Last week Raph Koster posted a controversial article entitled Are Virtual Worlds Over? It was a reply to a more readable article by Cnet’s Dan Terdiman. In order to even try to decipher Koster’s insightful article which is loaded with lofty academic language, first you need to read Terdiman’s piece.
I’ve long been a huge fan of virtual world visionary Raph Koster. His A Theory of Fun For Game Design is a classic book on game design and being well versed in it probably helped me land my first job as a game designer.
However, I have to respectfully disagree with the implications of his article that somehow the developers of virtual worlds and MMOs have to admit defeat and realign their thinking to the mindset of companies like Zynga who produce extremely profitable social networking games like Farmville and Farm Town.
While there are some valuable lessons developers can learn from Farmville (which I hope to cover in a future article) one of them isn’t that we should give up on the importance of realizing the dream of creating robust, exciting, living and breathing virtual worlds/MMOs.
Where’s the Innovation?
One of Raph’s opening statements in his recent article troubles me and it’s his reply to Terdiman’s lament of where’s the innovation?:
The innovation lies in making something that matters to ordinary people.
Maybe I’m wrong but what he seems to be saying here is that virtual world developers need to appeal to the lowest common denominator out there. So instead of having ordinary people rise to the occasion and get involved in something that challenges and uplifts them, the developer is the one that needs to move toward the consumer.
While that may be a good strategy if you are in the service industry or selling toilet paper, it’s inappropriate for new entertainment product development. It is that kind of follow the trend thinking that is the reason why there is so much uninspired copy cat swill being produced in most segments of the entertainment industry.
By applying Raph Koster’s current theory of innovation Ultima Online, EverQuest and surely World of Warcraft would never have existed. We’d still be playing primitive games on GEnie, CompServe and MSN because that is what ordinary people at the time were doing online.
Regarding Raph’s quote, I would add one word to improve it :
Innovation lies in making something extraordinary that matters to ordinary people.
Now that is something I who aspires to build a virtual world could believe in and might even make an excellent company slogan. It puts the emphasis properly back on the creation rather than potential consumers of said creation. Instead of the developer moving toward the consumer, the consumer gravitates toward the product.
So Much for Learning
As many know, Raph is the leading proponent of learning is fun as a theory of game design. But there is precious little emphasis on learning and mastery in this new virtual world order because this kind of product is created expressly to satiate the needs of ordinary people — the consumer. A virtual world should not be conceived and concocted like a time limited Burger King sandwich.
I figured out Farmville in about 60 seconds. What is there to grasp beyond the simplistic mechanics of plant vegetables, wait, harvest crops, purchase credits from Zynga, and buy more vegetables routine? Where is the sense of challenge when every obstacle or problem can be solved by purchasing a “solution” from Zynga?
My conclusion is that a pick up and p(l)ay game such as Farmville has no semblance of authentic learning and “a ha” moments that you would find in a serious virtual world or MMO.
Imagine if this unambitious approach was taken for a child about to enter Grade One in primary school. All of the materials would be created to appeal to their current level and there would be no challenges and learning for the student. It would be like being stuck in a perpetual Sesame Street kind of hell. The child would never develop and grow under this kind of system and would remain developmentally arrested.
Part of the mystique and wonder about previous virtual worlds and MMOs was that you had to figure them out. There were new lands and new monsters to discover and game mechanics, class mechanics, social and economic complexities to learn and master. What are the comparable challenges about figuring out social networking services like Twitter and Facebook? Get as many followers and friends as possible by being witty, funny and cool in the process?
I remember when I first started playing EverQuest. It was a new world full of mystery. There was nothing like it on the market. I had no clue about how the inner mechanics of the game worked or *how* I should play it. I was pretty much in the dark about everything but it challenged me at every level but you know what? I loved being challenged and immersed in that strange fantasy world and so did hundreds of thousands of other people and we happily paid SOE for that unique privilege.
How True Innovation Happens
It’s a fool’s errand to try to look at social trends and then to devise a virtual world solution to fill the needs of that demographic. Innovative art and entertainment is never created by sampling public opinion or focus groups. Revolutionary products such as the iPod and iPhone were not conceptualized this way either, rather they were conceived from the leadership and drive of one person Steve Jobs.
Innovation is never driven by the consumer; the consumer always follows and never leads. The reality is that people don’t know what they want until they see it. Who would have ever imagined that before the advent of Starbucks that people would have paid $4 for a cup of coffee? People will pay for quality but they can’t pay if the product doesn’t yet exist.
While necessity is considered the mother of invention, it’s often the fearless dreams of rugged individuals who are its true parents. One such example for me personally is in the MMO realm. Did I have a *need* for EverQuest before it existed? No, as I was happy enough playing single-player games. It was the existence of EverQuest itself that created that hitherto unanticipated need within me.
Admittedly, innovation is not common and is more like a perfect storm. It comes from the belief and passion of bold individuals who have a dream, want to see it realized and are in positions of power to make it happen. Rarely does it come by putting your finger in the air to detect which way the wind is blowing and jumping on board the current bandwagon du jour.
Build it and They Will Come
That popular line from the baseball movie Field of Dreams starring Kevin Costner says it all. Instead of abandoning the dream of a compelling and meaningful virtual world we need to create one worth being a part of, something that contains enough dramatic premises that ordinary people *want* to be a part of. Virtual worlds cannot be sterile sandboxes and expect to be viable. Instead they must be compelling destinations with shared challenges where people can escape to and live out their fantasies.
We need a virtual world paradigm shift equivalent to the impact that iPhone has made on our culture. We need a MMO so magnetic that people will be irresistibly drawn to it. (Who knows, Blizzard may be crafting this new MMO as we speak.)
As I said in my comment to Raph’s article:
The problem as I see it that nobody has really tried to make a proper virtual world with modern day technology and current AAA+ production standards. Virtual worlds as a concept has not actually failed. Rather it’s just been in hibernation because it has not really been seriously attempted by anyone.
One of the reasons it has not been attempted is because of the high cost of production compared to the low cost of Flash games like Farmville. Here’s a great quote from the Terdiman article:
The cost of building 3D worlds and “the return on investment is simply not there,” Sherman said. “It’s cheaper to build a Flash game or cheaper to build an iPhone app…If you have an existing audience that you can tap into and know you can pour a lot of eyeballs [into] quickly, then it makes sense to build a [low-fi] virtual world” like Webkinz.
Yet Blizzard spent $50 million creating the MMO WoW and has since earned billions as a result of that initial investment and is basically the only thing keeping Bobby Kotick’s Activision profitable right now. Still, skittish investors want a fast return for their dollars and a 4 year development time cycle may be too long to wait leaving the MMO realm in the clutches of companies that can self-publish like Blizzard and SOE.
Whether you agree with Raph or not, his article has been a catalyst for a lot of soul searching and subsequent good discussion.
If you had told me that 11 years after the introduction of EverQuest that the future of virtual worlds was in a low budget, mindless game about planting vegetables I would have had laughed at you. Even harder to believe is seeing the notion of virtual worlds being marginalized by one of its pioneers and being reduced to marketing gimmick in order to help sell a cheesy game on Facebook designed to suck you dry of your hard earned money.
Interestingly enough, one of the more reasoned voices on this debate has been 38 Studio’s Steve Danuser who’s actually making a real MMO put it all in good perspective. People who have been promoting social worlds like Raph Koster might have an axe to grind and are using the success of Farmville and Farm Town to make their own theories and projects look viable in the process.
The sky is not falling at least for those of us that believe in game based virtual worlds such as MMOs.
We need not worry about Farmville and social networking services because they will never be a serious substitute for AAA+ virtual worlds like WoW and those yet to come. Games like Farmville are outliers off on their own trendy bizarre tangent; they will never threaten traditional MMOs.
Think of Farmville as the Blair Witch Project of the video game industry: produced on a low budget and very successful. But, did that movie have a long-term impact on the film industry? No, it was a flash in the pan that at the time it was all the rage just as Farmville is now.
Besides, even if phony virtual worlds like Farmville continue to thrive, I see no reason why both genres can’t exist independently of each other. And there’s every reason to believe that perhaps once people tire of the juvenile mechanics of growing your own virtual Chia Pet they may be ready to grow up and graduate to a serious virtual world.