I started out on the game Second Life justrecently to investigate how it works. It's not really a game per-se inthat it is not a goal-oriented activity like other 3D games. However,it can be pooled together with the other Massively multiplayer onlinerole-playing environments. It's free to try out, so I registered,downloaded the game, created a character and walked around. It's a 3Dworld like many others. However, the here the point is more that youcan create objects, buildings, vehicles, toys, clothing, etc. I'm stilllearning how to move my avatar around so I haven't taken any photos yet.
What struck me is the similarity to the concepts in LPMuds where Ispent some years playing away in. LPmuds had a C-like programminglanguage that (once you've been promoted to a wizard) you can use tocreate any kind of event-driven software objects. Essentially, the gamehandles much of the work for you and you define the behaviors of theobject. In SL you can also draw and visually create the object as well,starting from simple generic shapes.
For a developer, this is really a bit of virtual heaven. You can pretty much build any kind of object (a primor primitive) you can conceive of and utilize it. E.g., some peoplecreate clothing fashions for the characters, others create new actionsthe characters can do, yet others create houses, buildings, cars, toys,etc. In fact, when you first enter, you are on Help island, wherenewbies go. Here, you can experiement with your own prims or you cantry out some other prims that others have created. For example, thereis a Simon game (remember those), a Sudoku board, a mahjonggtile-matching game, and an arcade Space Invaders style game. These areprims that others have created that allow your avatar to manipulate toplay; so you are playing a game within a game.
For each prim, you have a scripting language that looks similar to C,Java or Python, familar control structures, a library of functions forstring manipulation, math, communication and lists, an event system,and system standard constants. A number of other functions areparticular to the 3D environment and geometry.
All that is not surprising to build into a game these days, but what issurprising is the economy and the impact of retail activities...(continued).
Community and social computing
with Tags: virtual_environments X
In Second Life,the economy is based on Linden dollars (named after Linden Labs, thecompany that created it). This isn't unusual in itself, but thedifference here is that there is an actual exchange rate from Linden$to US dollars, about 300 to 1. Thus, if you sell something in the game,you can make money. Right now it's small change, but what is happeningis that there are enough players that are interested in there where youcould technically make real income from it.
The way it works is that every player by default earns a certain amounta week. A first basic level membership is free for anyone and gainsthem L$50 a week. A premium player paying US$9.95 a month getsL$500/wk. With this ingame dollars, you can buy things from otherplayers or the game itself. You can also create prims and sell those toothers for L$. It's market-driven based on what others really wouldbother to pay for your creation.
These creations really come from two types of labor: visual creation,and/or programming effort. The former is what the object looks likeusing the 3D basic shapes. There are some cute works of art, but itcould also be a house, a park, a toy, etc. The latter is what you cando with the object based on its programming. Most prims are somecombination of both. Even those that don't really do anything have somedefault code.
It takes time, effort and brainpower to build anything since the mostbasic shapes you have are cubes, spheres, pyramids, cones, and otherpolygons. You can grow, squeeze, extrude and combine multiple shapes tomake more complicated ones, then apply colors or textures to it. Usingsuch building blocks, you can make more and more complex objects. Thus,any developer working on a prim would need some level of drawing skilltoo. Any object you create is yours alone, but you could allow othersto copy it, or if you really want to risk it, edit it. More on thislater...
This is a pseudo-real currency (like the Reward points etc fromAmerican Express or other credit cards, or airline mileage cards)because of the tie to real-world currencies. You can extract some ofyour L$ to real currency via Paypal or credit cards, that Linden Labspays you. Thus, if you have earned L$3 million, you have just made$10,000. (Not that that's trivial to do). If the BusinessWeek articleis correct, some of the top players have made hundreds of thousands ofUS dollars from things they have created and sold in the game.
The economy is smart enough and the world is well-managed enough thatthings don't go awry easily. E.g., you can't kill anyone and take theirprims and/or money. It doesn't work that way, and in fact, just bumpingpeople can start raising eyebrows until you get banished.
First thing to note: Linden Labs gives you $50/wk or about $200 amonth. That's about US$1 a month that they have to put into the game(since that dollar could get extracted from the game by the player).That's quite trivial in real dollars but what it really does is incentyou to play the game. You can think of it as a customer-acquisitioncost which at just $1 is really low. A premium player gets more like$10/mo, which is about what they pay in real dollars for their accounteach month.
Technically with the ability to create and sell a prim, it is possibleto mint your own money. The practicality however is that with asufficient number of players, you have a large number of producers, andthe consumers have a lot of choice on what they want to spend theirmoney on. Also it takes time and effort, thus, nothing is really free.Still, the amount of currency in the game is based on two factors: howmany premium players are in the game and how many active basic playersexist. The total wealth increases every month in proportion to this.Not all players are active, and leave after a while (you have to appearon the game each week to gain your L$ stipend).
However, when it becomes really successful, and Linden has a millionactive basic players, they'd have to pay a million dollars into thegame each month, which can be quite expensive. However, the truth isthat more of the active players would likely go towards premiummembership.
So far, I haven't talked about how Linden Labs itself makes money.... in the meantime, you might want to read this article on Virtual Worlds, Virtual Economies.
The Economist issue from last week has an 18-page in depth section on how people and organizations are evolving in the face of globalization, online Web 2.0 technologies, and changing ideas on organizing teams. This is one of the best articles I have seen on the subject (even better than Friedman's "The World is Flat")
You will need to be registered to access this premium content online, unfortunately.
As I mentioned previously, the HBR article, Avatar-based Marketing, talksa bit about how 3D worlds and online characters are becoming asubstantial population online. The author (a senior editor at HBR)mentions the big names like World of Warcraft, Everquest, etc. thathave millions of members focused in game-based environments, and theopportunity to market to this audience. He also mentions the otherenvironments that are more based on socializing such as SecondLife, Stagecoach Island, MyCoke/Coke Studios, There, etc.
The article has potential and certainly opens this topic up to a wholelot of others who would probably not be familiar with this newtechnology (i.e., HBR readers tend to be high-level business andmanagement folk). This is a hot topic obviously if it is starting toinvade such ranks.
However, the article seems to focus primarily on how to advertise in such environments as the marketing strategy, in subtle or obvious forms. This is a certainly of interest to the avant-garde advertisingand marketing firms. My interests lie elsewhere primarily in the newdomain of building online communities as not just an advertising basebut an actual loyal following of members.
The utility of the online world still seems to be lost on many people;instead they focus on existing strategies/mechanisms that they couldtranslate into an online setting, such as the advertising strategy.Advertising will always have a place in the world, but it is only thevery first stage of gaining a following.
In my view, there is actually a progression of "people interested in what you have": the uninitiated, the aware, the casual member, the customer (or user), and finally the fan (theeager customer). Advertising primarily focuses on driving the firstthree towards a vague hope of them becoming customers. Most companiesare happy when people become customers, even if some are reluctantcustomers. The real wins come from those who become fans.
The thought goes that the fans are the ones who assist in acquiringother new customers. This makes it easier on the organization's effortstowards growth. The fans are worth a whole lot more to an organizationthan just a regular customer. An easy example is Apple, which has asignificant number of fans compared to regular customers. This hashelped them not just stay in business but also in the lead as one ofthe most insipiring and innovative companies.
The honest truth is that it takes a lot to elevate customers towardsbecoming fans. This is based on not just the creation of innovativeideas technology but also on how these innovations are conveyed anddelivered. Then comes the on-going support of these fans, not just theproducts and services.
The million dollar question: How do you start and cultivate fans?
I'll give a hint, it's not a short-term process...
I spent the whole weekend trying to get rid of some undetected virus on my machine, even to the point of upgrading to a newer version of Windows. Still no luck and our internal helpdesk hasn't gotten back to me yet. Quite frustrating after about 20 hours of this (over three days). Now, I'm just sitting and waiting for tech support to call back.
Anyway, in the meantime, I went out and picked up the new Logitech MX-5000 Laser bluetooth keyboard and mouse. This one has a much greater range, with a claim of 60 feet. I can't really test that out in our house but I'm glad that I don't have to trail an RF wireless box across my carpet so I could use my previous keyboard/mouse. It seems to work fine from at least 40 feet away so that's much better. The old one needed almost line-of-sight of maximum 4 feet.
Our home computer is hooked up to our big screen in the family room, so we can use it whenever as well as watch any online video or play music from it. This set up works to a point. The screen is a Sharp Aquos 45" LCD TV which advertises 1920x1080, but that is really only for the HD signal and not the PC signals. The PC input channel only goes up to 1280x1024. However, on top of that, since it's wide screen, the text will look squished. So pratically, the maximum resolution you can get is 1280x768. Unless you actually expect to read anything from our couch (9' away)...
To get actual practical use out of it, we have to drop the resolution down to 1024x768 (since there is no widescreen 1024x600 on this nVidia GeForce card. It's not too bad, especially when some of the games can automatically change the resolution to higher settings. The Aquos is a nice TV certainly and uses only a third of the power of a plasma screen which makes me happier. This one uses less power than our previous 27" Sony Wega CRT TV.
However, I have yet to see full 1080p on this, since we don't own a hidef DVD player yet. The closest we come is the Cable TV HD channels which are 1080i. The shows which are actually recorded in HD look absolutely stunning, especially the nature shows where they go to the trouble to get the color right. The ESPNHD channel is also pretty good, but Cox cablevision doesn't receive all the HD channels as satellite does. The digital non-HD channels really do look and sound better than the regular ones; something I had not been able to tell until we get this newer TV earlier this year. Sci-fi channel really needs to get their own HD channel if they haven't already. Battlestar Galactica on the UNIHD (Universal Studios) channel looks just amazing.
My only lingering complaints about this TV is that they still haven't gotten black down and it needs better viewing modes. The blacks still look a little grey even at the lowest settings. You don't even need special equipment to tell that. Also the viewing modes allow Smart stretch, and Zoom but what they need is a second Zoom to allow widescreen movies (from DVD) to truly take up the full height. It's annoying to have a widescreen TV and still see DVDs showing in letterbox format. On cable, the cable box is able to do the second zoom (although you loose a bit of the sides) to fill the screen from letterbox. Eventually, more videos will work straight for widescreen TVs and that issue will go away but those DVDs are few and far between.
I have to say Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion on the 45" screen looks amazing.
In search of more turn-based games to fill my baby-watch time (see my reasons), a friend told me about this fantasy mod for Civ IV where they redesigned the gameplay almost from ground up. I went looking for it and found Fall from Heaven, a free player mod (version 1.0 released in April) that rewrites much of the Civ IV game from classic countries and developing nations, to more of one set in a fantasy world where it is about improving characters and combat. If you want to download this use the download.com site; they also have some screenshots there.
The set up is that there are a number of different races: orcs, merfolk, minotaurs, knights, etc. that each have their own religion. The units are very different and there are many more upgrades/enhancements that each character can get. Thus most people start with Warriors that can actually last quite a while gaining new skills. The city buildings are completely different with lots of added benefits: with wine, your brewery raises revenue and food; hunting lodges to improve your scouts to hunters and assassins. You can tame wild animals, etc. The tech tree is very different, and so are many of the Wonders.
While the map style looks the same and some of the units are still around, the gameplay is quite original. This took a lot of work to put together. This is what I call a player mod done right. Most other mods are simply changes to the units, or smaller fixes here and there. I'm surprised Firaxis doesn't consider licensing and selling this commercially. I'd put this comparable to the Rise of Nations commercial add-on, Rise of Legends, but instead of three new nations, this one has about eight. It's obviously more well known because of the big marketing engine of Microsoft Games behind it.
It's these kinds of player mods that I really enjoy. From over a decade ago, the MMORPG text-only games like MUDs had a programming aspect to it so users could add more areas to the game. Most MMORPGs don't allow that any more because of uncontrolled growth and often poor execution on most users parts. Secondlife, while not really a game, is gaining a lot of success (see Wired article) because it goes the very opposite direction: build all you like. It can be chaotic, but this is really pure capitalism at work: the successful ones should get the most attention and reward. To make a success, you need good planning and execution, as well as all the other things: marketing, delivery, customer satisfaction, etc., but it still starts with having a good idea that people will want.
I was about to go pay $50 to buy a new game like Caeser IV, but I thinkthese guys should get my money instead, if I can figure out how.They're off working on the next version, Fall from Heaven 2.
I picked up the latest Harvard Business Review first to read what their Avatar-based Marketing article was all about (more on this later) but also came across a few other articles which I thought were very useful. The first was an interview with Richard Saul Wurman on making events meaningful or useful (requires subscription).
Wurman has put on many events and conferences before but is best known for this Technology, Entertainment, and Design conferences. For an event-holder, his view is that the conference business sucks up huge amounts of marketing dollars, and is an enormous waste of the time of both participants and businesses. It is a fixture of the industry (and certainly the IT/Software industry).
However, his main issue is that most people go to these gatherings only to network and play golf. They don't really listen to the CEOs who can't really talk about all their vision. Marketers have to beg and plead exhibit-goers to take a look at their products, and pnael discussions are usually uncoordinated unrelated speeches. No one gets inspiration and overall nothing sticks.
Amusingly, I see a different view of what Wurman considers negative: "the networking". The term usually implies some sort of negative: the sleazy businessman trying to kiss up to their customers/bosses/etc. However, whether they know it or not, that is what most community forums are. An opportunity not just to learn more and ask questions, but to find that right person who may be able to help you. The way to do it is "networking". Or you could simply sit in a room where everyone is talking for long enough, and eventually someone might say something that can help you. Either way, this implies that some people need to be in the same venue to discuss topics. Others may participate or just listen in.
The venue is the issue. A physical forum like a conference is usually by far a better way to meet others, but obviously there are cons such as cost to travel and participate, time, etc. Virtual forums like discussion groups can provide many of the similar effects but it is more natural human behavior to want to meet others in person. Most real conferences are variances on different settings for in-person meetings.
The mode of how the forum occurs can also affect the benefits or usefulness of a forum. For example, an online group chatroom gives a more immediate interaction point, although if too many people are in the room, it makes for haphazard communications unless you have some sort of moderation/chat leader. A different mode is the bullentin board system that most of us just call plain old "discussion forums", that allows people to come whenvever they want, say their piece, have it recorded as part of their group, and then leave, only to return later to check for responses. This is much more asynchronous a mode of discussion.
The online chatroom is closer to the format of a physical conference than the discussion forum/bulletin board format (synchronous vs asynchronous mode). However, most chatrooms suffer from being in a text-only mode (with minimal graphic smileys), thus the impact is not quite the same as in a real conference, and almost will never be because there is a lot of social cues just simply missing when you cannot see another person. There are certainly new ones that you can notice in text-form, but humans are very visual animals, and we consciously or unconciously rely a lot on how we see others react.
This is one reason why I find 3D worlds like SecondLife and other MMO environments compelling venues. They can provide the synchronous mode feel, with actual visual representation, without the forced geolocation that live conferences require of us. SL for example, still requires a lot of the user to make it a universal tool, not just in terms of your computer's ability, but also in terms of behavior, tool controls/usage, and environment support, to overcome the substantial inertia that people have to new things (something for a future blog), but it is a solution to expensive live conferences. FYI: There have been a number of separate events (meetings, conferences, awards ceremonies, etc.) already held on SL. I wish they were all documented somewhere (by Linden Labs) to analyze the social behavior, issues, and successes or failures of these SL events, because it is these kind of events that can draw big crowds and more new subscribers.
Anyway, back on Wurman: his view is that rather than large conferences with many exhibits, sessions, etc., he would rather than one large meeting by invitation to all the people that the organizer feels wouold be interesting and active participants on the main or multiple topics at the event. This does away with the many failings that he sees and focuses entirely on enabling the exchange of ideas and facilitating discussions, rather than doing presentations and sales pitches.
He may be right in some sense. I'm a veteran of more than a decade of trade shows from every angle: hoster, promoter, attendee, booth bunny (I prefer "rabbit"), exec, press, and now more the "floater"/researcher. While seeing the range of products is nice, it's the constant shilling of products/services that makes it a drag, whether on the exhibit floor or session room. I prefer the conversations that are "in between", during the event but not necessarily part of it. This seems to me what Wurman is pointing out as his ideal.
If that's the case, I guess I'd agree with Wurman on that part. At the same time, I'm still looking around for alternatives in my purview and some of these MMOs are good possibilities.
PS: The HBR issue this month (June) has at least 4-5 articles that I found relevant which was worth the high $17 retail price for a copy.
Ian Hughes from our IBM Hursley Research Labs led me onto this company that does 3D Printing of objects from Second Life. Essentially, any 3D object in Second Lifecan now be "printed" as a physical sculpture/model out of foam or waxfor about $30 or $60 up to a size of 9" x 5" x 5". I can't quite tellwhat kind of 3D milling/printing device they use but you can contactthem for more info.
I was thinking of modes of real business services in terms of virtual environments and came up with this list:
I bring this up to consider where the business opportunities lie. WhileI considered the above scenarios for SecondLife (SL) in particular,this is really a generic model that may apply to any online retail website. In the vast majority of such retail web sites, the trade is forcurrency for real goods, but this exchange can occur between a realperson and a virtual identity (it might be one person, it might be awhole company of people). E.g., on eBay, when you bid and buysomething, you never really know if that person on the other end is asingle real person or multiple people.
This is a factor to consider for conducting business. I tend toconsider all interactions significant. The more you interact withsomeone, the more trust (or distrust) you build with that person. Youmight remember fondly of previous exchanges or, after some few basicexchanges to build familiarity/trust, you suddenly find that you aresuddenly suckered out of your money when that big exchange happens. (atypical con-job as we say here).
Trust models thus play an important part in exchanges and mostmultiplayer environments these days have to build in some sort oftrusted exchange system. Most MMORPGs that allow users to exchangeitems have a special "Trade" window where both parties must check a boxto accept the trade for it to complete. This is a scenario that happensin type 4 virtualuser2virtualuser exchanges.
On the other hand, on eBay (realuser2realuser),since the actual exchange involves some form of physical exchange orshipping, they need another another way to designate each identity'strust level, within the system. Thus, you have a rating system tosymbolize that level.
One thing to note is that there is a continuing rise in virtualuser2virtualuser as well as realuser2virtual usertrades. In fact, the latter even applies between you as a real personand your character. E.g., in SL, if you transfer your Linden$ into realdollars through Paypal (i.e, withdraw currency from the game), you arein effect doing an exchange between your physical and virtual selves.
Also interesting is that there are some virtualuser2realuser servicesemergine like the Pizza example. I would daresay this isn't the firsttime this has happened. Some in the late 1980s (if I recall right), atMIT, you could actually order real sodas from the soda machine throughyour emacs text editorenvironment on your online Unix account identity which would chargeyour school food account (one of those cool hacks that Stallman andcrew did with emacs). If this 3D printing service was paid entirely inLinden$ then it would fit into this mode as well.
The biggest deal out of all this is not just in the types of exchangesbut the value applied to virtual objects. That'll be a future post...
Marketingprofs has something to say about using virtual environments as the next venue for advertising. The examples they give come from SecondLife, CokeStudios, and others like it. Unfortunately, it ends with a lot of questions everyone else is asking already, but its a nice overview.
One trend that sci-fi authors, role playing games, movies and multiuser environments have talked about for decades, is finally becoming more and more real.
Examine these parallel trends:
A. Dungeons & dragons / Role playing (non-computer) characters
-> text MUD games players
-> MMORPGs (e.g. Ultima Online, Everquest, World of Warcraft)
-> Non-RPG-based environments (The Sims Online, Second Life)
-> Military Tactical/Strategic representations
-> Telemetry and Remote Imaging
-> Battlefied information systems
-> Robotic military (Remote guided aircraft/UAV, bomb-detection robots, etc.)
C. Heroic Mythology (Greek myth, Viking sagas, Chinese myth)
-> People with secret super-hero identities (Batman, Daredevil, Spiderman)
-> Robotic personas (Voltron, Gundam & Macross series)
-> Virtual worlds (Tron, The Matrix trilogy)
D. User accounts
-> Web home pages
-> individual blogs
-> Group content/documents (wikis, forums, chats, etc.)
-> Spaces (combining Web pages, blogs, other Web 2.0 services)
-> Online personas
While different in form and utility, what it is pointing to is a change in how we perceive our identities in the rise of the online/alternate world.
Call them what you like, your blog, your avatar, your character, your robot, your role in the Matrix... It all points to having a separate identity for yourself in an environment other than the one you live in right now.
I tend to see this as a continuing trend where we will see more and more of ourselves participating in the online world on a regular basis.
However, I also think that people will start making distinctions. Most of us have different faces even in a typical day: there's a similar but distinct persona of you at home, at work, at school, with your family, with your friends, with the government, etc.
They are all you, just different aspects of you. With the online world, it's easier to make those different aspects, or even create new ones based on the online environment.
This comes back to developers in a real way. There is probably a "developer" identity that you put on (some of the time, or even much of the time for others).
What that developer identity needs is a environment of its own. In fact, traditionally we have that too:
> assembly language
-> programming languages
-> compilers & other developer tools
-> integrated development environments
-> online searching
-> online code repositories and exchanges
-> online group projects and identities
The X here is where it all comes together into an online space that is yours and that you have your developer avatar participate in, and that can interact in an online community or virtual world with many other developers.
In this virtual world, we're not talking about a game of fighting other developers (aka WoW style), but in a real sense of getting involved in projects, learning new ideas or meeting new people who are working on things you are interested in. It gives the setting for participating.
Once someone builds that participation environment, you as a developer can suddenly see or be exposed to the many opportunities that lie ahead. This opportunity can translate into dollars and jobs in the real world.
I'm asked to explain what the Web 2.0 question often enough these days. There are plenty of things that have been put under this umbrella but rather than technologies it is the idea behind it that's most significant.
First of all what's "Web 1.0"?
This generally refers to the state of what the Web was primarily used for: a (mostly) consume-only service to access information. Even with all the many applications surfaced through the Web, the majority of the Web is still site for reading, gathering, and consuming information. The number of consumers is much greater than the number of producers.
To make the distinction, the thought behind "Web 2.0" is to instead make "producers" out of the majority of the users of the Web. Now, users not only visit the Web to gain information but also can contribute to the wealth of information that's out there.
It's a democratization of the Web if you will, allowing people not just to express their thoughts on their work, their lives, their emotions, etc. It is not just creating new written content, but contributing by taking existing data and "remixing" them to produce new content. It is also building application services that can work on data or app services that others produce.
Thus in the new world of "Web 2.0", people become producers of original and remixed data, content, and services.
There are quite a few books coming out around the topic of Web 2.0 and by leading literary minds like Dan Gilmor, and Thomas L Friedman. The topic is related to a number of ideas that can raise a lot of controversy including: freedom of expression, ownership of material produced, the right to use information and services of others, legal liability, and even globalization.
Web 2.0 existed from the very beginning of the Web itself, at least in concept. You could create home pages from very early on and even HTTP had rudimentary means to PUT and POST data. However, it was not until the rise of newer technologies that put it into the hands of the masses, and acknowledged significant impact on real-world issues that it really hit the mainstream.
With such a hotbed of activity, its no wonder that everyone wants to know more about how it applies to what they do:
As with any "gold rush", everyone is out to claim their stake in this. For some this rush is about new software. For others its about making yourself heard (and famous). For yet others, its about connecting with others of like mind.
Some common aspects I've observed:
Carol Jones mentioned the Ariadne project in her recent blog post which I find very, very interesting.
It uses graph theory (Computer Science) to help draw a call-graph between the people involved in a project. This is just the kind of tool one could use to build a Friend-of-a-Friend or Degrees-of-separation system. This application focuses on the relationships between developers working on an Eclipse project, but the ideas could be extended for determining the relationships in any network.
BusinessWeek magazine has an interesting online article titled The MySpace Generation that talks about the new generation of people who live, buy, and play online. There's also an subplot about marketing Coke through social networks.
MySpace.com now claims 40 million registered users with 20 million logged on in October alone.
Ian Hughes pointed me to the eightbar teams summary of what some companies have been building on SecondLife over the past months, including Warner Bros., American Apparel, Major League Baseball, the BBC, and Amazon.
This Business Week article On-the-Job Video Gamingtalks about how companies are using 3D games as a visual training tool.Essentially, some game companies are taking existing 3D game enginesthey have created or even some of the "free" engines out there to builda 3D world that recreates their real-world environment and puts theminto a role-playing scenario like a retail store or a virtual bank...Except I guess you don't get to hack up the customers :)-rawn[Read More]