Whatever happened to virtual worlds?

Mashable has a brief post about virtual worlds, calling them the hottest ticket in tech back in 2005.

We imagined the people of Earth leading double lives in alternate realities. It was the stuff of science fiction, like flying cars and robot butlers, and unlike those things, it actually looked like it could become reality.

But somehow, they never really took off. These days, it’s Facebook or Twitter that have become the world’s virtual hangout, not fully realised graphical worlds where you can walk around as your avatar. (Unless you play MMOs.)

In fact, Mashable can only think of two virtual worlds to compare. Second Life – which is genuinely a virtual world – and Metaplace, which wasn’t really designed to be a communal ‘world’ at all, more a series of unattached themed meeting rooms. Neither of them, despite the hype, succeeded in setting the world on fire. Did they fail to catch the imagination of the mainstream, or were they just not accessible enough? Anyone who tried to build anything in either ‘game’ might wonder about the latter.

They also note that WoW is probably the most successful of all virtual worlds if you go by the numbers. And although purists would shake their heads at the notion of Blizzard’s MMO as an actual virtual world, it does fill some of the criteria. (Sandbox games tend to be even moreso.)

I’d keep watching this space, because we haven’t really had any ultra-accessible virtual worlds on offer. The WoW equivalent to Second Life doesn’t exist, yet. And yet, a highly accessible virtual world might have the sort of broad-based mainstream success that AAA MMOs have lacked.

I don’t know if it would be a good thing for Blizzard to be behind this type of push in addition to their current market domination. But looking at the rumours about their next MMO, they talk about having two worlds in one:

  • a social area, like The Sims, where players can hang out
  • a FPS game type area

The former could be that virtual world. Certainly attracting non-gamers to previously niche genres has been Blizzard’s great strength. Could they pull it off again?

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5 thoughts on “Whatever happened to virtual worlds?

  1. I think we have a few major barriers between what we can do now and good 3d social spaces. You have the surface level barriers, for instance the complete lack of body language which becomes even more acute of a problem as our graphical power increases.

    Then you have deep level barriers, for instance in real life we traverse spaces by walking and this is an efficient as well as mildly interesting form of transit for us. We rarely get truly bored of walking, at least in mid step, and the thought of stopping mid-walk rarely occurs to us. However, in a virtual world we do not have bodily feedback, there are no fine muscle control procedures to float into our consciousness. There is only the high level thought ‘I wish to be there’ and the wait time between this thought and the goal. Thus walking becomes interminable leading to the creation of permanent run states or flying, so on and etc… but this creates a subtle schism in the mind, an expectation, walking as the norm, that is broken preventing suspension of disbelief.

    While there are no truly intuitive interfaces, we have all, without exception, had an entire lifetime to learn how to live in a given space. In order to create the kinds of virtual worlds that fill our dreams, there will have to come a reckoning with that simple fact. Whether we do so by perfectly emulating the process of living, or by completely eschewing it is probably less important. What is important is that you cannot achieve the highest potential while making only pale, uncanny shadows of life.

  2. In any simulation, one of the first design decisions to make is what to simulate and what to abstract. So abstracting walking definitely makes for a different type of experience from the real world (obviously) but it doesn’t have to be a killer.

    I guess in other words, the question is how much do we need to simulate for a virtual world? I have a post half written about web games, and one of the ones I’m looking at is HSX which is a stock market simulation. It’s a really really cool simulation, for its limited scope.

    Maybe graphical worlds have tended to lean too heavily on the graphics, which is after all only a part of the simulation.

  3. The problem is that virtual worlds are overkill for what most people want to do at a person-to-person level online – which, at the end of the day is to do the human equivalent of what this piece of software does. Why do the whole avatar thing when you just want to leave messages for your friends and to see what they’re up to in return?

    The rise of Facebook games should remind us that a lot of people (perhaps the majority) have a fundamentally different gaming goal to people like us. My favourite example is one of the smarter engineers where I work. This guy is *really* smart – but every time you go up to his desk you find he’s playing Windows solitaire – hardly the most challenging or innovative game out there. I once actually asked him why he bothered with something so trite. The answer was that he liked it precisely because it was a mindless distraction. In the midst of complex and pressured work he relaxed by doing something completely unchallenging and mindless. As well, the game is interrupt-able – you can play it when the software is compiling, or in between answering phone calls or whatever. That’s a big plus for the time-filler type of game. We all know what happens in MMOs when someone goes AFK – a social virtual world would have 99.5% of its population in that state at any time.

    To me there’s a real lesson in the rise of the Facebook game – that a big block of game development effort is always going to go in the opposite direction to the direction we want it to go in.

  4. Good point, if you want to mail someone do you really want to log into your avatar and go locate a mailbox, or just bring up a browser window?

    I think the virtual world was always seen as a really intuitive UI. A lot of the more compelling VRs in fiction — like Snow Crash — were windows onto the net. You could visualise online shops, social areas, and so on. But maybe we’re finding that visualising a shop isn’t really easier than using a good search engine.

    The other sign is people being far more willing to use their real names and pictures online these days, rather than handles and avatars.

    My gut feeling is that we’re not done with this yet. Some of the neat augmented reality work being done on smartphones is going to make it easier to put a virtual overlay on the real world. Maybe actual reality is the best UI of all :)

  5. The facebook game rises because it’s cheap really, same of the Iphone games. Hot platform + low development cost = flood of games. It’s a short-term profit rush, but won’t have legs, especially if the Facebook fad dies.

    I think the main reason is that Second Life really doesn’t offer much more value than even IRC, and IRC is better because it has a very low barrier to content creation. You don’t need to know how to manipulate prims, just type. The only way virtual worlds can rise above them is by letting people make complex visual content, but the barrier of entry is high enough to discourage most people. So they just use it like IRC or an IM, and it is inferior to socialization compared to that.

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