GDC09: Raph Koster kicks off Worlds in Motion Summit

Game Developers Conference (GDC) 2009 has begun and Massively is in the trenches to report on all the big announcements for the massively multiplayer online gaming industry, plus we have some great interviews lined up all week as well. Our GDC 2009 coverage begins with today's Worlds in Motion Summit, kicked off by Raph Koster, MMO and virtual worlds luminary.

Koster's speech is short, essentially a quick review of the virtual worlds trends he's observed over the past year. It's important to see things in perspective, Koster points out, mentioning that virtual worlds have recently turned 30, and are now a far cry from their MUD origins. Hardcore, geeky stuff Koster says, and we've come a long way since then. "We've kind of arrived, haven't we?" Koster asks. "One half of American adults are gamers today, which is an incredible step."
Gamers, virtual world users, and businesses aren't the only ones taking notice of how mainstream this is going. We're now seeing more interplay between the operation of virtual worlds and real-world governance. To drive that point home, Koster cites the Korean government's seizure of virtual funds used in money laundering operations; Entropia Universe receiving government backing to form the virtual financial institution Mind Bank AB; and the U.S. congressional hearing streamed into Second Life. Commerce in virtual goods has led to increased debate on taxation in the virtual space, with China already imposing a 20% tax on earnings in virtual worlds. All of this has happened in just the last year, says Koster.

So where are things headed now?

Virtual worlds users are calling for a sea change in how the concept of ownership is handled by virtual worlds operators. Long-standing worlds are going open source and run by users, "another thing that was predicted a long time ago, that someday the worlds would have to be turned over to their members," says Koster. Not everyone is so altruistic though. The patent battle is in full swing and could have major ramifications for the entire virtual worlds (and MMO) industry.

"We've also seen the convergence of social networks happen in a way that is deep, that is pervasive. The 'gaminess' of the social web is increasing dramatically, as ratings and levels and points pop up absolutely everywhere," Koster says. This integration of games with social networks like Facebook has swept up millions of users already. As a kind of reversal of the nerd stereotypes associated with all things virtual and RPG, Koster jokes that if your kids aren't into these things now, they're probably laughed at.

Massive corporate entities like McDonald's were clearly determined to not be left behind in the virtual worlds rush over this past year. Koster says, "We also saw the launch of what I personally pick as the largest MMO in the world someday: Happy Meal 3.0. McDonald's announced they intend to give away login codes on every Happy Meal to bring them into their virtual world so that they can play games. We're not playing around anymore, are we? Virtual worlds are really there."

These worlds are becoming more pervasive in our lives, easily extended to mobile devices like netbooks and iPhones, made further ubiquitous through Silverlight and Flash, a constant hum Koster refers to as ambience. Ambience brings its own unique set of problems and questions to be answered: "What is a virtual world in an environment where everybody lives and dies by the stream? Where there is no place. Where what you have is tweets and twitterings and status updates and feeds, and there is no place you log into?"

Such phenomena aren't limited to the first world either. Virtual goods are becoming more tangible to some. Koster says, "There are folks in Kenya who now keep their savings and receive some of their pay in Safaricom cellphone minutes because it's safer than the banks. These are virtual goods. That's us! Our industry, moving forward in ways that we wouldn't anticipate. Because when we build virtual worlds, we don't necessarily think of Masai warriors with cellphones... But all of that is why we're here at the Worlds in Motion summit, to learn about this stuff."
This article was originally published on Massively.