I’ve been working with Virtual Worlds since 1993, when I worked for daVinci Time and Space (references here, here, and here (note the MTV connection)). In those days, it was called “Interactive Television”, which ultimately led to it’s demise because, as we know, Interactive Television never really happened despite the best intentions of cable operators and set-top box providers alike.
We also learned a lot about children and television, children and advertising, and the FTC. Did you know the FTC has the good sense to prohibit, for example, running ads for Backyardigan’s toys on the Backyardigan show?
After thinking about MMORPGs (like World of Warcraft) and Virtual Worlds (like There), I’ve decided that one important aspect about retention is change in the world.
In this context, “Change” means “the world is different today from when I last visited it”.
In a MMORPG like WOW, the world changes because, as you progress, the quests you have to do change, which (usually) cause you to engage new enemies, and explore new areas. That’s change, and as long as you’re interested in the quests and new places, you’ll keep coming back. I know that sometimes I’d do nothing but explore, using techniques like corpse rocket to explore high level areas I had no business being in.
(There are also larger, more cataclysmic changes when they revise the game as they will with Cataclysm, but that doesn’t happen enough to keep you engaged on a day to day basis).
MMORPGS also change if you play with others: either in casual groups, or with a guild. Either of these up the “rate of change” because of the human factor: people change from day to day, they talk about different things, they perform differently in world, etc, etc. If you don’t play in groups, the world still “changes” for you through gameplay.
In There, this wasn’t the case. The only way the world changed was if:
- You visited a PortaZone (PAZ), Funzone, or Neighborhood which had changed. While most changed a lot during initial construction, they also eventually became more static as the owners found a configuration and look they liked.
- You found a new Quest.
- You met friends in world, who, by their very nature, changed because the circumstances of their life changed.
- You became aware of new merchandise in the world, either by perusing the catalog or auctions, or meeting someone who was showing off something you hadn’t seen before. Of course, you would have to have the money to buy that new merchandise if you wanted it for you own
- You went to one of the many regularly scheduled events in the world.
- There added new neighborhoods or islands
That sounds like a lot, but if you weren’t very social, that’s actually not a lot of change. Although the There environment was beautiful, it was always the same. Like many virtual environments, new content was expensive to build, especially professionally produced content. Our experience was when we introduced new areas people would swarm to them initially, but for the most part eventually got bored and went back to their old hang-outs (which we usually no more complex than a bunch of logs around a fire).
If you had an established community of friends you liked to hang out with, or were comfortable with meeting new people constantly, this was all probably ok. But In Real Life it proved not to be. Not enough members fit this demographic : most new members signed up, explored a little, and eventually never came back. You could say this was because There didn’t do a good job of introducing people to each other, but judging from Twitters repeated attempts at a Suggested User Life (people you might like to follow) this isn’t an easy problem to solve, especially in an environment where people value their privacy.
The other issue There had with it’s content was Teleporting. Since it was essentially effortless to get anywhere, you could “burn through” the content very quickly by teleporting around, or having people summon you places. “Burning through content” is a very real thing : Game Developers talk about “how many hours of gameplay” a game or environment has on release, there’s no reason it’s any different for virtual worlds. Unless you have an active developer or activities program or other ways to get new content into the world, people will burn through your content, and they will get bored.
Second Life avoids this problem to some extent because of it “easy” building tools: You (or anyone) can build anything in world with the wave of a mouse, whereas in There, you had to produce most things outside of the product, run it through submissions, wait for it to get accepted, etc, etc. So, in Second Life, new “content” (some of it of questionable quality, some of excellent quality) was constantly appearing, which made exploration even more interesting.
Very, very early on (I think it was like 2001), Jeffery Ventrella developed a prototype of growing plants. It never went anywhere because we had a few thousand other things to worry about at the time. Shortly before we had to close There, the CCO (Chief Creative Officer) and I developed the idea for Grow which was, frankly, much like Farmville for There (with a bunch of cool social elements thrown in).
I actually think that something like Grow, and Autonomous Animals (like dogs, but wild) would have for solved some of the content problems and retention problems for There. If you could come back to a world which was constantly changing or doing something unexpected, each visit could become more unique, and more interesting. If you knew your property would do something while you were away so you’d have something to look forward to catching up on, you’d come back more often. And, if you knew your friends could help your little plot, or their little plot, or a community plot, evolve, it would be a whole new experience.
Think about it: Wouldn’t your There experience have been more interesting if you each time you came back you knew the world would be different, or if you might see something unexpected (aside from “activities” like “Buggy Bombing”)? It would certainly give existing members to talk about, and might keep newer members coming back to see what they could discover.
This wouldn’t be a competitor for Farmville or their ilk: It would be an enhancement to the environment which would make it more alive and interesting. There would even be a developer component, where developers could add new evolving or autonomous items.
Keep in mind neither of these are trivial items to produce: Autonomous animals would require modeling, new “brains” (AI) (deer that acted like There dogs wouldn’t work too well), zone awareness, you name it. “Grow” would require all kinds of things including modeling, growth and dieback control, zone awareness, etc, etc. If you’ve watched the evolution of Farmville-like products or autonomous animals in WOW, you can see that it takes them many iterations.
I think there would still be the problem of it being expensive (time wise) for you to “check in” on the environment since you’d have to log into the world, find your way to the environment or plot, and check it out. With the web-based games, you basically just click on a link, and you’re there. Maybe it’s a good thing since it might discourage behaviors like this.
A strange side affect of all this would have been that the servers which were constantly running to simulate sectors with no one in them (at the time) now could be busy simulating virtual plants and wild animals. Not sure that’s an improvement, but it would give them a sense of purpose.