VWs and MMOGs: The Great Divide?

What’s the difference between a virtal world (VW) and a massively multiplayer online game (MMOG)?

No, the answer isn’t “lipstick.”

VWs and MMOGs are like estranged siblings.  They share a common background and future, but right now at least, they don’t talk too much.  I think a lot of this is artificial or the result of odd circumstances having little to do with the online worlds themselves.  And as with many estrangements, I don’t think this one is particularly healthy.

So why are these separate, and what will bring them back together again?

Loosely speaking, MMOGs grew out of text MUDs, and VWs grew out of chat rooms — and less game-like MOOs — but both have their roots in the online social experience.  MUDs and MMOGs have, at least through the apex of that form in World of Warcraft, catered to achievement-oriented users, people who wanted to go out and “do stuff’ (more precisely, “kill stuff”) in an open-ended game-like setting.  VWs have from the start been more social, more about chatting and hanging out and… stuff.  Often, from the beginning, “stuff” included a range of social activity from crushingly banal chat to often repellent (to others) ‘cyber-sex’ chat.

From the beginning there’s been crossover.  Was Habitat a proto-MMOG or a proto-VW?  Both, I think, having significant social and game aspects.  As technology marched on we had worlds that were purely social such as Club Caribe, Worlds Chat, and Active Worlds, and we had games that, while social, depended on their gameplay to keep them interesting, such as Meridian 59, The Realm, Ultima Online, Everquest, and of course World of Warcraft.

As these forms grew, they divided a bit, though mostly without broad recognition.  First, the gamer types were all about the gameplay, and pretty much continue to be.  For them the social aspects are secondary (though any MMOG designer will tell you that it’s the community that keeps people playing long after the content has lost its shine).  Social and community aspects remain peripheral to the MMOG experience in almost all games (that is, the guild you’re in — and note that it’s usually still singular — has no overt effect on your gameplay, whereas the armor you wear clearly does).

Meanwhile the “social worlds” went through incarnations like Onlive Traveler, Active Worlds, There, and eventually to the peak of this form so far, Second Life.  In all but the last of these there was little to do but “chat” (in AW you could build buildings but couldn’t do anything with them).  One of the key differentiators in SL is that while it didn’t provide “gameplay” per se, it removed a lot of the sterility of the other “social worlds” by allowing users to create scripts to be run in the world itself.  And, not incidentally, Linden Labs focused heavily on creating enormous buzz in the mainstream media for Second Life, so that now even moms and pops and executives who want to jump on this “innernet thing” can at least wave their hands about virtual worlds… like Second Life.

And then a couple of odd things happened.  First, those who had spent more times in MOOs and early social worlds saw how many non-gamers were flocking to online social destinations, and thought it was high time social worlds got their due respect — after all, Second Life was now the media darling, and many exuberant reports predicted it would crush World of Warcraft in time.

Second, the highly successful Austin Game Conference was sold to CMP.  The AGC was widely recognized as the premiere conference for MMOG developers, if maybe it didn’t focus so much on purely social worlds.  CMP bought the show and turned it into an extension of the annual Game Developer’s Conference, wanting to maintain and increase the focus in the Austin conference on MMOGs.  AGC’s former owner, Chris Sherman, then went on to create new conferences, including, not surprisingly, the Virtual Worlds Expo (now Engage!).  Well-founded rumor around the game industry is that part of the terms of the sale of AGC to CMP was that Sherman’s company would not run new conferences in the MMOG space.

This sounds perfectly reasonable from a business point of view.  So the VWE focused on Second Life, primarily, with a smattering of other non-game and quasi-game companies respresented.  The show has catered to those in education, business, government, Hollywood, and elsewhere who want to explore this whole online world thing but maybe without getting into “men in tights” (the semi-derisive and often self-applied name for traditional fantasy-based MMOGs).

Unfortunately, the combination of this split in emphasis (social and game) and conventions to talk about them has driven a true but completely unnecessary wedge between these views of online worlds.  Virtual worlds now are a bit like Canada to the MMOG’s United States: beautiful, expansive in their own way, great places to go — but maybe with a bit of an inferiority complex about their much more numerous, loud, boisterous neighbor.   Some VW commenators maintain the difference between these and MMOGs almost implicitly despite the greater commonalities than differences between them.

And this to me is the ironic part.  As MMOGs advance beyond the traditional “kill monster, get gold” model, and as more and more people finally recognize that they want more to do than dress up their avatar and chat about the same old subjects, these forms are drawing together, not apart.  MMOGs do not flourish without a robust social and community aspect, and developers are finally recognizing that, like usability or combat system balance, this isn’t something you can just slap on at the end.  In a complementary way, while millions of people have visited Second Life at least once, the vast majority have not stayed — they’ve found the experience too difficult to get into, or too boring to sustain over time.

Many of the newer online worlds recognize this: destinations like Maple Story, Club Penguin, Dofus, Habbo Hotel, and others (many still in development) are complete hybrids supplying both fun gameplay (even if not in the “here’s another quest for ten rats” form) and support for compelling, demographically appropriate social interaction.  Sure there are new “chat destinations” and gamer-games like Warhammer or Age of Conan, but these I believe are stuck in the past.

So what’s the future?  I believe that this goes well beyond “better chat” or forums or the like.  I believe this goes to allowing and encouraging –often via gameplay– new levels of strong community formation in games, and more things to do, more ways to affect the world, in social situations.  Ultimately I believe that we’ll look back on this divide between virtual worlds and massively multipalyer online games as a historical oddity, an overemphasis on one leg at the expense of the other, when both are necessary to create compelling, long-term, and yes, monetizable experiences online.

Finally, I’ll toss out a theme that will likely become recurrent: I believe that if MMOGs and VWs are two sides of an arch leaning in toward each other, the keystone is what might seem like an unlikely factor, but one that is actually crucial: artificial intelligence.  That is, artificial agents who are part of each of our social contexts, but who literally live in the online worlds we only visit.  “AI shopkeepers” is not just the tip but the smallest sliver of the iceberg.  Socially aware agents who know each other and who know us, who interact with each other and with us, who live in the worlds we create, will finally give dynamism and life to the online worlds we have now, freeing MMOGs from their static purgatory, and VWs from their sterile desolation.

As always, I’ll talk more about this in the future, and I welcome other thoughts and comments.

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4 Comments on “VWs and MMOGs: The Great Divide?”

  1. Valerie Says:

    Hmmm. As a potential user of such environments, and somebody who likes to spend my time online socializing with other people, I see the line between social environments deemed “worlds” vs “games” to be around the obligations participants take on towards one another.

    I can choose to putter around and create objects in a virtual world at my leisure, and enjoy serendipitous chats with others who happen to be online when I get there. I can also choose to be part of a group trying to build something or hold an event, but it’s not necessary to incur obligation in order to participate.

    By contrast, a team working together to conquer various game goals pretty much requires regular, ongoing synchronous coplay. I manage to get to karate twice a week IRL for that sort of thing, but I’m not really holding anyone back if I can’t make it. I have a very busy life, with plenty of family and work obligations and when it comes to recreation, I find it much easier to engage in places which permit asynchronous participation, and don’t involve people being somehow let-down if I don’t make it for a few nights.

    Color me your prototypical “casual” participant.

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  2. Mike Sellers Says:

    With existing game-worlds, a lot of synchronous co-play is all but required. But that’s changing pretty quickly. Allowing for broader conceptions of gameplay and more roles (including builders of various types), and allowing for more asynchronous play (helped, not incidentally by the presence of social AIs that can act as companions and proxies) will continue to blur the lines between social and game worlds.

    Casual participants are key to this too! Neither game worlds nor social worlds can do well with only the “hardcore” present.

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  3. Bill Walker Says:

    Ooh, proxie AI! That sounds like fun to me. I’m not sure why, exactly, but the idea of having my own little band of semi-intellingent agents running around (in my presence or absence), carrying out my intentions somehow seems quite appealing, especially if there were easy and powerful tools for generating/defining interesting and useful intentionality.

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  4. […] gets back to the unnecessary conceptual divide between MMOGs and virtual worlds that I’ve already covered).  In fact YoVille seems remarkably similar in its intent and gameplay to The Sims Online, which […]

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