We moved the lines online

 

In 2004 (yes we’ve been around a long-ass time), I wrote Bah, Humbug & Digital Distribution, talking about the tensions between getting physical and virtual gifts. I’m yet to see a break down of the stats from Star Wars The Old Republic (SWTOR) but I’m guessing the physical : virtual is going to break new ground. 

Back on ’04 I was musing about the impact of virtual gifts on xmas – I still do, how many of you bought someone a dead-tree-book rather than a kindle edition so you could give someone an object (do they sell some kind of token you can give, like a card with a code on it, if not why not?)? 

The ritual I’d either forgotten about or something that was not such an ‘event’ in ’04 was the midnight launch. As the guys (and they all seem to be guys) on pod casts such as Mos Eisley Radio were lamenting many game stores did not have a midnight release event for SWTOR, which as the people are starting to note is a gamer ritual that some of the hard-core are starting to miss. 

There are multiple reason for why midnight release was not a big thing in the case of SWTOR: Digital Download / Amazon et al pre-ordering; but possible most of all the phased early entry process that was used. There are god management reasons for having phased entry, though for those of us that sat in popcap queue for a long time last week load balancing did not go perfectly (though possibly as well as it could). But, there did seem to be a lack of an event, a communal moment for many players – though as podcasters have noted some people shifted from standing in line to waiting in server queues on vent with their buddies – we always find a way to be together I guess. 

May the force be with youTM….

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Job Posting: Bioware Director of Analytics

Maybe a little unorthodox for TN, but a colleague at Bioware Austin asked me to post this ad and I'm betting someone who reads here is a potentially good fit, or knows someone.

Also, I happen to love analytics (post on the same to follow), and I'd like to see a smart person get this job. I like that the games industry is starting to take data and analyis more seriously. Plus, I mean really, it's dragons and Jedis . . .

Interested folks can find the posting below at jobs.ea.com or look up Craig Fryar at Bioware and ask him for the 411.

35129
Studio Director of Analytics
Business Affairs
Snr Manager Business Development
BioWare Austin
BioWare, a member of the incredible family of EA studios, has created some of the world's best-
selling titles including the award-winning Baldur's Gate, the Neverwinter Nights series, and Star
Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Original BioWare-created IPs include Jade Empire, the critically
acclaimed Mass Effect and Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood for the Nintendo DS. BioWare is
hard at work on the epic fantasy RPG Dragon Age; and Star Wars: The Old Republic, our massively
multiplayer online game being developed at BioWare Austin.

The Studio Director of Analytics will work with Live, Platform, Operations, Customer Service,
Web/Community, Marketing and Game teams to track, aggregate, and interpret data across the Star Wars: The Old Republic in order to develop business strategies and measure performance. Metrics and telemetry will be gathered from the Game, Platform, Operations, Customer Service,
Web/Community teams and more. This role will focus on developing insights and recommendations to drive retention and revenue, along with ROI models for market acquisition, conversion, and retention, for the stakeholder groups. This role reports to the VP of Launch and Live, with a dotted line relationship with the BioWare Director of Analytics.

RESPONSIBILITIES:
Define and execute BioWare Austin strategies and tactics for collecting and analyzing data to enable
fact-based decision making
Directly manage one or more analysts
Combine data analytics, business opportunity analysis, and competitive intelligence into integrated
business strategies
Drive collaboration across teams to define business requirements for the ongoing evolution of the
data warehousing, analytics and reporting systems
Contribute best practices in the use and adoption of analytics, reporting, and tools across BioWare
Ensure data quality and validity from multiple data sources. Define and manage performance
dashboards and standardized operational reporting
Monitor and lead cross-organizational project teams toward implementation of tactics and strategies

REQUIREMENTS:
-5+ years of experience with a focus on business intelligence and analytics or related field, along wit
proven management experience
-Self-starter with a passion for data and strong attention to detail
-Demonstrable skill in presenting data through a combination of summary, charting and tables
- Demonstrable technical skills in all data analysis including selecting appropriate statistical
approaches, verifying accuracy and testing hypothesis selection criteria
-Excellent verbal and written communication skills and the ability to interact professionally with a
diverse group of staff and senior management required
-Experience in the game industry, social gaming, social networking and/or internet industries strong
preferred.
- MBA preferred

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Prediction Time Again

P1060856 It's that time again... the persistent rush at the beginning of each new cycle of time to reflect and predict. Well, we like that sort of thing around here. Sometimes we're right, sometimes wrong. But we're always trying to draw out our inner oracles...

My 2011 (and onward) predictions:
- our small people will continue to overrun our Facebook accounts as  they fiend for more and more digital bling, especially since Facebook apparently doesn't let kids under 13 have their own accounts.  I will continue to  shell out the credit card for $10 of 'presents' for my kid's best gamer  friends.  Perhaps this economic boom will fuel the 'maybe we will survive this media change!' mentality.
- the fantasy MMO reaches saturation levels except for the truly committed.  This is not a lore problem, but a pattern matching one. Expect regeneration in 5-10 years or when the new LOTR movie comes out. Oh wait.  Guild Wars 2.  Does war count as fantasy?
- more 'brand-affirming' virtual worlds.  Some might be good.
- more alternative/augmented reality and transmedia MMOs (mobile plus tv plus Kinect plus books plus movies plus 3D-everything).  More and more exodus.
- more sci fi, speculative fiction, near term possibility exploration (simulation, as predicted by Ted eons ago)
- Is the MMO inside out yet? More and more I find myself gaming with people like my ex mother-in-law (lovely woman, not a gamer of any description tho!)
- More worlds, fewer games? (does Facebook count as a world?)
- The phrase 'casual gaming' will die as everyone begins to game, casually and otherwise.  Already so in South Korea (I find it useful to consider parts of Asia as possible reflections of our future(s)).
- The gaming industry will more fully begin to fund and rely on research.
- Singularity?

There are far too many of my interests resurrected in this post.  Please add  your favorite memes and join me in documenting our predictions! (how will we otherwise remember?)

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The Sexual Implications of Going Hands Free in Second Life

Earlier this month, Linden Lab released a demo of a hands-free interface for movement within Second Life.  While they were careful to explain that this project is still in the early stages of development, the interface as it stands would allow players to walk and fly through the world using only the positions of their bodies.  Apparently inspired by the controls on Segway scooters, a 3D camera would capture players' movements as they stand a number of feet in front of their computer screens--or, as in the case of the demo, conveniently ginormos televisions.  Linden also claims that the technology in development can sense facial movement and expressions.

While other bloggers are seeing a potentially ground-breaking new way to interact in a world whose current user interface is a giant pain in the butt, I'm wondering: what will going hands free do for sex in Second Life?

Obviously, having free hands facilitates easier masturbation. However, the demo only showed hands-free movement--and most Second Life residents don't fly or walk while having sex.  Still, if we think ahead to an entirely mouse-less, keyboard-less virtual world, one in which our avatars can match our movements one for one, the possibilities are endless.  We could not only "touch" ourselves (i.e. I touch my breast, and my avatar touches hers), we could reach out and touch each other. Silly as it may seems, we could even enact mutual sex acts, each on our separate ends of the screen.

Of course, hands-free online sex as a reality may be a long ways off, but one thing is for sure: it would definitely change the way we interact sexually in virtual worlds... Thoughts?

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Judging worlds

Both Alice and Cory happen to have noted the "review" of social worlds over at Second Life Games, so Onder is getting quite a lot of play over his view of significant social worlds. Leaving aside the odd choice of worlds that he chooses to discuss, I am weirded out by his criteria of assessment:

"Since these are entirely formed from my little brain, we’ll call them “Onder’s Big Three”. They are:
  1. Cash transactions must be easy and readily accommodated flowing both into and out from the system.
  2. Users must be able to create unique content and retain some form of ownership over it.
  3. The fabric of the world itself must be possible to affect. IE: land ownership, room decoration, or some other content that remains viable even when the player who created it is logged off. (”Pervasive” is the word I’m groping for here…)"

Since I've been in a bad mood for about the last 4 weeks, I hope that Onder will forgive me for suggesting that these three criteria are actually pulled from his arse and not his brain. Well, actually I don't care whether he forgives me or not, coz these are close to the stupidest criteria that I can conceive of to assess social worlds. I mean, why exactly should the ability to engage in cash transactions be a relevant criterion for success in VWs? Coz we think that more worlds should be just like Project Entropia? Yeah, that makes perfect sense. The requirement that the world have user-generated content makes a little more sense I guess, as long as you're a huge fan of poor design, sexual-content, and the tyranny of libertarianism in social spaces. Oh and I love the fact that the users have to have "ownership" of the stuff they create, because, well, private property in non-scarce resources is absolutely vital to its generation since human beings would never produce stuff except if they are given economic incentives to create (pace Wikipedia, ohmynews, open source software, blogs, game mods, etc etc). And I have no idea what Onder actually means by the last criterion. It seems to mean that VWs should be persistent; which, last time I checked, was a definitional requirement of them being worlds in the first place.

Anyway, so we've all just discovered that I'm in a pissy mood and maybe that Onder's criteria aren't exactly tremendously helpful at making any judgment about VWs. So my question is what would be interesting or useful criteria for judging social worlds? (Let's leave aside game/competitive worlds for a bit, coz they have special success conditions. And I promise to try to be less snarky in the comments field, although, I'll be honest, I'm not promising anything. I really am in a deeply shitty mood.)

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Miss Norway found at U of M

I was dozing on the train this morning when someone on a podcast read the news headline “College Student Loses First & Second Life On The Same Day”. I snapped awake pretty quick at that. I knew SL could make you rich but not kill ye’ ass.

As the original story, which has taken a turn around the web and at least one podcast (any other reports of other sightings of this story?) said:

    College Student Loses First & Second Life On The Same Day

    Ann Arbor, MI–A University of Michigan college student was pronounced dead early this morning only hours after a virtual character he played in an online universe called Second Life met an eerily similar fate.

    Jesse Smith, an 18 year-old sophomore from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, was found lying unconscious in the parking lot behind his dormitory by some passing joggers early this morning. He was immediately rushed to the hospital, but doctors were unable to revive him.

    “He barely had a mark on him,” stated hospital staffer Camille Starkey, “but we figure he was hit by a car somewhere near the location where he was discovered. He had massive internal injuries and the doctors were not able to save him.”

    “It looks like he tried to crawl back home to get help, but I guess he never made it.”

    Strangely enough, Smith had spent most of the previous evening playing Second Life, until his virtual alter-ego was also killed in a car accident sometime around 3 AM.

[Edit 28/11/06: for the avoidance of doubt, I believe the above ‘story’ to be entirely fabricated]

My theory is this: The ex Miss Norway, who played LegendMUD did not die in a car crash as widely believed but instead saved up an almost unimaginable amount of Monopoly money on the Pro-Monopoly circuit under the pseudonym F4t4l123y (pounced Georgina) which (s)he cashed in. Using the money in part of for a gender re-assignment becoming Jesse, and in part to study at the University if Michigan, no doubt under Professor Urizenus Sklar (Emeritus professor of journalistic ethics), majoring in illogical shemantics. 

But seriously, I’m starting to see signs of major video game addiction. News outlets, PR agencies and editors around the globe are starting to need higher and higher doses of virtual world ‘news’. It started with mixing partial facts with hysteria, now doses have been cut so thin that we no longer need any trace of a fact at all.

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Thoughts on Virtual Laguna Beach

As many of you may have heard by now, Makena Technologies has been working with MTV Networks along with several other partners and advisors on a “brand” new 3D social virtual world based on the television show Laguna BeachVirtual Laguna Beach launched in beta yesterday.

While I have only been sporadically involved the production of Virtual Laguna Beach, my experience with the project here at Makena has gotten me thinking about the larger cultural implications of the VLB launch within the history of social virtual worlds.  For one, it’s a fascinating example of the increasing convergence of television, fans, online communities and virtual worlds. And as Henry Jenkins notes, “It’s just layer upon layer of reality and fiction.”    

I’m guessing most TN readers are not hardcore Laguna Beach fans.  But if you’ve seen the show even for a few minutes, or maybe you’ve watched it with your kids, at some point in the process you must have noticed just how *virtual* Laguna Beach itself is.  The highly polished filming style of Laguna Beach and its attractive California teen cast immediately creates fuzziness between “real” and “virtual” for its viewers.  In fact, when I first came across the show during an evening channel surf session, my first thought was, “Is MTV showing a movie tonight?”  When I realized it was a reality show, I took this as a sign that the reality TV genre had come full circle.  Laguna Beach was literally the virtual “Real World”.  So now in 2006, the show that already playfully blurs boundaries between real and virtual in its formal presentation has a complementary virtual world in which viewers are encouraged, “Don’t just watch Laguna Beach – Live it!”

Another interesting thing about the television show Laguna Beach is its emphasis on evoking a very tangible sense of “place.”  The title of the show refers to a real-world California town and the show’s settings are meant to convey the essence of Laguna.  Local landmarks such as a lifeguard tower, sweeping views of the beach, and the PCH visually punctuate the more intimate interior settings of posh rooms, cars, nail salons and restaurants.  Much like the show itself, Virtual Laguna Beach is a carefully constructed group of settings that most successfully convey the “Laguna-ness” of Laguna.  The lifeguard tower, Main Beach, select Forrest Avenue shops, and other real world locations are all represented true to form in a more or less realistic setting.  Like a Cubist painting, each virtual element fits together in a way that is not quite geographically precise, but offers the viewer an abridged collection of recognizable Laguna landmarks.  In my opinion, this is an extremely important element of VLB.  For television fans, this level of detail and attention to the environment is a crucial marker of authenticity.  The thrill of recognition that occurs when encountering key settings from both previous and current shows is a key part of the experience for the hardcore Laguna Beach fan – “Look, this is the surf shop where Stephen worked!” or “Hey, this is the restaurant where my favorite cast members had that fight in Episode 1!” 

Another important fan-centric element of the VLB project is the way it will incorporate online episodic content that mirrors the show’s third season.  Specifically this means that each week the content and settings shown in the television show will be represented in the virtual world, as a correlative series of events.  For example, when the show’s cast members go to Winter Formal, a virtual Winter Formal will be held for fans in Virtual Laguna Beach.  This is not just instant fan gratification - it’s a way to encourage a whole new level of empathy, identification, and interaction with third season episodes. 

Not surprisingly, for a show that caters to a teenage and young adult audience, many of the key episodic events have to do with adolescent rites of passage such as formal dances, spring break and graduation.  These events are symbolically tied to key events in the typical American teen’s life and allow fans to virtually share cultural moments in parallel with the show.  Of course, they will bring their own points of view and experiences to the mix, and giving them the opportunity to do so will be a crucial part of the VLB experience.

VLB is the type of project that could probably only work in a social virtual world. While gaming-focused worlds like World of Warcraft, Everquest, or (perhaps a more accurate “entertainment brand” comparison) Star Wars Galaxies are more amenable to a personalized experience of an epic novel or cinematic hero’s journey, the open-endedness of a social world environment is more compatible with the more fragmented, closure-resistant format of episodic television.  Indeed, as a themed virtual space for fans of Laguna Beach to both consume MTV-produced content and produce their own content, Virtual Laguna Beach is the direct result of a net-fueled accelerated evolution of television fandom.  Fans have historically exhibited unparalleled mastery of the internet as a tool for cultural production.  Now there’s a virtual world that succinctly represents the new relationship between media producers and consumers.  The once-dreaded Mary Sue is no longer taboo.  In fact, here’s an entire virtual world that blatantly encourages the fans to become the stars of their own personal online dramas. 

I can’t wait to see what fans make of it.

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Chatting

Just saw a truly wonderful talk by Karrie Karahalios from UIUC about the relatively-understudied role of audio in social computing. She makes a compelling case for using social computing methods for visualizing and incorporating audio within the various social software systems that people are building.

Which was interesting because last night I was playing WoW in the same room as some of my guildies and also the leader of another guild. The most remarkable thing, for me, was the amount of Teamspeak voice chatter that the other guild engaged in. Our guild only ever uses Teamspeak for instances and raids, and so to hear the other guild just chatting was intriguing.

I don't know if this is correlated with expectations about roleplay--I know that Richard has a view about roleplay and voice--although I suspect that it's not necessarily related. Our guild is utterly uninterested in roleplay, but we just don't use TeamSpeak for non-instance play. I have no idea why this is so.

I also happen to know that Dmitri has done some studies about the role of voice in various metrics of play, and I don't want to steal his thunder. No doubt he'll tell us all about it in due course. But I've never thought about it before, and I think that I've been missing something significant.

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AAAS Conference

Greetings from St. Louis, where I had the opportunity yesterday to give a presentation about virtual worlds with fellow Terra Novans Cory Ondrejka, Josh Fairfield and Mike Sellers, at the annual conference for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).  Unfortunately I missed Cory’s presentation, which was moved to the morning session. Josh, Mike and I covered the afternoon session and it was quite a range of topics.

Josh spoke about legal and property issues (with great flair I might add) and included the obligatory WoW demo, which turned out to be an excellent tool for luring unsuspecting scientists into the room.  Actually, several attendees were already familiar with WoW and much pre-session WoW chat ensued.   

Mike switched gears to discuss emotions and AI, which not surprisingly seemed to resonate most strongly with a roomful of scientists.  He covered everything from historical and current theories in the field to ethical issues of AI and even threw in a visual demo of reputation systems and a disturbingly funny story about an agent named Stan who turned into bot-food for two other hungry agents.

My presentation was about advertising and branding in social virtual worlds. It wasn’t remotely scientific in any way, shape or form, but included an overview of ways in which social worlds are being used by corporate advertisers for ad campaigns along with an introduction to the new trend of member generated brands.  I’ve posted the presentation here for anyone interested. (Go to View --> Notes in the powerpoint to view the presentation notes).  Fair warning: the file is 8 MB.

My only regret was that I couldn’t attend the concurrent session on kids’ and teens’ uses of the internet by Henry Jenkins, danah boyd, Justine Cassell, Amanda Lenhart, and Dave Huffaker.  Happily, danah has blogged it and posted her presentation notes.       

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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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No thank you

Just to let all the spammers out there know - here at the TerraNova global media HQ, well at least in my palatial penthouse office suite, we are full to over flowing with prescription meds, genital extension / expansion  / engorgement aids, cheap mobile phones, low rate mortgage packages, offers to help out relatives of ex-high up people in far flung countries that just happen to have millions of dollars that they would love to entrust  to us (for a small admin fee of course). And personally I don’t have the time to meet potential brides from Russia, what with all the WoW playing and eBay’ing I need to do to pay for the hookers and crack.

So to this end - you, good readers, might notice that the comment section on threads mysteriously closes for no good reason. This is NOT because we have grown bored of the topic or think that the commentary we are getting is just not up to standard or an attempt to shut down on anyone's rights to yell at us.  It’s simply because certain threads seem to attract spam engines and get filled up with junk, junk that some might find offensive, so when this happens we will try to clear it out and then probably close comments. When this starts happening to a current thread one of us will try to trim out the spam so we can keep things going. 

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Tombstone Hold 'Em

This is only related to virtual worlds in the most tangential of ways, but some things just need to be blogged. This afternoon I got my first taste of alternate reality gaming, 4orty 2wo's "Last Call Poker." More specifically, I spent the afternoon at the Italian Cemetery playing "Tombstone Hold 'Em," a surprisingly fun poker variant that -- you guessed it -- can only be played at a cemetery. Full rules are here. It was a blast. Other than forgetting that Aces were high despite being mundane gravestones -- my team kept building King-high straights and flushes and getting pasted by danah's Ace-high straights and flushes -- it was a great way to spend an afternoon. In addition, as part of the game, various Last Call clues were dispensed and I'm sure the ARG community will be buzzing tonight.

Read on for more . . .

I'm not actually playing Last Call Poker -- I have nowhere near the time nor the energy to get into ARGing -- but it was interesting to chat with the folks who had met playing "I Love Bees" and were meeting in the real-world for the first time. Very reminiscent of the Second Life Community Convention. In fact, my one takeaway was that if you looked at the demographics of the folks who showed up to play Tombstone, that they looked remarkably like the SLCC attendees. In both cases, older and more gender balanced than the prototypical videogame audience.

While Tombstone Hold 'Em was created as part of an ARG, it's actually pretty fun. How else are you going to find yourself walking out of the BART station, noticing the dozen or so other folks carrying one flower? James Bond moments are just fun! Plus, graveyards are an enormous, untapped resource. They're big, open, interesting places -- even during daylight -- and the 60-odd players greatly outnumbered the other visitors (and, of those, over half were clearly art or photography students). Many of the players spent time pondering whether or not this was disrespectful and all were careful not to leave trash or game pieces lying around. Maybe I'm wrong -- hell, my body is going here after I attend one too many conferences -- but activities that actually use graveyards in a positive way might not be such a bad idea. When you watch where some brilliants folks are taking cell phone and mixed reality gaming, you can see the a whole new design space for games is just starting to be explored.

Even more exciting, games like EVA bring things full circle, creating alternate realities within virtual realities. Much like virtual-LARPing, repurposing public spaces within virtual worlds opens up interesting opportunities for play. It also opens up interesting EULArific questions. Would an ARG taking place within an MMO violate the EULA? Would an MMO operator generate more exposure by embracing or blocking an ARG? Would any mainstream ARG creator risk that potential conflict? No matter what, thanks and kudos to Jane and the rest of 42!

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Advice for the lovelorn

Dear Avvy

I'm sick with sadness and I need your advice. I don't think my player cares about me any more. After we first met I thought that the relationship would be wonderful. He spent lots of time with me, sending me mail, taking me to interesting places in Ironforge--the auctionhouse, the postbox just inside the commons, the bank. We even once went to the Great Forge (though I think he might have been lost). He was always showering me with gifts: first was 20 bales of wool, then a magic belt, 6 linen bags, and some gnoll spittle. I thought "this is the real thing!!!11!!"

But since then things have deteriorated. We never go anywhere except the bank, the auctionhouse, the postbox, then the auctionhouse, and back to the postbox. But even worse than this, I think that he has another avatar on the side. He makes me wire money to her, money that I've earned in the auctionhouse through my own hard efforts. I think that he's just using me.

I don't want to give him up, but I can't go on like this. I'd like to take the relationship to the next level, but I wait and wait, and never hear a "ding".

What can I do?

Yours in desperation

Mule (lvl 1)

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Off the Beaten Path

From the “It’s not always about WoW” department, here’s a heads up about several interesting worlds that came onto my radar while adding them to the Virtual Worlds Review lineup this year.

Dreamville is an English-language social networking site created by a Korean company based in Malaysia.  I was excited to find Dreamville because it offered a non-Korean-speaker like me a glimpse into the setup and structure of sites like Cyworld. The heart of Dreamville is its “hompy” network - homepages combining photo galleries, blogs, friend lists, and a whole slew of other features.  The virtual world piece, called Theme Park, is sort of tacked on almost as an afterthought, but much like the web site it’s practically exploding with anime-inspired eye candy. While Dreamville offers pre-made avatar outfit and background packages for hompy pages, users can receive higher “score” point totals along with higher social capital within the community for original combinations in monthly avatar contests.  As mentioned in my review of Dreamville, there are some usability issues related to poor IA design and the use of two separate currencies for item purchases.  Still, it’s an interesting attempt to merge a VW element with a social networking offering.

Netherlands-based whyrobbierocks is a flashy fashion-themed 2D world chock full of avatar selections based on Hollywood and Euro-sport celebrity culture, even offering specific celebrity avatars in the store area.  (Witness the Justin Timberlake av which is offered along with a Cameron Diaz girlfriend.) But rather than using the celeb avs strictly as offered, WRR users tend to poach elements from them to customize their own avatar creations.  Another interesting thing about WRR is that these tailored avs are also meant to be used as identity signifiers outside of the world as well, with tools to help users convert them to email signature files, mobile wallpapers and MSN icons. Forget elves and jedis. Now you know where to go should you ever feel the need to incorporate a little JLo or Paris Hilton into your next avatar look.


Sora City piqued my interest because it’s the first virtual world I’ve heard of that exists entirely in mobile space. That’s right, all interaction in this mostly-text/some-graphics world takes place through players’ mobile phones.  Sora City has incorporated a few basic social networking features like friendship groups called “crews” and character blogs. Curiously, Sora characters regularly post their own blog messages, leading to the odd feeling that your little virtual mobi-av has been possessed by a young sassy stranger.  Sora City is described as a place where you can “be yourself … or who you’ve always wanted to be” with identity selections such as DJ, socialite, athlete, and geek.  This description succinctly captures the social-vw phenomenon of avatar identities as idealized and often stereotypical RL personas, and it certainly speaks to the way in which the drama of everyday social interaction is the game in these worlds.

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From the Mouths of Babes

My two-year-old son said said something interesting yesterday. He had just made his own MOG character for the first time - surprisingly easy, and this was EQII, not WoW or YPP - and he was running around and figuring out targeting. He highlighted a snake or a rat or something, and I pressed the 'attack' button. The combat sequence scared him, though, so I turned his guy around and ran off. But I did that only after standing there with my mouth open for a second. Because he didn't say 'turn the game off' or 'help my guy' or 'what do I do'. He said 'Get me out of here.'

Perhaps because of his still-uncluttered appreciation of reality, he was already mentally immersed in the virtual world. He was already in there

Nate and others have talked about their kids. Anyone else have child or family  stories?

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My Other Car is Made of Meat

The estimable Cory D alerts us to the fact that my favorite almost-MMOG, Kingdom of Loathing, is now merchandising the hell out of itself.

Ah, the pleasures of meat...

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Playing Alone

I took a header off my bike earlier this week, but luckily I was traveling at speed on blacktop and my face broke my fall.

This resulted in a couple of new developments in my life: some pleasantly-unflappable surgeons kindly sewed my lips back on me, and then they introduced me to Percoset (aka ocycodone). I cannot begin to tell you how much I love this drug. But that is for another day.

The combination of the drug-induced reverie, large amounts of time recuperating in bed wondering whether I will always speak like Sylvester Stallone, and the facial damage naturally got me thinking about what everyone thinks about in these situations: yes, instanced worlds and the films "Abre los Ojos" & "Vanilla Sky".

The films are essentially the same, except that Cameron Crowe's English-language version of Alejandro Amenábar's Spanish film is less successful, largely due to Crowe's overly-sycophantic reliance on Amenábar's original and of course the presence in the English version of the hideous Cameron Diaz. (But I digress: Perkies do that do you...but while I'm digressing can I urge you immediately to rent Amenábar's "Mar Adentro"/"The Sea Inside". The range and ability demonstrated by Amenábar and his screenwriter, Mateo Gil, makes me feel ill with jealousy. Amenábar also directed "The Others" in between these two films, which I found less interesting, though still beautiful, smart, and inspired: together these three films represent an unbelievable batting streak that makes A-list Hollywood directors look like they're playing in the bush leagues. Ok, end of digressions. "Honey, could you take these pills away for a bit? Um, just take them out of the room for, maybe 20 minutes or so, then bring them straight back. Ok, 15 minutes, I'll type as fast as the grazes will allow.")

So the films [Spoiler Alert] are about a rich guy who can't deal with his hideous facial injuries, enrols himself in life extension program, then offs himself, and has his head/body preserved in the life extension facility until modern medicine can cure him; all the while partaking of a simulated reality/dream that takes up just prior to the point where he kills himself. We see the story through the chronology that he experiences, and we have to work out how/why various things that can't be true are happening to him. How can it be that we have to experience the grotesque Cameron Diaz again? Didn't she die in the accident? Is he mad? Are his wicked partners behind the illusion? Etc etc.

His waking-dream is, of course, not far from the topic of this blog, virtual worlds. But it's a specific example of virtual world design, one that is fairly recent: I'm talking about instanced worlds. As anyone who plays newer-style MMOGs has experienced, there is a trend away from wholly persistent worlds, where the content is available to all, to instanced environments where players are locked away from the rest of the world. You find this all over the place: in City of Heroes, where I've been playing recently, most of the tasty, high-xp villains are found in missions that happen within buildings, and are available only to those in your team. At higher levels, "taskforces" are where the instances occur, and teams can expect to be locked away incommunicado from the rest of the world for hours. In the endgame of World of Warcraft it's pretty much all instances (or so teh ueb3r Tim Burke tells me). There are lots of game design reasons for instancing, including appropriate balancing protagonist/antagonist levels, easier continuity and content control, and so on.

My Percoset-induced rambling is to wonder whether instancing of the kind seen in "Abre los Ojos"--ie a virtual world built just for you, with everything revolving around your needs, and interests--is the sort of environment that we will inevitably see emerging. I suspect that it will be. One only has to look around at the desire of the affluent to have every whim catered to--gated communities, high-end shopping malls, hand-stitched leather seats in SUVs--that an obvious endpoint is to have the entire world revolve around you. Which is to say that instancing is a likely wave/world of the future.

The social issues that emerge from this will obviously be challenging. We've seen various commentators decry the collapse of communities in real life, for example and most obviously Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone". Cass Sunstein took up the issue in "Republic.com" and suggested that perfect filtering and the availability of just-what-I-want on the Internet would prove socially corrosive. I thought this was nonsense, but my argument against Sunstein was that he didn't understand filters or the social/cognitive psychology that he relied on. I didn't suggest that there won't be effects from specialization of information. I think that instancing, if it becomes ubiquitous and if large swathes of the population choose this over living with others, could easily generate unexpected social effects of the kind that Putnam and others suggest. It will have implications for democratic theory, especially those theories of democracy that find its political legitimacy in a well-informed demos (so-called "deliberative democracy"). It will also test whether people actually want to live together, or whether they'd just prefer to live alone (with the illusion of others around, but where everyone else is either an NPC to help them in their little instance, or a nicely-rendered texture-map to titillate or admire).

I don't have any idea how this will play out.

But I do know that I'm due another pill.

"Honey!..."

Comments (39)

The Matrix Online: Live Action?

Seth Sivak of gametruth.org reminds us that Matrix Online has been launched, and points us to what might be a unique feature or might be just dressed-up GM'ing: Actors who will play out narrative sequences live. While I can almost hear the eyes of the MUD-Dev-ers rolling, Seth asks some good questions about this.

Seth writes:
"I find it interesting that no one has mentioned much about Matrix Online since it
launched.  I realize it is still early but I found this particularly fascinating:

"Since the close of the beta, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment announced
that it has employed a troupe of 20-odd people whose job it will be to enact
narrative scenarios in The Matrix Online live. These people will assume the
roles of popular characters, interact with players, and generally move the
stories in ways that only live 'actors' can." - Gamespy.com

I think this idea of hiring actors to roleplay in games is very interesting.  I
know this idea is not very new but the way it is implemented seems a bit
radical.  This topic brought many questions into my head and I wondered if the
Terra Nova community had any thoughts or answers.

The obvious question first: Can this approach work?  Will it make the game more
realistic or beleivable?

Some other thoughts are: 

What would be the fallout if this backfires?
How does this compare to the more traditional way of moving a story forward by
having an "event"?
Is this strategy effective considering an actor can only interact with a select
few players?
Could this idea be expanded to make a Virtual World more real?  How far could it
or should it go?"

Comments (54)

Skimpy Armor: Hawt, Skanky, or Indecent?

A debate has erupted about avatar-clothing options in World of Warcraft [insert obligatory fanboi disclaimer here]. What obligations do the developers have in terms of clothing options? Suppose the uber gear is indecent according to the standards of some appropriately defined community. Is it a problem? For extra credit - was this an issue in text-based MUDs (everything was, I think), and how was it handled?

Comments (46)

An Adventurer is Me

It's the holidays and so, of course, I've been playing more Kingdom of Loathing than is strictly good for me. It's a hoot, and well worth the $0 monthly fee, and a few things struck me:

First off, it's not really a MMOG/VW. It has pretty much all of the features that we expect in MMOGs these days--adventures, drops, PvP, marketplaces, meat-themed skill-trees, etc etc--but there's something missing. Maybe it's the absence of 3D or 2.5D graphics (or pretty much any graphics, come to think of it) or the fact that you can't adventure with anyone at all. Or maybe it's because you are explictly limited to 40 adventures a day. But whatever it is, it just isn't a VW, and I don't feel bad about not including it in the list of large VWs on the left of your screen, even though it has around 100K players. So I wonder what it takes for a game to be a MMOG/VW? What are the necessary & sufficient conditions?

Second, it seems to me that there are a helluva lot of MMORPGs that could use a sense of humor. It's odd how even boring grinds become tolerable when there is a warped sense of humor behind the design ("You are fighting a possesed can of asparagus--it tries to asparastab you in the leg", etc). I mean, I generally don't care when I see a new monster in a MMOG, because it's mostly more of the same. But with KoL I actually read the details of the combat, and find myself chuckling a lot.

Then there's the situation that I encountered today, which I still don't really understand. I've been playing along for about the last 3 weeks and have managed to grind my way up to level 4, and have about 1000 meat (which is the currency of the world). Yet when I check the stats of others at my level, they've been playing for about 3 days and have 500,000 meat. So either I'm really really bad at this game, or they've been getting some help. Since they're usually clanned-up (ie guildmembers) I'm assuming that they've been given most of their meat/stuff. At first I was really pissed off at this, which is my usual first response to eBayers and their eval ilk. And then I wondered why anyone would bother. I mean, what is there to gain in this? Which is my usual second response to eBayers and sad ilk. Of course there's no correct solution here. It doesn't really matter to my gameplay if someone else has a kentucky-fried sword, even if they don't somehow "deserve" it. But it's kinda interesting in a game as centred on the individual as KoL that (1) there is a lot of twinking going on, and (2) I should be even-a-little bit pissed off by it.

Anyway, that's enough for this posting. Gotta go smith some meat.

Comments (47)

Virtual Architecture

[Ed: Posted on behalf of Stanislav Roudavski]

I need some advice please.

What interesting examples of virtual architecture (i.e. spatial structure of the game-world) do you know of? To explain, I am not interested in style, or in picturesque backdrops, or in realism. Not for their own sake. Rather, I am looking for examples where spatial structures are designed (or gradually grown) to respond to and guide in-world behaviour.

Of course one could say that this is an inescapable situation. And I would have to agree. So, to give an idea what I mean - a couple of examples:

Say in Half-Life 2, I move through a single possible path encountering system-like puzzles. The way the world looks is largely irrelevant to what I do. It is in fact a distraction. The progress depends on the ability of reducing the environment to its functional essentials.

It is different in Counter-Strike. Distances, heights and fields of view are that much more meaningful here. Meaningful largely through the functionality of my weapons, to be sure. Still, a variety of tactical behaviours is possible. The spatial structures can be appropriated in different ways. But again, the look of the buildings is largely irrelevant. I learn the valuable properties of places via multiple repeated attempts.

On one hand this is much like, say, tennis. Take an existing pattern of behaviour (a free ball-play) and restrict it to enable and encourage certain patterns. Spatial constraints are part of the rule-set. Players are free to practice with other players. Through practice, they learn what they can do within the constraints. This knowledge is individual, visceral and unstable. Without regular competitive practice it degrades. (I know that tennis history/theory is more complex then my description).

Let’s compare Counter-Strike places with another competitive practice – orienteering. In orienteering, a set of rules makes the fair comparison of in-place performance possible. But the appropriation of space has a different focus than in tennis. People indeed rely on training but in each competition they are presented with a new place and a new challenge. Therefore, their preparation is of a different kind. It is more to do with their general knowledge of natural landscapes and moving through them. (I know that orienteers use maps, i.e. systems and that their competitions do not venture out of the comfortable pastoral places).

Counter-Strike (and many other games) is a bit like orienteering, but only a bit. The appearances are usually disconnected from functionality as given by space. In the “real-world” I can infer a lot from the experiential structure of the city even if I have not been to the place before. The same is true about landscapes. I have knowledge and experiential capacities to deal with spatial situations, both learned and innate. In games, I have to rely on my game-system knowledge more then on my world-knowledge and this is a recipe for clichés.

More random examples.

Say, we have Rez: interesting – a set of spatialized rules in their purified form. Have to play it more.

Or Star Wars Galaxies: again interesting, complex worlds with complex internal logic. Still, most of buildings and cities there are not much more than sets of buttons. Their structure and look matter little even on the urban scale, not talking about extremely schematic interior spaces (note: I am not saying that this is necessarily a problem).

Then there are strategy games, but these are openly treated as systems. Axonometric, grid-based, etc. A player’s (e.g. my) engagement with them is predominantly intellectual, not experiential. The link with the “real-world” embodied experience is weak. I actually do find them extremely interesting (and, yes, I do like chess and go as you can predict from my name).

I only know that many games. But I hear all kind of exciting things of MMOGs (e.g Lineage, Pentacore), IF games, etc. And I want to know more.

Now to architecture.

Well, I do not think architecture is “a play of light and shadows”. Or “frozen music”. It is even not enough to say that “form follows function” or that “a house is a machine for living”. I’d say that it is about organising (and responding to) human behaviour. There are interesting contemporary efforts in this direction. I shall mention two:

Theoretically, you can have a look at Bill Hillier’s work on Space Syntax: http://www.spacesyntax.com/

Practically, there is a strong contemporary movement that is trying to respond to the processes when making structures (or making them mobile). For this, you can have a look at Ambient Amplifiers Project by Ocean North in the Urban section on their web site: http://www.ocean-north.net/

To round it all up. I would be very interested to hear if you can suggest examples of non-trivial use of virtual architecture (spatial design) in games (or virtual worlds) and hint at how you think it affects player-behaviour. I am particularly interested in the games that use full 3D representations but suspect that there might be rewarding examples elsewhere as well.

Stanislav Roudavski
Cambridge University
Digital Studios & Moving Image Studio (CUMIS)
1 Bene't Place, Lensfield Road
Cambridge CB2 1EL, UK
http://www.arct.cam.ac.uk/cumis/
http://www.stanislavroudavski.net

Comments (30)

World of Warcraft Scenery

I've played many MMOs over the past few years (EQ, DAoC, SWG, RO, CoH), but I've never felt compelled to take screenshots of anything in them. But since I started playing WoW last week, I found myself constantly taking screenshots because of how gorgeous the scenes were. I've put the screenshots up (3 pages of thumbnails) and just wanted to share them.

These screenshots are totally unenhanced, but I do run the game using the "Full Glow Effect" option.

Comments (38)

Nation-Time and Newspaper Criticism

Grand Text Auto discusses a really fascinating report by Carnegie-Mellon computer scientist Randy Pausch on the internal corporate culture of Electronic Arts.

There's a lot to talk about in the report, and I may return to it here for a later entry. But my attention was drawn by a fairly peripheral point in the document--that many within EA resent the general attention within the business community and in the wider culture to companies like Pixar or even Microsoft whose size, market capitalization and/or economic performance are actually smaller than EA. This seems to me to touch on something far bigger than EA or its economic success.

Games researchers in general are keenly aware of the degree to which the economic importance of games still does not fully translate into a perceived cultural or even business centrality in the US or the global economy overall. There are a lot of reasons for this, but I want to focus on one: the lack of a usefully  critical, thoughtful mode of games criticism published in newspapers and major magazines in the US.

Even newspapers that do not stoop to have a comics section could scarcely imagine going without a film critic. Even the fact that universally negative reviews from newspaper and magazine critics can rarely dissuade audiences from going to certain films does not keep the studios and many observers of the film industry from avidly reading and tracking mainstream middlebrow film criticism.

Mainstream film critics range from sycophantic bubbleheads who have never seen a film they did not like--not to mention the quasi-fictional critics-for-hire whose pithy recommendations pop up in the advertisements for Grade-Z reject films like "Gigli"--to critics who are notorious for the length, aggressiveness and critical sharpness of their reviews.

That range notwithstanding, the important thing here is that even small-town newspapers and light-content magazines often feel the need to deliver film criticism to their readership. Benedict Anderson's famous work on the history of nationalism, Imagined Communities, is especially well-known for its account of how the perceived simultaneity of the act of reading newspapers in a number of nation-states helped to create the sense of one people united in their understanding of events and culture. In the United States in particular, the reception of film became an important component of that simultaneity--not just the watching of film itself, but the understanding that the nation was watching films, and its citizens experiencing key movies together through the medium of newspaper or mass media criticism. We were reminded of what we had seen, and what we might think of what we had seen, and took that with us to the water-coolers and parties where the subject of our nights in the cinema could be further discussed and digested.

That's one part of why Pixar is a bigger deal than EA, and The Incredibles  more important as a moment in national (indeed, global) experience of mass culture than Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Yes, of course it is also that the viewership for blockbuster films cuts across many demographics, while the audience for GTA, though huge, is concentrated among males under 35. Still, I would argue that the lack of a popularly circulated genre of substantive middlebrow criticism directed at games and published in newspapers and major popular magazines is both a sign and a cause of the relatively diminished status of games within the central narratives of national and global culture. There are exceptions: the "Game Theory" column in the New York Times and Steven Poole's writing for The Guardian come easily to mind. But for the most part, when newspapers or magazines like Entertainment Weekly write about games, they write about them in short blurbish articles which appear to have been sent straight from the publicity department of game publishers, in breathlessly superficial, hype-infested prose. Games, for most journalistic outlets in the US, don't seem to justify or require anything more than that.

Obviously I disagree with that assessment, and writers like Poole and J.C. Herz have shown how unjustified it is. But it's an interesting cart-and-horse problem. Do you get a compelling and widespread form of mainstream games criticism only when the demographic of a national population that plays games becomes less isolated, or could the commitment of journalistic resources to developing a games criticism that matches the breadth, relative depth or resource base of film criticism help to write games more visibly into national narratives of popular culture, in line with their economic significance?

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Field trip to Avalon

With Fizik's permission I've posted screen shots from my recent tour of Avalon in Second Life.

The first three shots show the Mrs. Jones clothing gallery. An avid Mrs. Jones collection wearer was nice enough to model a few pieces for me. And yes, most of them would give the wearer very unusual tan lines in RL ;)

The remaining images relate to Avalon's artists in residence. They have living quarters and a sculpture garden with some interesting pieces. The most intriguing one is a cat surrounded by a flock of birds. It looks like a still sculpture, but Fizik told me it's actually a moving sculpture with an extremely slow motion setting. You can't see the sculpture moving but every time you come back it's progressed to a different position. The early 20th century Italian futurist movement lives on in 2L.

I didn't really get a shopping mall vibe from Avalon. The Mrs. Jones gallery was definitely commercial in the sense that there were logos and products prominently placed throughout, but it felt more like a funky SoHo boutique than your average American mall.

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Good Grief

There are no grief players, only players that grief – discuss.

This pithy conundrum came up during an after hours discussion following Richard Bartle’s presentation at ComWork last Friday (thx to TL and all at the IT University of Copenhagen’s Games Research bit for putting on the event).

Bartle’s presentation concerned the relationship between game design and player behaviour, eventually taking into account the interrelated nature of ‘real world’ culture, virtual world culture, players and designers – phew.

During the talk he made reference to a group of players that would descend on a new MMO Beta, play it dry (my words), then move to the next. That is, Bartle seemed to be making a very strong link between people and play styles.

Flipping to Chapter 3 of Designing Virtual Worlds one seems to detect a similar strong identification of individual with behaviour – there are Achievers, Killers, Socializes and Explorers.

Which got us thinking about the difference between types of person and types of behaviour – do we have to give up on the idea that players fall these archetypes and consider the alternative view that players exhibit certain of these behaviours in certain contexts (admitting that indeed some players do tend to exhibit particular behaviours a lot of the time, but that these may be on the further edges of the distribution).

Would such a move enrich all types of analysis of virtual worlds or is it in fact the very same view that Bartle is espousing and are we just counting angles on the end of a pin here.

To give a concrete example of why I think this might matter – in design terms it seems to boil down to whether one attempts to design grief out of a game (change people's behaviour) or to discourage griefers (change the people).

Comments (45)

Release Me

When is the best time of year to release an MMORPG?

Major single player games all seem to come out for the Christmas buying spree; film releases seem to be timed to coincide with school holidays - but MMORPGs don’t seem to fall into any seasonal pattern at all.

The dates of this years big name releases are: The Saga of Ryzom - 16th June, The Matrix Online - 1 July, World of Warcraft - 30th August, Wish - 1st October. In between these we have: Ultima X: Odyssey, Guild Wars, Mutant Chronicles, Face of Mankind, Warhammer Online etc etc.

The only pattern I can see is publishers are avoiding releasing games on the same day - other than that the logic defeats me. I can see an argument for an Autumn release in the northern hemisphere as the nights start to draw in and a virtual sun becomes more appealing - but publishers don’t seem to be biting on this.

Then again are MMORPGs really released these days?

We go from small alpha to closed beta to open beta to – now start paying for it, by this time the basic community has formed the PR is out.

So perhaps the usual logic of consumer product release just does not apply. Timing is in fact based on a balance between gaining as much information as you can from trials (including the critical go / no-go decision) then getting the cash flowing in as quickly as possible.

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v-currency = e-money = clean money ?

Back to ducks… it has been argued that virtual items (including gold pieces, credits etc) might look so much like property that they would be considered to be property. Certainly they are used as if they were.

When it comes to money the EC has provided a handy definition of exactly what it considers e-money to be and hence what organizations it feels it has to regulate, but what if people even worse that eBayers start to utilise virtual goods to move value around the world?


In the snappily titled Directive 2000/46/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 18 September 2000 on the taking up, pursuit of and prudential supervision of the business of electronic money institutions Official Journal L 275 , 27/10/2000 P. 0039 – 0043 (.pdf). The EU defines e-money as:

    3. For the purposes of this Directive:
    (b) "electronic money" shall mean monetary value as represented by a claim on the issuer which is:
    (i) stored on an electronic device;
    (ii) issued on receipt of funds of an amount not less in value than the monetary value issued;
    (iii) accepted as means of payment by undertakings other than the issuer.

In the UK this Directive is starting to hit mobile operators as premium rate SMS messaging, a neat micro-payment solution, looks like it is going to fall under the directive. This means premium SMS providers look like they we be considered to be just like banks, which slams them into whole set of regulation. Regulation that has recently become even more complex as paranoia about terrorist money laundering increases.

Looking at the wording of the directive your virtual gold piece of light sabre seems like it falls outside the e-money definition – others may disagree with this of course. However, virtual items might provide a neat way of moving value around the world for fair means of foul - which could get all kinds of people interested in virtual worlds.

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Worlds within worlds within…

Questions first:
(1) Can this description of this game be true?
(2) Would any sane person play it?
(3) If they did, would they need counselling later?

.hack / infection (Dev: CyberConnect2, Pub: Bandai / Atari, Plat: PS2) is an RPG with a plot centred on a fictional MMORPG.

So you’re a single player, playing the character of person that is playing a character in a multi-player game, replete with fictional friends that want to trade with you, I mean your character, I mean your character's character – ohh I need a lie down.

... and if anyone even mentions the Matrix they get a /slap.

Comments (8)

Design Query: Inserting New Users in Ongoing Stories

Question for the hive mind: Isn't it the case in table top RPing that there are ways of inserting a new player into an ongoing campaign? Argo, Flim, and Buxley are all level 12 and find themselves deep in the Caverns of Crud, when Balabad somehow shows up, not as a level 1 newbie but as a level 12 character with appropriate gear. What are the stories used to avoid breaking the fiction?

See, one claim among MMORPG RP-ers is that you can't have eBaying because it breaks the immersion. I've said that myself, but I am having doubts. Are there stories that would support the appearance of new high-level characters in Camelot's RvR or EQ's dragon raiding? If so, then game companies can just internalize the eBaying in the game, by selling premium content immediately at premium prices.

[Disclaimer: I don't think MUD-Dev has dealt with this from the eBaying perspective. I may be wrong, though.]

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Database of Intentions

John Battelle has a Very Big Idea. It's called the Database of Intentions, and his take on it is something like this:

The Database of Intentions is simply this: The aggregate results of every search ever entered, every result list ever tendered, and every path taken as a result. It lives in many places, but three or four places in particular hold a massive amount of this data (ie MSN, Google, and Yahoo). This information represents, in aggregate form, a place holder for the intentions of humankind - a massive database of desires, needs, wants, and likes that can be discovered, supoenaed, archived, tracked, and exploited to all sorts of ends. Such a beast has never before existed in the history of culture, but is almost guaranteed to grow exponentially from this day forward. This artifact can tell us extraordinary things about who we are and what we want as a culture. And it has the potential to be abused in equally extraordinary fashion.

The issue for this blog is, of course, what should we make of a putative "Virtual World Database of Intentions"?

Battelle raises concerns and opportunities with the DBoI that stem from searches. Surely there are even more interesting questions when, as in VWs, the amount of information about user intentions is so much greater. We've discussed privacy concerns previously, and I don't necessarily want to reheat that discussion. Though of course commentators are free to muse on whatever aspect of this they like.

But I think Battelle is onto a different idea, and one potentially more interesting.

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On Oscar

The annual film awards show is wrapping up here in LA and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King has won in 10 of the 11 categories in which it was nominated, with only Best Picture to go [Edit: It just got best picture too]. Earlier in the night, I was watching the awards for things like Sound Editor and Visual Effects. The recipients there wore tuxedos and glamorous gowns, just like the actors and actresses, but they also had more of a techy look to them, as if the clothes didn't exactly fit. I imagined that is what game developers might look like, were there an Oscars for games. There are game awards, of course; we're looking forward to the next round at GDC next month. Still, the contrast between that ceremony and the star-studded gala on Hollywood Boulevard is striking.

Yes, game software and hardware now outsell Hollywood's box office. Games may even have more overall impact on behavior than movies. But games don't have anywhere near as much cultural whuffie as the movies. Not even close. Why not?

[Disclaimer: every idea in this post has probably already been written down by a ludologist. I haven't done my homework, and know absolutely nothing about games as art. I'm sure that will become obvious in a moment anyway.]

Perhaps it is a personality issue. In the movies, we focus on actors, who are people. In games, we are the actors; the cultural icon that ends up being shared is either an autonomous software agent, or, a la Lara Croft, a costume or shell or vehicle of ourselves. The people we connect to in games aren't people, and they can't add glitz to an award ceremony or grace the covers of tabloid papers with their depressingly ordinary personal crises. No glitz, no whuffie.

Perhaps its a time-and-tradition effect. Movies are over 100 years old. Hollywood can show a reel of the great people who have died in the last year, and it's actually pretty long and has people on it who flourished so very long ago that it seems like they were filming on another planet. At best, the game industry could show a reel of guys who have turned 40, and even that wouldn't be very long. Oscar only came along in 1928 and wasn't a big deal until talkies. Maybe games still have several decades to go.

Or maybe it has something to do with the state of the art itself. I've cried at movies, but I've never cried during a videogame (well, lag death almost drove me to tears once, but that's not the kind of crying I am talking about). I've never laughed out loud at something in a game. Hell, I'm happy if the words make sense and are properly spelled. When do we feel more immersed in Tolkien's thought-world: when Rohan's armies thunder down upon the orcs in Return of the King, or when we camp the Crushbone orcs in EverQuest? It's really rather shocking that games can attract so much of our time when they do a comparatively pitiful job of engaging our emotions. Every game I've ever played reads like a very, very bad movie. Yet somehow it is still more enticing than a film, to me at least. But still - the games don't grab your heart the way the movies do. No heart-grabbing, no whuffie.

But maybe this is itself an unfair assessment. Let's compare Lord of the Rings to early silent films, those ones where everybody's walking around like a penguin and gesturing like a guy on crack. OK, Rohan's armies win that one too, but it makes a lot of sense. It's not about the medium. It's about the accumulated capital being devoted to the medium. ROTK cost $94 million to make. Imagine $94 million put into a four-hour game. Imagine further a mature game production industry, with decades of accumulated human capital - hands-on experience, passed on from generation to generation - to deploy toward making stuff that people laugh and cry about. They have this thing called the 'Hollywood ending,' an ending that gives people the feelings they want to have. How does Hollywood know what this ending is? Tradition.

The emotional impact of games today is wimpy. But just wait. This little garage-and-basement industry is growing up, fast. Wait until its notions of what works and what doesn't become deep, wide, and fairly settled. And wait until they can draw revenues from billions and billions of customers, as the movies do. The day will come when we thunder down upon the orcs ourselves, in person, more or less. Can even Oscar withstand such a charge?

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Survey Request: Mobile Phones and Gaming

right.gifJason Rutter's group at University of Manchester is doing a study on mobile phones and games. Please take their survey here. You could win one of these.

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Power To The People

Ok, I promise, this will be my last post this week on politics in-world:

Andrew Phelps, over at Corante's Got Game reports on the killing in Everquest of Kerafyrm, also known as The Sleeper. This supposedly unkillable beast was defeated by in a battle that "...lasted approximatively 3 hours and about 170-180 players from Rallos Zek's top 3 guilds were involved." The Sleeper was designed to be practically unkillable, with a mind-boggling hundred billion hitpoints.

Ok, so now tell me that political direct action (and concerted-and-centrally controlled user response from within guilds) is not a powerful, undesigned feature of these games.

What to make of this I have only the vaguest idea. But never let it be said that the people don't have power over the gods. They just need to be given the appropriate challenge.

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Social Histories

After noting Ted's post on The Alpahville Herald, I had a look at their mission statement. Very interesting, especially (at least for me) inasmuch as they're doing something very different from us here: they're documenting the social history of one world and indeed one shard of that world. In years to come social historians, theorists, statisticians, economists, etc etc etc will all give thanks for resources such as these: deeply embedded accounts of what actually happens in-world. As Ted has noted elsewhere, it's really really hard to do research in these worlds, because they're so opaque to non-participant inveestigation.

Which leads me to ask whether there are other local histories or social accounts of various worlds. Where does one go to find out, for example, about the economic system of AC2, the social stratification of AO, the politics of There? My off-the-top-of-the-head list would include accounts of lambdamoo (and not forgetting Julian), EQ (though there are a number in this category), UO, Second Life, and now TSO. And there are the various gameboards like IGN or Stratics that are helpful but involve a lot of wading (not to mention pushing up the gain on the l33t-filters)

So where else is the social history of these worlds being written?

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Engines of Creation: Pursuit of Knowledge

As many will know, Dave Rickey, a regular contributor here and game designer at Mutable Realms, has a column over at Skotos.net. It's a great resource generally, and this week he's talking about how academic interest (like this blog) in MMOGs may translate to problems in the long run for game designers and worlds.

It's a fascinating read. Comments probably should be directed to the forum at skotos, since that's where Dave posted his essay. But I'll leave the comments open here, in case there is some reason why posting here is an alternative for some.

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Economic Models

Some time ago Ted mentioned how simplistic the economics of game worlds tend to be (I wish I could find his comment). The obvious area where this can seen is in the faucet-drain economic model of resource movement which we've discussed elsewhere, but I'm sure there are a number of other examples that people can think of.

One that occurs to me is the observation that we found massive hoarding of resources as soon as people were able to own virtual property. So, as Raph Koster explained to Elizabeth Koster and she told everyone, entire resource systems were broken in UO almost immediately and one guy ended up owning 10,000 identical shirts, because...well, because he liked having lots of shirts. The observation that a virtual resource would be subject to the endowment effect would have been unremarkable at a behavioral economics conference, but it came as something of an unpleasant shock for Origin Systems.

Alternatively one can fairly easily make the case that eBaying arises as a consequence of a poorly developed economic model that fails to capture (internally) the value of the resources within the system.

A few thoughts/questions/ideas for the TN collective intelligence:

1. Are there other examples of simple economic models which have caused (or are causing) grief? I imagine there must be, I just haven't scoured the literature (Oh, that's right, there isn't any "literature". We're making it here).

2. Does it actually matter if a developer screws up the economics, or has an overly simplistic model? Sure, some assets or classes or other aspect of the world are gonna get nerfed and Dave or Raph are gonna have to pull a few all-nighters re-balancing their worlds. But, so what?

I suspect that a tentative answer to question 2 is "it depends", and it depends on whether the world is economically self-contained. A while back I was talking to Will Harvey, the founder of There. We happened to be discussing how There saw themselves, in part, like a themepark where third party providers could build content/games/etc (Second Life are similar in this) and these third parties got to keep a percentage of the money that they attracted to their attraction. Since there is an official Therebucks<->$USD exchange rate, this is real money. Under these circumstances a simple "re-balancing" is gonna involve very, very, serious redistributions of real money

Golly.

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Dictionary

I'm looking to put together a glossary of unusual gaming/vw terms. It's hard to do academic work in this area when everybody keeps inventing new terms. You feel like an idiot when a friend says "So I was hanging out in UO, pulled a twink, then went afk, and they did a wipe and I found my Morningstar-of-Extraordinarily-Crushing-Damage had been nerfed!" And you say, "Right..."

So, anybody want to give me terms and definitions that should be included in a dictionary that the media and television arm of TerraNova Enterprises, Inc. might publish?

My current favorite candidates include:

"twink" (v/n) the action of a higher-level player helping a lower level player rather than the lower level player doing everything themselves. Usually means providing higher-level assets (swords, rares, etc) than the lower level character could obtain themselves. Often used where a single person has multiple avatars at different levels, and has the higher level avatar provide the asset to his/her lower level avatar. Source: Koster, LegendMUD, UrbanDictionary. (Not to be confused with "twink" in non-gaming, sexual contexts)

"nerf" (v, trans) the action of developers reducing the strength of an in-game asset where the asset is too powerful and unbalances other parts of the game. Arose when swords in UO were rebalanced and the characters felt they were hitting each other with nerf swords. Source: Koster, LegendMUD, UrbanDictionary.

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SE Asia, Gaming and the Future of MMORPGS

So I've been catching up on some required reading, to wit, the entire corpus of the slides from the first Austin Game Conference. Too much fabulous stuff to list here, so let's pick one at a time.

The reading for today's sermon is from John Lee, Director Corporate Development and Strategy, Softbank Corporation, and is an "Overview of the NE Asia online gaming market - China, Japan and Korea". As we've noted elsewhere, as outsiders it's hard to get a handle on what is happening in the gaming world in SE Asia. Of course there's the standard texts and commentary which, understandably, are almost always about South Korea, PC baangs, and Lineage.

Lee's overview covers Korea, Japan and China, and this latter market is the most interesting one for me, since I've seen so little on it. Some personal highlights:

  • 68M Internet users and counting
  • Similar dynamic to Korea in 1998, principal usage in PC cafes, not household
  • Primary users in inner China, where no alternative forms of entertainment exist
  • Average Chinese Internet user spends 14 hours a week online, 8 hours of it gaming
  • Concurrent usage for #1 game in China is currently 800,000 users!

Apart from the numbers, I'm interested in the nature of the gaming in SE Asia as against the US. Clearly there are differences in the communal nature of the gaming (in PC baangs or PC cafes) and also in cultural differences between these Asian countries and Western countries. At the risk of being ridiculously coarse and ludicrously coarse-grained, the US (and to a lesser extent) emphasizes the individual as an atomistic, independent actor, whereas the asian nations tend to emphasize the individual as an actor within a community. This goes some way to explaining why Lineage and other MMORPGs that emphasize communal action are so successful in Asia, and have struggled in the US.

Bruce Woodcock, Mark Jacobs and Dave Rickey note that eventually the US market is going to feed off itself (though they differ on when it flatlines) and so the developers are going to need to look to new markets. If these markets are in Asia, what is the future of MMORPGs?

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Death and Taxes

The comments by DivineShadow on a previous posting got me thinking about the relationship between taxation and virtual worlds. There are some interesting aspects to virtual world taxation that, so far as I know, haven't been addressed much in the nascent literature. So let me spitball for a bit, and Ted (and Julian and Greg and everyone else) can correct my mistakes.

First, it's interesting to note how taxation can be used to mediate server resources. In the goode olde days of lambda and others, resource allocation was performed by the VW equivalent of the central committee of the politburo, aka the Architecture Review Board. As Julian explained in MTL and elsewhere, disk quota was centrally capped, just like all elements of capital and production under Stalinist rule. Requests for deviations from the default allocation had to be justified, and, of course, quota decisions that destroyed, say, beautiful gardens based on the I'Ching were viewed as arbitrary, unfair and destructive. Though various alternatives were mooted--my favorite was Julian's quota lottery or "Quottery"--none of them have the majestic indifference of the market. This, of course, is the central lesson of capitalist economics, and we now are seeing new elements of this emerge in VWs.

I see now that Second Life is using market economics directly to mediate server resources. In 2L if you use resources in building content then those resources get taxed. Of course this leads to the "no taxation without representation" trope, mentioned elsewhere, but it does have the great benefit of working like consumption taxes IRL: those who consume server resources have to pay for it. This is unlike the monthly fee of UO or EQ or any number of games which are much more like the (socially regressive?) flat tax regimes, much favored by the rich. In EQ, no matter how many hours you are online, no matter how many server resources you use, you still pay the same amount. Which, of course, tends to encourage over-use, but this has (some? limited?) social benefit in VWs since it encourages community.

The problem with taxation, at least for developers, is that they can make the case that resource taxing is fair--the user pays depending on the amount she uses. The developers can even tie the tax directly to one's real life money as Entropia tried to do, which also has some benefits. But they're still left with the fact that, well, it's a tax. You can call it a fee, a levy, an impost, or a contribution. People still know that it's a tax. You'd be better off calling it the "Pit of Death." People would prefer that to a tax.

Another way of imposing a tax is much sneakier, and therefore much more fun. You create a market for goods and tax the transactions surreptiously. This is also socially progressive (?), since it taxes at the point of consumption. But it's much better for the developers because it can be spun as a commission (à la eBay). And this is especially good if the developer can make the case that they're simply internalising the market that otherwise would go elsewhere. Then the tax appears to be just a "cost" of running an efficient market, and not a tax. And hell, you can even claim that it's the cost of reducing fraud that would occur in those "unsanctioned" markets. It's the same outcome in terms of server resources and potential revenues as a tax, except you don't get people throwing virtual tea into the virtual bay, and dressing up like Paul Revere.

The sad thing about this problem is that taxes also work to solve (in part) one of the great problems of VWs, that of hyperinflation caused by addition of resources. It's now well established that developers need a resource drain, however spurious, to pull some of the capital out of the world. Otherwise everybody ends up as unhappy as the good burgers of the Weimar Republic who wheeled barrowfuls of marks to the bakers to buy a loaf of bread. The need for resource drains means that we end up with hair dye, or some other equally vapid excuse for retiring capital. But if developers tax the system, then a chunk of resources are pulled out of circulation automatically and, praise be to the gods, deposited in the developer's pocket.

This is helpful, and interesting, and of course completely unacceptable to most players.

I don't pretend to have a lesson here. As usual, this is more in the nature of observations for comment. I do have a number of other thoughts about Julian's desire to be taxed IN REAL LIFE for his transactions in UO. But that will have to wait for another day...

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Dislogue: On the "Moral Repugnancy" of External Markets for Virtual Goods

From the BlogRolling Dept.

Dislogue--"Books, Culture, Fishing, and Other Games"--has a very thoughtful posting about the ethics of virtual asset trading entitled On the "Moral Repugnancy" of External Markets for Virtual Goods. This was brought about by Julian's appearance on NPR and the almost universal distaste of the callers-in for his method of making cash. (He should have stayed the honest brothel-keeper that we all knew and loved)

I could seek to summarise the Dislogue posting, but this would end up a little like the guy who speed-read "War and Peace" in 10 minutes and, when asked what it was about, suggested that Russia was involved somehow.

Since you all can read, I'll just suggest that the following quote is the endpoint, but the journey to this point is very interesting:

"I've come around to thinking that online massively multi-player games should encourage out-of-game trading. "

Head on over.

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Gosh darn Euro-peens

Who really gets this area, Americans or Europeans or Asians?

In the States, I've been at conferences about games and stuff where everyone has a laptop linked by 802.11 to the world and each other, the whole thing being live-blogged, comments flowing around, everyone clicking and clicking and clicking. Nobody's playing avatar games though.

I just got back from Manchester. There wasn't any wireless, but there was lots of reference to buzzing academic activity - game-design programs all over the place, government-sponsored game research from places like Ireland, the Game Research Center at ITU Copenhagen (/em drool), the Ludologists, etc.

I've never been to an academic game conference in Asia, don't even know if they have them. I've never met, or even heard about, a MMORPG researcher who has played Lineage. (Grad students: will someone PLEASE get a Fulbright to Korea on this?) But they have subscriber numbers that dwarf those in US/Europe.

So, Asia has the code and the users, with the US a distant second. Europe has the government interest and the research centers, with the US again a distant second. What does America have? Highspeed internet access in the hotel, so you can ditch the last conference session and go do some more blogging...

I'm making worthless generalizations of course. What's the reality?

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Play Money

While Ted is in the Old Dart and Julian is busy making money, I thought I'd venture an economic question. I was chatting with Julian the other day and he mentioned that business seemed to have taken a downturn of late in the UO world. Though his HammerTap figures look upbeat, there seems to be a migration over to the new kid on the block, Star Wars Galaxies.

A quick look at cat 1654 shows that SWG stuff is showing up there, though Ted's new empirical research project has meant that we don't have any hard data yet. Any anecdotal responses from those at the sharp end of these transactions? Is the smart play money heading over to Tattoine, and if so, is this because there is more money to be made on the new frontier?

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