Backlash To Backlash

Mike Sellers on Terra Nova picks up on the latest in a long series of “Hey, Second Life may not actually be the Second Coming” news stories. The Forbes story itself is pedestrian (and membership firewalled — oh, hi), and Wagner James Au already picks the story apart with points both obvious and pedantic, but Sellers’ own commentary is more interesting.

But what does it mean for virtual worlds in general as operators try to move beyond their “men in tights” roots? As the difficulties of courting both user-generated content and mainstream business (or education and other non-entertainment sectors) as key constituents become clearer, what does this mean for the evolution of virtual worlds? How long will it be before companies stung by this experience like Wells Fargo decide it’s once again time to venture into virtual worlds for business?

Horribly, horribly scarring visuals of myself in tights banished for the moment, I’d argue strongly that the market is speaking fairly loudly in the argument about “men in tights vs. virtual utopia”, and the fancy lads are winning.

Blizzard’s millions are far more mainstream than Linden’s half a million, both in type of game, and in quality of service. Second Life’s client is arcane, to say the least, for even visiting the game world, let alone indulging in the content creation that is the service’s heart. World of Warcraft’s client can be fairly easily mastered by ten year olds. And, speaking of those 10 year olds — Au’s frequent and frequently hilarious protestations to the contrary — by the very nature of user-created content on the Internet, Second Life is not only adults-only, it’s become almost a self-parody, with frequent bickering between Gorean pleasure slaves and furry anthromorphic fox-druids over who can insult those damn ageplayers more. Meanwhile, the most risque content you might find in World of Warcraft are a few double entendres in quest lines and earnest roleplaying elves hiding in Silvermoon tavern rooms.

In fact, I suspect it will be those fancy-lad men in tight games that will actually solve the user created content problem. The reason is simple – powerful financial interest. It’s not possible for many companies to fund a development team to create a world that can compete with World of Warcraft in terms of content creation. One simple solution is to outsource that to the players themselves. No game has really unlocked that puzzle yet, though many are trying.

And not only does that financial motivation for user-driven content exist, said fancy-lad games are already well on their way to solving the other problem with user-driven content, mainly the users driven away by it. The W-Hat griefers of SL are old hat to grizzled MMO veterans who remember fondly when an “azzrape” in UO actually meant something. The lessons learned from those experiences teach budding world developers how to craft tools so that they can’t be used for, well, evil.

Does this mean that future World of Starcraft Hammer Online games will have the wacky user-driven content seen in Second Life? No. And there’s another other secret that the media hasn’t seem to grok yet – most people don’t *want* the chaos of a hundred thousand schools of thought contending. They want entertainment. They want to log in and have an experience – and the somewhat interactive entertainment of MMOs is quite enough deep thought, thank you. That’s not to say that the MOO-style constructive random play of worlds like SL won’t be a vibrant niche – but a niche I suspect is where it will end.

And speaking of ending, the quotes in the Forbes article indicate something that is also ending, I hope – the media’s fascination with virtual worlds as interactive commercials. Amazingly, few people want to journey in the plastic fantastic dreamworld of endless commerce that is Linden’s painted vision of SL. Those people that are members of SL couldn’t care less about a bank’s online “presence”, unless for some reason an overdraft fee motivates them to see if they bothered to disable grief scripting. Virtual worlds just aren’t very efficient for e-commerce — if I want to buy something online, I want to tick off things from a quickly loading web page, not select a purple cow avatar to see if I can find the thingy on the fourth floor of the Virgin Megastore Crystal Virtual Palace — and few are in the market to journey through infomercials.

Is that to say that there’s no way to monetize virtual worlds? Of course not. But there’s smart money, and then there’s stupid money. Understanding the VW market and providing goods and services for the community would count as the former. Making a really big shiny castle full of leaflets you can download… well, probably the latter.

And I wouldn’t expect companies like Wells Fargo to understand that. I’d look more for something akin to a VW version of Google. Something out of left field from very smart people that takes something VW participants do every day, and make it so much more brutally efficient that they own the market by default.

Probably someone like this guy.