Business in Virtual Worlds, Deep Thoughts, Virtual World Platforms

Small Worlds, Small Minds: How Brands Have Sucker-Punched Virtual Worlds

The brand agenda has siphoned talent from the metaverse to create the equivalent of commercial candy, throwing a sucker punch at the idea of virtual worlds without even knowing it’s doing it.

It’s OK, corporate collaboration and education can fill the gap, right? It’s the teachers who advance society not Coke, although it’s not for lack of trying – yesterday’s vending machine in the cafeteria is today’s Coke ad in Habbo Hotel or wherever, someday we’ll insist it’s packed with fruit drinks instead of sugared water, although by then our kid’s hands will be so chubby they can barely wrap their fists around a quarter.

OK. So. I’m irritated. But give me a break. I’m flooded with invitations and blinking banners, I’m enticed to “create my own avatar” and then discover that what they really mean is add hair to the little cartoon guy that I can call me. I’m told that a virtual winter is upon us, and what we gotta do is warm our hands over the crackling flames of small worlds:

“As we can see from the history of computing, it is often the case of “the small gobbling up the big, and everything else”. Trivially small, lightweight yet rapidly replicating platforms often grow up to become all-encompassing solutions. DOS grew up to become Windows and along the way the PC triumphed over the time-shared mainframe, minicomputer and workstation. ”

Sure, DOS was great, we all loved that blinking prompt thing. Windows was even better! Just look at Vista – or is that the big now that will get gobbled up by the small, by iPhone apps and widgets all of it living in the cloud, or running on that Google Gears thing, whatever that is, and all of it slickly linked together by semantic Webs.

Actually, I think it’s the word “trivially small” that’s the telling phrase.

Someone has been drinking some seriously spiked Kool-Aid out there somewhere. I mean, is this what we mean by a, um, meme? “The Future Was Here All Along – It Was Just SMALLER Than It Looked!”

Mini Me
So this is me, once, back when I had blue hair:

This is me last week, also with blue hair:

This is me back when I was cool and hip (OK, well, maybe not but I felt cool and hip, and everyone gets a tail at some point in their Second Lives):

This is also me:

One of these guys probably WILL be me someday:

OK. You get the point, right? Forget child avatars. My avatars have become childish cartoons, they’re not exactly compelling me to explore sides of me beyond some 1950s notion of identity.

Storytelling is Dead
Ruben Steiger tells us that the Internet has failed as a storytelling medium, partly perhaps because of a paucity of talent. He can find designers, but can’t seem to track down any storytellers:

They are familiar with the broad array of technologies and tools that define digital production, but often have gaping holes when it comes to creating compelling narratives as opposed to beautiful websites or effective campaigns.

While applauding blogs and youTube and all the other ways that communities come together to tell stories to each other, there’s a quandry here: someone’s gotta pay for all that stuff sometime, can’t keep going on making stories without some coin changing hands right?

We’re at a weird space then, according to Ruben:

“We’re at a fascinating point in history where a bold group of content creators, advertisers and digital artists are seeking the Holy Grail of online content: the ability to fund and create large-scale stories that attract and engage large audiences. I would argue that these stories will take one of the following forms (and in many cases, a mix of all three): Alternate Reality Games, MMORPGs, and Transmedia Content.”

In the meantime – well, maybe we can get the brands to fund some little things right? And so, from the Creative Diretorless Millions of Us, Ruben’s home, we get an immersive brand experience on Google’s Lively!!

Um. Ok. Wait. I’d better use the word “immersive” with caution.

Let’s see if we can spot the immersive elements! Or even the narrative ones. Or, um, even a point would be nice.

Click pipe watch cement pour out

Click sign watch scaffolding appear

Watch video


Maybe the video is what he means by transmedia?

Loose Lindens
OK, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Millions of Us did that for, hmm…the chance to demo Lively? The chance to toy around a little? But I’m guessing they actually GOT PAID to do that! Now, I have nothing against getting paid. I GET paid to come up with stuff – some of it crap, some of it better than crap, and some of it that I don’t mind showing to my parents.

And when you get paid to do stuff, well look – it’s their dime not yours. And sure, Millions of Us is doing all kinds of other Lively things – building up that catalog of squishy looking furniture. Probably porting the same stuff over to Sony just messing it up a little so it’s more teen-friendly and gritty. Who knows.

And if it’s their dime, they can do what they want. And what they WANT (well, less so National Georgraphic maybe, but they’re trying to brand some show about construction workers) is COMMERCIALS.

Life was so much easier back in the day when there were three stations, and a few radio networks, and the major choice was whether to plop down coin for a spot on the Superbowl, the Academy Awards, or to keep sucking up all the airtime on the Gong Show.

And this social media stuff has been a drag too. Best we could do for the poor suffering brands was to come up with the idea of “viral” – which really means “something short, like a commercial, only we’ll get consumers to pass it around rather than pay for media placement”. Because look, everyone’s ignoring your banner ads on youTube, and if you get involved with Facebook widgets you might end up next door to some rocker chick posting half-naked pictures of herself and joining the “I Slept with Someone On Facebook” group, and that can’t be so hot for brand equity right?

So along come Millions of Us, and the Electric Sheep, and a bunch of other virtual world evangelists and they’re all about small worlds now, “Google Gets It, So Can You!” and yeah, I’m bitter, but I feel sold out. They came, they failed, they abandoned the big worlds and now it’s all about billboards in Grand Theft Auto and vending machines in the XBox lounge, and small Flash-based worlds.

And in the end, it’s because they couldn’t reconcile a brand’s desire for control of their message with the lack of control and chaos that you find in large communities where the users generate and consume each other’s content and eat the brand messages for lunch.

“We have a vision, but you don’t have the code”
OK. So like I say. I sell stuff too. You get paid for things and sometimes you flop – you promise something you can’t deliver. You paint a picture of an IMAX movie and it turns out your client has a budget for black and white TV, or your target audience all lives on farms and can’t get to a theatre even if they wanted to.

Sibley came out with his roadmap, reminding us that Second Life isn’t ready for prime time – not without access to the server-side stuff anyways. So instead of pitch in (unless I missed that post) with the servers over on RealXtend or OpenSim they’ve gone Flashy with the rest of them. White label it – build your own virtual world for under $100k, throw whatever logos on the wall you like, embed some games, and you’re off and running!

And what do you end up with? More rooms. More aimless pointless chat, only this time unlike Second Life, you can’t really teleport anywhere to find aimless pointless chat in a better build.

Oh, and commercials. Because one of the things all these small worlds seem to promise, something that gets everyone all excited, is the ability to consume media WITHIN the space! With friends there! Woot! We are building the metaverse, my friends, so we can watch TV together.

But the true metaverse isn’t ready for us yet, they say. You can’t build brand experiences in these places. You’ll never scale to millions of users.

Well, I dunno. A few things strike me: first, the sites with millions of users are ignoring the ads anyways. The ‘branding model’ is still all about bite-sized messages, commercials, no matter how these guys try to disguise it. And if you’re trying to scale to millions of users immersed in a brand experience, you’d either give the users some control, the chance to make something, the chance to mash things up and dillute your brand “experience” – or welcome to what they used to call an empty sim.

Two Words: Loco Pocos

No one’s saying that small worlds don’t have a place. Sure they do. They’re cute. The avatars are cuddly. I can change my hair. I can watch youTube videos. I can sit in my Lively room hoping someone will show up because, um, well because I’m cool and I have blue hair I guess.

The brands headed for the exits. Flash is where it’s at. Metaplace is coming, more games on the way, games everywhere, 3D rooms on every page, avatars ON TOP OF the 3D rooms even! If you don’t have chat, and games, and if you can’t balance the server load – well, you’re SUNK.

But hold on – Lively has a concurrency limit of 20. Most of these other spaces hit a wall as well, Flash just can’t rez much, it’s a LIGHT-WEIGHT client and there’s a reason for that.

And what you’re telling me is that you need a world with games, and puzzles, and socializing, and more than 7 people at a time right?

Well….have fun with that. Let us know how it turns out. Let us know how you manage to get MORE brand attention in a littered landscape of little rooms OK? Once your consumers get tired of being Lively, once they’ve played every poker game and Pirate game and shoot the cannon game that you can come up with, let us know whether they go back to playing REAL games instead, or whether maybe they even just head out and read a book or watch TV.

I kind of wish I could copybot all these avatars I’m creating these days and throw them in a little scrap book, because God knows I can’t remember my passcode to half of them. I know I’ve BEEN to Kaneva but I don’t remember what I look like or what kind of pants I bought. I know I signed UP for IMVU but I can’t remember why. I know I’m on the Metaplace beta list but its been months now.

Whatever. In the meantime, when I want a place where you can chat, be cute, solve puzzles, socialize, make stuff, customize my appearance, I’ll head to Loco Pocos to see what Millions of Us and ESC and all those other gurus of virtual worlds SHOULD have built instead of the stumbling ruins that were CSI with their 100 signs and their obvious clues.

You want game? You want 3D chat? Come on in:

Photos: Loco Pocos Flickr Group


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