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GDC08: Gaming’s Future via Online Worlds


Speaker: Jeffrey Steefel, Turbine

IMHO, Jeffrey hereby strengthens the weight of evidence that Turbine is genuinely turning the corner from making poorly-guided foolish games to doing cutting-edge stuff and doing it well. Lord of the Rings Online (LotRO) has gone some considerable way to burying the failings of Asheron’s Call 2 (AC2) and Dungeons and Dragons Online (DDO), but it’s still far from certain that it’s a sustainable direction for them. In that context, Jeffrey speaks very convincingly and with a lot of apparent understanding about what they’ve done well and where they’re going with it in the future. Frankly, all of the incumbent MMO companies need to be doing this, and pushing at least this far and fast ahead, so it’s great to see someone senior at Turbine pushing this so strongly.

There’s a glaring omission – why does he have nothing to say beyond google-maps: are they going to sit on their laurels on this? It was quite some time ago that they added this, but then there don’t seem to have been any other major integration / openness initiatives on the LotRO project (and integrating a wiki is nothing special or worth making noise about, that’s just as plain obvious as including an auction house and an LFG tool IMHO). But on the whole an interesting and refreshing talk, and especially a quality of talk that I’d like to see more of at GDC.

My own commentary in [ square brackets ], any mistakes/misunderstandings my own fault :).

Open worlds are intimidating

Coming into a new empty environment is overwhelming for many people, so that structure of some kind is very important for any open-world environment. Doesn’t have to be a game, but they make a good example.

If you add a sense of space this gives some focus and constraint to your creativity. It provides touchpoints for ideas and imagination. No longer imagining in a vacuum.

Next is a sense of purpose. Community is the most important aspect, but you still need a purpose for being here. It can vary, it can change from moment to moment, but it has to be present in some form.

Finally, there is community. Both expression of yourself, and your identity in the community. I want to express my identity in order to show my own personal response to the world / space we’re in.

To me the biggest intersection between VW and games is the way that games limit choices, have rules, provide constraints that give purpose and a sense of place to the world.

Kinds of online space

Social networks are virtual worlds. People come together, and they have purposes (Find a job, make friends, meet people, waste time, etc).

Standard VWs to me are many things: 3D environment like SecondLife (SL), but also 2D like Habbo Hotel, or IMVU which is a linked together set of worlds.

Finally, there are the MMO’s, “the beast” of virtual worlds.

We’re all trying to create online, social, entertainment. Its very easy to get distracted by the word “entertainment”, but you have to look at it in the broadest sense.

Each has advantages, e.g.:
– online games: immersive, highly directed experiences. Not as directed as a film, which tells you precisely what to look at at all times, but still it’s fundamentally an on-rails experience. We’ve pretty much created the experience for you.

– Virtual Worlds (VW): you have a wider world, without some of the constraint problems and the design challenges. But these open worlds don’t have any overarching unified themes; although they may have sub-areas that have local themes, there’s no wider sense of place, so people get lost within it.

– Social Networks (SN): their advantage is being accessible to anyone anhwere anywhen in the world, they’re really good at user interface stuff and being easy to get to and quick to use.

Overall aims and directions

Common to all: Social persistence + identity + creative expression

Divergence points:
– sn: accessible, ease of use, runs anywhere, platform agnostic
– vw: freedom, creative, ugc
– game: strucutre (gameplay), sense of place, sense of purpose

[next: image showing three concentric rings – “access” surrounding “inspiration” surrounding “experience”]

Access is the biggest problem right now. In the MMO space in general that’s something that’s only recently come to people’s front of mind. MMO’s now trying to work out how to get people into the experience as rapidly as possible.

But then, you also need to have something that provides the inspiration – sense of place, sense of purpose, and MUST BE PERSISTENTly there. Can change over time, but I need to know why it’s changed, it has to have a history that is consistent.

[Adam: I’m really not sure about that, the idea that the persistence of the sense of place/purpose is essential. I think that pretty much flies in the face of the idea of casual MMOs – and in fact I’d argue that many successful facebook games have practically no persistence: the rules change, the gameplay changes, the context changes … yet this doesn’t seem to be a major problem. In those cases it’s mostly not a good thing, but it doesnt’ seem to be a ruinous thing, and I think you could go a very long way with creating a game world which was NOT persistent with purpose.

In fact, I’d say that Alternate Reality Games are more non-persistent in this respect than they are persistent, and that that is one of their greatest strengths, and one of the ways they attract a much wider audience and achieve many of the accessibility points that Jeff talks about as being primary concerns right now. Every time you log in to an ARG, the whole world has changed, and the challenge and the aims and purpose have changed too, because other people have advanced the plot – the world is a truly “living” world, that changes even when you’re not there to change it yourself. This is a good thing!]

What we’re doing is fundamentally trying to create a balance between FREEDOM and STRUCTURE. We walk along the knife-edge between them all the time. How do we create that balance for multiple different people – the balance point is different for each of them.

So what are we doing at Turbine?

Focussing on the strengths of the MMO to create these compelling places.

Something that sparks my creativity, sparks my sense of place/purpose.

Something to unify the world – maybe a global story, maybe the place itself, maybe it’s a single global event that’s happening. You can have different subsets of these in local areas.

Needs to be some set of goals, and preferably provide ways for players to create goals for each other.

Need to reach a much, much broader audience. How can we be on more platforms, how can we get the content to them in ways that are not prohibitive like it is now?

That sounds like a technological situation, but it’s more about focussing on what we’re providing to the end-user.

The mod tools are too complicated, need to be probably simpler even than a VCR – need to make them as easy to use as common electrical appliances.

Where do we focus in concrete terms?

We like to make web-aware worlds: native web features. In a 3d virtual environment, how is that comign together with the web so that social relations can take place across both.

Remove hardware connectivity barriers.

Integrate with a “mobile” lifestyle – being mobile but taking your data access with you is now standard, now a typical part of life. It’s not about porting the 3d to the phone, it’s about finding out how the experience is tied to the mobile aspect of our life, and playing up to that.

There’s a spectrum of value propositions, and we need to cover the whole spectrum, because each user is different, and even the individual has different willingnesses to pay / preferred payment schemes at different times and dates.

Try to turn the game inside out:
– expose the SNs onto the net
– share rich data and realtime-data tools
– integrate your persona online, so that whethere youre in game or out you have a presence everywhere
– adding strong SN tools, such as creative music tools in LotRO

– display only: character pages. Nicely implemented, polished, but … really just a readout of my identity in that world
– official content with user-editing: we’re trying to play around with this by integrating google maps into the game, allowing players to use the gmaps tools to create custom paths in the game, and share journeys and itineraries. We’ve taken all these sites (also the tolkein encyclopaedia) and stuck it in a wiki. It has become owned by the players – its their data, their repository.
– trying to move away from wiki, because wiki is still too complicated for most people
– want to make sure that it’s someting that EVERYONE can participate in

[Adam: dwelt on the easy free things they got by integrating with gmaps, but presented it as though this applied to the whole game. It clearly does not, that’s totally false – yes, it was a brilliant idea to make Google-Maps-Middle-Earth, but … the benefits of tagging, user created joruneys, etc are all SPECIFIC to that partner and that particularly technology from that partner, these are not generic wins, and definitely not good examples of what Turbine has been doing – because they didn’t do them]
– I can already create a middle-earth mashup, tag stuff, make custom pathing.
– trying to make it so that wherever I am online, my game is a fulltime existence, I can access it and be part of the community even when out of the game client

How can I take this game that has lots of structure, and within that try to give more freedom?
– music that lets you be endlessly creative, play music in real time together with other people. We saw people create music videos together and put them up on the internet. I can hold performances, I Can record them, I can invite people to come and listen to a performance I’m giving in-world

[Adam: where is the EXPORT of these performances? he seems to have missed out on this, directly contradicting much of what he said before, both about accessibility, and about the primary importance of the tools being easy to use, and – most damningly – about the “integration” between web and game]

– likewise, outfit systems that allow for customization of avatar look

Is it a game? Is it a VW? It doesn’t really matter, it’s all the same thing.

The Future

Opportunities to create goals for other people, and to share them.
…+[Adam: at this point he re-iterated most of the things he’d said earlier on in the talk. Good summary, but I’m not going to re-type them all here :)]

Q: We have the advantage of having structure built-in, so how do you add that to a VW?

With LotRo we had a story, giving us free purpose and place, but the problem was that that made it automatically a single-player game, so we had to make it more general, find the underlying unifying themese of the story so that we could make wider, more world-like gameplay.

Q: I’ve seen sites on the net shut down just for having lyrics on them. Are you afraid about those legals, I mean even the IP [twisting] of Crazy Train being played in MiddleEarth

They’re not monetizing it, so I think it’s fine. I think if you try to monetize playing other people’s music, you’re going to get in trouble. We don’t worry about it, we’re conscious of it, we watch it, but just see what happens.

Q: What about the moving of one character from one world to another? People want to be able to take their identity from MySpace to Facebook to etc. How do you see this happening in the games, especially in the MMO?

I think you need to provide dual-citizenship. I get to choose whether I associate that with other game avatars. I need persistency of global account. We’re doing stuff that you can earn in LotRo that is given currency to your account, NOT to your avatar. We could take that to be across games in the future, could become stuff like achievement points?

I think you have to give people a choice between being anonymous and not, and at what point they want to make the distinction.

Q: Do you see publishers collaborating?

Without collaboration, there’s connectivity through the individuals participating and second-stage linking stuff. Some interoperability would be great, but we do live in a world where IM clients dont’ even interoperate, so I think we’ve got a long way to go. The technology and data challenges are much bigger in MMOs.

Q: why can’t we just take standard content-creation tools like Maya and use them for players?

To take an item made in Maya and put it into the game takes a lot of complicated trickery, but we, sony, etc all do that part differently. I agree it’s a great vision to just accept importing of objects saved out of any of those packages, but I think it’s going to be very hard.

[i.e. we all have proprietary art-pipelines, that’s how the professional games industry works on a standard basis – every company has different internal processes. Nothing unusual there.]

Q: some companies e.g. funcom are using advertising-funded revenue. Can you give some other examples that would work for fantasy where coca cola and billboards can’t be used?

Advertising isn’t the best model for fantasy games. But it’s a spectrum. Maybe you have people who come into the world and have access to better content-creation tools, and have to pay to participate as content-creators. And it could be a sliding scale of how much you pay in proportion to how much you’re adding to the game [doesn’t specify inverse or not]

It’s a value-exchange equation.

I think we’re at a place where the payment technologies are getting more robust, and consumers willingness to participate in more flexible, smaller chunks, is increasing, with purchase of small pieces of music etc.

Q: How do you deal with griefers / PvP / etc?

You need to try to create the environments that people want, but to also protect people who don’t want to be a part of it. We’ve created areas where you can kill anything and everything, and as a player who doesn’t want that, you will be heavily warned when you try to walk in, so you have the ability to walk away / around it.

You have to provide all the possible experiences, but protect them from each other.

Q: The designs coming out of China are based on peer-pressure and a fear of loathing?

I don’t think that’s a world I want to spend time in, personally.

That’s why you need some structure, because in a purely open world we all sooner or later start bumping into each other, treading on each others toes.

The really cool thing would be to find a way to allow people to co-exist without ruining the experience for each other. I haven’t found that solution yet, but working on it.

2 replies on “GDC08: Gaming’s Future via Online Worlds”

I was walking past the Turbine booth today and spotted Jeffrey standing there, so I asked him about the point I made in my summary (that the only good things he waxed lyrical on were all “free” side-effects of integrating google-maps, and he didn’t seem to have any other ideas to talk about).

Short answer: he has lots of great ideas and there’s lots of innovative stuff they’re doing in this area right now … but he’s not going to share any of them publically.

Fair enough. Although if that’s the case I’m pretty disappointed that they have to be so secretive about it. I doubt they’re doing anything that anyone else could directly compete with and needs to be kept secret until complete.

[…] An old friend of mine has been involved in the gaming industry for the last decade, and is currently out at the GDC, networking his socks off and blogging regularly on some of the conference’s main speaking events. Even for those who know about games, there’s plenty of food for thought in his write-ups. As an amateur enthusiast, though, his account of one particular conference talk struck a chord with me—on “gaming’s future via online worlds.” […]

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