Feb 262010

Dan Terdiman at CNet engages in some handwringing over the fact that kids worlds and social games are taking over the hype that used to belong to virtual worlds.

But to someone who cut his virtual world teeth on more immersive, 3D environments like There and Second Life, these never-ending announcements of new companies trying to jump on the social gaming bandwagon have left me with one nagging question: Where is the innovation?

The innovation lies in making something that matters to ordinary people.

Now, I am a virtual world person, obviously. I don’t see much distinction between the game worlds and the non-game ones like Second Life. I have been working with them since the text muds, for over 15 years, which doesn’t exactly put me in the true old dino category where Richard Bartle and Randy Farmer reside, but I think it is fair to say that I have been closely identified with the space for a long long time now.

And I think that they aren’t over, but the form that they have taken is.

Most of the classic definitions of virtual worlds have centered around the following:

Facebook's Virtual World Games category

Facebook's list of virtual worlds? Really??

  • a simulation of places
  • synchronous user interaction
  • users represented by avatars

In addition to these, a cluster of common features, some from games but not all, have come to be tightly associated with the medium — more as praxis than because they are intrinsic to the form. Examples include:

  • pseudonymity, aka “handles”
  • formal group identity, aka guilds
  • numerically quantified reputation, aka ratings, rankings, and reputation systems
  • publicly visible profile data, often including abstracted historical activity, aka levels and achievements — and equipment and avatar clothing
  • formalized user roles, aka classes and skills — and also “gods” versus “players”
  • in-world dispute resolution and customer service
  • a fairly common assumption of malleability of environment
  • strong tie interdependence via things like group and party dynamics and live chat
Screenshot of Farm Town

Farm Town -- a true massively multiplayer Facebook farming game

It’s hard to think of virtual worlds where these elements are not included to some degree. And yet, and yet, the commonest mental model of a virtual world is probably still best articulated as “a non-real place that exists independent of my imagination.” The common element here is that Second Life, Star Trek Online, whatever — they are there even when I am not, thanks to the computer simulation. Whereas countless other imaginary worlds, both simulated and not, do not have that sense of independent existence — worlds ranging from a detailed simulation as in Half-Life 2, or even a local Renaissance Faire, do not provide that sense.

There’s a reason why Facebook labels games like Farmville, which are completely lacking in synchronous avatar-based interaction, as “virtual world games” on their games directory page. Farmville meets this test via the same manner that something like Animal Crossing did — it doesn’t run a continuous real-time simulation, but it sure feels like it does to a user. And both Farmville and Animal Crossing feel like they are worlds with independent existence.

In fact, many of the competitors to Farmville do in fact offer avatars and “massively multiplayer” spaces. YoVille is the most obvious example of a true virtual world on Facebook, but there are others, including some in the farming genre such as Farm Town, which offers a true massively multiplayer marketplace area where users can go to chat. (Except they don’t chat… more on that later.)

But it’s clearly not the majority. Yet.

* * *

A lot of the praxis around virtual worlds — and indeed, games in general — has been co-opted by social media. Enough, in fact, that we are starting to see worry that too much has been co-opted.And I can’t really complain, since I have done my share of evangelizing this stuff to web people!

  • Formal group identity is taken to a level well beyond that of the typical virtual world on social networks. (We’ve been saying for years that we should support multiple guild membership in MMORPGs… check out the typical number of groups a Facebook user belongs to…)
  • Points and quantified reputation are rampant. Arguably, excessive.
  • Similarly, publicly visible profile data has become the defining characteristic of much of the social web. Facebook is a collection of “avatar” pages where you can browse only one’s clothing, achievements, guild memberships, and skills — in a manner of speaking.
  • Formalized user roles are also the norm, on the admin-vs-user level.
  • And perhaps most pleasantly, malleability of environment is also a key characteristic. Even the most simplistic of farming games on Facebook ranks higher on the “affect your world” scale than World of Warcraft does… and this sort of personalization of the environment is standard not only in social games but across the social web today.

But just as telling are the parts of the praxis that are left out. Let’s take a look at some of these practices and what has happened to them:

Pseudonymity is taking a lot of hits lately. Not only does Facebook insist on real identities, but we have seen Second Life moving to having real life profile data alongside the pseudonym — in the new viewer, your profile shows both of them, right next to each other. And today, Twitter (still pseudonymous) started rolling out discovery via real identity as well:

Today, Twitter took the wraps off a new feature of the site. When logging in, it prompts the user to set defaults on being discovered with their email address or mobile phone number. It’s called “Be Found on Twitter”. Our contact at Twitter told us that, like many new features, this will show up for some users today and others soon.

ReadWriteWeb, “Be Found on Twitter: Connecting Our Dots in the Social Graph”

The pressure is towards real life identities instead. In fact, towards singular identities. Speaking as someone who consciously ditched pseudonymous handles a few years ago, this was inevitable once you had a sufficiently connected set of databases. And really, the strong ties implicit in virtual worlds have been always been pushing towards real life ties — it’s even in the Laws, so it’s a phenomenon recognized for over a decade now.

I just got done writing the other day about how placeness is a feature and not the point. Given that placeness is the chief characteristic of virtual worlds, this is a bit of a blow to the traditional conception of virtual worlds as a destination. One characteristic of a social-game-as-virtual-world (or indeed, non-placey things that people like labelling as “virtual-world-like” that really aren’t worlds at all, such as Twitter, and so on) is that they are not destinations in their own right; they are been seen as adjuncts to other activities.

The part of formalized user roles that is best described as the class system is outright gone. Classes are essentially a game system oriented around forcing people into strong-tie teams for synchronous activity. They are the same game mechanic as having a quarterback, a linebacker, and a kicker, or players on offense and defense. They are about complementarity.

But the social web has evolved into more of a classless system, in the end, perhaps because teams with rigid roles have always been a very artificial construct. It may be that the social games will start to include this sort of mechanic, but… I am unsure they will, given that…

Weak ties have supplanted strong ties as the default social link. Asynchronicity rules the roost, not real-time interaction. Real-time is a feature, a perk, something used occasionally. It’s not the norm.

It is hard to overstate how big a deal this is.

* * *

So what’s left for virtual worlds? Two of the three key elements in the definition have fallen out of favor in a lot of ways, and the common practices around the last one have been co-opted in radically different forms.

The principal places where virtual worlds offer benefits over these flatter means of participation will have to do with preserving spaces where these qualities can still occur. Applications where

  • placeness is intrinsic (and herein lie the things that many Second Life advocates argue for, such as academic uses involving 3d visualization, or artistic expression that requires 3d)
  • pseudonymity is intrinsic (such as anything involving identity exploration, artificial roles, and wish fulfillment)
  • synchronous interaction and strong ties are intrinsic (team activities, real-time problem-solving, real-time social activities)

The most obvious answer is games.

Any application where you can “pick two” will likely migrate away from virtual worlds, because the presence of the third is a barrier, not a benefit.

Kids’ MMOs are thriving because they don’t use strong ties (they don’t use chat!)

Roleplaying forums on sites like Gaia and Deviant Art are doing well because the barriers implicit in heavy representations of placeness are absent.

Something like Second Life struggles to gain mainstream adoption because flatter pseudo-places can offer so much of what it does, and the very real benefits it offers are only benefits to a segment of the audience that wants either the pseudonymity, or the placeness, or the chat.

And Facebook games? Hey, there’s a place that feels like a world, strongly weak-tie driven, without pseudonymity issues, and yet they carry with them all that praxis, all that other stuff that was elaborations on the core virtual world concept. It’s like a virtual world, “with the bad bits removed” — which is of course a phrase we have heard before, when discussing why World of Warcraft does so much better than the other MMORPGs.

Instead, I think we will see the co-option process continue. These flatter environments will learn to use pseudonymity as a feature, and synchronicity and strong ties as a feature, and placeness as a feature. Then they will fall perfectly into the technical definition of “a virtual world.” But when we connect to them, we’ll have trouble recognizing it, because they won’t be the defining features.

They will be add-ons to the core experience — which will be worldy in the imaginary sense, not the simulation sense. Arguably, worldy in the real sense, because by then, these “connected society applications” will partake deeply of the real world.

TL;DR. Short form: virtual worlds are dead, long live the world, virtual. And it isn’t the picture that we painted for ourselves, as we thought about the way in which virtual worlds would evolve, all those dreams of richer simulations and NPCs that talk to you, of simulated societies and of immersive experiences.

But it doesn’t mean virtual worlds are over. They are metamorphosing, and like a caterpillar, on the path to mass market acceptance, they are shedding the excess legs and creepy worm-like looks in favor of something that doesn’t much resemble what it sprang from, but which a lot more people will like. And which will be a bit harder to pin down.

This change is bigger than the addition of graphics, bigger than the shift to AAA games, bigger than the shift towards kids’ worlds, and bigger and more complex than the use of web clients (though web clients are an inescapable and intrinsic element of the change).

It may not be the last change. It may be that the prevailing currents away from these things change — it happened now, it will happen again. It may be that as tech barriers fall, placeness becomes easy; or that the privacy pendulum swings back the other way and pseudonymity comes back to the Internet.

In the meantime, I would be betting against all the “native client” worlds — AAA game worlds included. Against anything that involves too much of a fantasy identity. Against anything that relies on people playing together in real time. It’s just not where the action is for the next several years. Virtual places as they exist now cannot be a mass medium any more than a single restaurant can.

For those of us who dream of a place we can’t possibly be, doing things we couldn’t do, as someone else, with friends… well, we’re a little bit out of luck. We’ll always have our Avalons and our Lost Worlds. They’re just not the future anymore.

  88 Responses to “Are virtual worlds over?”

  1. I don’t want to hear this.

    Speaking of “Pseudonymity”, that made me think of Steve Martin getting his phone book. I did a search for “I am somebody.” It’s depressing to realize how right you are.

  2. […] similar news, Raph Koster has blogged today with a doomcast on virtual worlds as most people come to know them.  This includes the Second […]

  3. My own feeling is that pseudonymity will make a comeback in a couple of years as the backlash against losing privacy mounts in social spaces and the novelty of such technologies wear off. All of this is still relatively new, and inevitably it will devolve into copycat social networking and virtual worlds (ah, it’s already begun), at which point people will look for something new- which often means something old with a new twist.

    Virtual Worlds as games will continue to survive because it has millions of players who understand the difference (or think they do), and are loyal to it. Someone who enjoys playing a shaman in WoW isn’t going to trade that need for Twitter or an Augmented Reality app on his iPad. Those experiences will compete for time, but for those who enjoy MMOs, placeness is very important, as it forms the context for actions. And finding your friends a block away at another cafe on your iPhone won’t make it acceptable to cast Teleport in that coffee shop you’re in…

    So I sort of agree that VW’s are being coopted by social networks, but many of those social networks and… “virtual worlds” (the cookie cutter ones that you hear about at places like Engage Expo, where everyone targets tweens with Flash chatrooms and “avatar technology”) will prove out to be fly-by-night compared to the more solidly founded worlds and games.

    The Gold Rush made a lot of people money- but only a very few rich…

  4. I agree with this from a direction of the market standpoint but it’s overly broad. It assumes that every game strives to be Farmville. It assumes that every game strives for 200 million users. Once upon a time, there were MMOs on the market with 400K users that made companies a pile of money. Those MMOs are not mass market but they are just as viable today as long as you innovate when building them.

    In the late 1990s, we heard that the PC FPS game was dead. As a matter of fact, all FPS games were dead back then. Today, they are very much alive though they’ve found a primary home on the consoles. The types of AAA MMOs that we play today will continue on despite this Facebook game assault. MUDs still run today and are profitable for their companies. Are the VC profitable, no way, but there’s still a market for them, 10+ years after the introduction of the 3D graphical MMO we’ve all come to know and love/hate. Ten years from now, we will still have 3D graphical MMOs.

    There is one point, I will agree on and that’s the idea of “native client” MMOs. An MMO needs to position itself like Facebook and Twitter do from an API perspective. The walled garden MMO is dead or dying. Tomorrow’s MMOs will have fully accessible web service based APIs that allow more than just read access to game data and once you go there, MMOs can take back some of the ideas that the social web has been so good at implementing in an effort to enrich the AAA MMO experience.

    The reason WoW continues to rule the roost is not because the world wants Facebook games but because the game industry got lazy and the MMO industry remains lazy to this day. Meanwhile, companies like Zynga pillage the homes of the fat and lazy MMO developers of all the game mechanics and theories that allowed MMOs to get where they are today. Perhaps this movement towards Facebook like games will wake up the game developers. Perhaps it will wipe them out. It all depends on if they remain lazy by churning out yet-another-combat-oriented-leveling-treadmill sequel to a dying and aging formula of walled garden virtual worlds. If the game developers don’t learn from the web and learn from Facebook, then Raph’s right, they’re dead and when they die, I’ll gladly step in with an innovative virtual world to serve all of those millions of players looking for something more in a traditional MMO.

  5. Raph – “[virtual worlds] aren’t over, but the form that they have taken is.

    Yeah, definitely. I’ve been saying for several years that WoW was the apex of the first-gen of VWs/MMOGs — it brought together all the elements and shined them up. And nothing in that form since its release has come remotely close to its success. So I also agree with your statement that “I would be betting against all the “native client” worlds — AAA game worlds included.” I don’t know how the recently released STO is doing, but it doesn’t seem to be making a tidal wave splash. And I wonder seriously about whether the upcoming “The Old Republic” has missed its market window for all the reasons you say. The market has moved on and grown immensely in the process. Wit games like Farmville (admittedly not much of a VW) we finally have an inkling of what “mass market” really means.

    I’ve also been predicting for over a year that Facebook would emerge as the new “platform” for the next generation of what VWs and MMOGs are becoming. That seems more true every day. The open web is great for this too of course, but at least in the US it’s difficult to argue with the social gathering point FB provides as a social platform for games.

    That said, I don’t agree though that the current absence of complementary roles (of which a “class system” is one easy-to-understand implementation) means we won’t see these (soon, I think). Complementary roles are hugely important in social games — and even more important, I’d argue, when play is often asynchronous and based on weak ties. It may no longer be about “forming a party” or “doing a raid,” but those are only the first-order (and strong-tie-based) ways of acting in complementary ways. We aren’t seeing these kinds of roles yet because the gameplay in these new games is still incredibly rudimentary (and can afford to be). But a new generation will bring new forms. I think we’re just at the beginning of the next explosion of forms that will include many that trace their lineage back through first-generation graphical VWs and MMOGs.

  6. Depressing read. I draw some different conclusions from yours, but all points are valid and well thought out.

    Completely immersive environments currently have an interface that is too complex for light use, the learning curve requires a level of commitment that is beyond the interest of the casual user. It also suffers from insufficient mitigating hardware — Thus far, HMDs have not delivered on the stereoscopic immersive interaction at a sufficiently acceptable resolution, in a consumer package, that is both competitively priced and “non-awkward”. Therefore the flat screen continues to reign (but flat panels have made the CRT obsolete… it all comes in time).

    So we take two steps back in order to go forward.

    Like the Wii, which brought a kinetic interface to the masses, the common user will make use of more accessible virtual worlds until the technology catches up to the expectation.

    Much like the Xbox Project Natal is likely to lead to the elimination of devices like the Wii, achieving a much more immersive experience, when it reaches an acceptable resolution and price/performance in a consumer package, the level of immersion will again increase.

    Until we have a mitigating device in a form factor that places the user “in there” vs looking “at there” these current low-fi virtual worlds will dominate.

    I don’t have a problem with that. It is bringing a huge part of the population to psychological terms with the concept of virtual worlds.

    I guess why this seems to bother some much more than I is that pseudonymity is one aspect of virtual worlds I’ve always hated. I’ve always given my real identity in Second Life, and gone to great lengths to make my avatar an accurate representation of who I am (albeit, a slightly younger version of myself… to be candid).

    Pseudonymity is what allows a**holes to pay no consequence for their actions. It’s what breeds trolls and griefers, and lets people get away with it. Even for otherwise decent people, the notion that there are no consequences for treating other people like a jerk allows people to hide behind a mask and often treat people in a manner that they simple would not do if they were held responsible for their actions. I gladly cheer the end of pseudonymity in virtual worlds. Then again, I don’t go to Second Life to “role play” and live some life that’s not me… nor do I have any interest in the people who use it for that purpose.

  7. This is the same old refrain that’s been sung for millennia. The printed word did not erase the oral tradition, television did not obliterate radio, rock & roll did not annihilate jazz. Once created, forms of human self-expression are rarely destroyed.

    If what you mean is that the popular news media’s attention will move elsewhere, or that venture capital won’t be chasing virtual worlds, then you may well be right. Virtual worlds of the kind we are already familiar will, however, continue both to exist and to be made.

    The question, perhaps, is not whether they will continue to exist, but whether they will continue to evolve.

  8. Where, other than virtual worlds, can people be and become themselves?

    There’s always that pull. If you integrate a virtual world with the real world, you merely have an adjunct to the real world. The real world has gobbled it up. You gain the immediate benefits of the technology – connectivity, spatial visualisation and so on – but you lose the one thing that makes virtual worlds special: the fact that they are not real. People have always sought to visit imaginary worlds, whether transported through books, music, theatre, dance, … and they always will.

    The way I see this, it’s as if we invented the novel and now people have taken that idea and developed newsletters, textbooks and magazines. Same technology, content that is similar in some ways but different in others, but only a challenge to novels because they compete for the reader’s time. I’m a little sad that the early introduction today’s children have to virtual worlds means they don’t experience that sense of awe that adults have when they first “get” a virtual world, but that’s always how things were going to go.

    So yes, we’ll see the concept of virtual worlds spread ever-more thinly as its different features are stretched to and beyond breaking point. However, there’s always that core collection of elements that will draw people back, on the basis that they offer people something they simply can’t get elsewhere: that chance to be themselves.


    PS: It’s not all bad, anyway. I personally am pleased to see the end of character classes, which I always regarded as an aberrant paradigm anyway.

  9. The thing that worries me a little bit, is the asynchronicity part of all of this, as I see it as part of a larger trend to move away from activities that require focused attention. I mean, I know it’s not *necessary* for an asynchronous activity to also be a low attention activity, but it removes some amount of pressure on the need to be paying attention. As part of that trend, it becomes an enabler, and that could be a problem.

    There’s some evidence that some of this stuff, between the tighter, more rapid, feedback loops and the lack of maintained attention, might have some neurological side effects that make it much harder for people to focus attentively in general, and that could have some not so great repercussions to things like long term memory, learning, and retention. We really need to see media in general pushing in the other direction, slowing down the bursts of stimuli we’re exposed to to saner levels and focusing more on things that require more, well, focus. More Sans Soleils, and fewer Matrix Revolutions, and the gaming/social web equivalents thereof.

  10. I cannot help, but you are the next to predict that social facebook and browser games are the future. Maybe. But I would not compare them to MMOs claiming to be virtual fantasy worlds.

    I rather think the creators of the really massive virtual worlds of today did not create worlds, but themeparks.

    World of Warcraft comes to mind – the world is no longer what it once was, it takes a backseat compared to instanced dungeon running by now.

    Dungeons, Raids, Rep Grinds, Daily Quests -> no wonder that “virtual worlds” are no longer that popular. They actually still are, but this can indeed not be the future.

    But nobody seems to have the will to make a virtual world. I personally believe you were much closer to this with the very first versions of Ultima Online and SWG than most other MMOs are today.

  11. I agree with the statement that WOW shined up what the MMO virtual world should be in many aspects and we’ve had many mis-steps since. I should hope that social gaming isn’t the wave for too long. It only attracts social gamers, which we know are not the only virtual world inhabitants. I for one, abhor the whole lot of social platforming – my space, facebook, blah. I’m explorer, achiever who gets all the socialization she wants in her real life.

    I think these are virtual worlds for different audiences but the socially focused ones are just emerging and attracting their clientele. My sister, daughters, nephew, sister-in-laws, and most everyone they know is on facebook and playing social games. Yet not one of these would ever play a real MMO or engage in a more open virtual world such as SL. On the converse, the two people that seriously play MMOs in our family, myself and my son, are the only two not doing that “other stuff”. It’s not the same audience and they can’t replace one another.

    I had more virtual world in the older MMOs I played, EQ1, AC2 than any of the games that came after, including WOW. I am surprised that many of the elements that made those games feel more virtual are disappearing. And as a gamer, I don’t understand why.

  12. This isn’t going to hurt gaming, it’ll help it.

    First you get to open the idea of “worlds” to a new mass that’s much larger.

    Second, you get to wet their appetites for games.

    Third, you get to offer them the deeper stuff, while showing it to them.

    Fourth, a new means of delivering games to people is developing. It has advantages.

    This is really part Micky D’s and part “end cap displays”. It’s fast food, and it’s easy eye catching displays. And from this will come yet more new ideas, strengthening everything in gaming. This isn’t the end of the story. The evolution will continue, as always.

  13. I speak as someone who loaded my Island Life game up in Second Life last night on the wall of the Sutherland Dam Club (you can do that now with 2.0), and who makes choices in my Island Life decor that come from some of my rocky Second Life parcels. These are not either-or propositions. The Habbo Hotel inventor and some others at Engage! Expo call these worlds “destination worlds” because you have to download and “go to” them. But Island Life is a place that feels as if you have to “go to it” to — being in a browser doesn’t rescue it from that status — the dirty little secret of browser games is that they load and reload just as much as downloadable worlds have to load and then lag.

    This is a very neat set of classifications you’ve made, Raph, but it is still too “gamey” and not “worldy” enough and you’ve really limited the menu for what a virtual world is.

    You seem to forget what is key to the virtual world of Second Life that even to some extent holds in Island Life: user generated content. The ability to *create* in the virtual world is paramount; and in IL, it’s the ability to lay out stuff and pick stuff, as you could in the Sims Online, that makes it a world. Farmville, which doesn’t have real-time presence chat in it, feels less worldy, even tho it is a world in the sense of a place — I don’t know if you realize that some of the other FB games have more driving gameplay forcing you to do things (like Cafe World) that have no leisure of choice, decoration, *not* watering, etc. as an option — and it’s that *choice* that gives IL more heft.

    The Prokofy definition of virtual worlds is:

    1. Has a sense of place.
    2. Has drama

    Drama is key to world-sense — the narration of people’s stories is drama. And I mean not just the drama of people squabbling — although that’s important, because if you begin to care enough about the politics of the platform, you inevitably have drama, and that means that the Twitfights that can be not about the Health Care Summit but about he-said, she-said on Twitter’s functioning itself, make it a *world*. Twitter is definitely a virtual world where ties are weakest and where sense of place is weakest, but it is still a virtual world. It’s more of a virtual world than AIM precisely because it affords more opportunity — or has a greater culture of — making a profile, collecting points (followers), having a visible reputation, etc. You can’t see the rest of an AIM chatter’s list when you are talking to them; you can on Twitter. That little piece of reflexivity makes Twitter a world.

    Which brings me to this:

    # Formal group identity is taken to a level well beyond that of the typical virtual world on social networks. (We’ve been saying for years that we should support multiple guild membership in MMORPGs… check out the typical number of groups a Facebook user belongs to…)
    # Points and quantified reputation are rampant. Arguably, excessive.
    # Similarly, publicly visible profile data

    This is all very worrisome, of course, because it means that with MMORPGs, casual Facebook games, Second Life, Blue Mars, whatever, there is the same horrid, driving, medieval culture of collectivization(guilds), suppression of the individual, control of the individual through group judgement (reputation systems), exposure of the individual in a distilled format creating quick judgements (profile) — these are all horrible totalitarian tools, at the end of the day paving the way for a really nasty hive mind run by a few game coders, as more and more supplanting not only what our time online is all about, but what our time offline is dictated by as well (lots of pious indignant types are proclaiming as biased the old media coverage of the new-media-style Health Care Summit dissecting some of Obama’s claims and putting in their own leftist pro-Obama spin as “just the facts m’am).

    I don’t want to live in a world dictated by some guildmaster, who may be a 14 year old kid with a Napoleon complex. I don’t want to live in a world where reputations can be ganked by those same griefer kids. I don’t want to live in a world where I am judged not by my links and my writings but by two lines that happen to fit in the profile template that you coded. And yet I do live in those worlds and try to make them better — and it is damn hard, because despite all your talk about making games that will make the world better, you keep on coding guilds, profiles, and reputation systems out the wazoo. Island Life is no different. Unless I have 8 neighbours, I can’t build out my island — I’d have to pay protection money in real-life cash to get that feature! Unless I work on the collective farm and water everybody else’s plants, I can’t earn money — my own plants count for nothing, and I have to hope I’ll get reciprocity. It’s a brutal and ugly business, not allowing the individual to grow and develop and shine — except as a function of the collective, in the hive’s judgement, with points meted out by the hive.

    I realize you’re trying to say that social media has “taken your concepts and done them better” — more “guilds” on Facebook, more “profile space” on Facebook but at the end of the day, it’s still the idiotic system of “friends” or “followers” or “reputation points”. Everyone knows you are judged on Twitter by how many followers you have — and hated if you get “too many” like Scoble.

    My best three friends in real life are not on Facebook or any of that social media and I see them in real life weekly. My three best friends in Second Life are people whose real names I don’t know, or if I happen to know, because they’re forced not to out themselves on Facebook with SL, it’s meaningless because I know little else about them and will never see them. Between these two experiences of full-face presence and online anonymity lies numerous fake Farmville friends, false friends like Urizenus who fertilizes my plants today, but allow me to be pilloried in the Herald the next day.


  14. Why are people swallowing the Facebook mantra lock, stock and bloody smoking barrel? Facebook are wrong, completely, totally and utterly.

  15. When you can count your friends, you have already missed the point.

    I imagine we can, today, ask ourselves, “Which hive do you belong to?” rather than which tribe. Are you an ant or a bee or a wasp? What humanity? Most of our internet activity seems to be captured by a bee dance, the rest of it is just antenna-rubbing. “Hi, I exist. Hi, I exist. Food over that way. Hi, I exist.”

    I’m Chinese by birth, and I can speak Cantonese decently, but I always disclaim fluency. I know enough Chinese to say hi and give vague directions and ask for a few basic things. I can say no more than, “Hi, I exist. Food over that way. Could I have that please?” I’m good at it, but that’s not fluency; that’s not really knowing the language. That’s not being Chinese.

    It’s vapid, depthless, meaningless, pointless. Ordinary, without room for the fantastic, the idealistic, the aspirant, the beautiful.

    What distinguishes the virtual worlds of tomorrow from this industry’s arrogant condescension of television today? Is it simply that we can reach through the screen and actually hurt people? Guilt them into playing the same, empty games with us? Mock their choices when they are different from ours?

  16. […] Why are virtual worlds an important subject in social  media? (hey, does that sound as if I need some legitimization of my interest in that topic???) I found some reasons why in a very interesting post by Raph Koster (followed by a great discussion in the comments section), Are Virtual Worlds Over? […]

  17. hey raph. i had a thought today on this.

    so, it’s not that virtual worlds are over, it’s just that our senses of scale are being realigned.

    it’s sorta like a kid who grows up in a little one-stoplight town. from there, you move to paris and all of a sudden — whoa — the world is a much bigger place now.

    the only virtual worlds you knew were just the equivalent of hanging out at the soda counter in your local drug store. now, it’s still that… but it’s also dancing and dinner at the top of the eiffel tower. and everything else in between.

    it’s kinda like facebook is trying to get all tyler durden on us: “Tell him. Tell him, The liberator who destroyed my property has realigned my perceptions.”


  18. An insightful and sobering read, from one VW evangelist to another.

    In my mind, what other forms of social networks and social media offer are different levels of engagement that users can choose from. One can easily start dabbling in Twitter or Facebook or YouTube, or you can spend every waking minute updating your status and refining your YouTube channel. The way that some people constantly are on Facebook to me resembles the kind of immersive attention that you find in Second Life. But Facebook doesn’t REQUIRE this.

    In contrast, virtual worlds and MMORPGs are designed to be timesinks. They are meant to be experienced for hours at a time, with a high level of focus. So they will always appeal most to only the geekiest. You can not easily scale your involvement to be once a day or once a week or whenever you happen to think of it during the workday.

    So synchronous online environments will never reach the kind of scale that asynchonous social media can.

    I suppose the same thing could be said for live theater or live sporting events versus watching a DVD or DVRing the game. Both models are valid, but the kind of audiences you can draw and how you fund those activities are totally different.

  19. Saylah>I am surprised that many of the elements that made those games feel more virtual are disappearing. And as a gamer, I don’t understand why.

    Ooh! I know this one! http://www.gamasutra.com/features/20041103/bartle_01.shtml.


  20. @Richard Bartle
    Has there really been a compelling virtual world yet? If people are leaving, is it? And if not, what have all the virtual worlds been missing?

  21. And it isn’t the picture that we painted for ourselves, as we thought about the way in which virtual worlds would evolve, all those dreams of richer simulations and NPCs that talk to you, of simulated societies and of immersive experiences.

    For those of us who dream of a place we can’t possibly be, doing things we couldn’t do, as someone else, with friends… well, we’re a little bit out of luck. We’ll always have our Avalons and our Lost Worlds. They’re just not the future anymore.

    I detect some doom and gloom tone here, only a bit 😉

    I believe that these real virtual worlds will become the new hobbies in the not very far future, in other wirds will be rich and deep niche worlds for a very dedicated and compromised player crow. Perhaps not will be the BIG numbers business, but defintively will exists some room for these market, and a handful of very specialiced developers will cover the demand. Same how any actually hobbie how modelism, wargames, pen a pencil RPG games, chopper bikes, or rare sports, etc. And dont are cheap activities.

    Is the hour for return to the confortably and warn nerd/geek/any-other best-name cave, perhaps only for this winter or perhaps forever, but is a future.

    Mainstream things always will be easy, useful, cheap, flat, undeep, without artistic flavor or soul. Are things for the masses, without personality by deffinition. But the same people casual for cinema or cooking can be very dedicated for bonsais or snowboard. Doing the world much more interesting due to their rare, expensive and definitively not mainstream activities

    Dont have a mainstream future is not equal to no future.

  22. Brass Monkey>Has there really been a compelling virtual world yet?
    Most of them have been compelling – ones with a game element to them in particular.

    >If people are leaving, is it?
    People will leave either because the virtual world isn’t giving them what they want, or it’s given them it and now they don’t want it any more. If you’re playing a virtual world for fun, a good virtual world is one where your fun becomes sated. It’s like with restaurants: people leave restaurants either because they don’t like the food/service/atmosphere or because they finished their meal. OK, so it takes longer with virtual worlds, but eventually what you went there for (that celebration of identity thing) you get; at that point, you don’t need to play any more. It’s not a failure of the virtual world, though, it’s a success! Also, if they do it right, you’ll still come back, not to play for fun but because you like the place and the people.


  23. It seems to me that the more traditional virtual worlds / MMOs would do well to integrate their experiences with the newer, more asynchronous VWs. For example, perhaps players of a farming game hosted on the Facebook platform could have their success at that game have a substantive effect upon the world of a traditional VW by providing raw materials for sale to manufacturers / craftsmen.

    CCP has already made a similar move with their work on DUST 514, which would tie a console-based FPS into the events unfolding in EVE Online. While a console shooter will probably never be as mass market as a Facebook world, its placefulness and “social strength” are on the spectrum between traditional and newer worlds.

    Class differentiation could shift from solely user/admin to include different roles for users based on the manner in which they wish to interact with the world. It would of course be necessary to ensure that there are mutually beneficial incentives for users in different roles to engage and support each other. Virtual currency rewards that relate to the success of allies across role boundaries would probably be the simplest way to achieve that, although quantified reputation and statistics might be enough for some users. Communication and participation in groups across roles would allow users to create strong social ties if they wished.

  24. Ingrod > Absolutely!

    I’ll repeat: No future in mainstream != No future.

    My first MMORPG was EverQuest in 1999. It was not my first game. My second MMORPG was Ultima Online. I’ve played EverQuest far, far more than I played UO. I did play on a lot of player-run UO shards.

    Bartle says I should like EverQuest the most. However, I feel different. My majority opinion has arrived at a compromise world: a combination of the indepth factions and quests and unique items in EverQuest with the freedom and player-driven play of UO. So it’s not just the first MMORPG, it’s a combination of the first couple, and maybe a bit of things I’ve seen in other MMORPGS.

    The major failing I see in EverQuest is the stupid amount of camping and grinding. Timesink != Content. They need to fill in all of the camping and grinding with actual content and there needs to be more overlap between quests and goals so that players have more reasons to group with eachother. Another big failing in EverQuest, IMHO, is players don’t build things like houses or boats or shops or etc. It’s not player-driven at all. I don’t feel like I am participating in making a “place” unique. It feels like I’m being forced down one road and made to look a certain way. If I can’t change how the world looks in some way, I don’t feel a part of it.

  25. I’m a lover of Facebook games. As a former computer & video game developer, I have to say I’ve played many a game I liked & didn’t like. Just for variety, I thought I would post my personal preferences.

    What I don’t like about old school virtual worlds:
    – My character being killed in the first 5-10 minutes. (Ultima Online)
    – My character’s stuff being stolen. (Ultima Online)
    – The game assuming I’m male (most games made in the ’90s)
    – An interface that requires a download & programming skills to create something new (2nd Life)
    – An interface where I have to pay to alter the world (2nd Life)
    – The game removing all my points, skills, stuff & then having me, the player, start all over again from the beginning (most computer/video/arcade games)

    There are many things I’ve loved about these games, but the statements above are the reasons I quit playing them. Ultima online was a huge disappointment as I could never get over the “kill them & take their stuff” logic. I stopped playing Second Life because I didn’t know anyone there & felt like I was interrupting when I approached someone, because of the real-time element.

    What I enjoy about Facebook games (Farmville especially) is that there are many ways to play the game:
    – having huge fields & collecting the most experience points
    – having a large number of people help you with your world (farm)
    – playing for coins and displaying the most expensive graphics
    – collecting = gather stable parts as gifts from friends, until it’s built
    – receiving many different things from large numbers of people daily
    – mastering a skill & displaying it with a cute graphic (billboard)
    – talking in the facebook area outside of the game environment about the game & about things that are not part of the game

    There are things I don’t like about these games too, but not so much that it interrupts my enjoyment. The 2D graphics are cute and fun, but not the mesmerizing beauty in a lot of games. I loathe the music & sound, usually playing with the speakers off. In some fb games if you have the coins, you cannot buy the roses because you haven’t reached a certain level. I would think you should have the ability to buy it if you have the ability to earn the coins.

    We are experiencing the very beginning of a new form of entertainment. Each new virtual world will have it’s strengths and weaknesses. Personally, I can’t wait to watch it develop.

  26. I don’t think this even dignifies a response.

    Raph, you think that dumbing-down addiction waste-of-time worlds where you alienate your friends on achievements and unlocked goals is what the mass public want? … well maybe they do… but I don’t…
    And most intellects, and creativists and activists and people wanting to make a difference in the world choose Second Life over Farmville.

    Raph, I’m sorry that Metaplace failed, or it didn’t achieve your set out goals… but don’t speak for everyone. Moron-games are mainstream, just as windows minesweeper and solitaire were. People that don’t want to exert any creative imagination, which is the majority of society opt to play the dumbed-down games like Farmville and Cafe World. The mainstream doesn’t need to accept Second Life for it to be an integral valuable part of the growth and future of our technological world.

    I think you need to take a step back, do some more research, and step inside the 100+ virtual worlds currently in existence before you declare virtual worlds are dead. You can’t just try your Metaplace, turn it off, see everyone is playing facebook games, and then make a bold statement with that minimal reference point of view.

  27. oh… and “making something that matters to ordinary people”
    That’s the last thing I want in my life. Ordinary people… they’re ordinary. They’re not exceptional and outstanding. To me, creating something to mind-numb society is counter-productive to the advancement of the world.

  28. John>Bartle says I should like EverQuest the most.

    I do? Where?

    I say that people generally have a soft spot for the first MMO they got into (EQ in your case), against which they judge all others. However, that doesn’t mean that several years later you can’t reflect on it objectively and realise it had shortcomings; nor does it mean that you can’t start morphing into a designer, with views on how you would do things better.


  29. The problem as I see it that nobody has really tried to make a proper virtual world with modern day technology and current AAA+ production standards. Virtual worlds as a concept has not actually failed. Rather it’s just been in hibernation because it has not really been seriously attempted by anyone.

    It’s very possible that the dream of a having a fully realized virtual world may be going into a period of cryogenic suspension much like the dark ages that characterized Western civilization before the Renaissance. Look at how many years it took for democracy to be reawakened from it’s initial inception in ancient Greece to it’s present incarnation in the West.

    Why are we so obsessed with popularity and success as benchmarks of legitimacy for virtual worlds?

    Why does the next MMORPG have to have 100 million subscribers to dethrone Blizzard’s WoW? At what point does this MMORPG arms race end?

    Maybe it’s okay that virtual worlds aren’t the future in 2010. Let Twitter, Farmville and WhatverIsTrendy(tm) wear that heavy iron crown and let them strut around with their billions served cuisine.

    I’m eternally optimistic because all it will take is one MMO or virtual world done right and the entire paradigm will change again.

  30. […] Think that Old School and the Tabletop are over? Think that Warcraft and Second Life are significant going forward? Think again. […]

  31. @Richard again:

    Going back to “compelling”, I think that almost all of the “compelling” has fallen into the “short term good, long term bad” category. I mean…”end game”? Come on, that screams this category.

    Of course, I may be taking this to a different level than you meant. But still.

    To my knowledge, there are only a few cases of good short term and long term.
    EvE has something, but I’ve never played it. But you can see it in the long term conflicts and the glue that remains even when an entire “nation”, or whatever, falls and crumbles to dust.
    UO also has something in their commitment to trade. Housing has something to do with this.

    These seem to be rare examples of long term good. And both have a very heavy social aspect to them.

  32. Weak ties have supplanted strong ties as the default social link. Asynchronicity rules the roost, not real-time interaction. Real-time is a feature, a perk, something used occasionally. It’s not the norm.

    It is hard to overstate how big a deal this is.

    Being a gnome warlock takes time. FB fits into the moments one can spare in an otherwise office bound life. IOW, asynchonous communication fits the schedules we live with. Virtual worlds are like parties; they require an invite, directions, dress code, can I bring my kids, and so on.

    On identity: FB insists on some real details, but after that, note how many of us have Dogs for our FB photos regardless of what the pundits say about it. Some see FB and particularly Twitter as a means to advance their personal brand. Others see them as a place to relax and play with friends and strangers soon to be weakly tied friends. Some guild-like features are emergent based on preferences for other people such as the friend pages major celebrities build up until they hit the 5000 mark and have to create a fan page. Some emerge out of the oldest ties such as regathering of the old high school crew.

    FB doesn’t scare the groundlings the way a game does. The mistake virtual world makers have made is to try to become a game. In FB, the separation is clean.

    I think there are many subtle aspects of in-world gaming that create too much commitment or require it. FB hits the sweet spot of what most people want most of the time: social contact on their own schedule by their own choice.

  33. I’m thinking about it in terms of cycles.

    Dungeons and Dragons evolved from wargames. The D&D brown books were hopelessly primitive compared to something like Squad Leader, but those three little books grew into an industry that far surpassed wargaming… and as the industry grew, the RPG gained greater and greater sophistication.

    Then came the text MUDs. They were hopelessly primitive compared to D&D. But you didn’t need a live group to play them, and they steadily grew in sophistication.

    Then came Meridian 59 and UO. You couldn’t do everything in an MMO that you could do in a text format, but the graphic element was compelling enough to push things to another quantum level, and over time they grew to be as sophisticated in most ways as the MUDs.

    Now we’re at the beginning of another cycle, the browser-based game. Like all their predecessors, they’re starting out more primitive than their predecessors, but they have elements of accessibility and ease of adoption that push them to a broader audience.

    My expectation is that the browser-based games will grow more complex and sophisticated over time until they match or exceed the AAA MMO format. But I don’t think synchronicity, pseudonymity, specialized roles (if not formal classes) or any of the other defining features of the MMO are dead. They’ll morph and mutate, but they’ll still be there in recognizable form at the beginning of the next cycle.

    The smash success of the movie “Avatar” should be instructional as to the direction that the general public wants to see VR take. They want to be startling and alien and adventurous, and totally immersed in a rip-roaring story that challenges their assumptions and stretches their skills and abilities.

    They’ll play Farmville because it’s there and convenient. But they’re hungry for something more substantial.

    They may not know it yet. But nobody knew we wanted MMOs until somebody (namely you, Raph, and your cohorts in that first wave) took a risk and offered them to us.

    None of us here are passive riders on this wave. Every person reading this blog is here because we have more than a passing interest in the genre. Even those of us who are merely players affect the direction of the wave, by what we choose to play, by how we play it, by what we communicate to other players. We don’t just watch the trend; we ARE the trend. And none of us are irrelevant or obsolete.

    Even those of us who are seriously contemplating reactivating our UO accounts.

  34. Yukon Sam>nobody knew we wanted MMOs until somebody (namely you, Raph, and your cohorts in that first wave) took a risk and offered them to us

    We knew they were going to happen in the mid-1980s, we just never managed to persuade anyone to give us the money to make them happen.


  35. Brass Monkey>I think that almost all of the “compelling” has fallen into the “short term good, long term bad” category. I mean…”end game”? Come on, that screams this category.

    Yes, I wouldn’t call that compelling in the way that playing the first MMO you get into is compelling.

    >These seem to be rare examples of long term good. And both have a very heavy social aspect to them.

    The playing of an MMO, and learning more about yourself as you do so, is at the root of the kind of compelling that MMOs can offer which very few other experiences can match. However, it’s getting harder and harder to get that kind of experience. I’ve been saying for several years that the concept of what a virtual world is is becoming so watered down that a few years from now we’ll wonder why people ever thought they were anything special at all. Yet there will still be virtual worlds out there, for people who care to look, that will deliver an experience that’s every bit as compelling as in the past, if not moreso. It’s just that not everyone will care to look, nor indeed need to.


  36. Note that CNet is also running an article where newly signed bands try to refuse to social network or tweet. Note the comments are anti-social network on that announcement.


    So in a single week, two trends were promised were absolutely going to change our lives forever appear to be poised on the tip of the whiplash. True or not, it is a clue about how fragile any socially-driven technology really is. It is never about the technology itself. It is about the social perception and the enjoyment of the engagement. The first is fickle and the second has boredom as a time keeper.

    Note that all it took was the labels publicly telling their acts that social networks are good for their numbers. This is true. I can look at my YouTube stats and show you the exact day I started using FB to promote videos. No money involved. It was an experiment. On the other hand, the anti-TheMan sentiment is perrenial and eternal in some demographics and that happens to be the precise demographic these bands want to sell to. Oopsie.

    I have a rule of thumb: as soon as ABC Good Morning America runs a piece promoting a technology, a trend, a book, whatever, it’s on life support after that.

  37. Anne, you never said a truer word about the problems with games and worlds — the male view imposed over the virtuality. Kill ’em, and take their stuff.
    You don’t have to be a rabid feminist to appreciate this. Females seem to appreciate more games that persist, that enable you to build up things, that enable you to work and achieve stability, unlike the incessant war and plundering of the boys’ games. That’s all.

  38. Hi Raph! As much as I enjoy immersive simulations and consider myself adept at Second Life (and, gradually, OpenSim), I agree with your claims here.

    Educators have wanted our students to engage in rich and nuanced simulations for a while, and guess what? The current generation of students are “augmentationists” who don’t have acres of time to dedicate to learning a clunky UI or leveling up in an MMO. They find the idea of a “new you” online to be (their favored term) “creepy.”

    Ien said it well, that “FB fits into the moments one can spare in an otherwise office bound life.”

    Substitute “college” for “office bound” and you have the students I teach. One in 50 is a serious gamer and they dislike the rule-less setup and pokey graphics of virtual worlds.

    But a goodly number of “typical students” play YoVille, FarmVille, etc. because it can be done “on the fly” and without too much geek-stigma.

  39. Females seem to appreciate more games that persist, that enable you to build up things, that enable you to work and achieve stability, unlike the incessant war and plundering of the boys’ games. That’s all.

    One of the things that drives me nuts about the current crop of MMOs is that they seem to be going backwards on the social side of the equation. Star Trek Online is a case in point. The space combat system is excellent, the ground combat is okay, but the non-combat content is thin and systems for social players virtually non-existant.

    They took the biggest, best-established sci-fi community out there and sold it down the river for a pew pew action game. Worse, they still don’t understand what went wrong… they’re focusing on delivering yet more pew pew and not on building up the community (and giving the community tools to build itself).

    The game that remembers the lessons of Kazola’s and The Golden Brew… that’s the game that holds the keys to the kingdom.

  40. Yukon:
    The game that remembers the lessons of Kazola’s and The Golden Brew… that’s the game that holds the keys to the kingdom.

    First, people have to recognize what exactly it is. This seems to be very difficult for most people. And there’s miles of skies full of ack-ack.

  41. Great, well-reasoned post!

    I think what we’re seeing in the virtual world space is just a reflection of the avant-garde—–>mass appeal trajectory found in the physical world. If we want to know the future of how leading-edge creatives will use virtual worlds and pseudonymous identity, as Marshall McLuhan said, we shouldn’t be looking in the rear view mirror.

    I’m getting the impression that at least some of us who have been pushing the virtual identity envelope are now looking for next steps beyond binary identity and the psychological division we impose to separate the multitude of platforms and modalities that comprise on our Transworld lifestyle. My current slogan for the approach is “Integration, not assimilation.”

  42. The article is a bit head banging for me, and no pictures either, but would agree after sifting through

    ” They are metamorphosing, and like a caterpillar, on the path to mass market acceptance, they are shedding the excess legs and creepy worm-like looks in favor of something that doesn’t much resemble what it sprang from, but which a lot more people will like. And which will be a bit harder to pin down.”

    Virtually-linked ethos has been “we know not the shape of the virtual world,as no one yet knows , but welcome all to join us to shape it” so on morphing have always stuck to that principle, as our clients will attest.

    If anything makes me despair, it is the conviction with which individuals & entities proclaim their businesses as “solutions” in this constantly morphing scene with my specific pain coming from those who take monies for services they cannot possibly supply due to this ever changing scene, and include platform providers who I liken to surfers who have all the kit, with well waxed boards, but do not have the local knowledge to read the waves.

  43. man, without vc funding to keep you all busy.. youll all so boring;)

  44. man, without vc funding to keep you all busy.. youll all so boring;)

    Pffft. If you’ve got an idea, some skills and Flash, who needs vc? We’re back to the garage.

    Damn, I need to get off my lazy carcass and start coding. I missed the last three or four ground floors.

  45. […] through books, music, theatre, dance, … and they always will” – Richard Bartle, in commento a “Are Virtual Worlds over?” di Raph […]

  46. John > I’ll repeat: No future in mainstream! = No future.

    Absolutely wrong! For not said unrealistic.

    The real world is full of not mainstrean activities that give a good profit for both users and developers, why virtual worlds should be different?

    When technology and tools for create virtual worlds reduce their costs small developers will create and run quality virtual worlds and MMO games with detailed and rich worlds for the loyal fans or for people searching something different to mainstrean games or future tendences.

    Real virtual worlds how can be currently EVE Online always will be a niche or a market for minories, how many other hobbies. 100k players or less MMOs can appear very small compared to FB or WoW numbers, but is sufficient to run an small specialiced business.

    But is imposible predict the future, perhaps when AAA MMOs develope strong links with FB the current cohort of cheap FB games fades away.

    Civilization games gameplay has been developed with succes for many years, small flash games cant compete with that experience without evolve too.

    Civilization Network will be in FB, but that can be the platform for promote the Civilization V to new players that possibly never played that games or know about them before. Same that FB gameplay can be a platforn to migrate to AAA virtual worlds. A FB SWTOR minigame tied to the game world history or gameplay can lead players to play the main game or inclusive be part of the main game.

    Virtual Worlds can become multiplatforms entities, the social unsincronized game will be tied to FB, the game world and sincronic group activities with FXs loaded combat tied to the AAA platform, admin factories or long tern activites throught ipod, etc. In the end instead of fades away they can evolve to much more rich and complete things that current “EQ/WoW like” or “UO like” MMOs.

    The EVE online experiment this year will be key in this.

    One same virtual world, with social and manage activities tied to FB and ipod, space gameplay in PC, ground combat gameplay in console. In the next expansion they will add civilization like ground factories and planet development.

  47. […] has an intersting observation though (among many), and with restrospective vision it’s kind of obvious: Virtual worlds aren’t the escape […]

  48. Ingrod, I think John meant “no future in mainstream != no future” where != is programmer-speak for “not equal to.” 🙂

  49. I’m operating on the theory that as more of the masses play games (including online games like WoW), the picture of the typical gamer is changing to more and more closely resemble that of the typical citizen… and the typical citizen according to Myers-Briggs data strongly prefers the real over the abstract or fantastic. It’s something like a 70/30 split in the general population.

    If so, that explains the shift in developer interest away from games with features like fantasy lives, character classes, pre-written stories, and large complex places to explore (and indeed, away from traditional “games” themselves) and toward simpler forms of light entertainment based on the expression of real selves doing “real-ish” things in return for (as Jesse Schell noted) collectable rewards.

    Actually, that last bit sounds to me like a near-perfect description of The Sims. Mike Sellers might be able to speak more to this, but I would be shocked if a social network version of The Sims didn’t do enormously well (where, for various reasons, The Sims Online did not). The first result of EA’s recent acquisition of Playfish may be a FaceBook version of the Madden franchise, but I’d bet good money that a conversion of The Sims will be next.

    It’s hard not to conclude that big immersive gameworlds that allow people to deeply explore alternate realities are going the way of the dodo. They’re more expensive to make and fewer gamers want them.

    So what are Explorers like myself to do as we become increasingly marginalized? Quit gaming entirely?

  50. There.com just announced it’s closure effective March 9, 2010.

  51. Fear not, Bart. This is an untapped market. That’s all it is. Once it fills in with competitive entities, it won’t seem like a huge sack of gold anymore. I think this may be the last of the untapped markets, at least the big ones. There’s loads of room in all the various markets for new quality products, that hasn’t been tapped yet. So, expect real games to be even better than before as people interested in that niche go after it via quality, coupled with new ideas taken from all the other markets.

  52. the typical citizen according to Myers-Briggs data strongly prefers the real over the abstract or fantastic. It’s something like a 70/30 split in the general population.

    “Fantastic” is an entirely different concept than “abstract”. If you construct a world that revolves around an internally consistant, detailed system of magic/superpowers/advanced technology, and you present that in concrete form in a book, movie, or game, the “typical citizen” will grok it. In point of fact, they’re more likely to understand today than ever before, thanks in large part to Harry Potter, the LoTR movies, Avatar, some really top-drawer superhero movie scripts, etc, etc.

    But those properties would have flopped horrendously if there wasn’t enormous interest and excitement for them amongst the mainstream already. You don’t have to sell them on Spiderman or Star Trek or Lord of the Rings — what used to be the realm of the geek is now a cornerstone of basic cultural literacy.

    Don’t sell the mainstream short. They’ll take Farmville because it’s free and available, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t jump at the chance to play WoW or even EVE if it were at their fingertips… and if there was just a bit more handholding to ease them in. And the more there is to do in MMOs beyond “kill ten rats”, the more different people will feel at home.

  53. Sam, I really think that the mainstream doesn’t want WoW or EVE.

    Zynga launched a game called Burning Realms. It was a competent Diablo clone with high quality gameplay and graphics. Everything you would want from a web-based Diablo. It was backed by Zynga’s warchest, got the marketing, all that.

    It is closed today because it was wrong for the market.

    I do agree that the more there is to do beyond killing, the more likely it is to do well in that market. SWG’s harvesters, dancers, and hairdressers would do better than SWG’s bounty hunters, Jedi, and pistoleers.

  54. Yukon Sam, I think it’s at least debatable that the “fantastic” properties that have done well commercially have been strongly realistic in their fantasy.

    Consider Harry Potter, Iron Man and Batman, and Avatar. In the first, magic is treated basically like a technology, and the kids pretty much act like kids anywhere (albeit kids able to fight evil with magic wands). The fantasy is grounded in the real; it’s not magic in the beautiful sense of the original Earthsea novels, for example.

    The titular characters of Iron Man and Batman, the “superhero” properties that have done the best lately, aren’t super in any way at all. They’re physically mundane humans who happen to have money and gadgets, both of which are realistic enough for the kinds of people who see the world primarily in terms of what can be experienced through the senses. Even Avatar, for all its science fiction elements, is basically about machine-assisted military force, something that’s all too real.

    I’m open to counter-examples: are there any “pure fantasy” properties that have been commercial blockbusters that just aren’t occurring to me? (Seriously; I’m capable of changing my mind.) For now, I stick with conflating “abstract” and “fantastic” as things that most people (like my mom) reject in favor of what feels realistic.

    What matters is the larger explanation I’m suggesting, which is that the masses prefer realism, and that as more of the masses accept computer-based entertainment, game developers unsurprisingly start making games that are more grounded in the real world. A shift from monolithic, “elves-in-tights” virtual world games to simple games played by real people is exactly what that playstyle-based model predicts.

    I hope there’ll still be room for a few big immersive gameworlds. It’s just getting hard to imagine publishers forking out the big bucks to make such games when they no longer look like the future.

  55. Bart, Tolkien would be the example, but Tolkien is also sui generis… not sure it is a valid counterexample.

  56. Raph, I was definitely thinking of LotR, too, in both its novel and movie forms.

    But despite the number of printings (my dog-eared copy is from the ’70s) of the books and the positive critical recognition of the Peter Jackson films, I honestly have a hard time describing them as “blockbusters” that have been embraced by a majority of the public as their entertainment of choice.

    I excluded LotR from my list of counterexamples since I already had several, but you’re probably right on both counts — one that it probably needs to be mentioned, and two that it’s got such cultural baggage that it’s hard to peg either way.

  57. But you can’t narrow anything to such specifics and claim a majority following. Baseball, America’s pastime, does not have a majority of the population interested in it.

  58. The old story is told of the bank robber Willie Sutton. When asked why he robbed banks, he’s said to have replied, “Because that’s where the money is.”

    Social networking sites are where the people (and their money) are, so that’s where game developers are going. I agree they’d go there regardless of the psychological preferences of the people there… but I would (and do) suggest that the key playstyle preference of the people who choose to go to social networks is different from that of the much smaller number of people who were the early adopters of the Big Immersive Games. (Not to mention why old grognards like me have been grumbling about that shift.)

    It’s one theory to try to explain the apparent shift that Raph analyzes here. I’d be interested in hearing other theories.

  59. I would agree with you, Raph, that the mainstream doesn’t want WoW or EVE. Yet.

    But what is EVE doing with DIRT except reaching out to a new audience, offering them their own unique experience, but tying that back into their broader universe? What is Faunasphere doing but taking those obsolete MMO conventions like synchronicity, placeness and stronger social ties and realizing them in a browser-based format on an limited but apparently quite profitable level?

    I believe that convergence and synthesis are not just possible, they are inevitable. I don’t buy that the current crop of browser-based games are a good end-state target. They’re in their infancy; precocious, popular tots. You can learn a lot by observing how babies develop, but you don’t aspire to become one.

    People want adventure. If they didn’t want adventure, we wouldn’t have Greek epic poetry and space opera and comic books and Wagner. Farmville isn’t the future of virtual worlds — Farmville is online solitaire, a way to burn time because there’s nothing better on.

    Solitaire is very, very popular, because it’s very, very free and convenient. Those are Farmville’s primary virtues as well. We can do better than that.

    Pffft, what am I saying? You’re already doing better than that. You can’t help yourself.

  60. Oh, I definitely agree that what social games are now is far from being an end state 🙂

  61. Do social games really have anything to do with virtual worlds or more to do with poker and a revival of casual, social games for adults?

    After all, Zynga started out with poker, not an virtual world, and, one could argue that many of the popular social games are closer to poker – a lot of luck and the illusion of skill – than any virtual world or traditional computer game.

    Would we be looking at this issue completely differently if we started with poker rather than virtual worlds and would we have a better sense of where they are going?

  62. Moms playing Mah Jong together at 2pm on weds in the 60’s ….
    nothing meta here…. move on.;)

  63. Would we be looking at this issue completely differently if we started with poker rather than virtual worlds …?

    Richard Garriott seems to think so. 😉

  64. *waves at Bartle* You waded in!

    Great comment thread, based on a great entry, Raph 🙂

    It’s funny, I was just thinking the other day, about ‘WoW2′, whatever it turns out to be. I just don’t see another AAA title being big. I’ve started ditching most of the big-client MMORPGs I’ve fleshed out in my notebooks.

    As Richard said, I think people will always feel the pull towards virtual spaces where escapism (anonymity, or some semblance of it) is available. I don’t see why those spaces have to be big tho’. I’m not even sure why AAA titles exist — for the competition aspect, between top guilds/teams?

  65. […] Real-time is a feature, a perk, something used occasionally. It’s not the norm.Close […]

  66. […] Raph's Website " Are virtual worlds over? Fascinating article from a 3d virtual worlds pioneer arguing that much lighter-weight games have stolen some of the momentum for virtual worlds by appearing to be standalone places with an ongoing existence… even when they're not. A very interesting analysis of the ways psuedonymity, tie formation and the notion of independently existing place differ between Facebook games and virtual worlds… ending with a conclusion that momentum has shifted towards these simpler spaces. "For those of us who dream of a place we can’t possibly be, doing things we couldn’t do, as someone else, with friends… well, we’re a little bit out of luck. We’ll always have our Avalons and our Lost Worlds. They’re just not the future anymore." (tags: essay games identity metaverse secondlife socialmedia mmorpg gaming facebook psuedonymity) Discuss [0] […]

  67. Raph> Ingrod, I think John meant “no future in mainstream != no future” where != is programmer-speak for “not equal to.”

    Douh! xD

    Bart Stewart> I’m operating on the theory that as more of the masses play games (including online games like WoW), the picture of the typical gamer is changing to more and more closely resemble that of the typical citizen… and the typical citizen according to Myers-Briggs data strongly prefers the real over the abstract or fantastic. It’s something like a 70/30 split in the general population.

    Yeah, but the 70/30 split in mundial population are near to 2000 billions, all the actual MMOs market only reach a small fraction of all these people xD

    Also, I believe that the data is about psychological reactions or how common people perceives the real world around they on a unconscious manner, not about tastes on films, books or games. I like science fiction and MMOs, but in the real world obviously I prefer real things, I dont want have an encounter with a ghost, get bited for a vampire, be abducced by aliens or that Death Star destroy Earth with only a shot.

    But in strong contrast on the real world millions of these same “typical citizens” believe in ghosts or UFOs, and take vital decisions with very real consequences based in abstract concepts how religion or money.

    What is really needed for make products selleable to the masses is dumbed down the more hard “features” of any genre to the minimun common denominator, anything easy to understand and not very demanding with a reasonable quality will be a succes.

    Some genres how in example hard science fiction are demanding, and for that never will gain an universal acceptation, enjoy them require some effort but the most of the common adult people are tired before a labor day and only wants play/read/see something easy and not demanding, hardcore fantasy fans included.

    Bart Stewart> I think it’s at least debatable that the “fantastic” properties that have done well commercially have been strongly realistic in their fantasy.

    How fan and amateur sci-fy writer I can say that all good fantasy/sci-fi works must be tied in some degree with the expectatives or experiences of real people living in the real world. In other words, inmersion needs some link with reality to work, mainly because any viewer/reader/gamer from the most casual to the most hardcore need these connections to understand that world, take fun and make bounds with his characters. Without that create a belieable and inmersive world is a very difficult task for not said impossible.

    In Tolkien the realistic, detailed and accurate descriptions of landscapes and peoples is what makes his world believable, also his characters feelings and emotions are very human, inclusive fantasy races how elves and hobbits can be easily assimilated how different human cultures or are directly related to real world historical cultures, from the old english shire towns beloved for Tolkien to norse/stepe peoples and myths.

    These characters use magic elements and live in a world with a very different history and events, we call that “pure fantasy” but in reality that world can be more easily accepted that many scientifically accurate science fiction based in real facts. A realistic alien race or alien planet enviroment logically will be very different to the “common citizen” experience, but if you create something too strange for “common sense” critics and viewers will give to your work the ettiquette of totally unbelieable and fake. For that Cameron Avatar aliens are too humans to be realistic aliens and Pandora is an alien world but not too alien.

    Fantasy dont need explanations for common sense breaks, is a kind of magic, period. In the other hand the more blockbuster science fiction (superheroes, Star Wars, Transformers) is the less realistic or accurate.

    For me the stigma around fantasy or science fiction is based in the pure and plain ignorance of the genre and/or prejudices. People things that science fiction or fantasy is about the new, rare and strange, but not, is about we the real humans vs. the new, rare and strange.

    Bart Stewart> I’m open to counter-examples: are there any “pure fantasy” properties that have been commercial blockbusters that just aren’t occurring to me?

    None, because any inmersive and believable virtual world for human use build around pure fantasy or extreme reality (nothing more far to common sense that quantun mechanics or relativity, but both and are real) is impossible.

    Sebastian> I’m not even sure why AAA titles exist — for the competition aspect, between top guilds/teams?

    AAA titles exists because ironically many people wants ultra realistic and gritty graphics in his virtual worlds games and currently they only can have that to the extremes they wants in a AAA console or PC game. You only need see how many threats in SWTOR forums are about how unrealistic and cartoonish are their graphics style for a Star Wars game.

    The only real difference between an AAA virtual world game and an non-AAA virtual world game is the graphic level. In terms of game mechanics, things to do and fun both can be very equiparable, inclusive some non-AAA games are more complete and deep than many subscripion based AAA MMOs. If you put Farmville game mechanics in a AAA MMO will be perceived how a great AAA feature, but if you put the same Farmville in FB with 2D graphics turns in “online solitaire with no future” or a menace.

    If EVE “the obsolete hardcore MMO” remove his 3D graphics engine the remain will be a more sofisticated ogame version perfectly playable on a ipod or browser based platform.

    Really, I want more Farmville like features in AAA MMOs, social things capable of change the game world landscape are needed to create a fleshy and belieable virtual world.

  68. […] reflexión (aunque un poco negativa) de Raph Koster sobre el estado de “vitalidad” que están atravesando los mundos virtuales (en el […]

  69. […] Shared Are virtual worlds over?. […]

  70. But in strong contrast on the real world millions of these same “typical citizens” believe in ghosts or UFOs, and take vital decisions with very real consequences based in abstract concepts how religion or money.

    Yes, but these concepts aren’t considered fantastical or abstract. The unreality of something is as much in how you frame it as much as an objective measure: a little round ball can be wrapped in an amazingly imaginative story, and the greatest philosophical questions of the past few millenia can be distilled down into “obvious facts” not worth a passing thought.

    So the question isn’t really “Do people want reality or fantasy?” It’s “How do you frame something–anything–such that people want it?”

    The current trend probably worth investigating here is the post-apocalyptic obsession people seem to have nowadays, from zombies to disaster films. It has been pointed out by people who pay a lot more attention than I do, but it’s worth asking: these are abstract, fantastical elements that revolve around the utter, wholesale destruction of the real and the familiar.

    What does that say about our culture’s regard for the sublime and the beautiful?

  71. […] Hits Google Liquid Galaxy – lx5, epredator Are virtual worlds over – uncommonman, epredator Infectious cool – carolinabigblue COBOL takes on Ruby on […]

  72. […] I said in my comment to Raph’s article: The problem as I see it that nobody has really tried to make a proper […]

  73. Here’s a more considered reply to Mr. Koster, thinking about education and the public good sectors as growth markets for virtual worlds: http://www.betterverse.org/2010/03/virtual-worlds-arent-over-mr-koster.html

  74. If a game is a swimming pool, right now we have some pools that are very large but very shallow (social games), and some that are relatively small but deep (MMOs). We have a few that have both a deep end and a shallow end… but people who like the shallow end are constantly pushed towards the deep end, and there’s often a steep drop-off between the two. The shallow end tends to be too small and oriented towards teaching you to swim in the deep end.

    Given this metaphor, the ideal pool (from my perspective) is going to have a big shallow end that you can stay in and play in if you like, a gradual increase in depth so people can find their ideal level of immersion and be welcome to stay there, up to a full-blown Olympic diving platform for those who like to get very deep indeed.

    And that may be why I’m playing Ultima Online again after all these years. For all its faults, no title since has done such a wonderful job at providing different experiences for a variety of different audiences. It’s the closest design I’ve seen to my ideal pool.

    But they need a better marketing hook than, “Ultima Online: We’re Not Dead Yet.” Bring in the wonks who keep shoving Evony in my face everywhere I go.

  75. sorry Raph, but you are wrong to think that virtual worlds are over because metaplace failed, which it did because it was not well built. if they were over there would be no second life. and no, ordinary people dont want dumb farmscam games.

    ordinary person

  76. @rifik: Do you think Facebook would be as big as it is, growing as fast as it is, and crushing competitors in the virtual world space if the mainstream users of the internet really cared about role play, characters, anonymity and flying over terrain in search of the next leveling event?

    They really don’t. They find themselves and their old friends and their bursty asynchronous conversations much more interesting. And given how much they complain when FB makes even minor changes to the interface, what makes you think they want to learn absurdly complicated GUI behaviors?

    Gamers are a minority population. Fantasy role players even moreso. Virtual worlds are still not well-integrated enough into mainstream social network modes of interaction. In fact, they are the opposite end of the spectrum.

    That doesn’t mean all the virtual worlds are closing or don’t have workable business models. It means in their current incarnations, they aren’t mainstream. Let’s see if WebGL impacts innovation.

  77. […] Scared yet? I saved the best for last. Just before GDC, Raph Koster, the most influential writer and massively multiplayer game designer in the industry, penned a long and brutal essay for his blog where he flat out says: virtual worlds are dying, and Facebook games are replacing them. […]

  78. […] has been little progress in the more sophisticated “native client” worlds like Second Life. Raph Koster argues that the space is in a period of transition: the features that once made virtual worlds […]

  79. […] 3-D Internet Understanding Islam through virtual worlds comic book format – michaelrowe01 Are virtual worlds over? – ranoka Metaplace closing Vitality Forterra sold to SAIC There.com shut down Venuegen out of […]

  80. […] asked “Do these facebook apps qualify to be virtual worlds? And why or why not?”. Here’s Raph Koster’s answer (very much worth reading in its entirety!) – it goes something […]

  81. […] Koster said in his response to Daniel that, “The innovation lies in making something that matters to ordinary […]

  82. […] 4, 2010 Here’s an article on Facebook as MMORPG. A lot of the praxis around virtual worlds — and indeed, games in general — has been co-opted […]

  83. […] Koster said in his response to Daniel that, “The innovation lies in making something that matters to ordinary […]

  84. […] Koster said in his response to Daniel that, “The innovation lies in making something that matters to ordinary […]

  85. […] Raph’s Website » Are virtual worlds over? […]

  86. […] Nova post. One of the most insightful contributions to the discussion comes from Raph Koster. In an extensive post about virtual worlds, social games and where Farmville fits in the spectrum, he makes a couple of […]

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