Apr 092008

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.

  18 Responses to “Is there such as thing as a casual online world?”

  1. 20th for 15,000 gamers. I’ll be unwired in Gøteborg that weekend so I haven’t bothered to have a look at how I can be a part of it. Yet another sign that Age of Conan won’t be delayed again, I think! I wish them luck! 5) Have to read Raph Koster’s”Is there such a thing as a casual online world?”

  2. Just a quick note before I finish reading the article… when I tried to click on the link to this article from LiveJournal’s feed syndication, I’m getting redirected to some SEO/spam Tramadol crap. The URL is identical to the one I see here, the snapshots web preview page shows the right page, and yet still I get redirected once I click on the link.

  3. Not only butts in seats, but sing alongs, clapping hands and a kareoke room?

    The tough problem is not becoming popular. The tough problem is staying popular.

    Why do bars come and go but gated country clubs last forever?

    The multi-cultural egalitarian ethos works against engagement. Sad but so. A game limits. That is how you know it is a game.

  4. The game I’m working on is often viewed as casual, because it allows for short play sessions. This doesn’t actually seem to make people play for shorter periods though, it just lowers the barrier to entry. If you’re not sure you really want to play for three hours, you can just come on in and only commit to ten minutes. Of course then you’ll end up staying the three hours anyway. |^)

  5. The tough problem is not becoming popular. The tough problem is staying popular.

    No, becoming popular is difficult, too. If becoming popular were simple and easy, we wouldn’t be able to conceive of popularity.

    Why do bars come and go but gated country clubs last forever?

    Why are there so many bars in Ireland but so few country clubs? Why are there are so many country clubs in the Poway-Rancho Bernardo-Rancho Sante Fe area and so few bars? One part regulation, and another part culture.

  6. Why does pinball work so well (at least for men)?

    1. No skill required to begin.
    2. Minimal skill required to advance.
    3. Subtle skill required to dominate and it takes a lot of practice.
    4. It plays fast. It costs little.
    5. It makes a lot of noise so the whole room can see it when you win.
    6. It leaves your score up so others can see it when you leave.
    7. It leaves their score up so you know who you have to beat.
    8. It only takes one hand and the other can hold your beer.

  7. Aha. Culture.

    Dem dat haz gits. Dem dat haz not gits got.
    If you gotz not, you needs not.

    Bands and the semantics of popularity: given minimal skills and reasonable looks, learn every top ten hit for the last five years plus the short list of the most popular frat party songs, and you’ll be working in a month and popular until the beer runs out. Hide your wedding rings.

    The challenge is scale not in the number of gigs but in the pay per play.

    This, BTW, is where people who claim bands can be very popular without label/marketing support have never been in the business. Getting out of the local culture requires more than a web page and a CD. It takes an incredible amount of legwork and schwooze.

  8. To that pinball list I’d add “easy to find goals and feedback for making those goals.”

    But to the main blog here I have nothing but agreement.

  9. The thing about Pinball machines is a valuable lesson. It seems quite popular, but if you look closer you realize that only a few of the patrons play it. And play it allot. I mean, how many bars charge admission because it’s “Pinball Night”?

  10. Consider the Stock Market is an asynchronous massively multiplayer game where the more activity people engage in, the more complex the simple-as-you-can-get content becomes (stock price variation patterns).

    Also, look at SkyRates.

  11. Who plays pinball with only one hand? If you only use the right flipper, don’t you lose the ball when it comes down the left side, or vice versa?

    Granted, I do remember playing pinball with a friend occasionally, where each of us controlled one flipper. But that was the exception rather than the rule, and usually led to lower scores, though it was fun in its own way. (See also the long dead gameshow “The Magnificent Marble Machine”. Contestants played “flippers” (the slang for playing two player like that) with a celebrity on a machine so huge nobody could have reached both flipper buttons anyway. I suspect beer wasn’t allowed on the show, though!)

    I think Windows Solitaire is fairly “casual”. Whether virtual worlds are depends on your definitions. Personally I would say that chatting with a friend on a cell phone is casual, playing in an NFL football game is very much NOT casual. More like “hard core”. Attending a high society party at your boss’s mansion is non-casual in entirely different ways than the football game, both in dress code and in your non-casual attitude as you worry intensely about whether you’ll make a terrible impression, or such a good one you get a promotion.

    I’m not sure that “time spent” is the ideal metric for casual in the dictionary sense, which I relate to where things are on the hippie spectrum from “laid back” to “uptight” (or at least “tense”). You can spend a lot or a little time on the football field, the fact that 350 pound guys want to hit you hard makes it fairly non-casual (though non-padded friends playing touch football at a picnic might be pretty casual). Likewise, though some people spend immense amounts of time on the telephone, it’s usually a highly casual experience during most of that time.

    By that metric, I would say that Furcadia is a pretty casual game for most – though not for all of its players.

    Of course words change faster than Humpty Dumpty could change them at his best, nowadays. Roleplaying, or just RP, used to mean “playing a role” whether it was acting, cowboys & indians, kinky sex, or the occasional D&D game that wasn’t entirely hack and slash. On computers, RPG apparently means “a game where you kill stuff to go up levels and get phat lewt”. If you don’t have that, many people say you’re not an RPG, and if you do have that, apparently you are whether people actually, you know, play a role, or don’t. Go figure!

    Casual Games long ago came to mean “games that have a lot of players who’re someone other than hardcore gaming geeks, i.e., normalish people”. And to some extent also “games made BY someone other than the hardcore gaming geeks that founded & form the core of the computer and videogame industry and keep making the same kind of hardcore games over and over again, and who often refuse to acknowledge that card games or licensed Barbie games are even actually games at all”.

    Personally, I have to admit I enjoyed the fireworks game on the Bella Sara horsie cards website. Though the other two I tried left me yawning.

    What was the topic again? 🙂

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  13. Oh, you use both hands? You mean you actually WANT to score high points?

    Being past the age where I hang out in the bars, there was a time when the pinball machines were standing room only. This was before the dreadful SpaceInvaders that made all the bleeeping noises. Bands hated them. For some reason, it is easier to play through the noise of a pinball machine. We actually unhooked the digital games during sets.

    Seriously though, if the topic is engagement in a game, it’s worth looking at different games and asking why they were/are as popular as they were/are. Pinball combined physical actions, hand to eye and *subtle* cheating (why the TILT). I believe that games need physicality to satisfy some needs (do’h). Do you think online chess is as much fun as WoW regardless of the casual distinction?

  14. Bad Raph, BAD! It does not beg any questions. 😛

    Yeah, yeah, I know that language evolves, and that the majority ends up dictating how a term is used and it’s ultimately futile trying to prevent the loss of language… But dammit if I’m not still going to rail against the blatant misuse of a more than 2000 year old logic term, perpetuated by badly educated journalists and media talking heads. The logic courses would’ve done them some good. 😛

  15. I’d suggest that many of the common advocacies for a 3d web do in fact beg the question in the logical sense. But you’re right that I was just employing the sloppy common usage there. 🙂

  16. […] This post is the best thing Raph’s posted quite some time. Of course, it helps that his thoughts mirror a lot of my thoughts on online worlds, especially the new meme of ‘everyone can open their own virtual world’. The fact that Raph is aware of this problem gives me a lot of hope for what they’re working on. […]

  17. […] Have to read Raph Koster’s “Is there such a thing as a casual online world?” Share this:FlattrLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Posted By: Linn Category: Cyber […]

  18. […] This post is the best thing Raph’s posted quite some time. Of course, it helps that his thoughts mirror a lot of my thoughts on online worlds, especially the new meme of ‘everyone can open their own virtual world’. The fact that Raph is aware of this problem gives me a lot of hope for what they’re working on. […]

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