Q&A: There founder Will Harvey

As There considers a major change to its business model, its founder talks about the dream that launched the hard-to-classify MMORPG--and where his vision for a virtual meeting ground stands today.

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Developing an open-ended, nongenre massively multiplayer online role-playing game is no easy task. Nor is supporting it. Ask the game's creator, Will Harvey, about the former, and ask the current caretakers of There about the latter.

This week, news of There's significant shift in its business model was reported in GameSpot. The company is reevaluating its consumer-side game environment, giving itself 90 days to determine if a licensing-only model might offer a more secure upside to the company. We spoke to Harvey from his West Coast home this week and asked him to give us some background on the game's early days and his own plans for the future.

GameSpot: Will, when did your connection to There start?

Will Harvey: I started the company with Jeffrey Ventrella, a brilliant artist/engineer, in my old bedroom in my parent’s house, so for the most part I am responsible for getting There off the ground.

GS: What's your relationship with There currently?

WH: I’m the Founder of There, and you can’t really retire from being the Founder of something, but I have left the company and I’m no longer on the board. The company is following a different path than I’d like to follow, so it is a natural parting of ways.

GS: What were the shared goals with There's original creators?

WH: The vision of There has always been to create a place for people to socialize with friends and meet people while doing things together. Other products have tried to do this sort of thing before, but never with such a sincere appreciation for the depth of human interaction that is possible in the real world and such a commitment to re-create that kind of experience online. If you meet someone skiing in the real world, for example, there are so many aspects of your personality that come through by doing things together: Do you ski out of bounds? Do you teach the person you are with? Do you make a fool of yourself when you fall? That kind of interaction, the kind that comes through by doing things together, really hasn’t been possible online except in the isolated domains in video games. The technology of There attempts to bring it all together, to support all the kinds of rich interactivity and human experience that top-tier video games are capable of, but in a single, unified world where everything works together.

GS: Does this latest news represent progress or regression to There? What does it mean to the other nongenre MMORPGs, if anything?

WH: There announced to its users that it is changing its focus to the government and military applications of its technology instead of the consumer product. Obviously, this isn’t good news for the users of the consumer product or to other nongenre MMORPGs, at least in the short run. There is some chance that the continuing work on the technology will come back to advance the consumer product down the line, but I think that is a slim possibility in the near term. I expect the technology platform and the consumer business to diverge, driven by the different demands of the markets. That said, the goal of There has always been, from the very beginning, to create a platform for online worlds. The recent news is just a different path to get to the same end point, if you take a sufficiently broad view of the goal.

Close your eyes and imagine what it is going to be like interacting with other people online 10 or 20 years down the line. It is very easy to believe you will be doing that in some kind of immersive virtual world, and that virtual world will be running on some kind of technology. There Inc. is very much still in the game to be the makers of that technology.

GS: What were the references you tapped in the game's formative days and years?

WH: The ideas of the metaverse and virtual worlds have existed in science fiction for about 20 years, in Vernor Vinge’s True Names and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, and others. I think just about every video game developer in the world has imagined a similar vision of the ultimate game. The technical and artistic challenge of creating this vision, however, is almost without precedent, combining nearly every aspect of computer science, software engineering, networking, operating systems, user interface design, game design, art direction, and production. It requires an extraordinary assemblage of talent from academia and industry to have a chance to pull it off. We managed to pull all that together at There. I think if I were asked what my most significant mark on There was, it would be bringing together the seeds of that group...that and maybe programming the hoverboat, which has truly delightful vehicle physics.

GS: The nongenre MMORPG space feels like it's in its infancy. Do you agree?

WH: Nongenre MMORPGS are doubly hard to make. Whereas genre games can focus their efforts on a particular subject and can draw on game structure that people already know, nongenre MMORPGS can do neither. If you look at the nongenre MMORPGS--There, Second Life, The Sims Online--they are all version 1 products that won’t really be complete until version 37. The challenge is making version 1 commercially viable. Each has chosen a strategy--socializing for There, building things for Second Life, and playing life for The Sims Online. None of them wants to compromise on the promise of being open-ended, and they all struggle to give users an experience that is both deep and understandable. That inherently takes time. It takes time to add depth across the range of things that you can do in any of these products. It takes time for users to get comfortable with the open-ended paradigm.

GS: What will success look like when you get there? Is there a known formula for success in the nongenre MMORPG space?

WH: Whether people view our attempts as daring or foolhardy, one thing almost everyone agrees on is that the nongenre MMORPG space is incredibly risky. A second thing that almost everyone agrees on is that, if you can get beyond the risk part, the upside of a success scenario is unfathomably large. Why would anyone take on such a daunting challenge without a possibility of an equally large payoff? The version 1s of these products are, in one way or another, games. But the version 37s are by definition platforms: 21st-century operating systems for online interaction. We’ll know what success looks like in its early stages when we see a product in this category become profitable and establish a track record of continually improving third-party content. Once we see that, we should start paying a lot of attention.

GS: Was There a social experiment or a business model in search of consumer traction?

WH: There has advanced the collective thinking in virtual worlds in countless ways. The business model is one of them. When I began There, the notion that people would spend real money to buy virtual items was purely hypothesis. Along the way, we saw harbingers of encouragement: people selling Ultima Online accounts for thousands of dollars, people selling EverQuest items all over eBay, etc. But it was still a hypothesis whether a company could legitimately base its entire business model on that premise. There Inc. proved that hypothesis true. The business model didn’t just search for consumer traction. It found it! The lifetime value of a customer to There is hundreds of US dollars--almost all of it spent on virtual items! The business model wasn’t the inspiration for There, but it is one of the ways There has advanced the field.

GS: What were the lessons of There? Are there things you would have done differently with today's knowledge?

WH: You can’t work on something for seven years without learning a lot of lessons. High on the list, though, is that seven years is way too long. When I founded There I believed that we had to build the whole thing to be commercially viable. I no longer believe that to be true. I think smaller products are possible, products that you could view as baby steps toward building the metaverse. One thing we have to keep in mind is that the idea of avatars and virtual items and online worlds is new to most people. Even if we can take giant steps with our products and technologies, the market may only be ready for baby steps.

GS: Is there an MMORPG model that you think "gets it"? Is anyone doing something right to foster a meaningful entry point into the cyberspace frontier (to crib a line from Vinge)?

WH: I think a lot of people get various pieces of the overall equation. There nailed the business model. Selling virtual items for real money is absolutely the way to go. It may take the MMORPGs some time to come around, but five years from now I expect this to be the dominant business model. The distinction between real-world currencies and virtual-world currencies will become blurred, as will the distinction between real-world objects and virtual-world objects. That is one piece of the equation we can consider solved. Other pieces aren’t so far along. Nobody has created a good entry point to the cyberspace frontier yet, unless you were to interpret the question broadly and talk about e-mail and IM. If you really mean 3D cyberspace, there is no shallow end of the pool. I think this is one of the two biggest problems that have held back There and Second Life (the other is the minimum hardware requirement).

GS: In what ways are virtual worlds real, meaningful, or authentic to you?

WH: I was a game developer long before anything else, so one thing I like to think about is what virtual worlds will mean to game developers down the line. Twenty years ago a high school student with no computer science education could make a game and start a company. Artists could create and sell games based on their own new ideas. Game development was accessible to all kinds of creative talent, with no barrier of entry.

Today game development is dominated by large teams and high-stakes license deals. There is no way a high school student or artist could get a foothold in today’s market. Even the big companies have to put so much money at risk that they rarely can take the risks of innovation.

Virtual worlds have the potential to change all that. As MMORPGs evolve to become virtual-world platforms, developers will be able to create their own games, stories, artwork, objects, and experiences inside the virtual worlds without having to build the entire thing themselves. You’ve seen the beginnings already in the industry of user-created content for The Sims and in the clothing businesses for There and Second Life. The platforms are a long way away from the level that would interest professional game developers, but you can see the path. In the last 20 years the capital required to write a game has risen by nearly a factor of 1,000, from 10 thousand dollars to 10 million! I look forward to the day it drops back down to 10 thousand, and see that as a very real possibility.

GS: Anything in the works for you now?

WH: I’m working on something new, but I’m not talking about what that is yet.

GS: Thanks, Will.

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