I had a chance to interview Philip Rosedale earlier this month, leading to a broad set of posts by bloggers who follow virtual worlds (and Second Life) pretty closely. You can see the whole thing here (with links to the analysis by Christian Renaud, Nic Mitham, Wagner James Au, Ben Duranske, Bettina Tizzy, Roland Legrand, and Dusan Writer), but after the break I include some of the more interesting quotes.
We are going to be talking about it today at noon pacific time. You can watch online, and participate in backchat, without going into Second Life, here.
On Hiring a "New Me" (Mark Kingdon) as CEO, to become Chairman
I’m a builder of things. And so I think the good call that I made primarily, with the board’s support, was to hire a ‘new me’ last year because I just felt that I’d be of more use to the company if I had the majority of my time working on design, product, innovation, problem solving, at the edge of where we’ve got challenges like usability, interface, those things. I wasn’t getting any more time. I mean with the company being 300 people – if you look back six months ago at my calendar – I wasn’t able to spend any time on design. I was spending all my time on leadership management, growing the company, organizational process.
On the Future of Virtual Worlds
I think where the industry is going in the next few years is a gradual broadening of the capabilities and the use cases of virtual worlds, to support a lot of different stuff that people are doing in the virtual worlds. I do believe, as I said today, that it’s difficult for me to see why it won’t be the case in a few years’ time that virtual worlds are not used for a very broad set of utilities and use cases and that that will bring them into a place of probably dominant use in the computing environment, meaning that more network traffic and more computers are basically deployed to enter and interact in virtual worlds than we are, for example, using them for the web today.
On Virtual Worlds for Grandma
If you had a grandparent or parent that was intelligent and interested in engaging with a new community, getting an extra job, finding something interesting to do in their older years, and they really weren’t that familiar with the internet at all, would you … teach them how to use Second Life, or would you teach them how to more generally just use the web?
San Murugesan recently e-mailed to let me know that the Cutter IT Journal has a special issue on the subject of virtual worlds. His introduction to that issue is here. A PDF of the entire issue can be acquired for free (with registration) here.
It is an interesting mix of articles. It covers the full spectrum of virtual worlds -- from games to kids worlds to Second Life. The articles present a balanced approach. In particular, they are generally positive, with caveats, about the future of the 3D Web and commerce. At the same time, they are fairly critical of the success of virtual worlds to date in living up to their initial promises.
First, the disclaimer: I work for Village Voice Media. Village Voice Media runs the Westword. The Westword ran this story on science museums in Second Life. Yes, I'm practicing both partiality and blatant (semi)self-promotion. Now that that's out of the way...
As I reported over on Heartless Doll, we have here another feature piece on Second Life that gets derailed by the decadence factor. It can't seem to focus on the story at hand: namely, that science is finding a home in a world where the welcome lack of safety concerns leaves room for education. Specifically, the article highlights the creation of science museums, like the in-world branch of San Francisco's Exploratorium, that let visitors approach learning in the form of rides that would be too dangerous or costly to build in real life. In addition, there's talk of a replica nuclear reactor, which could serve as a practice tool for those preparing to work with the real thing.
That's all downright fascinating -- especially the part about the people who'll hold the key to our future nuclear safety looking for virtual analogs -- but this piece looses its focus from the beginning, spending its first eight paragraphs ogling a Second Life escort who happens to walk through one science center. Yes, she's "hot." Yes, she's wearing knee-high boots. But wasn't there a story being told here? Not to put down the Westword for their valiant effort, but it's about time that the hook behind virtual world coverage is no longer addiction, or crazy avatars, or sex. Not that I don't like sex, because you all know I do, but because there's more to talk about here than favors being exchanged for Linden dollars...
Via Wired comes this bit of news about the Pentagon's fears that WoW (specifically) could be used to organize a terrorist attack. This isn't the first time intelligence agencies have considered what implications virtual worlds have for terrorism, and noting this ongoing interest on their part is just something we've gotten in the habit of doing around here. What does catch one's eye about this one is the level of detail provided in the simulated WoW scenario (check out the screenies). Does this change our assessment of their risk assessment?
In fifty-and-some days we will see the conclusion of a two year U.S. presidential selection process. Temperatures have been rising as we draw near the end. Rather than finding a new means of arguing one's way into someone else's bubble, perhaps the partisan could profit from an altogether new method of persuasion. I wonder whether an MMORPG can have a political ideology, either by design or by accident.
A while ago I was thinking about John Micklethwait's reflection of The Economist's editorial conundrum - what does it mean to be a classical liberal weekly in a hypertensive American political landscape where "liberal" has a changed meaning (Jan 9, 2007, Independent) . The Economist has for a long time defied clear right-of-center or left-of-center definition and this makes its "ideology" hard to pin down in the American context.
At first blush one might argue that EVE Online with its deep laissez-faire market system and sand-box design that stresses player initiative and "creating your own story" offers a compelling classical liberal narrative. Dig deeper, does that mean pro-business? Libertarian? Ronald Reagan? Yet, players have fashioned "socialist" alliances in EVE Online; dirigisme also abounds as an alliance management style. "Ideology" involving large systems of people - even with well developed mercantile instincts - is never so simple.
What about Player-versus-Player MMORPGs - do they encourage militaristic world views? Not necessarily. Play the EVE alliance pew-pew game long enough - as I've argued in the past on this weblog - and the clearest lesson is the constraint of economic and political power on brawn.
What then of a well-crafted Player-versus-Environment MMORPG that discourages friction points between players by bubbling them in instances and doling out loot? Do such promote the Scandinavian welfare model?
If you were a consultant for your favorite political party intended upon designing an MMORPG to persuade voters to sympathize with your viewpoint - What would it look like? Or if you are conspiracy-theory nut, perhaps you have convinced yourself your favorite MMORPG tugs at you in some direction politically. Hmmm.
On Friday, Oct. 3, the Washington and Lee University School of Law (in scenic Lexington, Virginia) will gather a range of top thinkers to discuss the regulatory future of children's worlds in a one-day symposium.
Our own Ted Castronova, Greg Lastowka, Robert Bloomfield and yours truly will be there. We hope you can all come! More information (and registration forms) at law.wlu.edu/virtualplaygrounds, or below the fold.
While virtual worlds scholars have overwhelmingly focused on worlds populated largely by adults, the market reach of child-oriented virtual worlds has grown by leaps and bounds. Webkinz, NeoPets, and Club Penguin are both the caretakers of the next generation of virtual world dwellers and are themselves the next big phenomenon in virtual world technology.
The protection of children is nearly always the rationale asserted when Congress seeks to regulate online behavior. Charting a course between hysteria about new media on the one hand, and legitimate needs to protect children on the other has been hard for law. Regulation will thus likely be felt first in children's worlds. Getting the law right for kids' worlds will probably set the standard for the rest of virtual worlds, because children are entering nearly all of the mainstream worlds. Where children go, the regulations that protect them will follow, and will plausibly become the standard regulations of the multiverse.
This symposium will hear from top thinkers in multiple disciplines as they attempt to chart a reasonable course for the protection of kids in virtual worlds. In addition to the speakers listed above, panelists will include Brad Bushman, author of groundbreaking studies on effects of videogame violence on children; Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger, internationally sought expert on e-Government, regulatory models for electronic commerce, and virtual worlds, and Dorothy Singer, world-renowned expert on children, play, and the psychological effects of media; and many others. We hope to see you in Lexington!
If you have any questions about the symposium, please don't hesitate to contact me at fairfieldj-at-wlu-dot-edu.
I admit I haven't yet picked up a copy of Spore (beginning of the school year and all) but I figured it was being released to universal acclaim, sales, yada yada. And of course all of the pre-release information hyped the game to no end, and fans seemed, well, fanatic, about getting their hands on the game. What a difference a day or two makes. Check out the review scores for Spore on Amazon's site. As of my writing this, there are 1840 1-star reviews of the game. Why?
Not the gameplay, it seems, but the DRM protection. A common complaint from reviewers-- 'you don't buy this game, you rent it!' You need to go online to authenticate the game (nothing new there) and the game allows you to authenticate three times before having to call and ask permission for more authentications from EA (disclaimer: I'm taking this from the reviews, so if the information is incorrect, please post and let me know). Seems very close to Apple's iTunes model of managing music, thus causing the user to carefully ponder just how/where/when to 'spend' those few copies.
While Spore isn't technically a virtual world (or is it?), this also brings back parallels for me of players' rights in virtual worlds. If we are encouraged to see these worlds as our new Commons, our coffeehouses, etc, do we have any say in how we use them? Will this outrage amount to anything for Wright's creation? For future games? And as we probably don't own that epic gear in MMOGs, so too, maybe we are only renting our single player games now as well?
As some on this list know, my research group has been working on a joint project with Sony Online Entertainment for the last two years. This collaboration has enabled our team to collect virtual world data on--as far as we know--an unprecedented scale. SOE has let us access the full data logs generated and collected by the world Everquest II.
This is one of those "be careful what you ask for" moments in science. We asked for everything, and many terabytes later, found ourselves hosting and analyzing massive data on supercomputers at NCSA. SOE also let us do a large-scale survey of their player base. Although there have been good surveys of virtual world populations done in the past, this is the first that took place within the game engine and with the help of the developer. As a result, it does not have the self-selection issues that the first such surveys have had, and the response rate was impressive.
This post will share the first of what we expect to be a dozen or more papers on virtual world behaviors. As the first, it's the broadest, but I suspect will be of interest and use to the wider virtual world community. You can find the full text of this first paper here, at the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, with no access restrictions.
More below the fold . . .
There are several tables and graphs intended to be reference material for the community, and many findings on simple demographics. There were also a few unexpected gems in the data as well. My two favorite oddball highlights were finding that the older players played more than the younger ones, and that the game playing population appears to be more fit than the general US population.
Are these findings representative of all virtual worlds, or all MMOs, or all fantasy titles? I have my own speculations (pretty solid for fantasy diku games), and I welcome yours. Of course, until other developers open their doors in a similar fashion, it'll all remain speculation.
What can you expect from future reports? Our subsequent papers will involve research on gender differences, role players, economic modeling, social networks, group success and failure, raiding, detailed player behavior metrics, trust and community, and many others currently in the hopper. As we develop more and more metrics from the player behavior data, we will be merging these with the psychological, demographic, and attitude data from the survey. In other words, for the first time we will know who they are, what they think, and what they do on a truly systematic level.
The team working on these data hail from 7 different universities in the US and Canada, with four senior researchers and 15 Ph.D. students. The project leads are myself, Noshir Contractor at Northwestern, M. Scott Poole at Illinois, and Jaideep Srivastava at Minnesota (computer science).
Many thanks to Raph Koster for opening the door, and to the entire team at SOE for being engaged and helpful in the process. Immense thanks are also due to the National Science Foundation for sponsoring the work. We hope this project serves as a model for academic/industry collaborations in which we can move from begging for pro bono help to outright consulting-level research and development. By being the first-movers, SOE gets the benefit of a large team of experts on a wide range of social, economic and networking topics.
According to the reporter, about 10% of Habbo Users spend $17 a month buying virtual stuff. So, if I can do a little math (which is dubious), Habbo has 100 million users registered, but on its website reports only 10 million "unique visitors" a month. Still, this means ($17 x 1M) = $17 million a month spent on virtual stuff in Habbo. So, for a year (x 12) that's a little over $200 million a year selling pixels to kids -- maybe approaching about 1/3 (or so) of what WoW is making. Since I haven't looked at the actual financials (and usually only do math in private), feel free to correct me with a better number.
But however many kids are paying them, the fact that Sulake is making money this way isn't really news. It's the price limit I find interesting and the curious comment of Teemu Huuhtannen: "We really don't want teenagers to spend more than the price of two movie tickets a month on Habbo." That's followed by Alex Pham (the reporter) making the observation:
If turning down money seems un-American, it is. Sulake's Scandinavian origins meant it grew up in a market that heavily favors consumers' rights.
Limiting what kids can purchase = consumers' rights? So, by extrapolation, in Scandinavia, I suppose the private candy manufacturers will only sell kids so much chocolate per month, because too much is bad for their teeth? And video game makers will sell kids only one game a month so they can spend more time on their homework? And what else?
Pham's claim -- and the price limit -- say something interesting about virtual property sales, I think. I honestly have no reason to doubt that Sulake really doesn't want to charge kids over $35 a month ($420 a year) for certain pixels, for their own good. I'm just interested in hearing more about what the "ideal market" for selling pixels to kids should look like (and why).
Photo Credit (from an art exhibit in Finland): Roxeteer
Note: In an earlier version of this post, I said today is Spore release day -- Doh! Well, that was right if you don't live in the U.S. If you do, you have another 2 days to wait. Sorry! In the meanwhile, you can play with the creature creator.