5 reasons virtual worlds died

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Edit: HN discussion on this post here

Lately I’ve been designing a couple new games and got me thinking back to virtual worlds.

Remember when they were the next big thing?

Millions of us tried them.  Gartner predicted 80% of all net users would have Second Life avatars.  VCs invested bigtime.  Even Google wanted a piece.  

My startup too. We launched the first browser 3d UGC world with cool tech we built on Unity. You could chat, create, shop and more.

But after a couple years we’d only gained 600k users so decided to pivot to mobile games.

Here are 5 reasons why virtual worlds never took off and some ideas for how they can live on in new games:

  1. No purpose

    Virtual worlds don’t have explicit goals.  

    No quests. No mechanics. No problems to solve. They aren’t games.  

    Give people a blank piece of paper and ask them to “have fun!” A few might get excited and start writing a poem or sketch a masterpiece.  But most will be annoyed, grow bored and give up.

    Same with virtual worlds. 

  2. No feedback

    Turns out, humans really love feedback.  

    Our addictive behaviours are mostly shaped by tight stimuli and response schedules.  We check Facebook often with the hope of new message or notifications.  We eat junk food and are rewarded with an immediate dopamine hit.

    Contrast that to virtual worlds where you might “work” for hours before getting feedback, which can only come from other players. Not very motivating.

  3. No theme

    Most successful UGC communities have either a particular topic that glues them together, or easy ways to dive to them.

    Reddit has subreddits.  Pinterest has tags and categories. Youtube has search and recommendations.  

    Themes make it easy to consume, start and keep up conversations.

    In virtual worlds there is no easy way to jump straight into the themes you like, and no structure that enforce adherence to them.

  4. Complexity

    Great technology doesn’t mean a great user experience.

    Virtual worlds offer great freedom, but also a LOT of complexity and ways to get stuck. 

    These days where the distractions abound, people don’t handle complexity well, especially when trying something for the first time.

  5. Needs met elsewhere

    Despite drawbacks, virtual worlds offered a couple of bright spots - online community and freedom to create.

    But the spirit of these can also be met in other ways.

    I can build a great farm in Hay Day or doodle in Draw Something 2, interacting with friends in simple but meaningful ways.

    Minecraft offers great creativity and community with a small number of important mechanics. 

    On the deeper end, MMOs like Entropia have great freedom and incredibly loyal community.  

So what’s new?

So for those of us creating mobile games, should we forget about virtual worlds?

I don’t think so.  Whilst never living up to its hype*, we can continue to incorporate their positives in a deeper way.

First is to figure out how to tie greater creativity into our mechanics to broaden possibility spaces.  

This can be really tricky - how do you “judge” creativity in a programmatic manner? Easier if it’s creativity to meet a certain functional goal (ala Bad Piggies), but is there a way to judge “beauty” or “artistic merit”?  In our first game we built a system to judge a fashion outfit.  Whilst sufficient I’d be first to admit there is a lot more nuance that could be added, though it’s not always easy to define and balance such a system.

If judging is community based how to you build systems to make it fair, tamper proof and not feel like work? And do it in a way that’s timely, and gets the core loop running quickly?

We could also do more to foster friendships between players that last years, not days. Ability to collaboratively work on shared projects is something extremely meaningful in virtual worlds.  Guilds in some mobile strategy games let you coordinate attacks which is lots of fun, but haven’t seen much yet in the way of coop base building, or crafting etc.

We can offer a deeper level of customization, allowing you to tweak not only your look but your personality and how you engage in the game world.  Chat and status messages are a start, but could you have ways to customise how your characters or army or base react programmatically under different circumstances (like scripting in SL but without the complexity).

Not all virtual world concepts translate well, and getting them working with a simple UX for a small screen is the challenge, but there are things we can learn from and adapt.

What’s your take? Email or let me know on twitter

*Whilst not a mainstream success, virtual worlds are still active amongst several niche groups, eg deep roleplayers, virtual artists, or the disabled - where they can move, express and socialize in a way they can’t in real life.