Sunday, September 09, 2018

Thoughts on the decline of online virtual worlds (inspired by Tobold)

Tobold is annoyed that mmorpgs "evolved into a bunch of derivative and repetitive chores instead of living and breathing worlds" and his post inspired me to record my own thoughts in a comment which I am recording here for posterity: 

I am the same age as you Tobold and like you I once thought mmorpgs would be stepping stones towards fully immersive alternative worlds such as those envisaged by William Gibson, Neal Stephenson and Tad Williams.  I think a few virtual worlds did try to go that way including obviously "Second Life" but also a number of titles aimed at younger audiences such as "Club Penguin" and "Free Realms" but none of them ever really took off and in the end mmorpgs became just another type of game to play.

I think that Blizzard realised this early with  World of Warcraft and while WoW did offer a large immersive online world the game aspect always came first. This proved a smart business decision because pretty soon afterwards social media became a thing. Social media provides ways for people to hang out with their friends online without having to pretend to be elves or dwarves and it turns out that the vast majority of people are happier with that. I think that Facebook did more to kill of the social aspect of mmorpgs than anything that the gaming industry ever did.

I guess I am a bit dissapointed that the early promise of mmorpgs as virtual worlds was never realised. The world of computer games seems a lot less magical to me now than it did fifteen years ago. Games today have become incredibly polished forms of mass entertainment but they no longer seem offer the potential of becoming something more.

Recently I had the opportunity to try out virtual reality with an Occulus rift. While this quickly convinced me that the technology is nowhere near ready for the mass market it did briefly rekindle some future wonder in me and perhaps give me a glimpse of what might happen. I think the best hope now of the (re) emergence of virtual worlds is not from gaming but from business applications or from some form of social media. The business applications are already close. Companies are already creating 3D virtual models of buildings and towns that the engineers and designers can virtually walk through. It seems a relatively simple step to allow multiple users in to interact and work together in these virtual spaces.  On the social media side of things I could imagine something like facebook messenger transitioning into a 3D communications tool and from that developing persistent virtual meeting places for people to hang out in.

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