Jul 032014

Over at the Institute For Ethics & Emerging Technologies Giulio Prisco has a thought provoking post : Virtually Sacred, by Robert Geraci – religion in World of Warcraft and Second Life. The post is inspired by a forthcoming book by Robert Geraci : Virtually Sacred: Myth and Meaning in World of Warcraft and Second Life. The book is pencilled in for an August 2014 release according to Amazon UK.

The book has a few chapters on Second Life and includes the virtual age old debate of Immersionists v Augmentationists. The basic difference is considered to be that immersionists see a virtual world such as Second Life as a place where they completely immerse a new self, one that is separate from their real life, a sort of parallel existence. Augmentationists are generally considered to be people who see Second Life as an extension of their real life, they will talk of their real life experiences, partners, job etc but will also embrace Second Life.

This used to be quite a hot topic in Second Life. Back in February 2008 New World Notes highlighted a brief discussion between the two camps with representations from Sophrosyne Stevenaag and Cyfish Traveler. Sophrosyne used to host some really interesting discussions on a Saturday evening back in the day too. Another name in these circles whom I haven’t seen or heard anything from for quite a while is Extropia DaSilva. I’d long forgotten about these sort of discussions until I read Giulio’s post today, they used to get quite heated to say the least.

Another subject at hand is that of Transhumanism, whereby people upload their brains to the machine. There are still plenty of discussions surrounding this today but not so much in Second Life as they once were. Giulio suggests a reason for this :

Transhumanists – techno-spiritual seekers who think that science and technology can and should carry humankind through its next phase of evolution – made a home in Second Life between 2006 and 2009, after which the pace of transhumanist events in Second Life slowed down due to the general Fall from media grace of Second Life.

I don’t quite agree with that theory, Second Life is still going well. I’d suggest that it may well have been that discussion groups have a hard time raising tier money, which is an age old problem for many communities in Second Life. The barriers are more financial.

Anyway back to the book, at its heart seems to be the theory that virtual spaces provide the means to build religious spaces in a fashion that 2D web pages simply can’t replicate. Furthermore they provide the means to provide spaces for new religions, as well as established ones. In his blog post Giulio explains this as :

One of Geraci’s central points is that shared virtual spaces provide a sense of place, direction, and orientation, which has profound implications for religious practice. Contrary to flat web pages, in virtual reality we can build holy places, cathedrals, and sacred objects, which act as a “physical” scaffolding to hold virtual religious communities together. While vision and hearing are powerfully engaged in consumer 3D virtual realities, the possibility to touch objects in virtual spaces “in which the brain regions associated with grasping can potentially respond as though to conventional reality,” isn’t available yet to most consumers, but this will change with new haptic interface devices. I am persuaded that next generation VR platforms, with support for haptics and full-immersion display devices like the Oculus Rift, will soon take virtually sacred spaces above critical mass.

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Jun 212014

It’s a comparison I’ve made many times before, Second Life and World Of Warcraft both sit proudly at the top of their respective classes. Despite technologically superior newcomers arriving, they have both fought them off, they both contain the social ingredient that has allowed them to thrive and enjoy greater longevity than many believed they could. I made the following point in a post at SLUniverse regarding the hurdles a new venture faces :

Second Life has a lot of similarities to World Of Warcraft, right place, right time, and they bagged those interested and despite falling numbers continue to have more than enough to make other ventures jealous beyond belief, despite others offering more modern options.

Along came Bagman Linden, AKA Jeff Petersen, Vice President of Engineering at Linden Lab who on his arrival at Linden Lab introduced himself via a blog post :

For me, the challenges and the opportunities at the Lab are a perfect fit for my background. I come to the Lab with over 20 years of experience as a game developer and engineering lead, primarily in the MMO area. Prior to joining Linden Lab, I spent 10 years working for Sony Online Entertainment doing MMO RPG development (with a focus on the networking, servers, and core technologies), along with PS3 and PSP development. Some of the titles that I worked on include: Everquest, Everquest II, Star Wars Galaxies, Planetside, Untold Legends PS3, Field Commander PSP, FreeRealms, and CloneWars Adventures.

Bagman disagreed slightly with my comparison of Second Life and World of Warcraft, Bagman feels that virtual worlds haven’t reached the World of Warcraft stage and that Second Life is more akin to Everquest, as he explained in a reply :

It’s interesting that you compare Second Life to World of Warcraft, as I have made similar comparisons myself, but come to different conclusions.

Before I joined Linden Lab a little over 3 years ago, I was at Sony Online Entertainment for over 10 years. I was part of the EverQuest development team for years, and at the time, EverQuest was the biggest MMO RPG on the market by far, and with the revenue it was generating, it was the envy of the industry.

For years EverQuest had similar user engagement and revenue to what Second Life has. I remember well at the time the common belief at Sony and in the rest of the industry was that EverQuest was a smashing success and people would be thrilled to match it.

Then Blizzard came along and created World of Warcraft, a product that was ultimately over 30 times more successful than EverQuest. We can speculate why that is, but I personally believe it came down to the quality and polish of their product. Fundamentally, the game was very similar.

The comparison that resonates with me is between Second Life and EverQuest. Both are similarly aging products with similarly sized user bases. Both at the top of their market segment. Both had countless people trying to bump them off with little success. We know how the story ends with EverQuest.

I believe the virtual worlds market is ripe for their own ‘World of Warcraft’ to come along and show us just how much bigger this market could be. And I don’t think you need to leave behind anything (concept wise) that made Second Life successful in order to see that growth. But you do need to raise the bar, and that is exactly what we intend to do.

Interesting stuff. I haven’t played Everquest, but I can see where Bagman is coming from here. He’s basically making the point that the virtual world market is ready for something really big to catch people and that what’s happened before is impressive, but possibly way below potential.

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Mar 312014

Earlier this evening when I logged into World Of Warcraft, there was a warning that things may be a tad slow. They were not. When I logged in later this evening, I saw the following message :

An image should be here

WoW Warning

A couple of my friends asked me if I was lagging, which is a question I sometimes get asked when I’m down the pub, but they were referring to lag and latency in the game. I was fine, they clearly were not as after not responding for a while both disconnected.

The issue it seems is due to a series of DDoS attacks on some European Online services, but certainly not all. The message from WoW indicated it’s not Blizzard under attack. Some Second Life users in Europe may have had a rough evening too.

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Mar 292014

I went back to World Of Warcraft recently, the road back has been a slow one but I’m now firmly back playing. One path on the road to return was the free to play option whereby you can play for free up to level 20, this was how I first returned to the fold. Getting to level 20 these days doesn’t take long and there are some other restrictions on the account, but it took me back to Azeroth and from there I was hooked enough to subscribe again.

The Elder Scrolls Online launches tomorrow, in what is called an early access stage. Those who have purchased the correct version of the game start five days ahead of the official launch. There are some who will start three days ahead of the official launch. The game comes with a 30 day subscription and then the monthly subscription costs are :

  • $14.99/30 days
  • €12.99/30 days
  •  £8.99/30 days

This is hardly extortionate but comes in an era when more and more titles offer a free to play option. The thing that oft gets forgotten with free to play options is that there are payment models included, some offer a monthly subscription with perks.

I started and subscribed to Age Of Conan, Star Trek Online and Star Wars, so I’m familiar with subscription models. However the times have changed and yet, World Of Warcraft is still going strong, with a largely subscription only model. This is the game that many cite as an example of how the subscription model works and they use it as an example of Zenimax making the right choice in going subscription only with The Elder Scrolls Online. However there are some gaping flaws in this theory.

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Mar 082014

GamesBeat have published a very intersting article : Comparing the virtual worlds of Warcraft, Second Life, and Eve Online to our own yields some surprising stats. The article itself links to a funky report by digital marketing agency Epiphany with a blurb of :

The online world is very different to our own, with new rules, new races, and new ways of living. There are, however, some similarities – take a look at our breakdown of the internet’s biggest virtual worlds to find out how they measure up against real life.

This isn’t the most detailed report in the world but the site does provide some interesting stats. Introducing Second Life they say:

Second Life is seen as an online marketplace as well as a game, and many players have been able to earn serious cash thanks to the easy way in-game currency can be sold for real-world money. More casual players use the game to build, customise and create, developing a literal second life in which their character can live out the player’s desires and fantasies – whether that’s a mansion and a helipad or the romance of a lifetime!

The website has a series of icons which lead to other little gems of information when clicked, I’m not going to cover them all but I’ll mention a few. In terms of Second Life they point out that English is the most popular language with 54% of users speaking that language, which compares to 18% in the real world.

In terms of user growth we’re told :

Between 2006 and 2011, global internet usage doubled in growth – in the same timeframe, Second Life saw a 4000% increase in users.

That’s rather impressive. Another interesting point is made with regards to financial institutions and economies, although I’m not sure things happened exactly as they seem to suggest :

In 2007, Second Life saw a huge financial incident which mirrored the bank crises we’ve seen in the real world since the start of the recession. When the developers announced that gambling in-game would be officially banned, thousands of users rushed to Ginko Financial, an in-game bank offering astronomical interest rates, to retrieve and sell the currency from their accounts. This caused a run on the bank which eventually resulted in a complete shut-down – wiping out around $750,000 (£457,736) in real world money. The incident has since been used by financial experts across the web as an example of what happens when banks fail to self-regulate.

The part where I disagree with them is regarding the rush of people to Ginko. I don’t remember that happening, I do remember the Ginko scandal but I don’t recall a rush due to the gambling ban. I can recall arguing with people that if real life banks faced a close down in the manner that Second Life banks did that there would be a rush on the banks that they wouldn’t be able to handle.

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Feb 132014

In my last post I discussed how The Elder Scrolls Online pricing model isn’t too expensive, but it faces a challenge in terms of longevity. However some experiences thrive with similar or more expensive pricing models, namely World Of Warcraft and Second Life. Both of these platforms thrive because they are both examples of where the people are and you should not underestimate the power of people power.

When people get bored of their latest MMO, or when World Of Warcraft releases an expansion pack, people go back to WoW. People go back there because there are people there, real people, although they may be dressed in funny gear on your monitor. One of the complaints you hear about MMO’s is that there aren’t enough people there, however that’s generally not the case in WoW. There are less people at different times of day, but there are people.

Second Life has the same claim, people visit Inworldz or Kitely or other virtual worlds and report back that there was hardly anybody there. However there are people in Second Life, plenty of them, although every sim is not packed to the rafters, there are people around. This of course isn’t to suggest that there is nobody in Inworldz or Kitely, there clearly are and many people have fun on those platforms, I’m a fan of both of them, but there simply aren’t as many people as you find in Second Life.

This social aspect is extremely important for the longevity of a product because people who are engaged, invest more time, energy and money in their avatars, be they in games or virtual worlds and this investment leads to people feeling at home in those places. People may roam, they may visit other worlds, but there’s no place like home. So this socially driven investment in many ways binds people’s avatars to their favourite virtual world and of course, the more the merrier.

This sort of social investment is not something that companies can buy. However it does prove that cost is not the only factor when it comes to deciding where to venture online. If price were the only factor Second Life would be as dead as a dodo and the other similar style virtual worlds would be where it’s at. Getting people to move on is a challenge, the human factor seems to be underestimated at times, possibly because people outside the virtual just see pixels. They don’t appreciate the social investment.

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Feb 132014

I’m going to break this down into a couple of posts, this post is more about The Elder Scrolls Online and their pricing model, I’ll follow up with a related post that is more about Second Life later. There has been a bit of a hoo ha about the pricing model of The Elder Scrolls Online. The standard digital edition is £49.99 and the Digital Imperial edition is £69.99, the prices vary depending upon your local currency. These prices include 30 days of game play, but if you want to play after that it’s £8.99 a month. If people shop around they can get the game cheaper.

The pricing model has led to Paul Tassi of Forbes Predicting The Biggest Video Game Disaster Of 2014: The Elder Scrolls Online and also suggesting that The Elder Scrolls Online Should Choose Between $60 Up Front Or $15 A Month. Those prices are in US Dollars of course, my prices earlier are in GBP, but you should get the gist. I have to say that I disagree with Paul, 2014 is likely to be a very good year for Elder Scrolls Online, especially as it isn’t released until April. Their problems are far more likely to come in 2015.

Let’s get one thing straight, this pricing model is not outrageously expensive. The upfront price for the game is a little on the high side but the monthly subscription is not that bad. As many people point out, it works out to about 30 pence a day in the UK or 50 cents a day if you’re in the USA. People argue that a night out at the cinema can be more expensive, a visit to a bar more expensive, buying pizza far more expensive. The problem is, the people making these points are actually exemplifying why the pay when you want model is better than the subscription model.

If it really was 30 pence a day and you only played for 10 days that month, that would be a cost of £3.00, not £8.99. In the US it would USD$5.00 not USD$14.99. If you didn’t play at all that month, for whatever reason, you’d pay nothing. This model may actually work, it’s along the lines of something I’ve suggested Second Life do with tier in so much as a sim that’s only open weekends only pays for that weekend usage, rather than the flat monthly tier.

However they are using a flat subscription fee model, although as I said, the model itself isn’t expensive in general. The problem for this sort of pricing model is that there are loads of competitors offering a less expensive experience these days and that’s one of the deciding factors people use in whether to engage, although it’s far from the only factor.

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Feb 072014

There’s a discussion on The Elder Scrolls Online forum regarding the forthcoming game’s pricing model. Before we go further, I should point out that the game is known as TESO, which is way too close to Tesco for my liking, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll call it TESO. Anyway, the discussion is largely supportive of the pricing model and on the face of it, the pricing model looks historically like other MMO’s, with an upfront price for the digital edition of USD$59.99 or GBP£49.99 and after the first 30 days a recurring monthly cost of USD$14.99 or GBP£8.99.

However here’s the thing, that pricing model is largely out of date. Games launch this way and then within a year or two, they go to free play. That’s often how it works these days. I went through this with Star Wars : The Old Republic, it was a very similar model and it didn’t end well in terms of being a subscription model, however going free to play saved the galaxy, as reported in Massively at the end of March last year : GDC 2013: James Ohlen on how F2P saved SWTOR:

According to Ohlen, SWTOR was designed to be a subscription-based game, so any F2P option needed to still effectively support the service the way a sub game would. The most successful compensation came in the form of Cartel Packs. In the style of trading card games, these packs would give players random items that they could use in game. And just as in any good TCG, the items in the Cartel Packs could be traded with other players — this time on in-game auction house, the galactic trade network.

There’s part of the key to changing your model and it’s one Linden Lab should pay heed to but I’m not going to talk much about Second Life or Linden Lab in this post, I’ll save that for another post. There will be a little bit more about SL and LL but this post is mostly about TESO.

So with all the evidence staring TESO in the face about the lack of longevity of subscription based MMO’s, why are they going ahead with it? Well if anything, SWTOR leads the way. Initially there will be a big buzz and a lot of people engaging with the game, the cash will flow in and that’s a business model that is hard to ignore.

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Dec 092013

Nobody does it half as good as you, baby you’re the best.

Second Life has long had strange issues, for example there is an issue known as  “Prim drift” whereby a prim does not seem to be in the location where you last left it, or prims mysteriously seem to disappear and then reappear, it seems there may be an explanation for this!

The Guardian breaks the news: Spy agencies in covert push to infiltrate virtual world of online gaming. Allegedly, The NSA and GCHQ decided that they need to infiltrate The Horde in World Of Warcraft and human avatars in Second Life. Furries everywhere celebrate smugly at this news. This does possibly explain why The Horde seem to win more often than not in the Warsong Gulch battleground in World Of Warcraft.

Not surprisingly Linden Lab haven’t responded to The Guardians requests, The Guardian claims :

Microsoft declined to comment on the latest revelations, as did Philip Rosedale, the founder of Second Life and former CEO of Linden Lab, the game’s operator. The company’s executives did not respond to requests for comment.

However in the land of Azeroth, there has been a response :

The California-based producer of World of Warcraft said neither the NSA nor GCHQ had sought its permission to gather intelligence inside the game. “We are unaware of any surveillance taking place,” said a spokesman for Blizzard Entertainment. “If it was, it would have been done without our knowledge or permission.” “

I’m sure that the NSA and GCHQ are delighted that their covert efforts went undetected by the GM’s in World Of Warcraft, I mean it would be far more embarrassing for them if Blizzard declared “Yeah, our GM’s knew all about it.”

However the article does suggest that Linden Lab were talking to the security services, indeed it seems Linden Lab tried to sell a use case of virtual worlds as being a place where you could observe the behaviours of non US citizens without leaving the USA. I’m sure those agents who quite enjoyed the idea of leaving US soil to observe the behaviours of non US citizens were a tad miffed about this, although wild speculation that they joined the PN or griefed sims with giant penises to wreak revenge over this suggestion have been strenuously denied. The article claims:

In May 2007, the then-chief operating officer of Second Life gave a “brown-bag lunch” address at the NSA explaining how his game gave the government “the opportunity to understand the motivation, context and consequent behaviours of non-Americans through observation, without leaving US soil“.

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Nov 062013

I downloaded a Sinclair Spectrum emulator for the android the other week. After the initial buzz of seeing all those old game titles from the eighties my interest waned. The android is a bit clunky for such games, many games don’t work and time has not been kind to many of them. However it was a thrill at first. When I had a Speccy as a kid, so did lots of my school friends. We’d share games (piracy as my teacher scolded us, so don’t try that at home). We’d go to each others houses, we’d have fun not only due to the games but because there was also a social aspect.

I left the Speccy behind many moons ago, as I did the Commodore Amiga after that, and I have been looking to see if there’s a legal Amiga emulator but will most likely go through the same cycle as I did with the Speccy emulator, thrill, then flat and no social side to keep the interest.

As it’s my blog I can draw comparisons between the Speccy and Second Life, a bit of a stretch it may be but I can draw them. The Speccy was not the height of technology on release, there were better products around but the Speccy caught the imagination. Therefore software developers were alerted to it and stretched the Speccy to limits beyond what many thought it was capable of, Lords Of Midnight springs to mind here. The Speccy had the people and of all the ingredients that make a product a success, that is arguably the most important one.

Roll forward many years and Second Life is simply where it’s at in virtual world terms. Cloud Party has some very impressive concepts going for it. I like their royalty system on content sales whereby if you sell an asset with royalties enabled, if someone else then sells another asset whilst using your asset as part of the build, you’ll receive a royalty payment. Cloud Party has also had materials for quite a while now. Another impressive apsect of Cloud Party is that objects are not the only limiting factor in a build. In Cloud Party you can have x amount of objects, or x amount triangles or x amount of bandwidth, whichever you hit first will strike the build limit. This is a well considered concept as objects are far from the only issue when it comes to performance.

Kitely has some impressive offerings, such as putting sims to sleep when not in use due to using a cloud based system. Kitely is also not only cheaper than Second Life, but for those who may only spend a few hours a month there they have a time based billing option and under any plan you get at least one free sim to play around with.

Inworldz is also cheaper than Second Life, Jim Tarber and the team are also moving in directions Second Life isn’t, as can be seen in the Inworldz Techblog where they inform visitors they’re implementing physX and project Thoosa, which is aimed at making everything run faster and more efficiently. Inworldz has also implemented Qarl’s mesh deformer project.

However despite these advances in other virtual worlds, Second Life still has that magical community ingredient and what makes this all the more impressive is that Second Life still has the community despite the fact that Linden Lab have been actively distancing themselves from the Second Life community for a few years now.

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