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ION 08: Virtual worlds for the masses

Kyle Horner

What's a virtual world? Why do we even call them virtual worlds when we could easily call them digital worlds, or just simply, worlds? This was just one of the many interesting topics discussed at ION 08 this year in a panel entitled, "Redefining Virtual Worlds for Mass Markert Consumption" which is quite the mouthful. So lets put things in a more understandable -- and far more interesting -- perspective.

Whether you're talking about Club Penguin, Gaia Online or Second Life the truth of the mater is that these "worlds" are here to stay and they all share similarities -- social interaction. Not only are they here to stay, but they've only just begun to grow as a market. Which is why this panel was all the more interesting. The panel includes Erik Bethke (GoPets Ltd), John K. Bates (Mindark/Entropia Universe), Craig Sherman (Gaia Online), Rob Lanphier (Linden Lab/Second Life) and was moderated by David Elchoness (Association of Virtual Worlds).

Gallery: ION 08: Game Conference gallery | 57 Photos

The panel started off with John K. Bates prefacing the entire virtual world discussion with, "Yes, virtual worlds need to be refined." He went on to say that the language which we use is incredibly important and that everything we know is shaped by our understanding of this language. For example, is a digital item more or less valuable than a "virtual" or "online" item? After posing this question, John asked another: What's going to appeal to the mass audience? He admits that there's still a lot of growth to be done and points out that he takes meeting people online in Entropia for granted.

Erik Bethke interjected at this point with, "I hate the word 'virtual'. I don't think it's a useful word. Would Blizzard be better off for calling it 'Virtual World of Warcraft'?" to which he succinctly added, "Why don't we just call them worlds and move on." Before I even had a moment to chuckle, Erik continued with his point, "I have a lot of passion for hating the word 'virtual', but I don't think in the end it's very important. It's important to focus on what people are doing in these worlds and not what we call them." Which was a statement that I think rings very true regardless of where you stand on the subject..

It seemed as though Erik wasn't satisfied with simply smacking down the status quo as he then openly expressed his discomfort with the concept of mass market. He went on to say, "WoW is so large and people don't talk about it much." continuing with, "People still talk about Second Life like it were really important, but I don't think it's really that important." It was at this point that the entire audience collectively gasped, chuckled or looked around confused -- no wait, that was Rob Lanphier from Linden Lab looking about in a confused manner.

If I've ever seen someone physically make a "WTF" face in my life, it was when Erik Bethke called Second Life unimportant. While Rob took it in stride, he didn't keep his peace (who could have, though?) and answered Erik's statement with, "If revenue is everything, then all right fine Blizzard may be more important.", He continues his rebuttal by pointing out that having a general purpose cross-platform that's open is what's truly of importance. However, Rob does concede that, "Second Life was over-hyped in the last year," following-up with, "there's no question about that." It's certainly true that expectations were set incredibly high for the world.

Rob then says that looking at the sum of everything that's happening with virtual worlds will reveal a positive amount of growth. Although there is some frustration that virtual worlds are still seen as a toy. I happen to think that frustration is mostly exclusive to Second Life.

Craig Sherman chimed in saying, "Not everybody in the mass market wants to put on armor and bash goblins." What Craig is essentially saying here is that context is important and that as long as these worlds (Gaia Online, Club Penguin, Second Life, etc) are associated with the mass market as monster bashing games, they'll be seen as a niche product.

It was at this point that my gazed turned to the cringing Erik Bethke, who took to the microphone the moment an opening presented itself. "Saying a lot of people don't want to bash monsters is dismissive." says Craig. "Why do ten million people want to bash monsters?" I personally think he's got a very good point there. People love structure and goals, which is what Erik goes on to say in so many words. In fact, he cites the lack of structure and goals as one of his primary beefs with Second Life. Open-ended content and gameplay is fun, but that could easily be the end-game instead while structured content is offered early on to give new players me direction.

Right around here John busts into the conversation with an interesting mantra, "If content is King, context is Emperor." An example given is that laying bricks for no apparent reason is different than laying bricks to build a cathedral. While it's true that the people in Second Life who have found a sense of purpose receive the most enjoyment from the world, they're also the minority. Erik suggests that the mass market aren't all talented, creative geniuses or even incredibly driven to create and that in aiming for the mass market a developer has to create content for them to feel compelled to play. They're not going to want to do it themselves. An analogy would be that more people browse the internet looking for fun rather than building their own interactive web-based game to enjoy.

The gist of what I took away from this panel was that there are three fields of thought on these worlds. One side is the far left, which is only interested in completely user created content. The second side is the far right, or worlds that largely want to create content for their inhabitants to create a community around. However, I think that the winning formula is somewhere in-between as per Erik's suggestion. Some games are already experimenting with this concept, so it's already started to happen.

Wherever you stand on the subject of virtual worlds, one thing is very clear: they're only getting more popular. Every year more of these worlds come out, each with a different take on the original recipe. I personally think that all of these worlds are simply the beginning. They're the tip of the online iceberg. If you look into things like Metaplace you'll find some developer are already working on integrating social worlds into the greater internet experience. There's no reason to want to become mainstream or mass market in the traditional sense. Instead, these worlds -- or whatever you want to call them -- have the opportunity to play it by their own rules.

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