In the apparently neverending discussion thread on the Metaverse Summit, I seem to have been assigned the role of Second Life skeptic or even opponent, despite this not being my intention. In fact, it’s rather odd, since in some circles I am considered a staunch SL defender, whereas in others I am the skeptic…! I guess I have different avatars for different social worlds…
In a post over at his blog, Cory Ondrejka writes,
Would you be willing to give up on online game exceptionalism? 🙂
This is driven, of course, by the comments I made in the thread, that offered up the following intentionally contentious statements, which I have re-edited to fit in the context of this post (and make it seem less like I am picking on Second Life!):
- most people find game worlds to be more fun than freeform social worlds
- game worlds have historically been what has driven adoption in virtual spaces
- the gameworlds have historically been what has driven lasting innovation
- the future of the metaverse is going to come from gameworlds, not freeform social worlds
Now, let me preface this by saying that the distinction between “game world” and “social world” is a fuzzy one anyway. I’ve written before about how I consider virtual worlds to be, well, virtual worlds, and the uses they are put to via embedding activities in them to be the things that drive typology. For the purposes of this discussion, however, let’s say that “game world” means a virtual world whose initial design was primarily intended for entertainment, as opposed to a social world whose initial design was intended primarily for socializing.
This typology echoes the classic text world distinction between MUDs and MUSH/MOO worlds. But MUSHes and MOOs, although basedon codebases of similar capability, in fact had fairly different sorts of usages. In fact, I’d got further, and identify the following core archetypes for world design practices, located along a spectrum:
- game worlds epitomized by the MUD model but also represented by games as diverse as Multiplayer Battletech and Air Warrior. These are characterized by there being a core, overarching game mechanic that sums up the principal activity of the world. They are the easiest to grasp since they analogize directly to familiar game types. They are also easy to deride, these days. These typically feature heavily “goal-oriented play” (cf MUD-Dev) and “hard fun” (cf Lazzaro) characteristics. EverQuest, World of Warcraft, Lineage, and so on.
- worldy games, which are intended as recreational immersive living in fictional universes, modeled via game systems. These will typically encompass multiple, frequently radically different game systems. They are still games, but will emphasize freeform, non-guided play and “easy fun” (cf Lazzaro again) much more. Sandboxes, rather than theme parks, but with a bunch of toys tossed in. There’s a wide spectrum here, but I would classify Ultima Online, Star Wars Galaxies (certainly pre-NGE, but even now to some degree), A Tale in the Desert, and Eve Online in this category. For that matter, Puzzle Pirates too.
- themed social worlds are epitomized by the MUSH model. Although the technical capabilities of the MUSH codebase was comparable to that of the MOOs, in practice most MUSHes were not used in that manner. Instead, MUSHing came to mean collaborative roleplay. Carefully constructed worlds with thematic consistency, systems designed to enhance that immersive experience, and relatively little engagement with “game systems” in the traditional sense. In the name of consistency, user creation options are generally curtailed administratively. Worlds such as Underlight come to mind for modern examples, as well as much of what is done by Skotos Tech. Think virtual LARPing.
- freeform social worlds were represented well by the “talker” style of text mud as well as many MOOs. Often, they didn’t include any user content tools, but their presence was usually found. I’d call There one of these (in the past I’ve said it was like a MUSH, but it doesn’t have that emphasis on the fictional theme), as well as that new PCD Lounge I referenced earlier today. Habitat and The Palace fall here as well.
- builder worlds are what many associate with MOOs. LambdaMOO is today the archetypical example, but in the graphical worlds, we’ve seen OnLive, Alphaworld, and today Second Life. I tend to think of these as almost wrapping the spectrum around to the other end, since builder worlds often seem very “gamelike” to users, and the user content stuff tends to get echoed in a weird watered down way by the crafting systems in the game worlds.
You’ll notice I left “mirror world” out of the above. I can see any of the above being set in a mirror world, really, though clearly mirror worlds are better for some applications than others.
You’ll also notice that I left the question of display method and simulation type (2d or 3d or textual) out of the discussion. The answer to this is of course to use the right simulation model for the desired design intent.
This spectrum also assumes right off the bat that some virtual worlds are intended to hold games and some aren’t, using the “place” model that I advocate along with folks like Dr. Bartle.
Given this framework, what was I trying to get at with my bullet points?
- That embedded entertainment content is required to reach mass markets. Historically, there’s been a curve to the usage of that spectrum; it’s been way high at the game end and rather low at the builder end. Even pure talkers have usually done worse than the worldy games, for example, and in the mass market game biz and its fandom it’s common to see worldy games dismissed as being too niche these days. Most people are consumers of entertainment, not producers, as has been observed many times.
- Hand in hand with this, we have typically seen that it has been gamey worlds driving adoption of virtual worlds in general. Many people, as they burn out on the games, slide towards the other end of the spectrum. Really jaded folks are quite happy to log into their world of choice and use it as a talker. There’s a creation gap at the very end, however, a gate that tends to be difficult to get through simply because of the difficulty of learning and then successfully using content creation tools. People enter through the games, which are easily grasped, relatively unencumbered by philosophical notions of the future of virtual reality, and marketed to average people via more mainstream channels.
- There is no doubt that the true sources of innovation lie on the right side, not the left. It’s at the fringes that we find most innovation. But the drivers of lasting innovation are the games, because it’s not until a given innovation is pushed by games that it is likely to stick around. There’s countless innovations in smaller worlds that never see mass acceptance because of the smaller size of the audience. Many innovations are evolutionary dead ends, and we mustn’t forget that evolution isn’t about progress.
- Finally, I asserted that the future of the metaverse will come from games. The reasons why are implicit in the above three points, and the real thing I wanted to get to in this post.
First, we need to take a hard look at these characteristics of the market:
- There are 10 times more consumers than producers. This is not a made up stat, it’s reflective of what has been seen in countless systems that provide user-content-creation capabilities. Now, this is a scalable figure — I’ve picked an average here — because the ease of content creation affects it dramatically. Way less than 10% of users make Quake maps, because it’s just damn hard. On the other hand, something like The Sims with its relatively low barrier of entry permits a higher percentage of user content contribution.
- There are 100 times more consumers than good producers. The good ol’ Sturgeon’s Law thing.
- At any given time historically, these numbers have been reflected in the populations of virtual worlds specializing in one part of the spectrum versus another. Not for individual worlds, but in the aggregate.
- And yet, there’s a tremendous impetus on the web towards user-created content, and it’s a prncipal driver behind the success of sites ranging from eBay to Amazon to Flickr to Technorati.
The thing we must not lose sight of here is that content creation is a skill just as much as being a badass game player is, and it’s therefore subject to the same power law sorts of success rates. “The average person is below average” is my favorite way of couching this: the median player will be below the mean.
That doesn’t mean that I am not a believer in user content; far from it, I am a huge advocate. You get a large enough install base, and your 1% starts being a rather large number. I am, also, a huge fan of worlds that are not on the very left side of the spectrum; I favor worldy games, myself, and the last world I was seriously hooked on was actually a talker in this nomenclature. In fact, I usually get yelled at for not being content-centric enough, because my design interests really lie along the empowering-users side of things.
But let’s look at some of those sites that are using the user content concept, and see how they do it. eBay is a store where people primarily resell other people’s creations. Technorati is a search engine based on finding commentary on other people’s writing. Amazon is a site that uses user reviews of other people’s products. Flickr, Google, and actually all the Web 2.0 sites are embraced because of the way they feed data out, allowing people to build on what is there. Even creative geniuses are imitative, and user content works best in a context of fandom. Most of the truly amazing successes in the user-created web have been built out that sort of relationship, and it’s no accident that the top blogs — hell, top websites — all tend to be aggregators.
So, in response to the exceptionalism question: it’s not quite true that I am an exceptionalist as regards games; say, rather, than I am a content exceptionalist, because good content is what drives eyeballs, now, then, and forever.