AR is an MMO

 Posted by (Visited 9273 times)  Game talk  Tagged with: , , , ,
Jul 112016


I’ve said this before, but in the wake of the viral success of Pokémon GO, it needs to be said again. Augmented reality is just a virtual world, an MMO, a MUD even, with all of the same design issues, plus a few new ones.

The goggles fallacy

I asked a high-powered Silicon Valley exec about the ethical implications of social VR and AR. Their response was “what ethical implications?”

To some, particularly vets of online worlds of various stripes, this may seem obvious. But most days, it feels like the average person working in social VR, AR, and the like, is ignorant of this. It’s evident in the very large pile of past lessons they are failing to heed in their designs.

But then there are also those who see these experiences as somehow qualitatively different. The commonest argument given is what I call “the goggles fallacy.” Goggles or phones, as Pokémon GO is demonstrating, are just clients. A VR headset is also just a client. And as I’ve argued exhaustively before, clients are not the part that determines whether something is a virtual world. I’ll use MMO as the base term here, as it’s shorter to type and what people are currently most familiar with.

  • World of Warcraft has a server that simulates space. It uses a map that is based on something made up.
  • Pokémon GO has a server that simulates space. It uses a map that is based on the real world.
  • WoW has a server that tracks individual connected clients and positions them spatially on that map.
  • So does Pokémon GO.
  • WoW has little AI spawns you can interact with.
  • So does Pokémon GO.

In fact, if you compare the two servers, aside from the data set, they likely do the same thing across the board.

Proponents of the idea that the client matters more usually bring up questions around immersiveness, around visceral gut reactions, around ineffable sense of presence — perhaps forgetting that as originally coined, the notion of “telepresence” was achieved with pretty crude hardware. MMOs, mirror worlds, augmented reality, lifelogging, and son are all intimately related and use the same core tech. I know the makers of Pokémon GO know this, because their CEO was involved in Meridian 59, one of the earliest MMOs, as well as in Keyhole, one of the first major mirror worlds, which became Google Earth.

CnDiBcDUEAIgJYAYou are the client

With smartphones, we tend to think of “the client” as meaning the little screen we stare through to catch a Pokémon. But that’s not accurate. Take a look at the list of permissions that the game asks for. That’s not a self-contained app. That’s your whole life. You are fully an avatar. Pokémon has your email, and can send emails for you. Pokémon knows everywhere you walk. Pokémon can connect to your car. Pokémon knows who your friends are.

You are the client. You are the avatar. Your real life is what is being used for your friends list, location, chat system… all those things that you used to think of as packaged up behind an avatar, a false front. Sure, the fact is that smartphones have been gradually eating all your privacy and you’ve cheerfully given it up in order to get better directions and nifty alerts about traffic and so on. So this has been happening for a while. And yet.

The old adage is “never trust the client.” So a big first question is “can you be trusted, since you are the client?”

The answer is probably no. For example, there are no doubt thousands of people downloading the backdoored Pokémon GO app that takes complete remote control of your phone.

But that’s only the start of not trusting…

13592227_917469977094_9186634265535502710_nA user-generated world

The Pokémon GO database is basically a replicated version of the Ingress database, the previous game by Niantic. And said database was heavily crowdsourced. This has already led some enterprising players to wonder aloud whether they can use Ingress play to affect the locations of Pokéstops or gyms in Pokémon GO. It’s also led to complaints that rural areas are Pokémon deserts, because Ingress players never built up the database entries in those locations.

However, it’s also led to some artifacts that are very familiar. Here’s a guy who lives in a building that Ingress players (presumably) labeled as a Pokémon GO gym. What are the implications here? Aside from the very real risk of constant home invasions, we’re seeing a game AR layer used to directly affect home value and livability, outside of the owner’s control. Some are seeing this as a benefit, as in the examples of real estate listings using Pokémon GO data as a value-add. Others, who have reported a dozen people in their backyard at 2am, are less happy.

What is the fruition of this? Long ago, in Star Wars Galaxies, we allowed players to freely build homes and even cities, anywhere on the map that wasn’t explicitly disallowed. Cities allowed players to set rules about who could attack other players within their borders. A few sneaky players set up their cities surrounding or even directly on top of designer-created content, and then started extorting players who wanted to visit that content — or just killing them, in the game. (You can’t kill another player in Pokémon GO, but… you are the client. We’ll get back to that in a second).

70hVXDGAffecting the real world economy

So here we are affecting the livability of real estate. But Pokémon GO might also need to take heed of the lessons from managing game economies in MMOs as well. We learned through some very painful lessons exactly how powerful our control of the economy was pretty early on in MMOs, after some big mistakes. Like, that one time we accidentally created an entire secondary market and exchange rate between real world money and digital assets, oops. Surely that can’t happen with Pokémon , can it?

Well, actually… we’re already seeing coffee shops advertising discounts for those who happen to be on specific Pokémon GO teams, and today there was a Forbes article giving business advice about how to leverage the game layer for more customers. Make no mistake, these are the first steps towards real-money trade, and are another way in which the game is affecting the economy. There has already been discussion of how there will be Pokémon trading; expect this to spill over into real world effects immediately. After all, Randy Farmer laid it out very clearly back in 2004:

So, the steps on the virtual economy slippery slope are:

  1. Gifting → Twinking

  2. Gifting + Multiple Chars/Server →  Muling

  3. Gifting + Messaging + Trust →  Trading

  4. Trading – Messaging – Trust + In World Machinery →  Robust Trading

  5. Robust Trading + Scarcity + Liquidity →  External Market (eBay)

  6. External Market – Trust + In World Machinery →  GOM

Beyond that, there’s a very real question of fairness. If one coffee shop or bar is a Pokéstop and another one isn’t, Niantic or Nintendo are literally putting their thumb on the scale of which business does better on a given street. If the game continues to thrive, expect this to become a sore spot for people who suddenly found their real life business slurped into a game map.

Player versus player

Player vs player activity is a common element of the elder game in MMOs. Pokémon GO has gone ahead with this, and following on the model from Ingress and earlier AR games, has allowed for PvP activity in capturing gyms to one team or another.

But… you’re the client. It’s trivial to envisage a gym made physically inaccessible by other players — locked doors? Physical intimidation?

Already, given the recent shootings of black men and the sniper attack at the Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas, some have raised concerns about “Pokémon While Black” as a possible risk to life and limb. There are also, thank heavens, stories about the exact opposite as in the widely circulated image telling the story of a mixed race group in a park in the middle of the night, possibly suspected of making a drug deal, but instead persuading the police officer who showed up to instead join them in playing the game.


But is the fear overblown? Well, no. You’re the client, and there’s no PK switch in real life. In Ultima Online circa 1998, when we were available in Hong Kong, we suffered through the problem of actual real life triad gangs forming guilds and engaging in PK wars. Then they took those fights to the real life streets. Far as I know, Pokémon GO doesn’t have a “call the admins, uh, I mean police” panic button. Make no mistake: by creating teams at all, this game has put in place at least a little context encouraging players to aggress one another. The developers only hope that it only happens via game-sanctioned means.

The stuff that has not happened…. yet

Don’t get me wrong. The social element here is powerful. Pokémon GO has the best emote system available: the human body. It has the most elegant and all consuming chat system ever: smartphones for tells and local voice with full presence for local chat. It has the most detailed and highly simulated game map ever, thanks to the real world. We are seeing amazing social activity happening, amazing bursts of joy, across the world.

But we should absolutely expect everything that happened in MMOs to happen here, because AR is an MMO. Every bug, every emergent feature you thought was cool in WoW or EVE Online, to happen here, but in your local park and (goodness!) at your local church.

I’m happy to see that Niantic has decided, a few days after launch, that maybe it might be important to hire a community manager.

But really, it’s a little late to this idea that maybe they are running a community. It should have been obvious. After all, they have avatars. Who talk. Who will trade. Who move about a world. Who acquire stuff. Who interact. They affect the map. They affect the real world economy. Soon you’ll see each other’s profiles, sue the game to track them across the world, and probably much more, if not in this game, then in others.

This is a government

pokerobbersWe have a name for entities in the real world which have access to your private data, which have controls on the economy, which can unlaterally affect real estate values, and which can set forth rules via commission or omission on how people interact. In the virtual worlds, we said that those who had power over the world were gods, immortals, wizards.

Facebook, Google, and yes now Nintendo, The Pokémon Company, and Niantic, as they move into AR, are basically like governments. And if they are going to start impinging upon the public sphere, it’s getting to be time that they take it seriously and actually walk through the consequences and ripple effects of what they are doing.

In O’Fallon, Missouri, we see the game tool of “Pokémon lures” used to entrap armed robbery victims. This is a direct consequence of the game mechanics, a behavior that this game enables that was not possible before.

Already we see people photoshopping Pokémon onto armed police in SWAT gear in Baton Rouge. What happens when the tools you enable for this innocent game are used in radically different social contexts?

So here we go again, because every year this little bit of writing gets to be more and more pointed:

Someday there won’t be any admins. Someday it’s gonna be your bank records and your grocery shopping and your credit report and yes, your virtual homepage with data that exists nowhere else. Someday it’s gonna be Snow Crash and Neuromancer and Otherland all wrapped up into one, and it may be a little harder to write to Customer Service. Your avatar profile might be your credit record and your resume and your academic transcript, as well as your XP earned.

On the day that happens, I bet we’ll all wish we had a few more rights in the face of a very large, distributed server, anarchic, virtual world where it might be very very hard to move to a different service provider.

Not long ago, I spoke with a very high-powered Silicon Valley exec. I asked this person about the ethical implications of social VR and AR. Their response was “what ethical implications?”

Frankly, that scared the shit out of me. You design this society. Intentionally or unintentionally, you are shaping how people will behave.

EDIT: enough people challenged the title that I wrote a follow-up. Read it here.

Further Reading

There’s a bunch of science fiction you should read.

If you are doing anything at all with social VR or AR, please please please read up on the history of virtual worlds. Realize that in your cluelessness you may well recreate some famously ugly moments, only this time with even greater psychological and physical consequence. If you do, it’s entirely on you.

Alternatively, consider hiring any of the many folks experienced in this arena, and actually listening to them.



  72 Responses to “AR is an MMO”

  1. Great post Raph! Now I don’t have to write it. You’re on the money, as usual. 🙂

    Oh, and BTW, anyone who wants to talk to someone who’s been designing these play worlds for over 30 years (and am cited above) – I’m available as a consultant. I’m available everywhere. or are good places to start.

  2. I suppose I should point out that I am also available for consulting. 🙂

  3. […] But then there are also those who see these experiences as somehow qualitatively different. The commonest argument given is what I call “the goggles fallacy.” Goggles or phones, as Pokémon GO is demonstrating, are just clients. A VR headset is also just a client. And as I’ve argued exhaustively before, clients are not the part that determines whether something is a virtual world. I’ll use MMO as the base term here, as it’s shorter to type and what …read more […]

  4. Snopes has an update on the “lures robbery” – and Niantic has already responded to the concerns about access level:

  5. Yes, good on them for the access level update.

    That said, the lures robbery is still absolutely an issue, whether or not it has happened yet.

  6. Two twentysometing black dudes and a 40 year old white guy may attract police attention. What about if/when pokemon trading comes into the game. A 40+ male arranging a meetup with a 14 (of either gender) to swap virtual animals in a park may be misconstrued..

  7. Why do you fear virtual economies, Raph? They are a *good* thing. For one, they *are* the game for many people, even if they mess up *your* game. For two, why can’t users monetarize their online time like developers? This is an equal-access issue. The story really is that Second Life is more profitable for both its users and makers than Facebook or Twitter. This seems like a staggering thing to say. But it is true as you surely know. And it’s because the socialist oppression inherent to so many game developers with “Better World” fantasies has been checked or even removed, so that people can make money which is a natural human thing. Most humans want to play not just war, but want to play store and play house.

    As for your other points, I totally agree. VR isn’t special, it’s just a game. Or a gamification. I do see some differences between VR and VWs, i.e. Second Life is a VW and not VR really despite using VR to make its world. And maybe all VR is just a verb or a method, and not a place.

    Remember the Prokofy definition for virtual words:

    1. A sense of place.
    2. Drama

    I’m wondering as a side issue whether Linden Lab’s Project Sansar, which doesn’t have a map or geographical contiguity, will really be seen as a place or destination or VW, and whether it will be so VR that it won’t have that sense of place at all, without which people get disoriented and/or bored. Supposedly the “experiences” that certain developers make using Sansar will be the VW…or something.

    I remember with your world Metaplace that while it was not geographically contiguous, and didn’t have a map like WoW or Second Life, it had a list of places. And it had a kind of commons from which you could reach other places, a “Woods Between the Worlds” as I think of it (from the Narnia books). And that commons became the sense of place. And when the island game on FB developed the ability to visit other people’s lots, it had more of a sense of place even without a map. I guess I am trying to determine whether maps and geographical contiguity are essential or merely advisable for a sense of place.

  8. I don’t fear virtual economies per se. I fear what happens when they are poorly designed. SL had enough issues down those lines that I am sure you can relate. In this case, the warning I am giving is simply that lack of forethought can and will lead to unintended consequences.

  9. For your reading list please consider adding: “Virtual Economies: Design and Analysis”

    Excellent post!

  10. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say AR-MMOs are MMOs? I can imagine plenty of AR games that are not MMOs (and still benefit from being AR).

  11. Yeah, but AR is headed towards convergence with Internet of Things. So even though AR doesn’t HAVE to be an MMO, it WILL be.

  12. I scrolled down to make more or less the same semantic point as david: AR isn’t an MMO, AR ​_games_​ are MMOs. “Augmented Reality” is a technology (well, collection of technologies) not any specific use of that technology.

  13. Fair enough.

    But I’d assert that all uses of AR will; converge towards connected mirror world applications, because of Internet of Things.

    MMOs, as I mentioned in the article, are actually just a subset of virtual worlds.

    Yelp and Foursquare are ALSO mirror world and virtual world server applications.

  14. […] AR is an MMO – Raph’s Website – if you buy me a diet coke I'd totally have opinions about this […]

  15. […] Fonte: Massively OP, blog di Raph Koster […]

  16. […] technological leaps, a virtual-reality social interaction that beats in-person conversation. (Ultima Online designer Raph Koster puts it in gaming jargon: “Pokأ©mon GO has the best emote system available: the human body.â€‌) For VR to work, […]

  17. […] good thing. And if it makes gamers aware that games are real social spaces, I won’t complain. When this gamer is worried about P-Go because “we should absolutely expect everything that happened in MMOs to happen here, because AR is an […]

  18. […] RaphKoster – AR is a MMO […]

  19. I’m real nervous about the talk of trading. Efficient markets ruin games. I have a hard time seeing how they could add it without all the problems you mention spiraling way out of control.

    This game is driving me nuts cause there’s a few things they just got so wrong.

    If you go for a hike in the woods, good luck finding even a single pokemon even with hours of walking. Why? No cell phone activity. Or XM in Ingress.

    So playing in a rural area there is just nothing to do. Literally zero pokemon on your radar. Why not have a perhaps small subset of nature pokemon more common in these areas instead? Sure it would still suck to be in a rural area but at least there’d be some advantage and a reason to try a real hike once in awhile.

    And for those rural places with almost no stops or gyms, they could laborious add stops and gyms everywhere. Or they could modify the drops based on how many PokeStops are within a certain range. If it’s below some number and far away from a PokeStop, why not give a small chance to get a PokeBall as a drop during a capture?

    And big picture they really dropped the ball on the tracking mechanic. It’s probably the most interesting thing in the game, and you can choose do it, but walking through a city is more like fishing where you just get this constant stream of fish jumping into your boat and you try to keep up. I can count the number of times I bothered to use the tracking system on one hand and I just hit level 20. But ironically it is really fun when I do track — but there’s just little in game value in it. So make it more obvious how the sorting-by-distance thing works. And make tracking more important to do.

    This would be a super fun feature to expand on. Look through the phone to find AR Pokemon footsteps in the ground, clues to a super rare pokemon that you’ll have to walk quite a distance to find. Etc.

    Another nitpick I have is that PokeStop farming is ridiculous. And annoying even if you can do it yourself! You should only get XP maybe the first 5 times you hit a PokeStop every day. After that just items. Right now sitting in range of 3 pokestops all day and hitting them over and over is very effective. But catching pokemon should be the primary level mechanic. This would also take the stress off some people — min-maxers who happen to live or work within a range of a PokeStop and just can’t let it go to waste, so they find themselves trapped in a hell of stopping work every 5 minutes for hours and hours.

    While I’m ranting a little soft lockout for going at driving speeds would be nice — just like they already do with the eggs incubating. I find myself driving around instead of walking cause it works so well which not only feels like it’s very much against the spirit of the game, but is dangerous.

  20. Can’t argue with any of those things. I think the design overall is definitely very hit or miss. Gym battling is dreadful, IMHO.

    And yet it does do so much right…!

  21. […] aus, darunter pikanterweise einen Community Manager für Pokémon Go, was Branchenbeobachter zu der Frage animiert hat, warum man den nicht vor dem Start eingestellt […]

  22. Just throwing my hat in here, I’m another MMO pioneer available for consulting if anyone needs one. Great insights as always, Raph! I’ve been delighted to see so much impact on people’s health, socializing, and attendance at parks and beaches happen so fast. Will be very interesting to see what the second & third AR hit games accomplish – and this one as it adds new features.

  23. […] you’re considering building an AR application, then Raph Koster design article is a must read (±20 mins). It’s a great reminder that there are no shortcuts and there are […]

  24. AR as a tool excites me much more than AR as a toy ever will. AR as a tool will benefit physical industries and the people in them. To that segment it will always be a tool. You finish for the day, plug it into the charger and go home. AR as a toy won’t interest them much.

    BTW: Predators are intelligent in ways you cannot understand. I suspect AR games will be very useful for predators in the future because they can direct prey to a location and the prey willingly shuts off their situational awareness to play the game. Easy robberies, easy murders and easy kidnappings for human trafficking.

  25. […] [1] Raph Koster’s Article “AR is an MMO” […]

  26. […] stehenden Mitteln der Fortbewegung im Spiel. Sie kontrollieren nicht nur ihren Avatar, sondern sind es selbst. Obwohl Pokémon Go auch an dieser Stelle rein spielerisch betrachtet sehr seicht und die […]

  27. […] nombreux combats du même type pourraient éclore un peu partout. Dans un long post de blog associant ces expériences de réalité augmentée de type Pokémon Go aux jeux en ligne […]

  28. […] kidding about the Pokemon part (only not really), but the internet has nearly completed one major stage of its life, evolving from a mechanism for […]

  29. […] a two week string of headlines about the game, though they got Raph Koster’s blessing when he declared it an MMO I guess.  I was writing about it being a phenomena after the first weekend, and nothing I have […]

  30. […] I’ve been thinking of how Niantic (among others) has used the real world as its MMO setting, overlaying the game on top of reality to make an… I don’t know… augmented […]

  31. […] nombreux combats du même type pourraient éclore un peu partout. Dans un long post de blogassociant ces expériences de réalité augmentée de type Pokémon Go aux jeux en ligne […]

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