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?