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Tomorrow's world

"It's like 1994," Richard Bartle, the longest-serving virtual world creator, said this week. We were at the Virtual Worlds Forum. Sure enough: most of the panels were about how businesses could make money! in virtual worlds! Substitute Web! and Bartle was right.

"Virtual worlds are poised to revolutionize today's Web ecommerce," one speaker said enthusiastically. "They will restore to ecommerce the social and recreational aspect of shopping, the central element in the real world, which was stripped away when retailers went online."

There's gold in them thar cartoon hills.

But which hills? Second Life is, to be sure, the virtual world du jour, and it provides the most obviously exploitable platform for businesses. But in 1994 so did CompuServe. It was only three years later – ten years ago last month – that it had shrunk sufficiently for AOL to buy it as revenge. In turn, AOL is itself shrinking – its subscription revenues for the quarter ending June 30, 2007 were half those in the same quarter in 2006.

If there is one thing we know about Internet communities it's that they keep reforming in new technologies, often with many of the same people. Today's kids bop from world to world in groups, every few months. The people I've known on CIX or the WELL turn up on IRC, LiveJournal, Facebook, and IM. Sometimes you flee, as Corey Bridges said of social networks, because your friends list has become "crufted" up with people you don't like. You take your real friends somewhere else until mutatis mutandem. In the older text-based conferencing systems, same pattern: public conferences filled with too many annoying people joined sent old-timers to gated communities like mailing lists or closed conferences. And so it goes.

In a post pointed at by the VWF blog Metaversed's Nick Wilson defines social virtual worlds and concludes that there are only eight of them – the rest are not yet available to the general public, children's worlds, or simply development platforms. "The virtual worlds space," he concludes, "is not as large as many people think."

Probably anyone who's tried to come to grips with Second Life, number one on Wilson's list, without the benefit of friends to go there with knows that. Many parts of SL are resoundingly empty much of the time, and it seems inarguable that most of SL's millions of registered users try it out a few times and then leave their avatars as records in the database. Nonetheless, companies keep experimenting and find the results valuable. A batch of Italian IBMers even used the world to stage a strike last month. Naturally it crashed IBM's SL Business Center: the 1,850 strikers were spread around seven IBM locations, but you can only put about 50 avatars on an island before server lag starts to get you. Strikes: the original denial-of-service attacks.

But questioning whether there's a whole lot of there there is a nice reminder that in another sense, it's 1999. Perfect World, a Chinese virtual world, went public at the end of July, and is currently valued at $1.6 billion. It is, of course, losing money. Meanwhile Microsoft has invested $240 million of the change rattling around the back of its sofas in Facebook to become its exclusive "advertising partner", giving that company an overall value of $515 billion. That should do nicely to ensure that Google or Yahoo! doesn't buy it outright, anyway. Rupert Murdoch bought MySpace only two years ago for $580 million – which sounds like a steal by comparison if it weren't for the fact that Murdoch has made many online plays and they've all so far been wrong.

Two big issues seem to be dominating discussions about "the virtual world space". One: how to make money. Two: how and whether to make world interoperable, so when you get tired of one you can pick up your avatar and reputation and take them somewhere new. It was in discussing this latter point that Bridges made the comment noted above: after a while in a particular world shedding that world's character might be the one thing you really want to do. In real life, wherever you go, there you are. Freely exploring your possible selves is what Richard Bartle had in mind when he wrote the first MUD.

The first of those is, of course, the pesky thing only a venture capitalist or a journalist would ask. So far, in general game worlds make their money on subscriptions, and social worlds make their money selling non-existent items like land and maintenance fees thereupon (actually, says Linden Labs, "server resources"). But Asia seems already to be moving toward free play with the real money coming from in-game item sales: 80 million Koreans are buying products in and from Cyworld.

But the two questions are related. If your avatar only functions in a single world, the argument goes, that makes virtual worlds closed environments like the ones CompuServe and AOL failed with. That is of course true – but only after someone comes up with an open platform everyone can use. Unlike the Internet at large, though, it's hard to see who would benefit enough from building one to actually do it.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).


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