In collaboration with the German Socio-Economic Panel (GSOEP) in the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), the SWI at Indiana University has developed a tool for collecting survey data within Second Life. The usual protocol with such surveys is to attract respondents in-world and then send them to a web page to complete the survey. This is a poor protocol because it causes attrition and breaks immersion. It is usually necessary, however, because objects in SL usually cannot serve questions quickly and clearly enough. The Virtual Data Collection Interface (VDCI) is an SL object that optimizes question delivery and data retention so that the respondent experience is very close to the typical experience with web surveys. It allows respondents to quickly complete surveys while remaining in-world. We think it is the only tool in SL with this feature, but maybe one is out there and we just haven't heard of it.
The VDCI draws on existing formal survey protocols developed by scholarly survey-creation experts. It extends these protocols into the virtual realm, creating a new protocol that can be termed Virtual Assisted Self-Interviewing (VASI). VASI represents an early step into the future of rigorous in-world data collection from users of virtual worlds.
This working paper describes both the protocol and the tool. Questions or comments? The corresponding author on this project is Mark W. Bell (typewritermark 8t gmail d0t com).
Do virtual worlds ever fail?
This seems a simple question if you answer it in purely commercial terms. As products, some virtual worlds fail completely, never even making it to the marketplace. (I was astonished to see that the developers of Atriarch still claim that the game is forthcoming, but there are at least a few designs and products that have been announced by developers or publishers and then definitively cancelled.)
Other commercial virtual worlds have failed commercially after publication, but here the standard gets a bit murkier. Simply being closed down isn’t a failure by definition, nor is having a very small customer base. If at some point in the future, the lights at Ultima Online get turned off, the game will have been a major commercial success. A Tale in the Desert has never had a huge subscriber base, but I don’t believe that either its designers nor its players have expected it to succeed on that scale. On the other hand, I think classing Earth and Beyond, Auto Assault and Asheron’s Call 2 as commercial failures is not a controversial gesture. Whatever their designers expected of them in commercial terms, they have to have fallen short and were closed relatively quickly.
This assertion opens up a more difficult and ultimately unanswerable set of questions, however, about the commercial expectations surrounding virtual worlds which have had a much longer life. Many of us assume that Star Wars: Galaxies has been a commercial disappointment for Sony Online Entertainment, and the developers said as much when defending their decision to completely alter the fundamentals of its design. Given that World of Warcraft has established that the potential subscriber base for virtual worlds in North America and Western Europe is potentially much larger than was commonly assumed at the time of the “first-generation” games like Ultima Online and Everquest, many publishers now may expect far more of any virtual world product than it is likely to deliver.
Falling short of expectations is not necessarily failure, however. Thinking about this question in financial terms is too limited. If it was a simple question of profit, measured on balance sheets, perhaps more publishers might be more directly forthcoming with figures on performance. But publishers cloud the issue not merely because of their competitors, but because the perception of relative success or disappointment has such a strong impact on the collective and individual psychology of players, affecting not just whether they continue to subscribe, but how they regard the work of live management. Players generate stories about the aesthetics of virtual worlds, about the experience of playing and practicing within them, based in part on their impressionistic view of whether or not the game is “working as intended” and whether that intention was a coherent or successful one in the first place.
This gets even more complicated if we're talking about a virtual world whose major intent was non-commercial, intended as art or provocation or research. In the latter case, in fact, negative results are just as valuable as positive ones, though scholars sometimes struggle to accept that principle.
If Auto Assault or Asheron’s Call 2 are commonly used as benchmarks for failure by heavily invested MMOG players, that is not only because they failed commercially, but because players are able to connect a received wisdom about how the internal design of those games produced their untimely demise. For example, one of the common claims about the failure of Auto Assault is a poor match between the imaginative expectations of players conditioned by films like The Road Warrior and the use of a standard DikuMUD class “trinity” (tank, heal, DPS) to structure the gameplay. Players who regard the PvP-centric game Shadowbane as a failure (often with some sympathy for its aspirations) will often talk about its technical shortcomings, but also about some bad design decisions such as the layout of the initial world map or the heavy reliance on PvE grinding to support PvP activities.
This is a different meaning of “expectations”. Players arrive in new virtual worlds with expectations that they derive from source fictions or genres. They arrive expecting something that is very much like another virtual world or is very much antagonistic to established models or play mechanics. They expect a sense of progression in the form or genre of virtual worlds themselves, or they expect simply that what has become standard will be maintained as such.
For the initial few months that a new commercial world is live, players struggle with each other on forums and on game channels about these expectations, trying to determine a consensus view both about what it is reasonable to expect and whether or not that has been delivered. Playing Age of Conan over the last week, I’ve been following the rough and tumble of those discussions on the New Player Help channel, where they ebb and flow like waves. In one night, several self-declared “hardcore” refugees from World of Warcraft complain that they have fled WoW’s alleged catering to casual players and are disappointed to find that Age of Conan does the same. Angry replies from players who love the gameplay of a particular class in Conan, or who prefer the visual aesthetic of Conan, rise in response. Later in the same evening, critics who know the Conan mythology will complain, and in reply, defenses that range from a practical disdain for the value of lore to praise for many aspects of the game’s implementation of Conanesque themes.
On one hand, this conversation is no different than other spirited public contests over the value of other cultural works, many of which also have a serious effect on commercial success and are therefore anxiously observed and manipulated by cultural producers, often in self-defeating ways. On the other, because virtual worlds are ongoing, mutating experiences defined by continuous practice (and monthly subscriptions), the argument about failure or success is both more fraught and in perpetual motion, affecting not just the fortunes of a single product but the future expectations that players will have about the next product.
For example, I’m trying to decide for myself whether it’s right for me to expect Age of Conan to be anything more than a modest redesign of World of Warcraft, and how disappointed I ought to be at its slavish use of numerous visual and game-mechanical conventions established or perfected by Blizzard’s designers. I’m not even clear where that feeling is coming from. Some of it is the same response a middlebrow film critic might have about a disappointing film, an aesthete’s complaint. Some of it is a judgment about the commercial viability of the game, an argument that a modest redesign of World of Warcraft is a poor strategy in this marketplace, since a new product by nature cannot compete with the technical polish and content depth of Warcraft unless it offers some dramatically new kind of experience or gameplay. And some of it is a social researcher’s intuition that Age of Conan doesn’t have the foundation or the scaffolding to generate novel forms of player sociality or organization, which isn’t anything that I could reasonably expect or ask of a commercial product.
It’s easier for me to describe Pirates of the Burning Sea as hovering on the borderland of failing not only because it was visibly struggling to retain its subscriber base when I last entered the game, but also because I had a very clear view by the time I stopped following it about what the structural and mechanical problems were with the game design, and how relatively irresolvable they were given the developers’ approach and resources. Pirates offers an interesting view of how an evolving consensus about a virtual world’s design can narrow all future development choices. Fewer subscribers constrains resources, but it also locks live management into a cycle of dependency and limitation with the players who remain, who by definition forgive the product of all its faults, or in fact see no such faults in defiance of what the now-absent former subscribers might have felt.
There is no virtual world that has failed so totally that it lacked ardently devoted citizens. Even vaporware virtual worlds often have fans who defend the object of their affection. Here, suddenly, virtual worlds remind us of other lost causes: nations have yet to be, sovereignties that have ceased to exist, utopias and communes, pyramid schemes and get-rich dreams. In the end, failed social experiments and institutions have the same problem as failed virtual worlds: all they are left with, in the end, are fervid, dangerous dreamers locked in a spiraling embrace with self-interested prophets and leaders who burned all their bridges back to the larger world.
The results of the Arden project are available in a working paper here. The working paper has also been submitted to a journal for peer review.
Summary: In a fantasy game setting, we made two equivalent worlds and set the price of potions to be higher in one than in the other. We found that people bought fewer potions when they were more expensive.
Discussion: The result suggests that people in fantasy games act in an economically normal way. Perhaps these game worlds can be used to study real economic behavior.
The results are based on an environment that was significantly more fun to play than the first one we made and represents the completion of the Arden project. My thanks go to the MacArthur Foundation for their early trust, their support through hard times, and of course the funding that made the study possible. I'd also like to thank the Bioware corporation for allowing us free use of Neverwinter Nights.
You can download the game environments we used for the study here.
As some of you might recall, two months ago I announced that the results were done, but I did not say what they were. I held back because I felt an obligation to the funder of the study, the MacArthur Foundation, to give them time to respond and comment before publicizing the results more widely. I am sorry to have given the impression of a 'tease' strategy. I won't do it this way again.
Commuting today, I listened to "Once Naked For Nirvana, Now A Teen Spirit" on National Public Radio (NPR). It is the account of Spencer Elden who - when a mere infant - was photographed on the cover of Nirvana's 1991 album, Nevermind. Now, age seventeen, he offered a few thoughts, including some about his generation. As I have kids somewhere between his generation and this one - I am genuinely interested in his angst (from NPR):
"Life in general isn't quite as "cool" as it was when he jumped naked in the pool in the early '90s, though, he says. These days, his peers are too stuck on the Internet and video games... These days, Elden says, his peers concentrate on "playing Rock Band on Xbox, like, that's not a real band! That's the difference between the '90s and kids nowadays; kids in the '90s would actually go out and make a [real] band!"
Every generation has their doubts, some individual, some more general. I am too removed from his to have trustworthy insight, but that merely intrigues me.
Are video games really undermining (garage) rock band culture?
Since it's release last week, Google Lively has been getting a decent amount of attention for being a bit "too lively." At any given time a handful of rooms on the constantly updating popular rooms list are sexual in nature. Some example: "Bears: Gay bears and cubs. Hairy men,” “Pussy room. Let’s talk about…sex,” “Europe Sex Friends: Have Fun and Meetings in Real Life.” At first glance it would appear that Lively--which is little more than a 3D chat program--has already become a cybersex haven.
Heading into Lively for cybersex reveals another story, however. I write a weekly cybersex advice column for The Village Voice, so I'm often exploring new locales for internet trysts. Having heard about Lively's liveliness, I was excited to settle in with the new world this past weekend. To my disappointment, despite trying a number of rooms and a number of chat partners, I could never get a proper session of cybersex going.
Heading into Lively for cybersex reveals another story, however. I write a weekly cybersex advice column for The Village Voice, so I'm often exploring new locales for internet trysts. Having heard about Lively's liveliness, I was excited to settle in with the new world this past weekend. To my disappointment, despite trying a number of rooms and a number of chat partners, I could never get a proper session of cybersex going.
I don't blame my potential partners--who, in keeping with the generally frenetic air in Lively's rooms, had little to no attention spans. I don't blame the embedded videos, which were awkward to watch instead of sexy. I don't even blame the fact that finding a partner who spoke English was next to impossible. Instead I blame the game's chat program, which makes private chat such a pain that it would drive any cybersex enthusiast running.
Lively's lack of liveliness brings up an interesting question: what elements of a virtual world make it more or less conducive to cybersex? Emergent sex will pop up in any game that gives players even minimal freedom of speech. Still, some worlds lend themselves to it--like Second Life, where chat is uncensored, building pose balls is easy enough, and finding a private space is as simple as wandering into 95% of the world, which can often feel abandoned. Other worlds, like Club Penguin, have all but eliminated sex by carefully controlling communication and imagery.
Though Lively offers its users a good deal of freedom (at least in what they say; there's no nudity in the game), it seems to have quelled its potential sexiness with an annoying chat system. Then again, maybe other people are suffering through. Have any Terra Nova readers or writers have sex on Lively yet?
Before some comments on the ruling, I should say that I really enjoy reading these early opinions on virtual worlds and law just to see how courts summarize basic facts. For instance, check out how the court summarizes arguments by Blizzard and MDY about the nature of suit--as far as I know, this is the first time a federal court has described gold farming in a judicial opinion:
Blizzard contends that Glider diminishes the value of WoW and causes Blizzard to lose customers and revenue. Blizzard asserts that WoW is a carefully balanced competitive environment where players compete against each other and the game to advance through the game’s various levels and to acquire game assets. Blizzard claims that Glider upsets this balance by enabling some payers to advance more quickly and unfairly, diminishing the game experience for other players. Blizzard also contends that Glider enables its users to acquire an inordinate number of game assets – sometimes referred to as “mining” or “farming” the game – with some users even selling those assets for real money in online auction sites, an activity expressly prohibited by the TOU.
MDY, by contrast, claims that Glider enhances the game playing experience of its users and even enables some disabled users to play WoW. MDY contends that Glider users constitute a small fraction of WoW players and that the effect of Glider on WoW is minimal. MDY characterizes itself as an innovator and entrepreneur, and claims that Blizzard seeks improperly to use the copyright laws to squelch competition and stifle innovation.
On the issue we previously discussed here, the copyright claim, the court finds that Ninth Circuit doctrine supports Blizzard, explicitly noting with respect to the amicus briefing that "Although the Court appreciates these policy arguments and has benefitted from their excellent presentation, the Court is not a policy-making body." (See footnote 3.)
Summing up the copyright issues, the court states:
The Court reaches the following conclusions on the basis of undisputed facts, construction of the EULA and TOU, and controlling Ninth Circuit law: Blizzard owns a valid copyright in the game client software, Blizzard has granted a limited license for WoW players to use the software, use of the software with Glider falls outside the scope of the license established in section 4 of the TOU, use of Glider includes copying to RAM within the meaning of section 106 of the Copyright Act, users of WoW and Glider are not entitled to a section 117 defense, and Glider users therefore infringe Blizzard’s copyright. MDY does not dispute that the other requirements for contributory and vicarious copyright infringement are met, nor has MDY established a misuse defense. The Court accordingly will grant summary judgment in favor of Blizzard with respect to liability on the contributory and vicarious copyright infringement claims in Counts II and III.
On the other claims
- MDY did not prevail on its motion for summary judgment on Blizzard's unjust enrichment claim. So Blizzard still has the ability to bring that claim to trial.
- MDY won in part on one of the DMCA claims, based on the fact that players had open access to certain portions of the software claimed to be protected--with or without the operation of Glider. This is interesting, but much of the DMCA claims were left for trial. The court seemed to say the factual record was too muddled for summary judgment.
- The section on whether MDY's action constitute tortious interference with Blizzard's contractual relationship with players is very interesting. After applying the standard test, the court drills down to the key question of whether it is an "improper" business for MDY to sell a bot program that can be run on WoW. In short, it is improper, according to the court (applying Arizona law which applies the Restatement (Second) of Torts).
Why? Well, for example, here are the first two factors in the 7-factor test for impropriety in interference with contractual relations:
The first factor concerns the nature of MDY’s conduct. The following facts are not disputed: MDY knowingly aids WoW players in breaching their contracts with Blizzard; MDY assists the players in gaining an advantage over other WoW players; MDY enables players to mine the game for their own financial benefit and in direct violation of the TOU; MDY assists players in avoiding detection by Blizzard, and does so in a way designed to place Blizzard at risk. In MDY’s own words, “[s]taying one step ahead of Blizzard is just about impossible,” so MDY seeks to make it “bad business” for Blizzard to spend time and money trying to detect Glider. Dkt. #43-10 at 3. MDY seeks to make it a “bad idea” for Blizzard to try to detect Glider because counter-measures Blizzard must create to detect Glider present
the “risk [of] banning or crashing innocent customers.” Id.
The second factor concerns MDY’s motive. That motive is clear – profit. MDY’s business strategy is not to accept and honor the pre-existing contract between Blizzard and its customers, but to take advantage of that relationship for MDY’s financial gain.
There are five more factors, but you get the idea: enabling gold farming & EULA violations for profit = not cool.
It will be interesting to see whether the parties decide to bring the other claims to trial or if they settle. An appeal by MDY is also possible. But in any case, this is a big win for Blizzard.
(It's also, as mentioned before, a bit disturbing from the standpoint of the way virtual world EULAs integrate with copyright policy.)
I know this is blindingly obvious, but it’s only really just struck me that one of the things that virtual worlds and game worlds / MMOs do is provide a forum for us to externalize and rehearse largely positive trust relations. Which I think is one plank in an argument that MMOs can be a positive force.
I realized this as I was filling my car with diesel at a petrol station in Kent UK (‘gas’ is $9.91 gallon here btw). I was reminded of filling up at a gas station in the US, in LA I think. Here one had to pay for the gas before filling up.
This makes me very uneasy – it suggest to me that it’s presumed that someone might steal said gas, a crime, which reminds me that crime might happen at any moment, right there, which makes me wonder if I should trust the people around me as they, like me, are assumed to be potential criminals.
Of course this happens all the times, we lock our houses so people don’t walk off with out stuff. But what’s interesting for me in this case is that the cultural dislocation and alien practice externalize, to me, the assumed trust relations.
All this came to me after I’d been doing quite a few all guild instance runs in WoW and the odd mixed PuG. In most runs people would know what the drops were. Not only would there be general ‘greeding’ of loot, there would be a huge amount of passing on things that were not good for a given class and n00b’s i.e. me being told what I needed.
Here it strikes me that MMOs sit in a sweet spot between being different enough as a practice to externalize, among other thing, acts of trust and kindness. Yet familiar enough in terms of the generic nature of what’s going on for those acts to have emotional impact – at least some of the time.
I was going to say that this is a very welcome contrast to much of what I see around me. But I worry. I worry that we will see a growing gap between the semi-anonymous world of virtual spaces and the physical world. However I just don’t know how this will play out. My hope is that the practice in one will bleed into the other, especially as anonymity is only semi i.e. for many of us we know those that we play with.
I wonder if those that actually know about this area rather than stand on the sidelines of theory can expand on any aspect of how practices and trust interrelate and how virtual spaces modify this – there must be studies.
Yes we have covered similar aspects of this issue here on TN before, here is a sample:
The Second Life Bar Association wanted me to let TN readers know that they have a meeting on Virtual Worlds Legal Issues given by David Naylor aka Solomon Cortes from Field Fisher Waterhouse (yes and actual UK lawyer talking about Second Life).
As this is law about SL, by lawyers that know about SL, actually in SL, it seemed well worth a post. This is part of a series by the Second Life Bar Association and can be booked here, more details:
When: 15 July 2008, 12 noon (Pacific Daylight Time)
Who to contact for more info: Cat Galileo, Geri Kuhn
If you try it out, feel free to rearrange the furniture in our coffee shop, embedded below...
Last year on Terra Nova, I posted on EVE Online that gave mention of Battlezone, the classic 1980 video game. Battlezone 1980, however, was a waystation, that led to a more robust connection from a more recent past, Battlezone II (1999, Pandemic Studios). The connection to now is Matt Harding, who by his account was:
"a 30-year-old deadbeat from Connecticut who used to think that all he ever wanted to do in life was make and play videogames. He achieved this goal pretty early and enjoyed it for a while, but eventually realized there might be other stuff he was missing out on. In February of 2003, he quit his job in Brisbane, Australia and used the money he'd saved to wander around the planet until it ran out..."
He did, and the rest is prolog.
If you haven't worked it out, Matt was working for Pandemic Studios and earlier had his hand in Battle Zone II (via above Wikipedia link). But why Matt is well known is not because of his video game credits, but because he wandered the real world creating a series of weird but lovely dance videos. Visit his site and you will see what I mean.
It is strange how oddball connections work. Just this weekend I caught up with Matt again with via his 2008 video (excellent) where dancing around the world continues to be the theme.
My kids also enjoyed this rediscovery. I enjoyed it doubly because they enjoyed it - another chance for them to pick up memorable bits about the globe and to be someday better citizens, hopefully.
It turns out that I am also an avid reader of Ethan Zuckerman's weblog about media and third world development and other subjects. He has eloquently written in the past on how mobility can lead to "birds of a feather" effects that "makes people stupid" (his words). He points to the internet as an example of this effect, at least when it comes to news and global awareness. He explains this well and suggests that serendipity is one tool by which people might transcend these effects ( "Homophily, serendipity, xenophilia" ). In fact, a while ago I collected a few thoughts on how Ethan's reasoning of serendipity might extend to my observations of player experience in EVE Online.
Why I picked up on Matt again this weekend, was because of Ethan's July 3 post ( "A goofy dance, a sweet lullaby" ). In that post, Matt is context for a broader range of thinking on the globe and matters Ethan cares about. One thread worth mentioning is “Where the Hell is Afunakwa?” It turns out, in Ethan's words, "(o)n the island of Malaita in the Solomon Islands, off the coast of Papua New Guinea, in the town of Auki, Matt met David Solo, a cousin of Afunakwa." Who is Afunakawa? Well, the source of the music on Matt's earlier dance videos "is from a lullaby, 'Rorogwela', sung in the Solomon Islands... by a woman named Afunakwa."
Connections work in strange ways, for example Ethan finds in Matt an opportunity to discuss his thoughts on copyright protections of "indigeneous knowledge", among other subjects. My digression is more mundane. Does Matt's link to Pandemic Studios change the impact of his videos to me, us here? Probably not. But on the other hand traversing the network of links around his videos and to and from Battlezone 1980 to Auki on Malaita in the Solomons, stimulates exploration and oddball connections to my children and I. In "Playing with history" I illustrated how board gaming powerfully shaped my early interest in history, but this is a direct example and not very subtle. Matt is a thread that runs through the back-door, and in some ways I wonder if it can be more powerful, precisely because of serendipity. In "Playing with history" it is likely that for a number of reasons I was predisposed to be interested in history and thus play those games. Here, Battlezone (ex-)players, or Pandemic studio aficiandos without initial connection or interest in Afunakwa, may find one.
What connections through the back-door to the real world have you made via video games, its communities and players, lately?
We're very pleased to announce that Bruce Damer, a well-known virtual world pioneer who has been a guest author here (twice) has accepted our invitation to join us as a regular author. Below is a short bio about Bruce's past work in virtual worlds, but there's much more to be found on his website.
Twelve years ago, Bruce founded two organizations, the Contact Consortium and DigitalSpace Corporation. The Contact Consortium was the first nonprofit organization supporting the virtual worlds/avatar industry in its early adopter phase. The Consortium held a dozen conferences on the medium and its special interest groups explored the use of these worlds in learning, biologically inspired spaces, architecture, cyber-conference events, and much more. DigitalSpace developed a successful for-profit business in building content and hosting events in virtual worlds platforms and has been funded by NASA for the past six years to develop an open source platform for 3D simulation for space mission design and training.
In the 1980s Bruce was one of the first people to bring a graphical user interface to the PC platform when he built the Elixir Desktop while working as the chief technologist at Elixir Technologies which went on to launch the product worldwide with Xerox Corporation. Bruce and his wife Galen Brandt (an early pioneer in live motion avatar performance and medical uses of virtual environments) married in 2003 and live at Ancient Oaks farm where you can see pigs, one of the world's greatest collections of vintage computers in the Digibarn, and "get on the bus" NoFurthur and design vintage cyber-tech clothes (for when you will wear your avatar).
So Age of Conan seems to have opened strong, and I'm eager to play it, I guess. I'm not a big fan of the Conan series, but I really miss gritty realism after so long in cartoony WoW, and everything I've heard about the class design has piqued my interest. I even got it for Father's Day. But that was, what, three weeks ago? Why haven't I gotten in touch with my inner barbarian? In short, it's because there's no Mac client, and that leads me to ask a question of the wiser industry-savvy types around here. In the current moment, is not designing your big budget MMO for easy Mac use a Grade A blunder?
Admittedly, I do have a PC at my office, which could probably run AoC just fine (it's specced for gaming -- ah, the perks of researching MMOs...). But my gaming time is welded into my daily practice of relying on my laptop. Since my favorite place to get actual work done is a coffee shop, that's where I find myself working for a few hours and then booting up my favorite game for a break (or even more research). I'm sure I'll eventually install AoC on my office PC, but I haven't yet.
And Bootcamp me no Bootcamp. I'm not interested in hunting around for a spare XP license, adding anything to my Mac's hard drive, or just plain dealing with a dual boot option of any kind (and let's not even talk about Vista). It's too much trouble, and also costs me cash, in most cases. What is more, my experience with Second Life and WoW has left me feeling, fairly or unfairly, entitled to a Mac client.
I'm guessing I'm not alone. I'm no expert on the sales numbers, but it seems that Mac users are not only increasing, they're increasing especially among the college students and twenty-somethings that MMO developers target (and Macs have had a strong foothold there for a while anyway). On top of this, and maybe most importantly, aren't MMOs the kind of product that looks to leverage players' existing social connections? Isn't it kind of a big part of the plan that the players you get will get their friends to play, too? It seems that that kind of business model quickly can lose a lot of effectiveness as soon as some of those links in the network are PC-Mac ones if there's no Mac client. And isn't the clearest argument in favor of cross-platform development for major MMO titles simply the example of Blizzard and WoW?
Of course, there is a lot I don't know here. How hard is it to develop for both platforms simultaneously? It clearly can be done, and even for the biggest of big MMOs, but what's the tradeoff, from the developer's point of view?
So, I ask those who know more: Is it a mistake on Funcom's part not to design a Mac client, and if so, how big of a mistake is it?
With grateful thanks to John Hengeveld of Intel and others for many concepts and wording
Heady Times for Early Adopters
The early years of a technology is frequently characterized by a boisterous cacophony of players. Each player has a dream, but to realize that dream, they have to build everything from the ground up and develop their own platforms. Early consumers of technologies are limited to a small group blessed with the patience, wealth or time (or all of the above) to deal with the gaps in these home grown gadgets to get something to work. Automobiles went through this phase as did personal computers. The medium of Virtual Worlds finds itself there now.
Slowly, through gradual or mass extinction, industry players disappear or merge together and one or more monopoly powers emerge. Concentration of resources and marketing prowess then creates the basis for mass adoption. This happened in the 1930s with the telephone company once affectionately known in the USA as Ma Bell.
The close cousin of virtual worlds, online game worlds, finds itself further down the road to maturity with several big commercial successes under its belt. Game play worlds have settled into a model not unlike the film studio system of the 1920s, with aggregation of talent around big projects producing a few “hits” generating large returns. The game world studios must always be working on the next potential hit as current box office returns fade to black.
Stuck on Max Headroom Island
In the 1980s, before the coming of the Internet as an “intentional but accidental” common layer to access information, online systems of all kinds existed, having their own custom browsers and file systems. E-mail systems, SGML document stores, academic abstract databases all lived happily in their own walled gardens and none experienced much growth. The creation or imposition of a common layer of technology both underneath and on top of information brought maturity, profitability, and the freedom to innovate to a wide swath of the software industry.
Ironically, both social virtual worlds and game play worlds today exist as a kind of 1980s Back to the Future meets Max Headroom island universe within the 2000s internet. These platforms feature expensive, custom built browsers accessing content and serving experience through proprietary servers. As a result, ventures must constantly re-invent the wheels, engine block and body of their virtual world vehicles. In this world, the cost of innovation is high, the reach of solutions is bounded and the value they provide are self limited
From the Islands to the Mainland
So how do virtual worlds, which have far less resources than their more massive cousin the game worlds, plot their course from this isolated archipelago within the Internet and journey to the mainland?
One way for this to happen is to let market forces do the captaining. Let one or more monopoly players emerge, enforcing a common standard. In this case we don’t have to do anything but sit back and watch. The risk we run is if no healthy monopoly emerges and we enter a new “winter” period (see my previous Terra Nova posting at http://terranova.blogs.com/terra_nova/2008/06/possibility-of.html).
Another way is to create the conditions for growth is by encouraging cooperation to lower the barriers to creation and adoption of virtual worlds. Does this kind of cooperation have a precedent? Yes! In the late 1970s, Bob Metcalfe, the co-inventor of Ethernet at Xerox hit the road promoting TCP/IP as an open networking standard. He faced an uphill battle against entrenched technologies but he prevailed and we live in Metcalfe’s world today. Metcalfe’s force of personality, some lucky accidents, and a healthy dose of self interest pushed TCP/IP over the tipping point by the early 90s, just in time for the spread of the Internet to the masses.
So one could create efforts to encourage standards, but at what level? Standards of interoperability have been promoted for virtual worlds for over a decade, starting with the Avatar Standards track at Earth to Avatars in 1996, and more recently with an effort to create interoperable avatars between major platform providers (see OpenSim and the Open Virtual Worlds project).
However, the history of Instant Messaging provides a clue at how successful interoperability can be at this “highest” application level: efforts to provide cross-platform IM have all ended up on the rocks. It seems that creating common layers is more difficult the higher up one goes in the application space. What about examples of low-level interoperability? HTTP and various open web server technologies like Apache are the very definition of interoperability at the technological ocean bottom. How about the recent open source or open standards virtual worlds efforts? Would they, given sufficient resources, provide a common layer upon which a wide range of platforms could be built? Could Second Life, There, IMVU, Active Worlds and other existing platforms successfully unhook from their current servers and connect to a new one? Or are these platforms too tied to complex interaction and optimization to be able to be unhook? And what if some of these companies survive through sales of their proprietary servers?
The Invasion of the Small Worlds?
There may be another approach piloting our way over the horizon, that of the coming of ubiquitous “small worlds”. Small worlds are a concept coined recently by Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer in describing The Palace, a mid 1990s lightweight 2D avatar platform. Small worlds typically have small, easy to install and run programs or plug-ins serving lightweight spaces hosting a small number of users. These are in turn connected to a larger grid of small spaces (or Web of Worlds as recently suggested by Intel’s John Hengeveld), sometimes served peer-to-peer. Will Harvey’s IMVU is an example of a new small world platform. Small worlds could exist in close connection to the web, especially embedded within social networking sites like FaceBook, and draw traffic from the natural flows over its pages. In contrast the walled-garden “Big Grid Iron” worlds exist in isolation from the web and its click-link traffic patterns.
But would small worlds get us to the mainstream mainland?
The Small Gobbles Up… Everything!
As we can see from the history of computing, it is often the case of “the small gobbling up the big, and everything else”. Trivially small, lightweight yet rapidly replicating platforms often grow up to become all-encompassing solutions. DOS grew up to become Windows and along the way the PC triumphed over the time-shared mainframe, minicomputer and workstation. Could it be that there is some small world platform out there that is destined to become the standard? Dick Gabriel of Sun Microsystems has written much wisdom and books on this phenomenon (http://www.dreamsongs.com/Books.html) in which he posits that one of several ways to create a virally spreading success is to hitch your wagon to something that is already growing. Does this mean that a small world embedded in Facebook or some other social network(s) is the answer?
There is another wave about to break across the internet that will change everything (including virtual worlds). That is the coming of powerful front end user interface frameworks that will take us well beyond Web 2.0. One such framework is Adobe’s AIR (http://www.adobe.com/products/air/) which merges Flash, Actionscript, AJAX, a SQL database and many, many other goodies. Small worlds in AIR are definitely on the way. AIR may remove significant barriers to developing virtual world front-ends. The ubiquity of Flash suggests that you would be hitching your wagon to an already big success.
But What in the World is a World Good For?
So there may be a glimmering of some ways forward on the technology side, but what about the applications? What in the world is a (virtual) world good for? Creating a widespread, ubiquitous platform requires profound understanding of what people will find useful. The Home Brew Computer Club members had little idea of what would appeal to the average household having a personal computer. Club members like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and others built their empires on finding and holding on to a clear picture of that understanding. Game worlds are balkanized into genres, but each genre typically has enough of a market to create a sustained “hits” business. Virtual worlds genres are only now being defined, and they fall into two categories: spaces where people engage in random or purposeful social interaction, and everything else. Given that social networks on the Web are a blend of random and purposeful group interaction (think Twitter), it seems that the biggest “footprint” of user attention is by this time well understood.
Other "serious" genres in the virtual worlds camp might include learning spaces, business conferencing, commerce supporting spaces, media sharing spaces, and purpose-built events. Other smaller but self-sustaining genres could include grant-supported artistic worlds, and industrial worlds such as used in project development (architecture, urban planning, CAD/CAM) or training (military and non-military). Am I missing anything?
It may well be that the genres and sub-genres are so different that no one common technology platform or business model can serve them all. Today CAD/CAM companies and their platforms are so highly developed, expensive and specialized that it is hard to ever see them using some kind of common 3D platform or format (other than for file interchange).
The best way forward, therefore, might be to concentrate on the platform that has 1. the biggest footprint of potential adopters and 2. the lowest barrier to those users adopting the platform. I posit here that the obvious answers to one and two is:
- Social interaction both random and purposeful is the big user footprint available to virtual worlds especially when embedded into high-trafficked web-based social networks and
- The small world form factor using already ubiquitous front end technology would naturally be the lowest barrier to entry to these users.
We would then have to have the faith that properly managed such a platform would “grow up” to serve more and more virtual world genres. One persistent visionary player therefore might develop a widely adopted small world platform and insinuate itself into any social virtual world platform. Bill Gates and Paul Allen managed to get Microsoft BASIC on every microcomputer around and later built a powerful monopoly upon that strength by procuring DOS for IBM. On the back end, perhaps adopting a simple, yet open virtual worlds server, open-sourced like Apache, could smooth the pathway to ubiquity.
Could “eternal life” for virtual worlds be in the offing once a ubiquitous web-embedded "small world" platform comes into being?
Is it Time to Invite the Players to a New Poker Game?
Builders of large grid-based virtual worlds with proprietary and heavy browser technology may be doing well enough to not be interested in an approach more likely to create mainstream adoption. The Big Grid-Iron worlds approach may be enough sustain a company or two but this is not sufficient to create a healthy industry.
Small worlds companies with venture funding may soon be rising up to duke it out in the social networking browser space. Comprehensive ubiquitous client framework suppliers like Adobe may have inkling that small worlds could generate some kind of positive pull for their efforts and willing to consider features that would make small worlds really run well there. Corporate grant funders, academic institutions and government agencies might be willing to fund a free, open Apache-like back end server if they could see a longer term research return.
Back in 1995 I established an organization, the Contact Consortium (http://www.ccon.org), whose charter was to bring together all of the groups and people building and using the first online virtual worlds platforms and stimulate the development of the medium. Is it time for a new Consortium effort? One could envision inviting key players to a common poker game where the payout at the end of the evening might be a common small world platform tuned to the biggest user footprint and adopted by the biggest trafficked social networks?
The stakes in this game are a new medium and a healthy industry and… social virtual worlds everywhere!
Anyone ready to deal?