Applications and Tools, Business in Virtual Worlds, Second Life, Virtual World Platforms

Taking Nibbles at the Experience Buffet: Virtual Worlds and Branded Domains

Raph Koster’s Metaplace closes tomorrow, or the user-generated/consumer-facing version of it will, in any case – although maybe it will come back as a sort of Unity3D for the Facebook crowd or something. We’ll wait for Raph himself to parse the why’s and could-have-beens, but I can’t help thinking about what Tyler Cowen said on Metanomics this past season, in response to my snarky question about the Long Tail:

BLOOMFIELD: Dusan asks, “Isn’t the concept of the long tale an incredible oversimplification of online economies, which should be discarded as a popular concept?” What do you think?

TYLER COWEN: Well, I wouldn’t quite say discarded. I think what online media often do is, they make the most popular things way more popular so they thicken the popular part of the tale. It’s the middling stuff that gets cut out. If you’re just saying the long tale is the effect, I think that’s wrong. But if you just ask, is the internet making culture more possible? Absolutely. In that sense, I think it’s completely on the mark. The book itself I don’t think makes that distinction clearly enough. But stuff can go viral or global now way more quickly, and that means the most popular stuff has a lot more force too. It’s new kind of mass culture. Well, that’s a long tale.

Now, having said that the Long Tail is one of those myths that bears far closer examination, it feels like I’ve done my part to promote it, so maybe I’ll give it credit for taking the subtle and complicated implications of digital content and giving us something we can relate to. My problem with the Long Tail is that it gives an optimistic view of the empowering aspects of digital media without accounting for the less positive ones: namely, that while digital media gives content creators access to markets that they might not ever have and the ability to sell a lot of niche content, it doesn’t eliminate the aggregation of power, merely shifts it to new players (Amazon is yesterday’s Time-Warner, say, and Google is ABC).

As Cowen points out, the other problem with the Long Tail is that while there’s still a ‘head’ to the tail (things with mass popularity) and while there is a much larger opportunity for a lot of niche sales, the two-digit market for books on African violets or whatever, it’s the middle that gets squeezed out. In the buffet of choices we have as a result of digital media, we tend to gravitate to the mega-hits or the highly specialized and niche, and I’d argue that this is true not just for the level of popularity of content and experiences, but is true of the time we invest as well.

Grazing and Gorging
Cowen pointed out in the same interview that the Web allows us to create our own economies: to construct our own cultures of the mind, in which we graze on content and information, community and connection, and from that map our own stories like a sort of overlay on the nearly real-time stream that is the Internet. The experiences we can participate in are less the product of packaged entertainments, but are instead created by the participants, taking a bit here and a video there and remixing them until we’ve created our own culture, our own entertainments.

This presents a danger of sorts, one that I think is a myth: that we tend to ‘harden’ our viewpoints and gravitate to things that reinforce our opinions or world views: reading right wing Web sites if we’re Republicans or virtual world sites if that’s our interest. I disagree with this because there are too many moments of serendipity, too many trails and dead ends and new paths that can expose us to different view points, which isn’t to deny that there are vast swaths of the Web (and human culture) where being shrill and entrenched IS the culture. But the chance that you’ll find a really cool site on the arcane rules of the post office or wardrobes in Elizabethan England is still there – and we can remix this into our personal economies just as we can continue to reinforce what we’ve always believed and never given up.

The other reason I disagree with this is that while digital media can find us fractured and shrill down in the tail, there is also the possibility that conventional wisdom gets changed because of the ‘hits’ – the sudden change in perspective and understanding that happens when something takes on that tidal wave force, facilitated by real-time data flow and social media, whether tracking what’s happening in Iran, a Presidential election, or the cultural implications of teenage vampires.

Cowen points out that digital media doesn’t preclude LENGTH either. While we graze on information nuggets and Facebook pokes, we’re also still willing to go to a 3-hour concert or a 2 1/2 hour movie. Kids are still reading Harry Potter and adults are still reading books, even if they’re doing so on a Kindle. We both graze and gorge and the two aren’t mutually exclusive: if done right, the Avatar trailer can be nearly as popular as the movie itself, or tweaking an avatar in Spore can be as much fun as playing the actual game (if not more so, frankly).

The Multi-Dimensional Long Tail
So this implies certain things. It implies that the Long Tail is not uni-dimensional. It includes:

- REACH: including main stream reach, going viral, getting the millions of hits on youTube or the hundreds of millions in box office tickets; and reach in the single digits, being able to get your book out for sale so that the hundred people who might buy it or download it can do so
- TIME: including experience nuggets, the quick blog read, the micro moment of a Tweet; and longer-form experiences, the 3-hour opera, the 12 hours of TV on DVD, the 50 hours you play in Far Cry 2.
- CREATION: and the accessibility (or not) of the tools to create experiences, whether the simplicity of launching a blog on Posterous or opening a Twitter account, or the complexity of becoming a developer for the XBox.
- And finally, PLATFORMS: the aggregation of the above amongst a myriad of providers, but with the tendency, like the Long Tail itself, for power and commerce to gravitate towards a few large hits and a lot of niche players.

Now, I’m no expert on Metaplace. I tried it and fiddled around with making sprites and other content. And I tried it as a user, grazing through different Metaplace worlds and trying to treat each of them like a separate experience. But what I found was that other than Metaplace Central, it didn’t lend itself to easy ‘grazing’. In spite being Flash-based and in the browser and all that, I found (like I do with almost all browser-based experiences) that it actually ISN’T as frictionless as it could be: you need to wait, not long, but you still need to wait for worlds to load; and finding worlds in the first place is hit-or-miss – what looks like a promising Steampunk themed world turns into an exercise in frustration when you can’t figure out what you’re supposed to do, and you can’t figure out how to get your little avatar around the wall. And then, you go to another little world and you have to start all over.

This is also why 3D in the browser and HTML5/Canvas looks so promising – it could cut down on some of those load times and other glitches (Metaplace constantly crashed on me, as does Web.Alive, in spite all those unsupported claims about stability, and Unity3D in the browser).

As a content creator, there was something obscure about the tools, but then I’m not a scripter, and while it was easy enough to place objects, getting anything to DO something was beyond my scope.

MP Central was fun, it was a grazing experience, you could run around collecting coins, chat a little, get zapped by zombies. And the killer app, frankly, were those meeps – if Raph does nothing else he should create a Facebook Meeping game and rake in the advertising bucks – kind of a dust bunny love machine idea.

Now, again, I can hardly critique Metaplace, we’ll leave that for Raph to give us his insights into what happened. But it had me thinking, as I say, about the Long Tail. And one thing that strikes me is that MP didn’t really do any one of the dimensions above particularly well: it didn’t have the reach it would have had if it had scaled into an embedded Facebook thing quickly; it wasn’t frictionless enough to be a true ‘grazing’ experience; it didn’t facilitate content creation in quite the RIGHT way – and I can’t really say what the ‘right’ way is, maybe it had to do with incentives or commerce or something, or maybe the tools were too complex and tried to do too MANY things, allowing you to do isometric AND 2D games, or didn’t include enough components or something, I’m not sure; and as a platform it didn’t have time to either scale or to find a small enough niche, which is probably what Metaplace 2 will need to be about.

See, I can’t help wondering whether you either need a magic formula the properly combines the ‘dimensions’ of the Long Tail, or you need to focus on just ONE thing and do it really, really well.

Second Life, Blue Mars and the Richness of Experience
There’s a lot of discussion about Blue Mars since it moved into open beta. I have so far been unimpressed with Blue Mars but it’s early days.

If I want to be in a visually rich environment I’ll play Assasin’s Creed or Far Cry or whatever. Somehow the fact that Blue Mars sets, as its goal, being a stunning-to-look-at virtual world makes me compare it consoles, which leaves it lacking. And its business model and technology means that it isn’t ONE world but many – it’s an MMO development platform, which means that the individual worlds need to stand on their own, pretty much (there’s nothing else, right now, that ‘glues them’ together, like group chat or community features) and so far, there’s a long way to go before one of those worlds can hold your attention for very long.

This isn’t to say I’m not excited about it or see the potential. But the development team has been slow to roll-out the technology, which may mean a lack of staff or funding, and it feels like they’re prioritizing the wrong things: why did they spend time on Flash-based Web content in-world instead of community, commerce, or documentation, for example? This has me worried that they are more focused on tech than community, which was fine if you were first-in-line like Linden Lab, but these things are costs-of-entry now, you shouldn’t launch until you’ve sorted out the user experience, the ability to communicate with friends and groups, and set up a proper marketplace.

But the comparison is interesting because it seems to be based on comparing the content CREATION tools while leaving for later the question of TIME, and whether Blue Mars will be able to provide the kind of environments where you don’t mind spending hours a week. If Blue Mars IS going to do one thing really well, then it SHOULD focus on flawless content creation tools, and while their SPECS are good, I didn’t experience any eye-popping feeling of “wow”, the kind that will get some kid fiddling around with Blender to tell his friends about it, or some development studio building games in Unity to flip half their staff over to building a city in Blue Mars.

But my point isn’t to critique Blue Mars – again, I think it has potential, it’s worthwhile, it will have its day, although I see trouble on the horizon: if the content creators feel there isn’t that much being done to promote new users and that they’re carrying the ball (not unlike SL, frankly, so why repeat history? But if you’re going to be an online XBox, you need to act more like Microsoft), when they don’t feel supported with rapid bug changes and proper documentation, and when the implications of how the economy is supposed to work start to play out in an actual user group, well, we’ll see.

What I DO wonder about is whether Blue Mars will be able to hold users attention for TIME – the barriers to entry are high, and you don’t expect Farmville when you get it up-and-running – but will you hang out there for 5 hours at a stretch? Or will the experiences (on the time rather than quality axis) remain in the ‘middling middle’?

Branded Domains
But there IS something powerful about Blue Mars: it has managed to leverage its technology to attract a few great brands. The Smithsonian is one and to a different degree Caledon is another. And the one thing that’s powerful about Blue Mars, like its console and MMO cousins, is that it allows you to create a great BRANDED experience. Like a more visual, say, or like Sony Home…the control of the experience is in the hands of the creators rather than the platform owner.

And I’ve been wondering, lately, whether Second Life doesn’t need more, well, brands.

And no, I don’t mean brands like a few years ago with all of those American Apparel builds or whatever. I mean iconic branded in-world experiences. As much as they had their own issues (arrogance and a lack of a business model come to mind), Rezzable was an example, Greenies in particular.

Second Life feels like it’s missing icons: it’s a time-rich experience that contains tons of grazing and a wide range of content creation tools (and an economy to ‘glue them together’). But it feels like it’s missing a few ‘uber-stories’ – those one or two iconic experiences that become short-hand to a wider world. While Linden Lab focuses on viewers and landing hubs and letting you post your new home SLURL to Facebook, it’s missing the one or two ‘big stories’ that become the fat end of the Long Tail.

Metaplace as a brand was about grazing and yet you weren’t quite sure what you were eating. Second Life as a brand is about being able to immerse in a buffet of experiences. But as it focuses on platform issues, maybe it’s losing its ability to tell larger, more compelling stories. Or maybe, at the end of the day, it will be a place where we can simply create our own economies, a sea of dots, most of them in clusters of 2 or 3, and not a meep to be seen.


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