Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Perception and Your Ad Money

I've been having some back-and-forth concerning perception as it applies to virtual reputation, so to speak, and I'd like to expand a little on my thoughts here. It's fractured and rambling, but see me through.

Back when I wrote for Lum the Mad, Scott Jennings was a database engineer for a (I belive pretty small) company in Arkansas. Through the use of perception, he became one of the most recognizable names in our field: Though he had no professional experience in the computer games industry, his postings on Lum the Mad gave his sizable readership the perception that he was a leading voice in the field, and to a degree, he was. However, this was built not on corporate memos or trained expertise, but rather well-formed opinions.

Thus, his hiring by Mythic Entertainment was somewhat of a no-brainer: Let's bring onboard one of the best voices in games, and the people will follow. And they absolutely did - Mythic's practice of hiring some of the best voices (with shallow resumes insofar as professional experience in gaming) gave the perception that they were a leading-edge developer with an eye for what the players wanted. Good call.

(quick caveat: Scott was absolutely the right man for the position that Mythic had.)

Where does this lead us? Right now, the biggest problem in growing virtual worlds is that of perception - virtual worlds, much more so than video gaming at large, is still considered the domain of dorks. How do we get past that?

We need to start building the perception that virtual worlds are, really, composed of the communities the players make rather than individuals and their existent or nonexistent proclivities to dorkdom. Through kinships, guilds, clans, etc., you can insulate yourself from social influences you see as dorky and associate yourself with ones you see as positive.

How do our marketing departments do this? Grab a few members of a guild who represent different demos, put them in front of a camera, then run it on something like MTV or network if you can afford it. Stop accentuating "loot" on your back box and accentuate how easy it is to find people like you.

While TV advertising is generally cost-prohibitive to all but the largest players, as far as print goes, marketing departments need to stop sending money to PCGamer - really, the audience that reads PCGamer is going to play your game based on word-of-mouth, rather than that ad - and think about an ad and PR-spend that positions your game as a "normal thing to do."

So take every gaming magazine advertising contact out of your Rolodex and replace it with contacts for Cosmo, Redbook and MySpace. Co-brand with Pogo. Word of Warcraft Whomp!

I'm not joking, I promise. Your advertising will be notable just for the virtue of being out-of-place and odd in those publications. It'll make people start talking. "Did you see that ad for that video game? I thought it was only for dorks." But then the dialogue will begin to change over the course of your campaign. Advertising in these publications, over the course of a campaign, makes the reader feel like they are represented, even if it's just a facade. Retain these customers by slipping in the name and server of a female-friendly megaguild into your ad.

Over time, if we start spending more time in improving our perception rather than trying to scrabble for the few customers whose we perceive are naturals for our games, I think we can finally start seeing more marketplace equity instead of accepting what we currently have as a gold standard.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Against Rights, Part 2: Freedom to Assemble

I'll make this one a bit shorter, since it has much in common with the previous entry.

The freedom to assemble, when its real-world analogues are applied to virtual worlds, can be more troubling than freedom of speech. Many of the same concerns still exist, and there are others that make it even more problematic.

Some of these will be self-solving as virtual worlds evolve, but the call at Ludium was for the establishment of one now - I don't feel it's time.

As with freedom of speech, the freedom of assembly, when applied within virtual worlds, essentially removes freedom FROM assembly, as there are no "inescapable spaces." Furthermore, mass assembly, with today's technology, materially affects game mechanics and people's enjoyment of the game at large - think lag, crashing, etc.

Ensuring freedom of assembly removes developers' ability to control conditions that may or may not have an impact on overall server stability. Many virtual worlds use server clusters for operation, and too many folks crammed into one spot causes that segment of the cluster to fail, possibly taking the server as a whole with it and at the least, denying the entire userbase the ability to utilize the assembly area for a period of time. This is more problematic considering that assemblies, especially those that are spontaneously generated, tend to occur within the most popular (and thus most-utilized) areas.

In a sense, the United States has never had "freedom of assembly." You sort of have it in public spaces, never in private. Even in 1796, you couldn't assemble inside Tom Dandridge's store, because that conflicts with his ability to do free commerce. Giving this right to users essentially begins to equate private corporations' virtual worlds with public spaces, which is nowhere we need to be going (at least right now.)

Realize that the goal of this series of posts is not to say to virtual world developers, "Be as draconian as you like." The message is more along the lines of, "Retain your rights, but the marketplace is ultimately going to decide what rights you have."

Next one on tap: Due process.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

A Futurist Divergence

Here's something, just kind of for fun, that I'd like to talk about. It's something that's roamed around my brain for quite a while and probably should stay there. But, at the risk of making me look like a tinfoil hat...

There's a relatively few amount of developments that, to my mind, represent the next analogue to the computer or the car for advancement of the human as a whole. Teleportation (which, excitingly, is already possible on an atomic level) is one. Direct-from-brain interface (a version of which has been patented by Sony!) is another. The one that gets you the most stares is contact with an alien race.

But let's examine the evidence. We're already capable of finding roughly Earth-like worlds. We've been buzzing like a broken fluorescent light with electronic activity for 50 years. In fact, the next 20 years would be the rough same time period in which you would expect, accounting for transmit time of our collective static, for a return message to possibly come back.

There are a few things that have to happen to have meaningful communication, and one of the first is the adoption by either party of a joint communications protocol, or of dual translation protocols. And while there are very few comparatives that I think we can expect of any sort of alien contact, the first common ground we will likely find will be in mathematics. The notion of "zero" and "one" (or, as we might find in an alien context, "active" or "inactive", "on" or "off") are fundamental to any structure.

And when you have zero and one in common, you have the basis of communicable ground.

I don't expect anytime within even the next two to three-hundred years for us to actually be in the physical presence of an alien life form. But I do think that we will be able to communicate with them meaningfully within ten years of "first contact."

The best way to do that? Virtual worlds.

Think about it: Virtual worlds are the best way to quickly and interactively communicate what a given foreign experience is like. It is reasonable to think that once we've established common communication protocol, shared learning of experience will soon follow, and the best way for a being probably utterly unfamiliar with two legs, two arms and two eyes to learn how to be relative to that experience... is to be one.

In Second Life, I can have meaningful interaction and learning about the environs of New York City. In a similar environment, whatever this something is that we find (or finds us) can have meaningful interaction with the human experience - learn of our artistic appreciation, learn of our social structures. There is no better replacement for actually being here.

With that in mind, I'm not saying that we should start building this right away. But I *do* think that it's advisable to start talking about the formation of a world of basic explanation, in thinking about "movement" and "interaction" as concepts that could be foreign. How do you explain movement to someone/thing that never has? I'm not sure offhand, but I think we could find an answer.

In a sense, I believe that beginning to spend 5-10 minutes a week thinking about this sort of thing will be valuable not only in this (admittedly low-probability) possibility, but in how we begin relating virtual world concepts to people with no technological proficiency. As we move stutteringly nearer to a time when participation in virtual worlds is a socioeconomic requirement, it is important to make them as relative and native experiences as possible without any assumption of basic proficiencies.

Against Rights, Part 1: Freedom of Speech

Freedom of speech (in the United States) is a misnomer. In reality, we start with "freedom of speech" and have all sorts of legislation henceforth limiting that freedom.

Obviously, in the private sector, you aren't free to speak your mind - if you go into a private sector area and speak your mind, you'll be arrested for trespass. But even in U.S. governmental functions, most communities now have eliminated public comment periods in council meetings. If you go in as a private citizen to a meeting of elected officials and begin speaking your peace, you will be removed and possibly arrested for disruption.

Collectively, most real-life laws pertaining to this are called "time and place" restrictions, and they've been vetted by the U.S. Supreme Court. In fact, they've become so inhibited that U.S. state and national parks now have - again, law-tested and approved - specific areas set aside for freedom of assembly and freedom of speech labelled, appropriately, "freedom of speech areas." Go outside that bound with your freedom of speech, and... you're arrested. In addition, your freedom of speech is now curtailed not only by national legislation, but by community standards.

Is this the result of 1984 governmental creep? No. There's good and valid reasons for it. In essence, we been creating a separate right for people - freedom from speech. As the United States has become more densely populated, and the bounds of thinkable thought (to crib from Chomsky) have expanded, as well as speech distribution methods, we have begun finding that blanket freedom of speech increasingly endangers civil society.

As a public, unherded by government policy, we have begun deciding that freedom of speech is for the birds. Reference Isaiah Washington and Don Imus. We are no longer, as a public, nearly as concerned with people's right to say what they want, as opposed to our freedom to "pursue happiness" and secure space for ourselves where we hear what we want to hear. Reference the FCC and its limitations imposed on network broadcasts.

Now, as bleeding-edge technology professionals and academics, we can lift our snifters of wine, stick out our pinkie fingers, doff our hats at the door and say, "Well, people should be more accepting of oppositional viewpoints." That's the equivalent of closing your eyes and plugging your ears and screaming "NANANANANAAAAA." It is obvious what the will of the public is, and the public does not like freedom of speech in its unadulterated state.

We have to realize that the public's mindset in this arena has changed and it now want lots of adulterations to freedom of speech. There are even worse problems with freedom of speech in virtual worlds.

Space within virtual worlds is created by private dollars to be populated. As opposed to real life, there are no spaces that are set aside with the intent of the ability to find privacy. Every nook, every cranny, is purposefully designed to be populated and accessible. In addition, in our current mindset of linear-progression games, almost all areas are required to be accessed to advance one's character. Thus, there is no "escape" from speech, which is now a publically accepted desire.

Beyond that, as I said in the preamble to this series of posts, virtual worlds are driven by someone's money. If we continue to want those someones to pony up the money to create these worlds, we can't expect to throw up their hands and allow people to lambast them within their own creation. You can't come in my house and call me a prick (well, you can, and then you'll get a load of buckshot in your ass,) and I only see it as reasonable to expect the same principle to apply to anyone financing and building a virtual world.

I find that most of the desire for freedom of speech in virtual worlds these days comes from folks interested in Second Life. But it's important to note that as much press as Second Life has received, the public has overwhelmingly chosen structured, more restrictive advancement games, a'la World of Warcraft, over this free-form distant cousin. Is this because the public's "stupid and wrong"? Get off your elitist horse. Like it or not, if you want to see virtual worlds grow, you have to accept the will of the public and its desires.

As the academy, if we push this issue, this is a sure-fire way of ensuring virtual worlds remain small and ultimately fail in all of the lofty visions we have for it. Real-world laws come about for real reasons. Clamoring for freedom of speech in virtual worlds, in effect, ignores two-hundred years worth of limitations we have collectively decided are good ideas. Even if the statement were made more inclusive of the limitations we've decided are good ideas, you simply can't make a readable entry for freedom of speech in virtual worlds without it extending for ten pages at a minimum.

The much more reasonable position is to sit back and let marketplace selection determine what rights individuals like. Again, Second Life has found a marketplace position, and a profitable one at that, by expanding the rights given to its users. If the marketplace finds a given virtual world too prohibitive, it will use another. If the marketplace finds a virtual space too free... it will use another. Nothing's inherently wrong with this. It is, in essence, a fascinating ability to choose a virtual nation.

Different worlds require different policies. Amen. Let's practice what we preach.

Player Bill of Rights? Bad Idea.

Just back from Ludium 2, and figured I'd finally start up a place where I can more extensively centralize my thoughts other than scattered message boards.

The end result of Ludium 2 was a decent set of statements. While I believe there were some important things omitted, and several of the statements lack in power, there's only one I strongly disagree with: the establishment of a player's bill of rights.

This may seem strange, considering my background in virtual worlds is almost entirely as a player. But this concept is not a new one - we thrashed through these same arguments in 1999-2000 when UO and EverQuest were in their heyday - and the conclusion was that this is a bag of worms and, ultimately, something that is unneccessary.

First and foremost, it must be remembered that virtual worlds exist because someone or multiple someones have paid a lot of money to create them. Those someone or someones, understandably, have the right to exert a degree of control over their world. Establishing a player bill of rights eliminates a portion of the developer and publishers' ability to remove people they feel are detracting elements from their game world.

One of the tenets of the Ludium 2 statements was that different virtual worlds require different policies, and this is absolutely true. A blanket "player's bill of rights" to apply across the board is simply inappropriate. My first example of how this doesn't work - freedom of speech - is in the next post.