Adventures in the Invisible Tent

Here’s a tent.

Invisible Tent

It’s invisible. But it is. There. Walk forward into the space it occupies, you find yourself within the tent.

Inside Invisible Tent

The tent only exists when one is within it. When outside, we see the world without the tent.

This article explores the implication of this uncanny art form on how we build and use virtual environments. It first explains why this invisible tent is considered to be a software bug. The article explores how our ability to accept the uncanny varies from person to person. It then suggests that the spatial, built, environment is far less important than the social structures that exist within them. This topic contains a lot of images. Read More

Do You Fish in Real Life?

This article analyses the transfer of fishing activity between the physical and virtual worlds.

Do You Fish IRL? In Real Life. I dislike the phrase, because it implies that everything else is unreal. Yet many virtual environments trigger the same human emotions as the physical world. Very real indeed.

Google US search for 'fishing guide'. If you search US Google for the term “fishing guide“, the first result may surprise you. It doesn’t help to catch any of the 30,000 species of fish found on planet earth. And its author has bright pink hair.

This isn’t just a neat party trick. Nor an indication that I should write a real fishing guide. Nor a failing of Google’s search index: Google is directing such a generic search to a game-specific website because the search engine thinks that the majority of people searching for a “fishing guide” are looking for a World of Warcraft fishing guide. (The box below provides evidence.)

Perhaps, within the online sphere, virtual fishing is as important as conventional fishing? The caveat, “within the online sphere”, is crucial: Physical world anglers generally aren’t sat in front of a computer screen, while World of Warcraft anglers are. However, the internet is still widely used to find information about offline pursuits: The US Angler Survey found that 42% of those surveyed primarily learn about fishing from websites – more popular than print media. (The survey is presumably biased, because anglers that use the internet are more likely to complete an online survey – but still indicates the internet is a fairly important source of information for physical world anglers.) Of course far more people search for generic terms like “fishing” than anything WoW or guide-related. So game-related search does not dominate as much as it may first seem.

Searches for “fishing guide” are not the only way online anglin’ is merging with offline.

As the remainder of this article demonstrates, World of Warcraft anglers are up to 3 times more likely to fish in the physical world than the wider population: If you enjoy fishing “for real”, you are more likely to fish virtually than other players. This implies that the fishing activity transfers directly between the physical and virtual worlds. Read More

De-Analysing Blizzard’s Starcraft 2 Marketplace

Rob Pardo Earlier in 2009, Blizzard announced a non-commercial World of Warcraft add-on policy, which caused much discussion. Today at BlizzCon, Rob Pardo (illustrated) introduced the Starcraft 2 Marketplace: A future (after the game’s launch) system that would allow independent development teams to create custom “premium maps” for the game, and make money from them. That’s precisely what World of Warcraft add-on developers cannot do. So what’s changed?

Why Create a Starcraft 2 Marketplace?

Pardo stated:

“If you create a really cool map, with all original content, that’s awesome, you can put it up onto the service [Battle.net], and actually make money on your map.”

Blizzard is prepared to share a “portion” of the revenue if you create your own Intellectual Property, and don’t simply re-use their property. Seems reasonable.

The SC2 Marketplace is intended to allow parts of the mod‘ community to evolve from amateurs to professionals. “Fan made” maps were acknowledged as an important way to keep Starcraft alive – over time, players shifted from Blizzard-made maps to fan-made maps. But maps (Pardo used Warcraft 3 as an example) still tend to use Blizzard’s game assets (such as art textures), because creating original content takes a lot of effort. And passion alone does not pay the bills. By allowing map authors to earn money from popular maps, those people would be able to fund the creation of their own, original game assets.

There’s a real sense that Blizzard lost the chance to nurture and (commercially) gain from innovations within “their game engine”. Rob Pardo again:

“The Tower Defense maps came out of the Warcraft 3 community. And now you see Tower Defense in the PlayStation store…”

Earlier in the day Stompalina tweeted about the similarity between Battle.net (Blizzard’s community platform) and Steam (Valve‘s community platform). And she’s not wrong.

Both companies are unusual. They have both escaped from the traditional publisher-funded business model that underpins most major (non-casual/Flash) game development and distribution. Valve’s Steam originally gained popularity from games like Half Life, but has now become a method of distributing games written by others – everyone from small college/”garage” projects, to mainstream titles, like Total War.

Valve is already ahead of Blizzard in constructing a social-gaming platform, even though Blizzard was there first, and should understand the media better (from developing World of Warcraft). So perhaps opening up Starcraft as a semi-commercial platform for third parties is a new strategy in that race?

Why Not Create a Marketplace in Other Games?

SC2 Marketplace Illustration Competition with the wider gaming industry does not explain why Blizzard are so unwilling to adopt a similar approach within their other games. Some of us (and I include myself) would like to do this within World of Warcraft. I have previously demonstrated that WoW has a huge pool of talent among its players, and that pool of talent is increasingly reluctant to work within WoW because it has become afraid to make money. Something which we now all seem agree is required to support major (time-consuming) projects.

It is possible to create original IP within WoW. Technically this would be more difficult within a MMOG, because players that don’t buy your content, still need to interact with those that do. But there are creative methods of working round those limitations.

One possibility is that Starcraft 2 is a new product, which is politically (within Blizzard’s decision-making process) and technically (programmed to be supported from the outset) far easier to impose a new strategy on. And we might eventually see a more relaxed approach in Azeroth.

My fear is that World of Warcraft is being treated differently because its brand is to valuable at this stage in its life-cycle.

Shrewd observers will note that Blizzard have started “doing the Star Wars thing” with the WoW brand: The revenue directly from the game gradually becomes less important than all the merchandise and franchise opportunities. Soft drinks and Trading Card Games were just the beginning…

The problem for “fan-based” projects is:

  1. Franchise and license opportunities are not available to “the little guy”. They’re not the large businesses Blizzard look for.
  2. If you sell a license it has to be worth something. So a “fan project” cannot co-exist with a franchised project that it (often inadvertently) conflicts with.

There have been several examples over the last year where conflict has arisen. Unfortunately, I’m not able to publicly discuss all of them. Suffice to say the legal threats are very real: Suddenly one finds one’s self liable for lost earnings of the franchisee and Blizzard. That’s almost certainly more money than you have – few people are prepared to risk bankruptcy.

On the Road to Damascus

If Blizzard have had a change of heart, will anyone trust them? Sadly the answer is yes. Not least because individuals tend to confuse the company with its products. And the corpses of all those fallen add-on developers decay fast.

A marketplace doesn’t fit Blizzard’s culture – somewhat secretive, protective, and controlling of its work. But Blizzard seem very similar to Apple. And Apple have managed to sustain a very successful iPhone store, full of applications created by independant developers. If both parties benefit, these uncomfortable partnerships can thrive.

Perhaps there is hope after all?

Postscript

The following day, in an interview with DirectTV, Rob Pardo was asked this question directly: Why Blizzard are endorsing commercial SC2 mods, while they have just outlawed commercial WoW mods? His reply was:

“We’re not making money from the people that are doing third party things for WoW. It’s not really allowed to go out and make stuff around WoW without licensing it from us. It’s really us just protecting our Intellectual Property.”

Favorite Fishing Places

This article analyses the favourite fishing locations of World of Warcraft anglers. Both where and why.

The most popular single zone is the Grizzly Hills, with Azshara’s Bay of Storms and Wintergrasp in joint second place. Reasons are split into artistic (music, scenery), emotional (relaxation, memories), practical (fish caught, convenience), and social (companions, player interaction) themes. Overall, each theme has similar importance. The article discusses the apparent contardiction between desires for solitude, and to be surrounded by life.

This is the second of several topics that explore the reasons people fish in a virtual world, ultimately drawing parallels with fishing in the physical world. Read More

Paying for Points

Dominante's WeeWorld avatar and room. This article examines the sociological implications of the different reward systems used in virtual worlds.

The original WeeWorld article attracted a lot of feedback from WeeWorld’s users. One common question was, why do we have to pay for points? Or even, “WHY DOWE HAVE TO PAY FOR POINTS!!!!”

Why indeed?

  • WeeWorld has 2 kinds of points: Gold points we buy with Dollars (“monetary rewards”), and green points we earn by doing things in the world (“achievement rewards”).
  • Gold points can buy more things in WeeWorld than green points. So the things we want most, tend to be bought with gold points. In other worlds, achievement rewards (like green points) are more important.
  • The things we want are things that not everyone has. We want those things because it helps us make friends. To stop everyone having them, those things cost points. If those things were free, everyone could have them, and then we wouldn’t want them.
  • Gold points are bought with our parents’ money. So some of our friends have less points, because their parents don’t have as much money. We may want to help them by giving them some of our points. That helps us keep friends.
  • Unfortunately, in WeeWorld, gold points cannot be easily shared. So WeeMees with lots of things tend to have those things because their parents’ have lots of money to buy them. This is “unfair”.
  • In other worlds it is easier to earn achievement rewards (like green points). This means we could earn our own rewards, instead of our parents earning them for us. But those rewards cannot be shared. That means we cannot help our friends who have fewer rewards. That might also become “unfair”.
  • Perhaps gold points would work better if we could share them, and we could earn gold points ourselves?

That’s the simple answer. With apologies for “we” and “our”. This article explains and expands those ideas. Read More

Why We Travel

If we could eliminate transportation from our daily lives, would we want to? Or do we still need to travel, even if we have nowhere to go?

This article explores the desire to travel – to make economically irrational transport journeys. It ponders the apparently unnecessary role of travel in virtual worlds. It considers how travel contributes to immersion within the world, and how such travel can be substituted. Finally, the article addresses some of the difficulties in bringing lessons from the virtual back into the physical world. Read More

WeeWorld

WeeMee. WeeWorld is a teen-orientated social network, best known for their customized avatars, “WeeMees”. WeeWorld has evolved into an eclectic mix of community, casual games, and virtual goods. Steve Young, creative director, spoke to a small group in Edinburgh. Steve discussed the motivations and behaviour of WeeWorld’s users, and explored the challenges of working with 2D WeeMees, particularly as they move into WeeWorld’s new virtual (synchronous) world.

Users

WeeWorld’s core market are teenagers, mostly in North America. Average age 16 (minimum 13, although younger users may simply lie about their age). 60% are female. The dominant market segment was characterised as “spoilt rich kids” – typically those with their own computers. Of the 23 million registered users, about a million visit the WeeWorld site each month, and 80,000 login each day.

Usage differs from other teen social networks, such as Gaia Online: Only 6% of logged-in users visit the site’s forums, while 80% alter their WeeMee. Teen worlds are evidently not generic.

WeeMees (from the Glaswegian, “little me”) can be placed within personalised 2D rooms (in the style of “cardboard theatre”), used as characters within casual games, or rendered as avatars in a new virtual world called, simply enough, “World”. WeeMees are also used on third party websites and services, including messenger services, such as AIM or Live. Initial ideas for WeeMees had resulted in a lot of avatars simply being copied. APIs now provide some control over how WeeMees are reused.

Users’ main aim is “to gather as many friends as possible”. And to chat in a variant of the English language that even JeffK would find almost unintelligible: $iNG-UL?

Virtual Goods

WeeMees can be customized for free: Body, clothes and accessories. However users can also buy “Points”, which can be spent on specific items.

Points can be purchased via PayPal transactions or pre-paid cards, which are sold in US stores. Kids tend to regard these mechanisms like free credit cards: They are not seen as real money.

People pay for “uniqueness”. However, items need not be complex: The most popular item sold is a simple Alice band.

The most fascinating revelation was that the introduction of the new synchronous (virtual) world doubled the sales of virtual goods. This “World” is not even out of beta testing yet. “World” places WeeMees in the same interactive space as one another. This contrasts to the other areas of the site, where WeeMees are not competing for space. I think that implies the more an avatar needs to stand out from the crowd, the more virtual “Bling” is worth to that avatar’s owner.

WeeWorld is keen to avoid its Points being traded as a virtual currency. Money can only be converted into Points, not back again.

Design

The key to WeeWorld’s success is “immersion”. The key to its revenue is “engagement”. These concepts guide development.

Although WeeMees are cartoon-like (in the style associated with South Park), customizations still need to reflect what people would wear in “real life”. For example, T-shirts branding needs to be subtle – a small logo on part of the garment.

The goal for user-generated content (customizations of WeeMees and rooms) is to make it hard for the user to create something that looks bad. For example, MySpace customisations can (and in my opinion, sadly often do) look terrible.

WeeWorld has adjusted to match conservative US culture. The cannabis plants created in early experiments are long gone. There are no alcoholic drinks. Negotiations with Walmart even forced WeeWorld to disable the customization of boob (brest) size.

The development of “World” posed an interest problem: How should WeeMees move? All the artwork and customizations had been designed for static display, without movement animations. The World uses embedded Flash objects to display information to users, so the amount of data transferred about other users’ movements needs to be minimal.

The solution was to make WeeMees hop. Users can also select a trajectory and fire their WeeMees in a particular direction. Navigating World’s 2D platform-ed environment is quite cereal, but strangely fun!

Development

Social networks are becoming more like virtual worlds, while virtual worlds are becoming more like social networks. WeeWorld is trying to steer a path down the middle. Like all the businesses involved, they are still “feeling their way”, finding out what works.

Development time-scales for WeeWorld (and similar products) are very short. Steve was somewhat frustrated that development of the “World” had taken a whole quarter (3 months). The contrast to video-game style virtual worlds is stark: Those typically take 3 years to construct.

WeeWorld use a Scrum/agile development process (which suits the constantly evolving product). Casual games (a commonly requested feature) are often out-sourced to other developers.

The ability to develop content quickly makes it very easy for good ideas to be copied by competitors. For example, Zwinky might seem remarkably similar…

Pro-Auctioneering, the New eSport

Electronic Sport (eSport) is the competitive play of video games, often professionally, for prize money. In South Korea contests are so popular they are broadcast on dedicated television channels. E-sports generate less enthusiasm in the rest of the world, but their popularity seems to be growing.

There are parallels to traditional physical sports: The games played are accessible to the general public, but require huge dedication, skill, training and coordination to be “the best”. Many football (soccer) fans enjoy “kicking a ball about” in the street, but don’t expect to be playing at Old Trafford. Likewise there is a huge difference between beating Quake‘s single player mode and competing against top players. Probably the biggest difference is that eSports focus on the screen (what the player is doing), rather than on the player themselves (as tends to be the case with physical sports). This, combined with the traditional “geekiness” of video games, helps explain why most eSports professionals are rather devoid of charisma. Not that that stops tournament organisers putting these people on stage…

Traditionally eSports have favoured fast-paced games, either played individually or as small teams. Contests take place in short bouts. Examples include Starcraft and Counter-Strike. While these games require a degree of strategy, exceptional hand-eye coordination and reflexes are key to winning.

There have been attempts to promote casual games eSport, but tournaments remain biased towards fast-paced games. In the case of World of Warcraft’s (WoW) arena tournament, the core of the original game (the massively multiplayer part, where players are expected to invest time developing characters) was systematically removed to create a platform for traditional eSports. Missed opportunity. And here’s why:

This article proposes a rather curious “eSport”. One that is entirely dependant on the core facet of Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs) – the other players. An E-Sport that is played over days, rather than minutes. A game within a game, that tests abilities beyond simply clicking the mouse faster than your opponent. Allow me to introduce, Pro-Auctioneering. Read More

Platform Azeroth: Why Information is Broken

This article explores why the best information in World of Warcraft (WoW) is not available from within the game. It considers how to better bring information into the game environment.

Analyse this:

Screenshot of WoW in-game browser hack.

Above is a World of Warcraft screenshot, showing an in-game browser. This is not a feature of the game. The “Knowledge Base” is technically a support database written exclusively by the game’s developer and operator, Blizzard. However, an enterprising hacked called Vladinator noticed that this in-game database took its information from a specific webserver. The Knowledge Base could therefore be re-directed to a different webserver: In this case a server that shows information from Wowhead, a third-party site that contains reference material on almost every item, quest, and thing in the game.

Blizzard was quick to block the hack.

This article attempts to explain the utterly illogical structure behind these events. It builds on some of my earlier comments about the use of micro-transactions for in-game education (“Learn2Play”). Read More

Stanford Virtual Worlds Research

This article contains selected notes on the some of the research conducted at Stanford University on virtual worlds and the interaction of humans within virtual environments. It is based on sessions held during the Media X conference. Pat Hanrahan defined a virtual world as a “networked multi-user distributed environment”. But the audience reaction was altogether less technical, and more oriented towards the social implications of such environments.

Stanford is one of the few universities that can not simply be accused of climbing on the virtual worlds band-wagon: People like Nick Yee were examining these environments at long before they were regarded as a suitable topic for serious research. Related sessions on workplace application and DKP and the archiving of virtual worlds/games will be covered by separate articles.

Why Use Virtual Environments for Medical Training?

LeRoy Heinrichs spoke on the use of virtual medical rooms for training medical students.

It is cost effective, even when developing bespoke software: Conducting a live training exercise in a physical hospital costs about $50,000 per day, and can only train a relatively small group. Stanford’s first virtual patient model cost almost $1 million to develop, yet in the long run is still cheaper than physical-world exercises.

Initial analysis of performance is not yet conclusive, however early signs suggest knowledge does transfer to real practice, and virtual training is just as good as other methods.

The business case for virtual worlds is ultimately a critical driver to their success outside of their traditional (game or social) environments. Medicine is a fundamentally expensive business, so even with custom software, one user can make a saving. Other sectors may be slower to follow, waiting for the cost to drop. Cost are likely to drop by sharing development costs between multiple projects – either industry-wide initiatives, or through the development of platforms for virtual worlds, which will transfer most of the costs on to a single provider, who can then share those costs between many customers.

Size Matters

Renate Fruchter revealed that visual size does matter. Ideally people should appear on screen life-size: In most cases that means a bigger screen!

Jeremy Bailenson outlined some of Nick Yee’s research behind the “virtual mirror”. The virtual mirror is a technique that changes the visual identity of a person’s avatar while in a virtual world: Their avatars literally look into a mirror and take a different form.

The experiment is useful in understanding the consequences of an apparently fluid online identity, and determining whether self-perception theory (and similar) transfer to avatars: If you don’t know how to act, you look at yourself, particularly your uniform, and that determines your behaviour.

Height is important. In the physical world, height correlates to confidence and personal income. Through the use of an “ultimatum game”, where avatars negotiate a deal, it was possible to show that a 10cm difference in avatar height increased the value of that avatar’s deals in their favour.

Physical attractiveness of avatars was also tested by examining “interpersonal distance”: If you like someone, you will tend to stand closer to them. And they’ll disclose more information.

Finally the effects of age were tested by morphing pictures of one’s self to show the passing of years. The older the avatar, the more the subjects were prepared to invest in their retirement.

Further detail on some of these topics can be found at The Daedalus Project.

Virtual Worlds, Serious Work, and Collaboration for DKP

Byron Reeves (Stanford University) spoke to the Media X conference about how experiences from virtual worlds could be transferred into working life. This article summarises his talk, and contains personal analysis of the potential for using DKP (Dragon Kill Point) systems to measure contribution to collaborative activity.

Playing Puzzle Pirates at Work

Take a dull job such as that of a call centre worker. Now take the online game, Puzzle Pirates. Strip out the puzzling part, and add in the dull job. What do we get?

  • Metrics about the performance of yourself and others – highly detailed feedback loops that are largely missing from most regular jobs.
  • Through these metrics, a way to identify issues with team performance, giving…
  • An easy way to notice and resolve human issues within the team.
  • A way to make money that relates directly to performance within the game.

Why Might This Work?

Some possible reasons:

  1. Worlds are popular. People like playing them! Reeves was unusual among academics in acknowledging the huge popularity of teen-orientated worlds like Habbo Hotel, and down-playing relatively unpopular titles like Second Life.
  2. A new “gamer generation” is emerging. Even without the online component of games, these features aspects of competition, failure, risk and feedback. It is reasonable that this generation will come to expect to work using collaboration tools with features that match.
  3. Well understood recipe for creating a great game.
  4. Emotional involvement. Byron Reeves showed how heart rate increased by the value of 10 [presumably beats per minute] when playing with another human-controlled avatar, rather than a computer-controlled agent. This implies a performance gain when human collaboration is present.
  5. Technology: Worlds are easier to build, and “better”.
  6. Painful long-standing problems in enterprises might be solved. For example, large proportions of workers are “out of the office”; have limited employee feedback; do fundamentally dull work; and require emotional contact with other humans to innovate.

Dragon Kill Points as a Measure of Contribution

Dragon Kill Points (DKP) might be used as a way to value contributions to collaborative environments such as wikis. DKP is a way of resolving how to share finite loot among a group – originally from killing dragons in Everquest, now from any encounter that requires a group to complete.

The application of DKP to other collaborative environments was not fully developed. So let me try.

Loot is the primary reward from most collaborative activity in an game such as World of Warcraft (probably where DKP is currently most used). At the most advanced stages of the game a hostile creature might require 10 or 25 people to kill, yet only yield 2 or 3 items of loot. An equitable method of distributing loot is critical to long-term motivation of players.

Pragmatic random distribution of loot is one method: Players those avatars would benefit from the loot are invited to roll a virtual 100-sided dice, and the highest score wins the loot. The process is not entirely without social mediation. For example, one player might pass (forfeit their roll) to allow another to win loot that the first player knows they particularly need. Likewise rolling on loot that the rest of the group perceive the player doesn’t really need is likely to cause a social backlash. Pragmatic random distribution of loot is easy to administer and well suited to small groups comprising players that might not regularly play together.

However, pragmatic random distribution does not account for long-term contributions: One player might attend one session, gain a rare loot, and stop contributing to further sessions. Meanwhile another player might attend multiple sessions and gain nothing.

DKP is an alternative method. It creates a tally of points based on contribution to group activity. Loot is then distributed based on the volume of points a player has banked (and is prepared to spend) from earlier contributions. DKP is generally used where:

  • Groups are composed of many people, typically 10 or more.
  • Groups are formed out of a limited set of people that often play together.
  • A low volume of loot is generated relative to the time commitment required to generate it.
  • Groups routinely split play sessions between activities which generate different amounts of loot. For example, learning/practice (“progression”) vs gathering loot from already familiar activities (“farming”).

If DKP sounds simple, it isn’t: A DKP system is a complex construct, with different ways to measure contribution and balance the flow of loot to players. Agreeing that balance is a highly social activity, and failure to get the balance right can break-up long-established groups.

Group stress (“drama”) caused by the requirement for a complex DKP system may be one of the reasons for the growing importance of tokens in World of Warcraft. Group activity yields tokens, rather than loot. The tokens can still be traded for loot within the game. However tokenization removes some of the requirement for groups to balance the value of different items of loot.

DKP as a Currency

Edward Castronova and Joshua Fairfield have already mused on some of the economic aspects of DKP. But there are some interesting tangents that have not obviously been explored.

DKP is a meta-currency where the value of the currency is based on the values players place on one another’s contribution. Oddly this makes DKP far more like a modern physical-world currency than the formal in-game currencies created and balanced by game designers. Most modern currencies are valued on nothing more than trust – even if most users of currency never realise.

DKP systems effectively create many different currencies, each balanced and exchanged between a tiny number of people. The economy this creates is so devoid of complex economic mechanisms, and so obviously balanced by social interaction, that it might be mistaken for barter; but it isn’t.

Applying DKP Elsewhere

The value of DKP is in the ability of a group to allocate their own collective set of values to the results of collaborative activity. The value of the currency is a reflection on the group itself.

Applying DKP to a wiki-type collaborative environment is problematic: Contributions are not equally balanced within the group – the classic 1%-9%-90% pattern, where most contribute nothing, and few contribute a lot. While DKP might seem an ideal way to resolve this imbalance, and give the 1% the credit they deserve, we must remember that the DKP system’s balance is a social construct: The system will naturally be primarily designed by the 1%, and so will be biased to reflect their needs or perceptions of value. So DKP resolves nothing.

Administering DKP tends to be complex and time-consuming. DKP is not just technically complex (which might be eased through better software tools): Its value-system is an ever-changing function of the group itself.

That all assumes DKP will always be established through negotiation between those involved. We could theorise that eventually standard approaches will develop, that later generations of players will come to recognise and accept a standard approach. But standardisation would merely create another traditional currency system. Such a currency would be less arbitrary than some formal in-game currencies, since its value would genuinely reflect the work of players, and would not have to be carefully balanced by those designing the world.

It is not clear that DKP can be applied to any collaborative situation. However it may form a currency that better reflects players’ effort than one designed by those operating the virtual world. Consequently it does have a lot of potential for further development.

Learn2Play, the new Real Money Trading?

Extract from advert for Luke's Gold Making Guide. Real Money Trade (RMT) is the buying and selling of virtual property or currency for real-world money. Many virtual worlds now embrace this trade in virtual currency and goods, often as a source of income for the world’s operator. Blizzard, the developer of World of Warcraft (WoW), does not:

“RMT is a TOS [Terms of Service] violation. The fanbase is pretty committed to being against it, and we’ve got a group of guys that are committed to stopping TOS violations. The game was never designed for that in mind – everyone starts off even. In the real world that’s not true, but in WoW everyone starts even, and the RMT stuff messes with that.”

Not just rhetoric. They have sued a leading supplier to prevent them advertising in-game. And they regularly ban large numbers of accounts used to “farm” gold.

That environment seems to have expanded another quite logical commercial market: Teaching players to play. “Learn2Play” in the vernacular, or “L2P” in shorthand.

Rather than buying gold (in-game currency), players buy the knowledge of how to make gold themselves. The market isn’t restricted to gold. Guides to power-leveling (advancing a character through the first part of the game as fast as possible) are also popular: Rather than pay someone else to level a player’s character, players can buy a guide containing instructions optimised for rapid leveling.

This article explains Learn2Play, and explores some of the history and trends in this “market”. It focuses specifically on World of Warcraft, in English, which is sufficiently popular to create a tangible commercial Learn2Play market. It draws on my own experience from selling these guides.

Superficial analysis suggests the World of Warcraft Learn2Play market is valued at over $3 million revenue per year. In spite of WoW being an online experience, revenue from physical book sales may still exceed revenue from the virtual equivalent. The market is far smaller than RMT. But the notion that people are willingly investing US dollars in knowledge and skills that are useful solely within one virtual environment, should perhaps deserve as much attention as other real-virtual money transactions.

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Video Games Industry Innovation – Edinburgh Digital Interactive Symposium

This is the second set of notes from the first Edinburgh Digital Interactive Symposium, which was held on 15 August 2007. You may also be interested in the session on Virtual Policy and Law.

These notes discuss innovation within the video games industry. The factual information is primarily drawn from sessions (and conversations) with Jessica Mulligan (executive producer and one of “the five most important people in the virtual world“), Jason Rutter (University of Manchester), and Brian Baglow (Indoctrimat). These notes are my personal interpretation of what was discussed, not a transcript of the event.

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Virtual Policy and Law – Edinburgh Digital Interactive Symposium

The first Edinburgh Digital Interactive Symposium was held on 15 August 2007. It aimed to bring together academics and the “games” industry, to discuss topics from games industry innovation to policy in virtual worlds. The diversity of people these topics attracted was remarkable – from philosophers to corporate executives. It should come as no surprise that we all struggled to understand each other. Yet this was a group who merely by expressing their interest in such an event, tend towards curiosity.

This is the first set of notes from the Edinburgh Digital Interactive Symposium, covering virtual policy and legal issues. A second set of notes discusses innovation in the video games industry. These notes are my personal interpretation of what was discussed, not a transcript of the event.

Law

The lawyers are very excited about virtual worlds. Antonis Patrikios, from Field Fisher Waterhouse LLP, was speaking. At the most basic level, it’s a clean slate with no case law, yet almost endless contentious issues. You can almost see the dollar signs in their eyes. At one extreme there is a school of thought that wants to declare a new thread of international law – that is, to treat virtual environments as separate legal jurisdictions. At the other, the simple statement that real world objectives (and therefore regulation and law) will be directly applied to virtual worlds, without special consideration.

An example of one of the many crunch-points: If by “playing” I generate money-tokens (i.e., not necessarily legal currency, but having the same effect within the world they are generated), and someone does something that scams me of those money-tokens, do I have any rights in (physical) criminal law? If prior to bankruptcy, I move all my assets into a virtual currency, can the authorities recover them? One position is that I only have rights if the operators of the virtual environment allow me to legitimately transfer my money-tokens into real money. But it could be argued that if something is perceived as having value, it has value, even if it can’t be directly or legally (contractual law) monetarized.

Now, add to the equation the fact that the representation of the person within the virtual environment may not be traceable to a real legal entity. (There’s a major philosophical argument here too, that I’ll step over because I don’t understand it – although I’m told the fact I don’t understand it is fundamental to my ability to try – er, yes.) The one entity that always is traceable is the operator of the world – who of course have no legal structure themselves, since they are typically a business and not a civil authority. The anonymity issues may be solved technologically, but the very possibility that operators might get dragged into criminal cases triggered by what their users do, is pretty frightening.

The role of physical location of operators, technology (servers), and users gets even more complex than in the (already arguably broken) website/e-commerce model. Does intellectual property of things created in these worlds transfer to the user? Trademarks are defined territorially, yet where is this virtual territory? And is a virtual re-creation the same as a real product anyway? There are big US/EU differences here. For example, in the EU it is far harder to patent the implementation of an idea, rather than the idea itself. So a lot of software patents that exist in the US, don’t exist in the EU, since software is commonly just the technical implementation of an idea.

There’s an interesting aside here on when money becomes a currency, and when a game becomes a bank. In the UK, if you offer credit, you’ll drift into financial regulation. The question nobody can answer is when that provision gets so large it becomes a bank, or so popular it threatens an existing currency.

Policy

Chris Francis (IBM) attempted a basic differentiation between virtual games/worlds. He takes more of a policy perspective than others. You have to be able to quantify each virtual experience on a spectrum, otherwise everything from simple online games to open real-currency trading platforms will be seen as the same thing in any regulatory debate. There are four factors, each of which covers a spectrum of topics. Generally the further to the left you are, the more like a game (and hence the most likely to avoid regulation), the further to the right, the more like real life (and so the more likely to be regulated):

Economy/tradability: In-game “gold” <<—>> Real money.
Identity/communication: Text <<–> Voice <–>> Accountability.
Plot: Scripted <<—>> Freeform.
Data flow: Augmented virtuality <<—>> Augmented reality.

Augmented virtuality I didn’t quite understand as a concept, but I’d interpret it as the re-creation of augmented reality concepts into an inherently virtual setting, rather than a real-world one. The interesting current topic is voice. Voice is a significant shift into the realm of communications legislation, since voice is widely understood to be communication, while text is a grey area. It follows that in introducing voice clients within games, game operators are more likely to open themselves up to regulation. I don’t think the games industry had considered that.

William Garrood spoke from Ofcom, the UK communications regulator. In the EU, active regulation is currently focused on television-like services, particularly using the radio spectrum for transmission. Electronic Communication Services legislation first appeared in 1998, passed into EU law in 2000, and has slowly been added to law across EU states. (It is worth noting that the regulatory cycle is almost 10 years, the academic cycle for studying it all is 3 years, yet 6 months is a typical industry timescale to deploying new technology in the arena.) The current legislation could allow virtual worlds to be regulated, at least in part – but nobody is yet. This was intentional in the design of the legislation: The EU agenda is to move away from regulation – there is a desire to try and foster self-regulation.

The EU may be regarded as a lower-risk environment than the US, simply because the US has no apparent boundaries – yet a litigious culture that will make discovering those boundaries expensive, and arguably will resolve them in favour of the dominant industry. The EU has a structure that is likely to “step in” if it looks like everything is going to hell in a handcart.

Ofcom is quite focused on the BBC‘s traditional territory: Supporting “socially valuable content” in virtual environments. They already have a strategy called the Public Service Publisher. They’re aware that young audiences, in particular, are moving away from television, and are looking to fill the “post-TV gap”. It’s positive regulation, although how it works in practice is unseen.

Thoughts on a Socio-Economic Environment based on Nothing

One of the first economists to seriously examine virtual worlds (Edward Castronova) makes the observation that scarcity is fundamental to the environments that thrive. Utopia is boring. That’s a common theme of a lot of subsequent academic studies: The underlying patterns of human behaviour and motivation don’t fundamentally change from the physical to the virtual.

We have to “exist” in the real world (“eat, drink, breath”). We are highly likely to continue to “live” in it too (that is, perform social/economic/spiritual functions, in addition to biological existence). But it is not necessary to rely on it quite as much as we do now. Critically, living in virtual environments opens up some avenues for society’s development that may otherwise close.

Start at the “peak oil“-type resource analysis. The idea that up to this point, western culture (in particular) has assumed increasingly easy extraction of resources, but from this point forward will have to start dealing with the implications of increasingly hard extraction of resources. It follows that any “standard of living” (social status, economic income, etc) that is based on rampant consumerism and resource use, is likely to become highly unstable.

The fact that telecommunications and computerised technology is generally much more resource efficient than physical networks and products is almost a secondary consideration. The most interesting thing for me, is the creation of a sustainable socio-economic environment largely based on nothing.

That statement sounds like nonsense. But it has already mostly happened in highly developed western economies. Some examples:

  • The majority of a city like Edinburgh’s economy is tertiary (service sector). A significant proportion of that economy is knowledge-orientated (finance, research), where people never need deal with a physical product. Ever. Their work is often defined by their minds and their interaction with other minds.
  • The British “High Street” retail trade doesn’t really sell products, it sells “the experience of shopping”. In a broad economic sense, the actual sale of the products isn’t what makes most shops profit. Rationally, if they were only selling products, those products would be far cheaper.
  • Of a typical physical product made in somewhere like China, the minority of the cost is resource and manufacture. Much of the cost is in areas like the intellectual property rights of product designers, who typically live in the west.

So the most advanced types of work (which are also the ones generating a disproportionate amount of wealth), and the crude capitalist motivations of most western societies (the accumulation of stuff we don’t need) are already mostly based on “nothing”. It isn’t such a quantum leap to move those processes into a virtual environment.

We will never leave behind the physical world. But consider that once almost everyone in western society worked in agriculture, and now a tiny proportion do. There has always been a logical progression of society’s development which have led to progressively fewer people working in older sectors of the economy. This may simply be the next iteration. We are unlikely to understand it any better than an 18th century agricultural worker being shown a steam engine. As Charlie Stross’s Unpacking the Zeitgeist demonstrates, the present would be hard for us to have understood 30 year ago. Indeed, his description of the present is still a mystery to most of those living now.

But “our” children seem to embrace it. Many of the kid’s virtual worlds (such as Gaia Online) allow their young customers to buy virtual collectables using real money – these items don’t physical exist, but still represent something “of value”. These are not geeky male niches. Barbie Girls gained 3 million online users in its first two months – which from a discrete market of US teenage girls, probably numbering less than 20 million in total, is impressive.

There is still a big gap between making trivially small payments for virtual goods on glorified online social gaming/networking platforms, and the integration of these concepts into mainstream society and economy. However, these children are now developing some of their life skills in these virtual environments. Perhaps they will naturally accept what we will struggle to comprehend?

This topic evidently requires a lot more research and consideration. I’ve posted it here as a record of my current thinking only.