Business in Virtual Worlds, Deep Thoughts, Second Life, Serious games, Virtual World Platforms

Virtual World Winter is Only Leaving the MMOs Cold

OK, look, I keep meaning to pick up on the thread over on Terra Nova about this coming virtual world winter. And sure, I know the posting was meant to be provocative and a set-up for some sort of burning insight into how we can all save ourselves before the glaciers freeze the grids, but I just don’t get it.

Second Life is Getting Richer, Not Wider
First, Bruce starts out on the wrong foot, citing erroneous statistics about Second Life as a sort of litmus test for the stall of virtual worlds:

1. Is Second Life (the flagship platform) user growth stalled or continuing to expand? Some experts have commented to me that SL’s regular usership (die-hards, creators, social mavens) is no more than 20,000 which would not justify its business existence if it was an MMO-game play platform?

While everyone agrees that there’s a top off that seems to have happened on attracting the exponential growth that was seen a year or two ago, the stats also seem to indicate that people are spending MORE time in Second Life. I suppose the Terra Nova folks all want another 14 million strong Warcraft, but SL is at a stage of development where, I believe, the people arriving are coming to accomplish far deeper things than wandering around a bunch of empty brand builds - that’s soooo last year.

If it’s true, and people are signing up for SL because their school told them to, or their local museum is holding a mixed reality event, or they want to see what Wikitecture is all about, then that’s a different growth curve than 10,000 people signing up because they heard Nike had a shoe store, or that they could “live the CSI life”.

If the award-winning Wikitecture isn’t a sign of robust growth and evidence of how far SL has come, and is going, I have no idea what is.

But it’s the last little bit that hints at the bias. Because I’m not sure SL has ever really been a “play platform”. It was always just a platform (hmm, I don’t mean to use the word “just” in a minimizing way, I just mean it was never intended as solely “play” except maybe back in the alpha days when they were driving robots around and shooting each other).

But I’ll concede - right now, SL is stalled as a wide-use 3D platform for play, and socializing, and casual surfing, and immersion, and augmentation. Parts of the equation are on a high growth curve….small user groups attracted for specific reasons or as part of off-grid initiatives, and spending MORE time per user. Other parts of the equation, namely casual gamers and socializers, are stalled because of the well-recognized obstacles in the orientation experience, UI, mentorship program, help facilities, and overall marketing and promotion. (Not to mention stability - “This thing can’t scale”, as a Linden said waaaay back when, and we’re seeing that now).

The Kids Don’t Wanna Play Here
But more broadly, the post asks the question of whether virtual worlds will ever gain widespread acceptance, whether open source and “micro worlds” are the wave of the future, and what it will take to attract a broader user base.

Now, the whole conversation makes me feel as if I’m an adult student at some university somewhere, hanging out in the corner of the student pub or cafeteria watching all the fresh faced frosh and wishing someone would come up and talk or offer to buy me a drink. Damn, these young people have their own ideas and plans and use phones and stuff where I can’t even find the button, and unless we can figure out a way to grab their attention, get them off Facebook and into Warcraft, well…the world is lost, the winter arrives, but maybe one day they’ll see the light.

As Bruce says:

Is interaction in a VW that much more enriching and valuable than the simpler modalities available in other platforms? Will VWs ever really go mainstream? I continuously hear complaints about VWs not being worth the trouble, especially from people much younger and hipper than me (I am 46) who prefer much lighter weight forms of interaction. What does this portend?

But this implies that kids AREN’T using virtual worlds. They are. Maybe not the coveted 18 - 24 age group in the vast numbers that I guess the Terra Nova folks would like to see, I’m not sure. And maybe I’m starting to parse the semantics of what makes a virtual world, but there are enough persistent worlds out there to put the lie to this idea that the kids are too busy updating their mySpace pages to want to play in Virtual Worlds. Now, sure, for now the space is primarily for the teeny boppers and wee kids….get ‘em while they’re young, afterall.

But there’s no statistic behind Bruce’s concept that the growth in virtual worlds is stalled, or will stall, or that the new worlds being launched nearly daily aren’t picking up new users, and thus gaining a new corps of people who become familiar with the VW experience, navigation, and tool sets.

What Is This Winter Again?
I come away from the Terra Nova thread wondering what this winter is anyways. It’s unclear from the post that there’s any indication that a winter is upon us. There’s no particular argument that it’s happening - it’s a provocative post with lots of questions, but no step-by-step walk-through of where he sees the winter coming from, other than maybe that the venture folks will be disappointed and pack up their bags and move onto the semantic Web or something.

You have to sort of imply it from the post, I suppose. Here’s my take:
- The “Big” VWs that we know and love are stalled. There’s no new WoW on the horizon (well, maybe Conan), there’s nothing new in VW development, no new model, no new stories, no, well, you get the idea.
- Open source, small worlds, micro 3D rooms…these things might balkanize the virtual world audience. Which I suppose implies that the dream was one big virtual world in which we’d all hold hands much like the Web was one big platform. But look - I don’t roam around the Web that much anymore, the sites I visit are in my RSS and that’s pretty much it, unless I want to Google something. So even the Web is a fractured, dispersed, massive gorilla with a billion apps and businesses and balkanized islands. Just like the VW business is shaping up to be, so I don’t understand how mirroring what happened on the Web is a sign of a VW winter.

But really it all comes down to the following:

Do VWs have such a potent growth driver behind them that there will be capital and incentives allowing dominant monopoly players to emerge? Or will VWs find their fate as a boutique type enterprise embedded within other businesses?

And there’s the contradiction. At one point, the Internet was going to blow up bricks and mortar. Entire industries would sink, businesses upended, the old, fossilized beasts of yesterday would disappear. But we know where that ended up. Sure, a few players didn’t need bricks to get clicks, but for the most part old enterprise adapted, adopted, and thrived. We went from bricks to clicks to bricks and clicks. And the Internet is still going strong, even though it was ‘embedded in other businesses’.

Give Me a Hammer and I’ll Build You a World
We adopt tools because they’re useful to us. Because they let us create new things, experience new experiences, communicate in new ways, and because as humans we have a need to tell and listen to stories, and to expand our path forward, for better or worse, into our destiny as creatures of techne. We are who we are because of our tools. And the tools we’ve created for ourselves are both fearsome and liberating.

Now, the argument is that “flat tools” are just as good as 3D tools. But that ignores the reality of virtual worlds. It ignores presence, and immersion, and sociality, and the fact that my 3D house is a place I can put my feet up, whereas on Facebook, bless it, I can poke and send growing flowers and spam people with new group invites to my heart’s content, but it doesn’t mean I feel like I’m THERE. It ignores that there are things you can collaborate on in a 3D space that you can’t in a 2D one. It ignores the power of what’s not possible in real life, over what’s simply an extension of current information modalities.

I personally don’t follow the argument that a winter is upon us. Any venture guy who invests in something without a sound revenue model should be showered in popped bubbles. But it’s not the venture guys who are driving this particular engine anyways - it’s the schools, artists, universities, creators, mash-up artists, and yes…the large companies.

The bottom line is, yes, there’s a winter coming for virtual worlds. But it’s a winter for the VW developer community of old. A few people in the MMORPG community, the old MUDders and the UO crowd can break through because they understand that the landscape has changed. Raph is taking a shot at it, for example.

But if you’re going to launch Tabula Rosa and think that the old models of MMORPGs are still sound practice, then here’s a heavy coat - because it’s gonna get mighty frosty. And no offense to Conan, but it’s got a limited shelf life. Who needs another slash & cash epic game that doesn’t do anything NEW? (OK, sure, better blood, the chance to build your own fort…yay!)

Don’t look to the old models and the old venture models to see if winter is upon us. Have a look at MTV instead. Think about Spore and a virtual world where you aren’t an avatar but you have intelligent agents evolving in a persistent space. Think about Hollywood and their increasing interest in VWs. Think about serious games, and games for change.

The “space” (as people love to call these things) is growing far faster than any of us can really track. There’s no winter coming, this is merely the beginning of spring.

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