Over at the Cisco Virtual worlds blog, Christian Renaud is unhappy about the various bogus numbers being tossed around for virtual world populations (pointing out that if you blindly add up all the figures being reported, you end up at about a half a billion people, more than the population of all of North America). So far, so good — after all, I have complained about this myself.
But he, like Moorgard recently, is upset by the use of terms in the industry right now:
There needs to be an agreed common taxonomy of virtual worlds. You can slice and dice the market by 2D vs. 3D, web-based vs. client software, apples vs. oranges, but we need to find a common set of language by which to differentiate the QQ and Cyworlds from the ActiveWorlds and Kanevas from the Metaplaces and Toontowns. Until then, you have emoticon-on-steroids avatar chat in IM and Social Networking sites being compared apples to apples with narrative driven virtual worlds like World of Warcraft or Runescape. It’s not apples and apples at that point, it’s apples and orangutans.
Now, while I have no idea why Metaplace is lumped in with Toontown (OK, we get the message, we’ll redo the site’s graphics!) I have to disagree somewhat with this point… apples and orangutans, really? For systems that share over 99% of their core technical architecture? Surely at most we’re talking the difference between chimps and humans. And in practice, I think there’s a good case to be made that we’re really talking about the differences between a college professor and a pro athlete.
In contrast, Moorgard wants to make sure everyone is lumped under one label, but to my mind, he picks the wrong one:
I realize that my whining over silly phrases isn’t going to change industry jargon, and that’s not my goal. More than anything I just want people to understand that whether something is called an online game or a virtual world, it’s just falling at various points along a series of ranges and being labeled for convenience. And whether you prefer a structured experience or something more free-form, you’re still a gamer.
This statement seems to conveniently leave out the worlds used for teleconferencing, for trade shows, for education, for collaborative writing (anyone remember HotelMOO?), and so on. It is just as much a disservice to the field to call all virtual worlds games as it is to segment the field unnecessarily, a point I have made before.
To state it in another way, virtual worlds are their own thing, and they have more in common with media than with message. They are more like television than like I Love Lucy. They are more like newspapers than like The New York Times or The Weekly World News. They have more in common with 16mm film than with Casablanca or Fahrenheit 9/11.
All in all, the terms seem to leave everyone confused right now. We even got an email here at the office that asked,
In short, what qualifies the games on Metaplace as ‘virtual worlds’?
The information released about Metaplace so far makes frequent use of the term “virtual worlds,” but it’s not clear what is meant by that. Typically when people think of virtual worlds they think of 3D spaces, like Second Life or World of Warcraft.
Never mind that WoW is closer to being 2d than 3d, in most aspects of its simulation — as are most worlds, really. (And does this writer really think that Habbo Hotel or Ultima Online or Lineage aren’t virtual worlds? I doubt it…)
Here, of course, is where I point people at a few lengthy posts from the past, such as the one where I point out that client display is irrelevant to whether or not something is a virtual world. After all, Second Life with no users logged in is still a virtual world. Second Life with a statistical dashboard showing activity only in graphs and in tables is still a virtual world. I don’t know of any virtual worlds that don’t have such a client interface. And guess what, they run whether or not there happens to be a user logged in, making the sole client at that time a text-and-graphs client. Is a virtual world running in locked debug mode not a virtual world until it has a 3d client connected?
The thing that is frustrating to me (and others) is that long-standing terms are once again getting co-opted by marketing, essentially. Me, I am stubborn, so I am going to keep saying the whole field is called “virtual worlds” and the gap between Habbo Hotel and World of Warcraft just isn’t that large. This is probably a losing battle, because as the Laws say, fighting the players on nomenclature is a losing battle. But it would be a disservice to the field for it to end up with no name at all, and right now, there hasn’t been a credible alternate term (except perhaps for Ted Castronova’s “synthetic world”).
Which brings us, finally, to the the question of what the categories actually are.
These days, we have to look at the broad spectrum of social media in order to place virtual worlds on the technology spectrum. Virtual worlds exist in relationship to instant messaging, avatarized websites, persistent profile social networking, forum software, and so on. Part of the reason why it’s clear (to me, anyway) that virtual worlds are destined to become intertwined much more thoroughly with the web is because of the common feature set here, which I will now list in as geeky and technical a manner as possible:
- graphical representations of user profiles (aka “avatars”)
- ongoing blurring of synchronous and asynchronous communications streams
- an increasing emphasis on locality and spatiality across all social media, particularly including increased use of spatial metaphors
In other words, we now have avatars on websites, forums in MMOs, email in blogs, rooms in chat, and so on.
The core systemic characteristics of virtual worlds include synchronous communication, spatial simulation, multiple simultaneous users, and use of publicly visible profiles (aka avatars). But there’s a lot of blurring at the edges of that, which brings things like PHP massive games or “Colorform” style apartments a la Cyworld into the fold despite the largely asynch nature of the interactions therein.
Compared to IM, email, or Facebook, Habbo and WoW are clearly “the same thing.” In fact, you could easily and profitably stick all of those things in a virtual world because the core of the virtual world has more to do with the “place” thing than with the “chat” thing.
Once you’ve established these fuzzy boundaries, we then have to consider what fruitful distinctions can be made within the field.
- There’s technical distinctions, such as whether the world is truly persistent (aka “world state”) or whether only profiles are persistent (“character state”) or indeed whether anything is persistent — many early LPs, for example, didn’t have character persistence.
- There’s design differences, such as whether the underlying systems are simulationist or not. Arguably, for example, one of the weaknesses of Second Life is that it began from simulationist principles, which is why every user’s sim incurs the load of maintaining a simulation of air temperature and flow granular in 8m cubes, even if what they want it for is to play Tringo.
- Of course, business model comes into play, and is often granted more importance than it deserves, as a categorization mechanism. Really, any business model can be applied to any style of world — or indeed, any form of social media.
- There’s the question of intended purpose, and for that matter, the purposes that users put the world to, which may not coincide — using a serious venue for playing games, or using a game venue for serious work.
The whole question of what “virtual world” means hinges on some of these assumptions. One camp says that “virtual world” largely means a simulationist game with specific characteristics. Another thinks that it means purposes that aren’t games — or maybe are games, but kinda tip over into specific other markets. Then there’s the folks who say virtual worlds don’t actually exist. Interestingly, no camp tends to make this distinction on the technical basis, perhaps because there aren’t any significant technical distinctions to speak of.
From a business point of view, it seems clear that intended user experience is the logical way to segment the virtual worlds content industry. Then we can establish that there are providers who specialize in worlds with particular content mixes ranging from serious applications to games, and subspecialties within games. And indeed, with very few exceptions, the industry has been about content providers, who created platforms incidentally and only because they needed them to deliver content.
This portrait, however, leaves out the issue of the larger business ecology. Content providers currently dominate the landscape, but the trends are towards a reduction in vertical integration of services, creating an ecology of ancillary businesses.
In other words, it’s currently the norm for the content provider to also be the platform provider, the social network provider, and so on. But as the market size for virtual worlds has grown, we saw cracks develop in that, first with community features and ancillary documentation, then the (very large and profitable) secondary market segment, and now with social networking services and even Flickr-style sites just for virtual worlds. Many of these were provided in rudimentary form by the vertically integrated providers, but at some point the smaller upstarts that specialized were simply able to do it better.
Along with this came the notion of companies that were not content specialists. This opened up the spectrum of possible businesses even wider, allowing specialization of platform companies (such as Forterra versus Makena – where There.com split originally between a platform company and a content company, but which now is really a split between two platform companies targeting different platform specializations).
Which then led to the notion of metaverse service bureaus, etc etc. Which at this point are just as happy to work in entertainment-focused worlds as in serious ones, since they are co-opting the content-creation role altogether in this new platform-centric part of the business.
Hmm, I need to make a diagram of this.
So, do we need categories? If we look only at content development companies, then the answer seems to be yes. And if you are a content consumer, like most people are, then sure — you want to see as many fine distinctions as you can get, so that you can find the content that is of interest to you. The niceties of LOTRO versus WoW are very important to you then.
But if you’re stepping back to try to assess the size of the industry, as Christian Renaud of Cisco was doing, way back where we started this post — well, then, I’d say that most of those distinctions are not that useful, because most aspects of the ecology cut across content providers of all sorts.
Bottom line: if we just quit trying to subdivide the field unnecessarily, or quit being myopic about what sorts of content virtual worlds can provide, the question of categories will assume its proper place: more like the aisles of a bookstore than the debate over what a book is. And then we can go on to measure the total size of the industry more accurately, because it isn’t accurate to measure solely users or revenue garnered by subscription sites, or microtransaction worlds. The industry includes the f13s and the GuildCafe‘s, and the Sheep and Ogoglio and MMOGData, and all the rest. And yes, it’s not very far from including Facebook and IM as well.
Whew, done ranting for now.