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Personal virtual worlds

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26 January 2007

by Mike Rozak

Discuss on www.mXac.net/forums


A few years ago, I had an E-mail discussion about personal virtual worlds (PVWs). The general idea is that if virtual worlds were easy (low-skilled) to create, and cheap to host, then millions of people would create their own virtual worlds, just like millions of people have their own blogs, MySpace pages, web sites, etc. PVWs would be a form of self-expression, just like blogs.



Personal virtual worlds "won't work"

I wasn't too keen on PVWs for the following reasons:

  1. Inevitably, all "development kits", including virtual world development kits, encounter a tradeoff between ease-of-authoring and flexibility. In order to make virtual world creation so easy that millions of people could create their own worlds, the toolkit would have to limit the variety of worlds that could be created.

    In less abstract terms, a virtual world creation toolkit that's easy enough for millions of people to use will end up being a virtual dollhouse; players will be able to position stock objects around their world, and that's about it. No custom 3D objects, other than colours selected from a palette. And the stuff that really brings a world alive, scripting, will be non-existent because scripting is an uncommon skill.

  2. Virtual dollhouses might be fun for the authors to create, but they're not very entertaining for players, other than a quick look around to see what garish colour combination the author managed to invent. By the tenth such dollhouse, players will give up and never visit a virtual world created by "Easy-to-use virtual world creator" again.

  3. Chatting with other players might be fun. Unfortunately, with millions of worlds, players would be so thinly scattered that they wouldn't produce a critical mass. A player would log onto a world, see that it's empty, and immediately log out. One minute later, a different player would do the same. As far as the players are concerned, the millions of worlds might as well be single-player "games", but they're not even games; they're just empty chat rooms.

  4. With a slightly more complex toolkit, and fewer authors who could drive it, authors could create games instead of chat rooms. However, since the easy-to-use toolkit wouldn't require scripting, all the games would end up being exactly the same.

    With only a hundred professionally-created MMORPGs in the world, an obvious and now-cliche Diku-game has already emerged. A million Diku PVWs would only be worse because they'd be exactly the same game, not just strikingly similar games. After the 10th Diku PVW, players would get bored and swear off playing in worlds created by "Easy-to-use Diku creator".

  5. Of course, the toolkit could allow for more complex gameplay and authoring choices via scripting, resulting in something like Neverwinter Nights (I or II). Instead of millions of dollhouse PVWs, however, the toolkit's complexity would limit the target market to only a few thousand authors. Unfortunately, NWN authors can't alter the fundamental game logic/programming, so the thousand worlds would still be very similar. NWN worlds do attract players though, even if the majority remain empty.

  6. Text MUDs go a step beyond NWN worlds; authors have access to the MUD source code (even more complicated than scripting) and can change everything about the game. Over the last fifteen years, www.mudconnect.com has amassed a list of 1700 MUDs, many of them defunct, and most of them player-less. And they're almost all clones based on Diku-MUD!

    MUD clones exist because customising a MUD is too much work. Authors download the source code with accompanying "default" content of 2000+ rooms. They quickly realise that any change they can make to the MUD's 10 man-years of code and content is minimal, unless they're able to commit 10 man-years themselves. So, with no other choice, the defeated authors rename "Orcs" to "Sporks" and "Elves" to "Ethereal Beings", add a few hundred rooms to the 2000 stock rooms, and mis-label their MUD as "completely original" (since no one will try a MUD that's clearly marked as a "clone").



Some fundamental reasons why PVWs don't work

Let me rephrase some of what I stated above:

  1. It can be fun for an author to create a personal virtual world, even if all the author does is move virtual furniture around.

  2. Creating a virtual world that is interesting to players, however, requires 3D modelling skills, audio skills, and most importantly, programming skills. (Not to mention creativity, storytelling, and whatnot.)  If an author doesn't have such skills then they can still have fun creating the world, but it's unlikely that players will stick around.

    To play devil's advocate, I'll point out blogs, which as easy to write, attract readers: Millions of people write blogs, and at least 10,000 blogs are actually read. Blogs aren't difficult to write. They don't require any ultra-complex modellers or programming languages, but they still manage attract readers/players. Why shouldn't the same hold for PVW toolkits? Why can't a PVW toolkit be as easy to use as a word processor?

    Blogs actually require enormous skill to write. The reason blogs are so easy to create (relative to PVWs) is that much of your education was devoted to learning how to write, not to mention all the conversations you have every day of your life. Very little, if any, of your education included 3D modelling, programming, and creating audio files. If you were lucky, you took a few art and music classes in elementary school. If your education emphasised 3D modelling and programming as much as it did writing, creating amateur virtual worlds would be a piece of cake.

    Continuing the blog analogy: A virtual world development toolkit that doesn't require modelling and programming is like a blog server that only lets bloggers choose paragraphs out of a standard library; actually choosing individual sentences, or (God forbid!) individual words and forming unique sentences, is too complicated for illiterate people. (Notice that bloggers aren't forced to create their own fonts, though!)

  3. The more PVWs that exist, the lower the player density in the worlds. Low player densities turn the worlds into single-player games... that occasionally contain other players. If a PVW's design assumes that other players create most of the fun, then an empty PVW won't be much fun, which creates a self-reinforcing feedback loop when players log on, see no one around, and then immediately log out.

  4. Text MUDs, in particular, try to be enormous, some claiming to be as large as 20,000 rooms. I suppose that larger worlds attract more players to try the world. However, huge worlds are problematic:

    • They reduce the player density still further.

    • They take more time for players to complete, so they're not accessible to the 75% of the population that works, and/or has children, and/or has a life.

    • An emphasis on "huge" causes authors to reduce quality in favour of quantity... but quantity isn't needed by PVWs because there will hypothetically be thousands (or millions) of them, most of dubious quality merely because their authors aren't skilled enough. Inducing a further decline in quality by encouraging quantity is merely another nail in PVWs' coffin.

  5. Players' expectations are high. After having played in a world that took 300 man-years to create, a text MUD that took 10 man-years is, for the most part, unappealing.

    Beginning with a 10 man-year text MUD as a base, an amateur author could hypothetically devote one man-year to changing and customising the code and content, and numerically create an experience that is 10% different from the original code/content. Users would perceive the difference between the new MUD and its ancestor to be greater than 10%, though. I guesstimate that a 10% real change will be perceived as a 20% difference. 20% is on the threshold of being different-enough that players who played the original MUD will want to try the modified one. (The exact number isn't important here; You can come up whatever scaling and threshold makes sense to you.)

    However, only 50,000 - 200,000 people play text MUDs; There isn't enough eye candy to attract a larger audience. 20 million (to use a round number) play 300 man-year eye-candy-laden MMORPGs.

    If a player suddenly got a hold of WoW's source code and models, and devoted a man-year to customising it, the game would still be 99.7% WoW! Even doubling this value to simulate how the changes are perceived, after one year's work, the game would be perceived as 99.4% WoW... which means that the experience would be almost exactly the same. To create a "new" experience from a WoW base, a team would require 30 man-years (10% of 300) of customisation... hardly an amateur endeavour.



The solution lies in stating the problem

If I invert the problems, a possible solution reveals itself:

  1. Create a virtual world toolkit that encourages quality over quantity. If the world takes more than six hours to play through, it's probably too long.

    Side note: The more years I spend thinking about amateur virtual worlds, the shorter I think they should be. A few years ago I anticipated a 50-hour MMORPG, like GuidWars, in my anti-MMORPG writeup. I now think that even 50 hours is too long.

  2. The toolkit should encourage authors to create a fun single-player game (or experience), such as an interactive fiction, CRPG, or FPS. If other players happen to show up, they're an added bonus to the fun, but their presence can't be required.

  3. The toolkit must emphasise customisation. For the most part, the game code and graphics should all be replaceable, including fundamental assumptions such as gravity.

  4. Here's a tricky (and contentious) solution: The toolkit should only be a few man-years of work, or rather, the parts important to a player's perception of what makes a world different should only be a few man-years. If not, any attempt that authors make to customise the experience will be overwhelmed by the mass of pre-existing code/content, as in Diku-MUD clones that are all similar because authors don't have the manpower to significantly change them.

    I suspect that there are ways to circumvent this limitation, to an extent, such as allowing third party models and code to be bolted in by authors. However, for this to work, authors must have a large selection of models and code, and the models and code must themselves be customizable.

  5. Include all of the necessary tools in the toolkit, and perhaps even offer hosting. Requiring the author to download the toolkit, then also install a separate 3D package, database, scripting language, audio editor, etc. isn't good enough. There's no reason to make things more difficult than they need to be.


This is only one solution. There are others:

  1. Create a dollhouse PVW toolkit that's designed to be fun and easy for everyone to use, but where no one seriously expects players (other than the author's friends) to show up.

  2. Create an amateur PVW toolkit, like I described above.

  3. Create a professional virtual-world toolkit that is used to create worlds in the top-100 list.




Attracting players to amateur PVWs

What attracts players to an amateur PVWs?

  • They're all different. Or at the very least, different ones are easy enough to find that players won't come to the conclusion that all PVW's from a specific toolkit are all the same.

    Corollary: A web site that recommends suitable PVWs based on the player's preferences should exist. Something like Amazon's book recommendation feature would be nice.

  • They're fun as single-player games, because players may be alone in the world for significant periods of time.

  • If other players happen to be in the world, the game (or activity) is more fun.

  • Players can arrange to meet friends in the world and play through it together.

  • Entering a new world is frictionless; there can't be any large downloads or lengthy registration procedures. Content should be downloaded on demand, not in one 100 MB block at the beginning.

  • The worlds are free, or close to it. They probably won't have enough content and eye candy for players to pay money. (Advertising might work.)

  • The worlds serve a niche audience, just like blogs. Mass-market audiences will play in professional virtual worlds.

  • The worlds shouldn't take long to for players complete. A group of friends should be able play through a world in a night. An exceptionally long world might require two or three nights.

    To beat a dead horse: Attempting to make a large world on a minuscule budget results in a lot of uninteresting content that is only attractive to a small segment of the population... which would be a fine niche, except that niche is already owned by MMORPGs with gigantic eye-candy budgets.




I thought of an alterative name for PVW's... "Mini-MMORPGs" or "Micro-MMORPGs"... which would be abbreviated as "MMMORPG"! I decided that PVWs sounded better. :-)

Copyright 2007 by Mike Rozak. All rights reserved.
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