Scared yet? I saved the best for last. Just before GDC, Raph Koster, the most influential writer and massively multiplayer game designer in the industry, penned a long and brutal essay for his blog where he flat out says: virtual worlds are dying, and Facebook games are replacing them.
TL;DR. Short form: virtual worlds are dead, long live the world, virtual. And it isn’t the picture that we painted for ourselves, as we thought about the way in which virtual worlds would evolve, all those dreams of richer simulations and NPCs that talk to you, of simulated societies and of immersive experiences.
But it doesn’t mean virtual worlds are over. They are metamorphosing, and like a caterpillar, on the path to mass market acceptance, they are shedding the excess legs and creepy worm-like looks in favor of something that doesn’t much resemble what it sprang from, but which a lot more people will like. And which will be a bit harder to pin down.
This change is bigger than the addition of graphics, bigger than the shift to AAA games, bigger than the shift towards kids’ worlds, and bigger and more complex than the use of web clients (though web clients are an inescapable and intrinsic element of the change).
It may not be the last change. It may be that the prevailing currents away from these things change — it happened now, it will happen again. It may be that as tech barriers fall, placeness becomes easy; or that the privacy pendulum swings back the other way and pseudonymity comes back to the Internet.
In the meantime, I would be betting against all the “native client” worlds — AAA game worlds included. Against anything that involves too much of a fantasy identity. Against anything that relies on people playing together in real time. It’s just not where the action is for the next several years. Virtual places as they exist now cannot be a mass medium any more than a single restaurant can.
The cynic, of course, would immediately respond that Koster is simply justifying his own well-publicized failures and recent move to Farmville-style Facebook gaming. But I give him a good deal more credit than that: he’s been thinking about this for a while, and saying much these same conclusions for a while. The only difference is that he’s no longer predicting the future, but commenting on the present. And what we’re seeing at GDC is the furious reaction: No, gaming is NOT going to be all Facebook, all Farmville, all the time, damn it, the line must be drawn HERE! NO FURTHER!
So, what’s my take on all this? (You know I had to have one, and it took 1100 words to get to it!)
Simply this: what we’re seeing isn’t an extinction-level event. It’s growth. The market is growing, past where one size fits all. And part of this means that is in growing in areas that traditional gamers (such as I, and presumably you) have little interest.
Farmville has 80 million players. That is… quite a lot. But it does not mean that World of Warcraft’s 8+ million players suddenly stopped raiding Icecrown Citadel and got to work on their virtual gardens. It does not mean that 30 million Xbox 360 owners are going to suddenly trade in their consoles and HD TVs for a netbook that can run Mafia Wars.
It means that game developers have the opportunity to reach people – and there are quite a lot of them - who aren’t interested in raiding Icecrown Citadel, or upgrading to a 1080p TV. It means that we have the opportunity to make more money, make different games, and reach more eyes. It means that the industry is working.
Just as those millions of World of Warcraft players did not mean that every other MMO developer suddenly shut down and said “Well, I guess we’re done”, a successful competitor in a new market – or even in a similar market – does not mean that “gaming is dead” or “consoles are dead” or “virtual worlds are dead”. It may make them a harder sell (note that all “world-y MMOs” – the genre Koster pioneered - in the Ultima Online/Star Wars Galaxies vein are now niche, hardcore, PvP heavy and rather inaccessible titles such as Eve, Darkfall and Mortal Online) but it does not mean the market has just disappeared.
It does mean that a discussion on ethical game design – whether the method of steering gamers into hands-off direct rewards (which was brilliantly lampooned this week) is where design needs to be going – and discussions on ethical game production – such as Zynga’s steering people into suspect “leads generation” programs in lieu of traditional item shops is the right way to go – need to happen. And judging from this year’s GDC, they are happening.
It does mean that a lot of game developers may need to learn to design and develop games that aren’t particularly the game they want to play – but not every game developer has that luxury anyway (unless you believe that the developers of, say, Hello Kitty Online are all rabid Sanrio fans) and knowing how to bring craft and pride of workmanship to a product designed for someone else to enjoy isn’t a bad skill to have.
And until then, we’ll see a lot of dramatic words about war and collapse and the end of this and the death of that. And meanwhile, a lot of people – both hardcore and casual gamers - are playing games that they like. Which, last I checked, was the purpose of this entire exercise.