3D Virtual Worlds Are In Decline

Catching up with the news on 3D Virtual Worlds, has been getting a little depressing lately.  Bottom line: they are all down in traffic.

Lets start with some news on the LL/SL front:  Linden Lab announced two weeks ago that they bought an interactive fiction company called LittleTextPeople. The small company develops 2D interactive fiction for play on mobile phones from what I can tell.  The group will develop new products under the Linden Lab roof, but they will not be associated with Second Life.  In other words, Linden Lab is finally diversifying its gaming line up.  This is what happens when you hire a game developer as your CEO, you start to develop new games.  Not reported anywhere is that one of the 3 developers at LittleTextPeople is Richard Evans, lead AI programmer for The Sims 3 who no doubt worked with LL CEO Rod Humble when he was in charge at EA/Maxis.  The other two are Emily Short, writer/programmer of text adventure Galatea, and Andrew Stern co-creator of a really cool experimental 3D interactive game called Façade.  Both are available for free.

So from the sounds of it, Linden Lab is looking to get into the mobile app market with interactive fiction.  Based on my minimal level of research, the project(s) that LittleTextPeople are working on are pseudo menu driven graphic interactive fiction. (since typing things on a phone/tablet is an annoyance to begin with).  Looking forward to seeing what they come up with.

But that is not all from the Linden Lab front. It seems LL has stopped publication of statistics for Second Life. The unanimous consensus is that the reason for no publication is that the numbers are way down.

Lets put these two items into perspective.  Linden Lab is diversifying their product line towards mobile apps, while Second Life is dropping in traffic, land sales, etc.  Linden Lab is looking to a future without its signature product.  I said before that I believe SL will close its doors when it stops being profitable, and we seem to be close to that point it sounds like.

I decided to take a look at other 3DVWs and see how they are doing.  IMVU is seeing lower numbers these days too.  There Inc is not seeing the huge influx of returning customers it was hoping for when it reopened its doors. It seems that maybe the age of the 3DVW is about up.

Some of the smaller ones are doing OK: NuVera is finally out of beta, and it seems a lot more stable. Avination says they fixed the sim crossing problem for vehicles in OpenSim.  InWorldz is now big enough to start holding a conference in Las Vegas. Onverse is still expanding with new lands and content. Despite some small time success, I am not hearing about any new ones lately, not even new OS grids.

What’s driving people away from the big 3D Virtual Worlds? Probably boredom, social networking, and the influx of “free to play” MMORPGs which are learning to incorporate the social aspects that used to be exclusive to 3DVWs.

I’m not expecting a lot of closures though, just the usual 3 or 4 a year. These things have long tails, and can get by for quite a while with loyal fan bases.  But the “golden age” is behind us.


Virtual World Philosophy: The Uncanny Valley

Most popular online worlds

So lately I have been having fun with Windlight, and focusing on how real Second Life is looking lately, but have not bothered to ask, “Is this a good thing?”

Above is a montage of screenshots from some of the most popular online communities on the web. World of Warcraft = 10 million subscribers, IMVU = 20 million accounts, HabboHotel = 90 Million accounts, 8 million monthly active users, WeeWorld = 21 million accounts, Runescape = 5 million monthly active users, Club Penguin = 17 Million Accounts, 4 million monthly active users (sources GigaOM, KZero).

What do they all have in common? None are designed to look “real”. They all purposely have a cartoon look to them. According to a recent NWN blog, this is a significant fact:

There’s little evidence of mass demand for an intensely immersive 3D virtual world; instead, indications suggest the market shrinks in inverse proportion to increasing immersiveness.

There’s several worthwhile observations you can make. First, none of them feature next gen, top-of-the-line 3D graphics. (WoW is 3D, but developed with graphics that run fairly well on older computers; also, the visuals are not realistic.) Besides Warcraft, however, none of these top MMOs are 3D at all; rather, they’re 2.5D. And while one hopes that 2.5D-based MMOs will whet the market’s interest in a more immersive, graphically rich virtual world, the exact opposite seems to be the case. (The still-popular Habbo Hotel was launched in 2000, and the cartoonish graphics are basically the same.)

Only after you drop down several million users do you start to see MMOs and virtual worlds incorporating next gen graphics that require high-end 3D cards for optimal viewing– Lord of the Rings Online at about one million subscribers, Age of Conan at about 750,000 subscribers… and Second Life at some 550,000 monthly active users.

Why is this happening? Here we enter the realm of speculation, but it seems that most people experience sensory overload with too much immersion; instead of being drawn into the intensity of the simulation, they’re repelled by it.

Before going into some of my objections to this idea, let me point out some other evidence to support it. Take for example the world of 3D animated films which I have written about. The most realistic looking 3D animated films have been Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, The Polar Express, Advent Children, and Beowulf. Not one of these have managed any real success at the box office, at least compared to the more cartoonish fare such as The Incredibles, the Shrek films, or Ratatouille. The more realistic films have an unfortunate creepiness to them that makes them seem weird and turns people off.

There is a theory in robotics about this effect called “The Uncanny Valley“. From Wikipedia:

The uncanny valley is a hypothesis that when robots and other facsimiles of humans look and act almost, but not entirely, like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. The “valley” in question is a dip in a proposed graph of the positivity of human reaction as a function of a robot’s lifelikeness.

Mori’s hypothesis states that as a robot is made more humanlike in its appearance and motion, the emotional response from a human being to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong repulsion. However, as the appearance and motion continue to become less distinguishable from a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once more and approaches human-to-human empathy levels.

This area of repulsive response aroused by a robot with appearance and motion between a “barely-human” and “fully human” entity is called the uncanny valley. The name captures the idea that a robot which is “almost human” will seem overly “strange” to a human being and thus will fail to evoke the empathetic response required for productive human-robot interaction.

One then has to wonder if it is possible for there to be a natural detraction to video games whose graphics are too real looking, and is this why Second Life may never reach Habbo Hotel like numbers?

I believe it is possible for games to become too real, but I am definitely not convinced Second Life comes close to that mark. I am also not convinced it is the reason it is less popular than the above named games.

Maybe some Playstation 3 games are getting too real looking. Maybe that is why the Wii is more popular? No, lets face it the real reason Wii is more popular is the innovative controllers.

World of Warcraft is cartoonish compared to more realistic Guild Wars, but it is more popular due to better marketing, the Blizzard name, and WoW has more immersive gameplay. There is more cartoonish compared to Second Life, and yet Second Life is the bigger of the two, for similar reasons.

The most popular online games are not popular because they are less realistic, they are popular because they have been around longer, or are marketed to kids (a huge market for the 2D worlds), or they are free or very inexpensive to play.

Take a look at the best selling stuff in There, IMVU, and SL: the more realistic stuff consistently sells better, because it looks better. QED

The ultimate point is this: Realism is not an important goal in a sucessful virtual world, or any computer game for that matter. Players appreciate realism up to a point, but if the realism comes at the expense of some players with older or less powerful computers, its not worth it.