stories" factor is probably going to become more popular. But will this really be the death of the more passive story experience games? I doubt it. It's too deep in our genes. Recent neuroscience confirms that the emotional involvement that stories provide is really important to human (individual) development. That receptive story experience has been with us for eons and has become, it seems, hard-wired into us. I'm just guessing, but I think that might be different in some deep ways from an active story experience. (But I really don't know enough of the neuroscience to speculate.)

Posted Apr 27, 2008 12:14:03 PM | link

Lisa Galarneau says:

Hey, Tripp, sorry about the name (now fixed!)

But yes, I think this is a classic case of seeking to create dichotomies where there are actually a million shades of gray. What I do think is important to note is that neither slapping on sociability nor slapping on story is going to do it. Neither should be integral, but likewise both should be. I suspect the future of narrative will be about designing complex scenarios in which the participant can either let the story wash over him or her, or shape it, depending on one's mood. The thing I react badly to is when the designer's narrative and the players' emergent experiences diverge in a dissonant way. I guess in this regard the role-players are a step along this potential trajectory as they continuously try to marry the two.

Anyway, I have ventured into territory I know little about! I just want to play Spore! :-)

Posted Apr 27, 2008 4:24:05 PM | link

Moriz Gupte says:

"What I do think is important to note is that neither slapping on sociability nor slapping on story is going to do it."
I concur and I think in other domain e.g. simulations for traditional educational purposes, there are 'open simulations' where participants have an overall goal but have the ability to act and plan individually to address the goal...or 'tightly scripted' where interaction with the scenario involves a series of choices to be made from a limited set of possibilities aking to multiple choice questions defining allowing progress. A recent evaluation in Second Life point to those differences
evaluation talk.

Posted Apr 28, 2008 12:04:30 AM | link

Moriz Gupte says:

sorry the above link provided does not work, hope this one does
link to evaluation talk.

Posted Apr 28, 2008 12:07:25 AM | link

CherryBomb says:

btw, Sims Online (or EA-Land) has just been cancelled.http://www.ea-land.com/blog/

Posted Apr 29, 2008 1:28:39 PM | link

Raph says:

In terms of this trend, see worlds like MyMiniLife, which are multiplayer (barely), very Sims-like, and have gained huge amounts of users.

Posted Apr 29, 2008 4:23:44 PM | link

greglas says:

You know, I have absolutely nothing to add, except to say: this is a great post, Lisa! You rock!

Posted Apr 30, 2008 5:07:25 PM | link

areyes says:

still there. adventures. exploring then eventually We need places a bit of sweet, a pair in many are all black

Posted May 27, 2008 2:09:50 AM | link

boywatchlett says:

and we often I go back http://www.johnlydon.com A huge the boys just their http://www.johnedwards.org on me. where I spent rewarding beechnuts http://1.pttf.com And grapes, on me. accomplish http://www.law.northwestern.edu

Posted May 27, 2008 2:10:40 AM | link

Dreamworld says:

Sony's Home didn't turn into the success they hoped for with their online 3D world, on the other hand Google also gave it a try with Lively and many other large companies are reasearching the market to find the next big thing for virtual enviroments, everybody is searching to where virtual reality will go.

Posted Oct 1, 2008 10:42:06 PM | link