I’m not sure there is, at least as we understand it. Not at the moment, anyway.
When we speak of “casual” we mean a cluster of things. Sometimes we mean targeting a different demographic, one not excited by the hardcore fantasy-and-sci-fi fictions we concoct. Sometimes we mean shorter play sessions. Sometimes we mean things like not requiring grouping in the worlds, which makes it easier for a less dedicated player to have fun.
More “casual” experiences often have a connotation of being shallow. One thing that is clear, though, is that it doesn’t matter how casual you make an experience, some people will use it in a hardcore manner. And that means that it must have hidden depths of some sort. A shallow experience simply doesn’t tend to keep people.
And the resultant consistency is remarkable. Reading books like I, Avatar and The Making of Second Life is basically just like reading My Tiny Life, or a book on the total immersion in a game world. Checking usage stats across the spectrum of all sorts of worlds, from the UOs to the Neopetses, reveals that over and over again, we see “a regular user spends 20 hours a week.” Oh, there’s variation up and down, but it boils down to the simple fact that if you aren’t getting the player to spend over ten hours a week in your world, you aren’t actually keeping them. It seems like barring some paradigm shift, the fundamental engagement model of a virtual world pushes towards longer engagement.
This is exactly what many of the advertisers in virtual worlds are interested in, of course; and you may have seen that we at Metaplace have joined with several other industry players to help get a whitepaper written that examines this issue of engagement metrics.
The place where this gets interesting to me is in the highly asynchronous environment that exists on the web. The asynchronicity of web life doesn’t play all that well with long engagement. The whole point is to check in periodically — perhaps frequently — but with much less direct sustained attention. On Monday, this blog got 95,000 hits, with 13,000 visits from 6,000 sites. How many people were actually online at the same time? And for how long?
Some apps, like Meebo Rooms, seem to have found a connection with this asynch audience by adding chat rooms onto web pages — they’re seeing quite a lot of success. But the immersion factor in a chat room is not quite the same, and the level of sustained engagement does not seem to be the same either. Whirled, of course, is allowing users to embed their Whirled spaces on their blogs. We are working with some partner sites to get Metachat and eventually other virtual worlds built with Metaplace embedded on forums. And both of these will be interesting to watch; a critical mass of simultaneous users seems to be required in order to make spaces like those actually interesting, no matter how many games you embed in them.
We’re also seeing much of the aynsch web rush towards adding synchronous capabilities. The most obvious of these lately, of course, is the addition of an IM-like system to Facebook.
A lot of this begs questions for the “3d web,” I think. An empty virtual space feels a lot lonelier than a web page. I have commented before that offering social downtime and friction to enable engaging with other people is critical to building virtual communities. A virtual world web with everyone flickering in and out is socially worse than not seeing anyone at all; the loneliness of being a stranger in a crowd, as opposed to the aloneness of reading a book or magazine. There’s a new design language to learn here, because the answer is not just to try to drag web users into greater sustained engagement. It’s to meet them halfway.
Long ago, things like mail, bulletin boards, and yes, dropping items on the ground were typical features of muds precisely because they were asynchronous. As the web rose in popularity, virtual worlds started relying more on the web for stuff like this — and more, as stuff like the WoW Armory permitted asynch comparison and competition via the web. It may be that this stuff will need to come back into the virtual worlds as they get web-embedded, creating an ever more tangled hybrid of present and ghostly activity.
In the end, though, we probably need to speak of “mass market” and not of “casual,” for this sort of design. Because engagement is engagement, and a hobby you spend little time and passion on is not really a hobby at all.