GDC 08: Entertainment content convergence in online worlds

We spent most of Monday ensconced in the GDC Worlds in Motion summit track, which made "standing room only" seem extremely spacious -- most of the sessions were packed to the gills and then some. It seems like more than a few industry types are interested in the intersections between gaming and virtual worlds. Case in point, the following session we've paraphrased (hopefully not too liberally!) from Reuben Steiger, CEO of Milllions of Us, a company that builds marketing campaigns and content for virtual worlds.

Reuben: Storytelling is the bedrock of human culture. (Looking at a slide with a real campfire on the left and a user-created campfire in Second Life on the right) -- users in virtual worlds are recreating this storytelling tradition. I'm going to make a contention: the internet has failed as a storytelling medium. Instead, the norm is bathroom humor and ridiculous jokes.

So virtual worlds: are they games or not? What defines a game -- linguists and semioticians get real worked up about it. The audience might say "virtual worlds are games without rules, competition, goals or fun." And it's hard to blame them. Extreme openness has defined virtual worlds, where fun can be in a way you define as opposed to what some game developer feels is fun. But the appeal of virtual worlds is that we can tell stories on a broader and less walled playing field.

I was inspired to start this company by ARGs. These are things where people get really involved. The kids' market is also a huge thing -- operators on a large scale are making money where other markets aren't. Transactional figures for virtual merchandise are really interesting.

Between 60-100 million people globally are participating in virtual worlds. Second Life has received 95% of the media attention so far but it's really only 1 to 1.5% of the overall market.

The lines between different forms of entertainment are beginning to blur. Telling an anecdote about grandpa's entertainment: back then even 5 cents for a film was too expensive so he and his three brothers would rotate actually going to see the movie, then come home and relay the story to the other two. That was social media. As tech progressed we got less social and more fragmented, which is depressing. Look at civic architecture then versus now and you see the same trend -- how we play affects how we live and work.

At one time movies were the big entertainment, and this eventually led to gaming because of ancillary revenue streams. It turned out that people who paid for movies were willing to buy other things related to the movies they loved. Eventually gaming became one of those ancillary streams. Now we see things like Club Penguin starting to invert that model. Disney bought Club Penguin for $700 million dollars -- and now you can imagine them wanting to make a film based on the game, as opposed to the other way around where games came out of film.

We should also look at the lessons of Webkinz. Four years ago I announced to my family and friends that I was going to work for this wacky online company called Second Life and no one had any idea what it was about then. This year, everyone gifted my kids with Webkinz toys. The social experience of your toy is extended on the web in this model. The company has enhanced the value of their physical object by tying it to a virtual world.

A Millions of Us case study: Gossip Girl in Second Life, a project to tie the Gossip Girl television show to a campaign in in Second Life. Users would interface with in-game "mobile devices" that tied them into the game, where they would spread gossip in exchange for points which could be used at the Gossip Girl in-world clothing store. At its peak there were 150,000 teens accessing it per day.

Another case study: The World Wrestling Entertainment's Summer Slam campaign we ran in Gaia Online, a virtual world with 9 million users and over 1 billion forum posts. We created custom avatars and a narrative event in the forums over a 5-day campaign that essentially took over the site. Users got really involved, special WWE-themed items became really valuable to show your support for one of two opposing wrestlers.

Another case study: a promo for the Fox TV show the Sarah Connor Chronicles. We created a fictional company,, and made an ARG out of some of the "science" of the show.

What will we see in the year ahead?

  • 1. Social networks will become "avatarized"

  • 2. Virtual worlds will become more like social networks

  • 3. Television tie-ins with virtual worlds will increase

  • 4. Virtual worlds will hit the console (Sony Home, e.g.)