Business in Virtual Worlds, Deep Thoughts, Virtual World Platforms

MMO Population Woes: Metaplace, Culture and the End of the Big Game?

The Guardian is at it again – covering virtual worlds, games, MMOs as if this stuff is a real business. While other media either have a sort of “gosh, we’d better explain what an MMO is, and isn’t it cute how dwarves run around with giant axes” kind of pie-eyed sensibility (and usually get it all wrong), and others are either deeply cynical or cynically shallow, the Guardian has been a source of good MMO coverage.

Now, they’ve picked up the Raph Koster “metaMeme” about how the era of the mega-MMO is coming to a close. It’s too expensive to compete with the WoW’s of the world, and his advice to the new developer is “come out with something new and don’t spend so much money.”

You have to credit Raph his passion, and his deep belief that MMO titles shouldn’t be in the hands of the wealthiest producers, with huge barriers to entry. Multiplayer worlds should be everywhere, in his opinion, and the tools to make them should be as easy as HTML mark-up.

And he’s right. Although I also have this suspicion that we’ll go through a Geocities kind of phase. Everyone building their own mini-games and mini worlds on the backbone of Raph’s Metaplace, and amateur hour will be upon us. Look at Second Life – same thing, and as much as I love the talent, admire the “great builds” and am awed by what people have done on the platform, it’s still, for the most part, a lot of really crappy looking prims and vast tracts of waste. And that’s fine – because those are OUR prims, and we’re proud of them, and we live in them, and we don’t need Sony to sanitize and render our little living rooms for us, we’ll do it ourselves thanks and maybe get better at it over time.

Big MMOs Struggle to Keep Your Attention
The Guardian reports that the big investments are struggling.

While Blizzard’s unstoppable World of Warcraft (WoW) has seen an exponential growth in its subscriber base since 2004 – it now rests at around 10 million – two of its closest rivals, Lineage and Lineage II, have much smaller (1 million each) user bases. And most of the other notably successful Massively Multiplayer Online games (MMOs) plateau at (and slowly decline from) the 200,000 to 500,000 mark. In these worlds, people don’t use the resources – they are the resources, and if their attention drifts, the virtual world tends to languish.

MMOs at Sea:

Raph has the solution, of course. Metaplace – which was, um, supposed to come out of Alpha in April I think, will bypass the big studio model of yore and put the power in the hands of the people:

“Metaplace is designed so that virtual worlds can become essentially ubiquitous,” he says. “They can go on any webpage; anyone can set up a virtual world on their own, so they can really become part of the daily fabric of the web. And so some of the hopes there are is that when we do that, we will get greater diversity, and more variety, and we’ll explore new kinds of gameplay and social play.”

Raph’s platform offers the promise of infinite flexibility, incredible simplicity, and platform agnosticity. (Agnosticity?) It’s a user-generated universe now, kids. And Raph is here to help. And it might just knock some fresh blood into not just the gaming industry, but why not the social media industry as well?

Re-ignite Social Media Before it Flickrs Out
Look – Facebook is great, but I’m sick of hearing about it. And if I see one more Ning thing, or “community site” application, or content sharing application I might just start predicting that we’re headed for another Net bubble burst – I believe in Web 2.0. Actually, what I BELIEVE in is Web 3.0 – the sematic Web, taking ownership again of our information, and mashing that up with some 3D visualization and collaboration and a few worlds for good measure where we can build a culture and tell stories.

Maybe we need some fresh wind in the social media sails before we all drown in twitters and lose track of our Ning IDs and OpenIDs and who knows what. And maybe Metaplace can become a new metaMeme in its own right – embedded everywhere, on every site, kind of your metaverse friend along for the journey through the Web.

I’m not sure. I think it’s more likely that the semantic Web will be our traveling companion and that the rest, for now, is games. Which isn’t to say that Metaplace can’t be used for other things – but really, it’s more obvious applications will be chat and games.

Which leads to the question – what’s next?

Sources of Culture
I’m repeating myself – the premise that it’s culture that gives something longevity. Interaction, technology, access, economics – these things are costs of entry these days and control knobs that you can twist and turn and tweak with expected and unexpected consequences. It’s culture that rules.

And culture means allowing people to perform their narratives and giving them the chance to shape archetypes with which those narratives are performed. Culture is expressed within a sociality – and whether that’s the culture of a profession or a country, it needs a stage on which it can be performed (and yeah, magic circle debunk to follow). So…are the little micro worlds games and diversions, or can they also become part of, or create their own, cultures?

Are they part of a wider gaming culture? Social networking culture? Creative culture? Metaplace will probably establish a strong brand – a culture of developers who are supported, encouraged, prodded and cheered by the Cuppycakes and Raph’s down at MPHQ. So, don’t get me wrong – I applaud what Raph is doing and it doesn’t need a cultural resonance, or to create its own, to be relevant and needed.

But the great producers of culture, regardless of how we all might imagine this rolls out, are still with us. And sure, it’s hard to launch a competitor to WoW. But that’s because practically everything that has come in it’s wake is – well, it’s all the SAME. Different mechanics, character classes…in this one I’m a pirate, in this I’m a Hobbit, and over here I’m a character in D&D. But there’s a blandness, a sameness…it’s all so predictable.

And sure, some kid in his basement is bound to build the next Tetris on the back of Metaplace. But don’t discount the cultural industries. Steven Spielberg is making his first foray into games. And Hollywood is sniffing around on the heels of the success of cross-media shows like BG or Heroes, and there are some people who understand emotion, and pulling your heartstrings, and telling a story, and making you feel like you’re THERE.

Spielberg’s Foray:

So this latest “given truth” that the age of the big MMO is over just isn’t true. We may not like Hollywood and they might not get their content to us the right way and they might be operating out of New York or Singapore these days – just don’t discount that the cultural industries are creeping every so slowly into the “game culture” of yesterday, and they might have one or two ideas up their sleeves once they wrap their heads around what it all means.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.