Andy Donkin wants you to go There. Really, he does. The chief marketing officer of There Inc. is eager for new members to join his company's recently launched, three-dimensional simulated world. Part The Sims, part Friendster, and part massively multiplayer online game, There is an artificial world which players pay a monthly fee of $9.95 to access. Inside There, users adopt the guises of avatars, much like in EverQuest or Star Wars Galaxies.
Instead of slaying monsters or zapping bounty hunters, the emphasis in There is on social interaction. Looking like twenty-something hipsters, the avatars in There can dance, flirt, and engage in many real-word activities, as well as indulge in a few fantastical pastimes, like racing hoverboards. There users can also start businesses or create items to earn "Therebucks," the realm's virtual currency, which can be used to buy clothes for fashion-conscious avatars--including products from real-world clothiers Nike and Levi's. Therebucks can also be purchased with real money, giving the simulation's makers another source of revenue besides the $19.95 registration and $9.95 monthly subscription fees.
There's linking of virtual and actual cash, as well as its makers' insistence that it is not a game (it's billed as "an online getaway" on the There.com site), has earned There some criticism from the games community and press. Donkin addressed these criticisms, as well as There's beta test, its corporate partnerships, and its newly inked contract with the US military, in a recent interview with GameSpot.
GS: How many users participated in the There beta?
Andy Donkin: We've had over 27,000 unique users take part in the beta. Our next step is to launch the "limited access" release on October 27--to the public--at a significantly discounted membership plan. We have added this step because the next group of users will still be "There pioneers," helping us make the product better and better. We also wanted to carefully manage our scalability so that the experience of our members would continue to be good each and every night.
GS: What are your targets for There users three, 12, and 24 months after the full release?
AD: Our next big release will come in the first quarter of 2004. We expect the community to grow steadily over the next year as we continue to add new features and functions. Just as important, we expect our members to continue to add new content to the world, daily, using the developer tools that are integral to the product.
GS: How many developers contributed to the making of There?
AD: If you mean our internal developers, we have a team of about 80 engineers, 3D modelers, and 2D designers who have all contributed to the development of There. However, some of our members have become developers themselves. Over 30 percent of our beta members signed up to become developers, and many of these members are regularly creating in-world items for There.
GS: How many people are on the live team, and where are they located?
AD: The Live Team at There really consists of "live services," operations, and customer service--which totals about 30 people--all in our offices in Menlo Park, California.
GS: Your CEO calls There a "getaway" versus a "game." Is there a reason you're eschewing the game label? Do you worry that by doing so, you will alienate gamers? Or are you interested in breaking into a nonhardcore gamer demographic?
AD: Actually, the idea of a "getaway," or "destination," was developed over a long period of time by talking to our beta members through focus groups. It was the members who told us they didn't view There as a "game." They viewed it as: a place to go, a place to relax, a place to hang out. The idea of hanging out was critical because that is what we do in real life. We hang out with our friends and talk, play, and have fun. There also doesn't have the same formal structure as most traditional games. You wont be ambushed by other members when you first arrive. Instead, you will be met by an in-world greeter who will show you around. The good news for gamers is that there are a lot of gamers in There! [But] for gamers who only want to compete and win every session, There is probably not the right environment for them. That is why we don't call There a game. We don't want to disappoint those who may be looking for a hardcore traditional game environment.
GS: Much of There's press has talked about the emphasis on socializing--even flirtation--in the There world. Do you see yourselves as a sort of virtual Friendster, an online community where people can start relationships that extend into the real world?
AD: Friendster has really brought a lot of attention to the idea of online socializing and social networks, which is great. The idea of creating and developing social networks is core to There. However, the way There goes about creating the social infrastructure for its members is much different. Social networks are not about dating, although people do date (both online and offline!) in There.
GS: Or is it a place that is a destination in itself?
AD: If we execute right, There is really a mass-market online destination. Like any real-world community, we want diversity in the community and a balance of men and women. Women tend to stay longest in the product and more often become in-world leaders. Women have traditionally been an underserved market in online games, and we want There to change that.
GS: What have you worked in the way of partnerships?
AD: We actually have three distribution partners at launch. Hewlett-Packard will have the There desktop icon on its Pavilion Media Center PC line of machines that will be sold through retail outlets starting in January. ATI will have There software in their Radeon 9200 graphic card boxes, and, after the first of the year, we will potentially build an iVillage community in There where members can access iVillage content. Two consumer brand marketing partners--Nike and Levi Strauss & Co.--have been with us since we started the beta test back in January. We are actually creating a new, in-world sneaker for Nike for launch. By purchasing the Nike sneaker, it allows your avatar to actually run faster than other avatars. We will continue to create Levi's jeans and Levi's jean jackets for the launch. These items have important attention to detail, and, if you look closely, you can see the famous Levi's stitching and the red tag label.
GS: Given There's deals with Nike and Levi's, and its emphasis on avatars' fashion, are you planning to team up with any other real-world clothiers?
AD: We are keeping our list of marketing partners pretty short right now. Nike and Levi's have been great partners and have a real commitment to digital marketing. Our partners really need to understand what immersive branding means and how to deliver real value to our members with their content. What is fun is to imagine that you could develop partners not just with clothing manufacturers but with automobile manufacturers, beverage companies, and many others. That said, we are taking it slow, and it is not a significant part of our short-term revenue model.
GS: Do you consider the inclusion of real-world brands in massively multiplayer games as the next frontier of advertising?
AD: The immersive medium is really a new marketing frontier--very exciting in terms of the long-term potential. [It's] much more compelling than banner ads, or pop-ups, or in-world billboards, which tend to distract the user instead of enhancing the experience. Instead of seeing a billboard, imagine creating new sneakers in There, buying them for your avatar, wearing them in-world, and then buying the exact same design for yourself at a real-world store.
GS: Currently, you're not charging these companies any money for featuring their products in the There world. Yet these products cost real money--around $5 in most cases--if users are financing their therebucks with actual cash. When do you plan on starting to charge companies for featuring their products?
AD: We're still working out the details of those relationships.
GS: Do you ever worry that the inclusion of so many real-world items will detract from There's fantastic atmosphere?
AD: Hmm. Actually the real-world items in There make the community seem more real. We didn't try and invent another fantasy role-playing game. We tried to invent a place where you had "real" interactions and experiences. What does that mean? It means you experience emotions in-world. You have fun, you meet new people, and you have the thrill of discovery and/or the excitement of winning a race. If I can buy Nikes offline, why can't I buy them in-world? We get into debates all the time here now. What is the difference between items in There and "real-world items?" The items in There are real--real to the members who use them. Just because they aren't tangible doesn't mean they aren't real.
GS: There has taken some flak for allowing users to use real money to buy therebucks. How do you respond to accusations that you're betraying the spirit of simulation games' simulated economies (for example, your avatar does work and gets paid) by allowing real-world economic factors to intrude?
AD: The There economy is real. The money supply moves like a real economy, and the therebuck has value (just like the greenback). I can't say we've gotten too much flak. Most members feel like it adds fun to the member experience. Members might decide to earn money through a job or use a credit card to spend money and treat themselves to something they've had their eyes on. How is that different than the real world??
GS: There is remarkable in that half of its funding has come from its employees. When the game goes live, what do you see as its primary profit center?
AD: An important distinction about There is that the product is really a platform. The first application for the platform is the launch of the US-based consumer product. In the consumer launch, revenue will come from three sources. First, members have shown that they really like the therebucks economy, as it allows them to earn and spend in-world currency. They use their credit cards to buy therebucks. Second, There will have a membership model. The model is simple. You can buy an annual membership for $49.95 or a monthly membership for a one-time activation fee of $19.95 and an additional $4.95 per month. Both plans provide a therebucks bonus when you sign up. We thought long and hard about these pricing plans and really tried to provide a strong value for the money. We will review these price points at the end of the fourth quarter and see how our members are reacting.
GS: The San Francisco Chronicle reported that you were approached by the US Army to create an antiterrorist training simulation.
AD: As I mentioned, There is a platform. A second application is a military application. We signed our first contract with the military in June of this year. Down the road, you can imagine other businesses, from a third party developer business to an international consumer product, to name two.
GS: There have also been reports that avatar-based simulations, like There, are being developed to train CIA agents. Did you ever foresee your technology being used for such a purpose? Does politics play in role in your business plan, or is all business good business?
AD: Interesting question. Remember, There was started almost six years ago in what now seems like a very different world. Terrorist attacks were not part of the US mindset. However, the founders built There around some key ideas, and it's those ideas that have put us together with the military. Ideas like: real-world physics, subtle detail of in-world conversations and body language, and the concept of There as a planet the size and shape of the earth. I don't think any of this was done with the military in mind. Today, we live in a world where warfare is unconventional, and the military needs "real-world" simulations with all of its unpredictability. As we mentioned, because There is a platform, we can separate the consumer business from what we are creating for the military. We were very lucky with the military, and, frankly, our product spoke for itself.
GS: Getting a juicy defense contract is considered the Holy Grail for many businesses. Do you see collaboration with the government as a major new revenue source for There?
AD: It's a revenue source, and, as a small company just starting out, we are happy to be involved. But we aren't counting on the military to be a significant revenue source. We want to keep our resources focused on building the US business and then expand from there (no pun intended).