Virtual Property, Rights, Riots and Governance

“Virtual property” popularly refers to virtual goods – items purchased for use or display within virtual worlds, online games, and social networking platforms (like Facebook). The term could equally apply to other cyberspace assets, like land in Second Life or Entropia. Even items acquired through the investment of time or expertise (rather than a specific currency exchange), like my Sea Turtle. If you use such simple definitions, property does not influence rights or governance: The virtual environment doesn’t substantively change anything in law. Contracts can still control the relationship between the people and organisations involved. Copyright still protects the underlying electronic and creative concepts. What’s all the fuss about?

The utopian ideals of some of the early internet pioneers are long since forgotten. More recent debates about the rights of avatars have been steam-rollered under “the tyranny of the End User Licence Agreement” (quoting Andres Guadamuz – although perhaps such an agreement is still more democratic than a unsigned contract with society). So who cares? Read More

Systems of Curse and ZAM

The World of Warcraft ecosystem saw the final “big fansite” acquisition this week, with MMO-Champion bought by Curse Inc. Big meaning something that attracts millions of users each month. Curse have been using some of their $11 million of venture capital to buy up a variety of gaming fansites, including many popular WoW sites. But MMO-Champion is significant for 3 other reasons:

  • Corporate deal, not the “founder buy-out” traditionally commonplace among gaming fansites. MMO-Champion was previously owned by Major League Gaming, already a multi-million dollar enterprise (by comparison, $46 million funding).
  • Completes a duopoly (2 dominant businesses) in the core World of Warcraft “fansite” market – Curse and ZAM. While there are other large businesses and specialist niches on the fringe, none of those appear to be growing into the core WoW market.
  • Exposes an intriguing driver of this market structure: Systems costs – the underlying technology and support costs. Intriguing because these were crucial in determining the market structure of far more traditional sectors of the economy, like groceries.

This article analyses the latest acquisitions and discusses the unseen importance of systems costs. Read More

A Strange Game

Deathwing. So it happened again. The player client software for the latest World of Warcraft expansion, Cataclysm, leaked into the public arena long before it was intended to become public. Again, because this also happened with the previous 2 expansions. A third leak is beginning to look careless.

WoW.com’s (unofficial) explanation of this “failure of secrecy” ironically fails to explain most of reasons behind the Cataclysm leak. Perhaps because the politics are rather too Machiavellian?

This article discusses the relationship between the game developer and its “fansites”. It uses the Cataclysm leaks to try and explain the underlying politics. The article questions why Non-Disclosure Agreements continue to be used, when they are worse than useless. Finally, it ponders the risks of such apparently one-sided relationships.

I’ve tried to present a fair and balanced analysis, which raises some important issues that aren’t getting discussed, and should be. Obviously, I can’t know everything. Read More

Poor Gina

Comments on my original WeeWorld article continues to provide a fascinating insight into tweeny online society. Not just that so many people think I can help them, when I cannot. But that users are now as likely to be concerned about “stolen” user accounts, as they are about the social injustices of paying for points:

“Hi my name is Gina… I’m nine years old… I brought a prepaid card then some one hacked me for no reason… The username is *****… I used a fake e-mail and I don’t know how to get it back =[ Can you help me? PLEASE!”

I removed the 200 redundant characters Gina had added to the final word, that conveyed the true extent of her desperation. Literate, for such an apparently young US citizen, she also reveals some child-like confusion in causality and logic. Not that most adults could solve her problem: A “recovered” password can only be sent to the email address associated with the account – yet to receive the message, the email address cannot be fake. Further help is locked away on forums which can only be read by users who are already signed in. Signed in, using the password they can’t recover…

For a 21st century child, this is much closer to a science-fiction nightmare than adults might think: Inadvertently being locked out of a part of society by the flaws of an infallible machine. A part of society, because this stuff genuinely matters – often as much as traditional “playground” relationships. Substantial time (and often Dollar money) is invested in a user’s account. Huge networks of friends are built. The ability to start again, or start again somewhere else, is poor consolation indeed.

We can argue that having one’s virtual avatar hacked into is a “rite of passage” into the digital economy. A necessarily painful lesson that, long-term, will make adult activities such as online banking much safer. After all, this is only a childhood game, isn’t it?

Yet Gina’s short plea contains a lot of unpleasant truths, that adult society seems reluctant to address.

This article explores how the law, as experienced by the generation practically born online, differs from law as previous generations have learned it. Worlds where everyone is at least 13 years old, even if they aren’t. Where wrongs are not righted, because they’re not in the contract. And copyright legitimises a new, almost feudal social structure. A selective, but slightly unnerving, insight into a generation that may grow up to believe that law is for something else, because it so obviously isn’t for them. Read More

Animal Farm

Pandaren Monk We finally have some reliable figures for the commercial value of “minipet” micro-transactions in the game, World of Warcraft. Specifically, the sales of just 1 item: In November and December 2009, at least $2.2 million worth of Pandaren Monk pets were sold. 220,000 at $10 each. We know this because “50% of the purchasing price” was donated to charity, and “more than $1.1 million” was donated (via WoW.com).

Over 220,000 sales to a market of about 4-5 million potential customers (only active WoW players can use the minipet, and the pet does not appear to have been sold in China or Taiwan). Roughly 5% of potential customers spent $10 on an ostensibly useless vanity item: A small pet that follows you around, looking cute.

Like most virtual goods, the cost of making and selling this pet is marginal: Primarily some additional art and marketing time, all built on the back of existing systems (store, staff, world). The first 2 months of Pandaren Monk sales will have made contributions to Blizzard’s profits of about $1 million. That’s only around 1% of the business’s turnover in that 2-month period. But that 1% is “free money”. Blizzard (-Activision) would be doing a dis-service to its investors if it did anything other than continue to milk this virtual cash cow.

Apply a healthy bit of European cynicism, and it is easy to conclude a scam. Tobold‘s:

“Send me $10, and I promise to send $5 of it to charity.”

Of course, Europeans fundamentally don’t understand US philanthropic culture: The idea that it’s fine to exploit your fellow human and make outrageous amounts of money, so long as you give some of it away in the end. Some philanthropy is able to take a somewhat rational, balanced view of what is good for the world. But there is a tendency to support visually appealing issues, such as charities servicing the needs of children.

The purpose of this article is not to argue that a European, government-centric re-distribution of wealth is preferable to an approach lead by personal responsibility. (I’m not sure it is.) The problem emerging here is more fundamental: That virtual goods are replacing trade-able value with non-trade-able value. Non-trade-able value that, by definition, can not offset inequality in (game) society. Donating part of the price of sales to charity is pure irony. In true Orwellian style, we’re sleep-walking into a potentially broken social structure with the best of intentions.

This article started as a box during my Adventures in the Invisible Tent, but has been expanded here in much greater detail. This article describes what a minipet is, highlights the role of money to balance inequality in society, and explains the problem with virtual goods. Read More

Nation of Adoration

World of Warcraft’s seasonal holiday events temporarily reduce player interest in fishing. It’s always been the case, but the decline in fishing seems to be becoming more extreme over time:

Decline in Fishing Activity due to Holiday Events

The graph’s y-axis is the percentage decline in page views at El’s Extreme Anglin’ from the 7 days before each event, to the first 7 days of the event. Pageviews are a good proxy for overall angler interest. El generates hundreds of thousands of page views each week, so even small changes are significant. The x-axis orders events by date, from January 2008. The axis isn’t scaled correctly to show time, but holidays are fairly evenly distributed throughout the year. Events are shown by green dots, with a shortened date (month and year) and the name of the event.

The data is expressed as a percentage of the previous week, because while interest in fishing “waxes and wains” from year-to-year, changes week-to-week are normally minor.

All the events included last at least 7 days. Where one holiday runs concurrently with another event (for example, the “Lunar Festival” and “Love is in the Air” often clash), only the first event in the sequence is included. Interest in fishing also changes dramatically in the month new content is added, so events that clash with major fishing patches have been excluded (Noblegarden 2008 with patch 2.4, Hallow’s End 2008 with patch 3.0.2, and Noblegarden/Children’s Week 2009 with patch 3.1). Winter Veil is also excluded: The period leading to Christmas is particularly unusual – first students stop studying and have a lot of time to play, and then many players stop playing to spend time with family. This causes large changes in activity from week-to-week, which makes it hard to isolate Winter Veil in the data.

Only 12 separate sets of data can be compared. There is one out-lier – Midsummer 2008 – perhaps the early stages of Wrath of the Lich King testing may have caused a small traffic spike in the week before? The pattern shown on the graph is not certain. But I’m growing confident that events are increasingly impacting on fishing activity.

But why? Read More

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

Elevator Adverts

Elevator adverts are a way of displaying advertisements on web pages. Not for elevators in buildings. The name refers to the way the advert moves up and down the margin of the page, as the reader scrolls up and down. A standard “skyscrapper” advertising block is always visible, right next to where the user is reading.

Advertising networks are keen for adverts to be displayed “above the fold” – in the area of the screen first visible when the page loads. However, if the page is content-rich, the best locations are not at the top of the page: In the past, I have run advertising using 2 skyscrappers, one on top of the other. As the reader scrolls down the page, the second advert eventually becomes visible. The best return (from affiliate advertising) was from the bottom advert, not the top. The reason is simple: Reading down the page, the lower advert tends to be next to the important text being read. In contrast, the upper advert tends to sit next to the list of page contents, so is often skipped over.

Instead of stacking adverts, why not just move the advert down the page as the reader scrolls?

The webpage needs an “elevator shaft” down the left margin. For example, apply the CSS “margin-left: 175px” to the division (“div” block) containing the page’s content, to create the elevator shaft. More complex designs may require more work. It is important that the elevator shaft runs close to edge of the text, to continually catch the eye of the reader.

Simply applying a “position: fixed” to style the division containing the advert, would always show the advert in the top-left corner, hanging down the elevator shaft. Unfortunately, the top part of the page normally contains a title block, so the elevator shaft should not travel the full height of the page. Older browsers (notably Internet Explorer 6) do not support “position: fixed”, but we still need to make sure the advert “fails gracefully”, by displaying in a sensible position.

My solution’s code is below. Read More

Taking El to the Clouds

On the internet, success is most likely to cause failure.

That’s a paradox that can take entrepreneurs by surprise. Maybe it’s true about everything? The internet simply makes it happen faster. A web server that was happily serving 100 people today, probably isn’t going to happily serve 100,000 tomorrow. At the very moment the world has finally discovered your solution to life-the-universe-and-everything, that solution dies in a heap of technical errors, and the world goes away again, suitably unimpressed.

This article describes my personal experiences of scaling a website up to serve tens of thousands users each day, most recently by hosting Gnomish literature in a “Cloud” environment. Read More

Iterative Video Development

The internet allows products and services to be rapidly improved based on user feedback. So rapid, that iterative design should become the primary method of designing internet-based services. Not just as an Agile-like method of working, but as a method of specifying the product itself.

Partly it isn’t because creators haven’t adjusted their methods to match the new technology – we’re still wedded to a single start-to-finish process, with one outcome at the end. Partly it isn’t because feedback can be hard to gather and digest, and even hard to act upon.

An iterative method has become one of the defining characteristics of how I like to write, organise, and present text on the internet. At least, beyond this domain. But until now, I’ve struggled to apply it to internet-based video.

This article introduces internet-based iterative design, and uses YouTube’s “Hot Spot” analysis to show how we can start to apply an iterative approach to video and movie-making. 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

Where We Fish

This article analyses where players fish in the game World of Warcraft. It reveals the role of daily quests in shaping our fishing habits, demonstrates just how popular city-fishing is, and starts to reveal why we fish. This is (hopefully) the first in a series of articles that collectively examine why people fish in this massively multiplayer online game.

Daily successful casts by area. The map shows number of successful fishing casts (diameter of each circle), by area. Numbers are daily totals for all United States and European realms combined, based on a sample in July 2009. Click the map for a larger view.

A successful cast is one that does not catch a junk item, which might occur if the anglers’ skill is to low. There are 14 million successful casts each day, catching 16 million fish: Some casts catch more than 1 fish. In addition, there are 4.5 million unsuccessful casts (that catch a junk item). Unsuccessful casts are not shown on the map.

“Old Azeroth” refers to the continents of Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms (the pre-expansion game). Within Northrend (the main area shown on the map), casts into coastal waters are shown separately from “inland” casts in other zones.

In each area, the total number of casts is divided into 3 parts:

  1. Open Water (dark blue) – Casts into bodies of open water.
  2. Daily-Related (gold) – Casts while trying to complete a daily fishing quest. This includes all casts while trying to complete the quest, not just those that catch a quest fish.
  3. Pools (light blue) – Casts into schools of fish.

Northrend is the continent hosting the current game expansion, Wrath of the Lich King. The continent is home to higher-level (more veteran) players. Expect to find most fishing activity here – and we do: There are 9.3 million daily casts in Northrend – two thirds of all successful casts.

A sixth of all casts are related to the daily quests, in spite of the fact that there is just one such quest available each day (the area varies between realms, randomly each day). The Northrend fishing quests are the most popular quests in the game – completed by over 300,000 characters each day. No, really – at least before patch 3.2 was launched, which made Heroic dungeons popular again. Anglers’ might be motivated by the additional reward. Or this might suggest a far greater need to guide players. Either way, it raises some questions, such as, why is there just one fishing quest per day in the current game expansion?

Ignoring daily quest-related fishing, the most popular single location is Dalaran’s Eventide Fountain, with 1.4 million casts per day – equivalent to 1 person on each realm fishing there for 12 hours each day. The irony is that Dalaran’s Eventide Fountain is also one of the smallest body of water in the entire game. Cities account for a third of all casts – Dalaran is not the only popular city. At least half of the “Old Azeroth (Inland)” casts are casts in the waters of major cities (such as Stormwind or Orgrimmar).

So, half of all fishing activity is either directed by quests, or occurs in cities. Training (cooking and/or fishing skills) is also an important reason to fish, although it is harder to estimate how important.

Pool fishing is normally the fastest way to catch “valuable” fish. Yet only 17% of casts are from pools. Even if we look at areas with no quests and desirable “Northrend” fish, like the Grizzly Hills, half of all casts are still in open water. This isn’t the only example that suggests that anglers really are quite lazy, and don’t want to much hassle when fishing.

The remainder of this article explores some of these issues in more detail, using information about where we fish to start to explain why we fish. It also describes the method behind the numbers, with a technical appendix containing data. 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

Financing Hyper-Virality in the Clouds

This article probes the implications of cloud computing for financing very rapidly distributed internet-based services and products. It contains rough, inadequately researched thoughts, sparked from discussions at the recent CloudCamp Scotland. Read More

De-Analysing Blizzard’s Add-On Policy

Blizzard Entertainment’s new add-on policy has been discussed by everyone from Lum to Slashdot. The number of developers directly affected by the change is small, since only a few add-ons are popular enough to be considered commercial ventures. The policy is more significant because it changes a lot of established conventions, and goes to the heart of how Blizzard embraces (or increasingly, shuns) the talent within its player community. This article is an attempt to analyse the real motivations behind the policy, and highlight the apparent contradiction in policy between in-game add-ons and web-based services. Read More

Exploration is Dead. Long Live Exploration!

Dalaran. Hard to miss, it seems.

Something happened at the start of July 2008 that only happens once every 2 years. For a brief period, everything about the world was not public knowledge. A handful of people worked day and night to fill this chasm of information. To document everything that was suddenly new and uncertain. Meanwhile the world filled up with hardened veterans, many of whom seem to struggle with, well, everything:

“How do I get to Northrend?” – Well, perhaps that new harbour or zeppelin tower that’s been built might give you a clue?

“Where’s Dalaran?” – Did you try riding to the end of the road and then looking up to see what’s blocking out the sun? (Dalaran is pictured right.)

The world is, of course, the World of Warcraft. And the 2-yearly occasion is the start of public testing of the latest expansion, Wrath of the Lich King: The only time a significant proportion of the game world changes.

What’s alarming is that these questions are not from new, inexperienced players. These are from people that have already played the existing game for months or years. They clearly want to know, but seem to have lost the basic ability to explore the game world themselves.

This article explores the concept of “exploration”, and tries to explain how one of the most complex virtual worlds ever created has become popular among players that are not natural explorers. Read More

Frostmourne Cavern

This movie records one of the many lore-related events in World of Warcraft’s upcoming expansion, Wrath of the Lich King. It’s a vision of Arthas and Muradin Bronzebeard discovering the sword, and in doing so, changing the “world” forever. The event is part of a single-player quest in Northrend, the expansion’s new continent. Previously events like this were found at the end of dungeons so hard that most players never saw them.

The aim of the game is changing. Previously the aim for a lot of players was to get to “the end”: To obtain the highest possible level, at which point they could embark on challenging group dungeons or player-vs-player battles. But Northrend is full of reasons to play the game in the middle. Not just this. There is a lot of high quality, fun, even inventive content coming with the new expansion. From aircraft combat and mass-slaughter shoot-em ups, to peace, love and harmony: Saving baby murlocs is enough to bring a tear to the eye, which is quite an achievement for any game.

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…