This afternoon Team Massively is reporting to you live from the Game Developers Conference, where we're fidgeting in our seats waiting for Turbine's Jeffrey Steefel to take the stage. Turbine has quietly been integrating "best-of-breed virtual world and social networking elements" into their flagship game, Lord of the Rings Online. What exactly these features are we aren't quite certain, but we do know that the main reason we're still playing World of Warcraft is because all of our friends play, so we're all about social networking. And, anyway, we're sure Mr. Steefel is eager to tell us alllll about it, just as soon as we get started!
10:02 AM PST: Steefel steps up to the podium. He's the executive producer for Turbine's Lord of the Rings Online. Virtual worlds and games are really the same thing
10:03: Placing a player in a completely open environment -- you need structure. The structure doesn't have to be a game. The player must have:
- Sense of place: Where am I?
- Sense of purpose: I have a reason for being here
- Community: Expressing your personal response to the virtual world around you.
10:06: Multiple kinds of virtual environments exist today:
- Social networks. Flickr, myspace, facebook, twitter.
- Virtual worlds. Second Life, Habbo, imvu, metaplace.
- MMO Games. World of Warcraft, Everquest, LotRO.
These types of environments are coming together. All are online, social persistent entertainment.
10:08: All of these purposes have different advantages/disadvantages.
- Online games: immersive, mostly directed experiences with limited opportunity for user to build and create. (Though more-so than a film, which completely limits view, choices, etc.) It's essentially a theme park.
- Virtual worlds: More open environments with heavy focus on builders, that lack unified thematic structure. It's a sandbox in which you can do whatever you want. But these have no overarching theme and it can become very chaotic.
- Social networks: Easy to use, lightweight online "destinations" for users to create/share virtual identities and communities.
10:16: It's a delicate balance between freedom and structure. Too much freedom is chaos, but too much structure stifles user expression and creativity.
10:18: Opening persistent experiences:
- Online interactive world experiences rely on robust and active communities
- Critical mass of users drives the greatest success -- "threshold of viability"
- Current MMO games target narrowly defined market segments in terms of mainstream media adoption
- Mainly centered at one set of core activities
10:20: Moving forward:
- Build on MMO strengths
- Immersive sense of place
- Unifying world themes
- Compelling advancement opportunities
- Extend reach to broader audience
- Multi-platform access
- More mainstream client requirements
- Immediate interactivity and feedback
- Significantly improved user tools: needs to be as simple as a piece of electronics you use at home.
- More accessible pricing models: it's not one-size-fits-all
- Native web features -- the world needs to be "web aware"
- Remove hardware and connectivity barriers
- Mobile lifestyle integration: not just about porting a 3d world to a cell phone, but how can you tie the world in to a mobile environment
- Seamless in/out world interactivity
- Value proposition is a spectrum: there are all kinds of ways for you to participate. How you participate should be different based on what your needs are.
- Taken the whole world of Middle Earth and made it into a Google map. Players can view the entire world and create paths, etc. Interactive and accessible. Share maps, map points, tags, etc.
- A database of information and lore editable by all (wiki) and accessible in game.
- Kinship and character pages that are user-creatable. Available to everyone who wants to take part in the community in this way.
10:29: In-world social experiences: things players can do together, social activities. Take a very structure game environment and provide people with tools to "play." Examples from LotRO:
- Music system: players can compose and play their own original music, form bands, etc.
- Clothing system: allowing players to pick outfits to differentiate their character from others (these outfits have nothing to do with the armor being worn -- so you can customize your look without sacrificing playability).
- Compelling virtual worlds that inspire creativity, exploration, and community
- Flexible thematic content (environment, story) that creates a focus for the user's creativity
- Opportunities to share goals and motivation with like-minded users
- Easy-to-use tools & inspiration for users to have relevant impact on their world and communities
- Opportunities for users to sustain social persistence across all connected media
Q: LotRO has an advantage of lore and structure. How does an open virtual world create that?
A: It's an advantage and disadvantage. We run the risk of creating a world that doesn't need to be a persistent environment and only needs to be a single-player game. We tried to boil it down to themes we could work with. A virtual world is a blank canvas: any themes can be used.
Q: I've seen sites on the internet shut down for just having LotRO songs on them. What's the concern? Ownership? That it doesn't mesh with the lore?
A: Who owns what and who has the right to do what? At the end of the day, if that person is not monetizing the song, then you could get into some complex issues. We don't worry about that.
Q: What about connecting and interoperating between multiple virtual worlds? Can't take a WoW character and move it to LotRO or SL or myspace. But you want to transport identity.
A: you have to give people the option to maintain "dual citizenship." You have the option to link your identities from one to the other. Example: LotRO destiny points. You gain them but they can be used for any of your characters. So it isn't tied to the character -- it's tied to you.
Q: What about collaboration between MMO developers and publishers? Some collaboration will be required between Turbine and Blizzard and SOE, etc...
A: I'd love for that to happen, but right now there are facebook pages, myspace pages, etc, where users are participating in them. We still live in a world where IM clients don't work together! The technology that substantiates these worlds are all completely different right now.
Q: Why can't we just use standard content-creation tools?
A: To make things work to where it all looks good and functions in the virtual world, etc, is different for each virtual environment right now. This is a big challenge, though I'd love to see this happening in the future.
Q: How do we handle the conflicts in between people who want openness in the virtual world and hard-core MMO players. How do you balance people wanting to create content and people playing, fighting, wanting to destroy content, etc.
A: You have to try to create those environments for players who want it and protect those players who don't want it. Our job is always going to be to help all of those kinds of environments exist.
10:49: Thank you very much for coming!