TGS 2008: Turbine's Crowley on socializing MMOs

Lord of the Rings Online developer's CEO talks about collision of virtual worlds and social networking; Mines of Moria expansion dated for Nov. 18.

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TOKYO--In June, massively multiplayer online game developer Turbine landed $40 million in funding to help bring new titles to market and expand beyond its PC roots. Job listings spotted later in the month showed the developer of Dungeons & Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online was looking for console engineers with experience working on the Xbox 360 or the PlayStation 3.

Since that time, the publisher has been somewhat quiet about its plans, except to promote the first Lord of the Rings Online expansion, Mines of Moria, which will launch in North America and Europe November 18. Today, though, Turbine president and CEO Jim Crowley presented a keynote address at this week's 2008 Tokyo Game Show which focused on the intersection of traditional MMOGs and online social networking.

Obviously, massively multiplayer online games are, by definition, social, with most of the content in games such as LORTO, World of Warcraft, and more recently Warhammer: Age of Reckoning, geared toward cooperating or clashing with friends or strangers. But Crowley believes MMOs need to evolve further to include the social networking elements of sites such as Facebook and MySpace to cater for the demands of their audience.

And it's not just for the demands of current MMO players. Crowley says the next generation of players--kids he likes to term as being "born digital"--will expect their social and gaming worlds to seamlessly combine both within the game and on the Web. He said including things such as forums, friends' lists, news feeds, user videos, achievements, and more on a Web interface outside the game will not only extend the appeal of MMOs to current fans, but bring new players into the market.

"It's fundamentally what's happening now anyway. There's just as much activity happening inside the world as outside the world in terms of posts and forums and the like. There's just a groundswell of demand for this capability. The communities themselves are trying to that larger Web 2.0 space, and it's important to capture that," Crowley declared. "The born-digital generation expects those capabilities and will continue to accelerate over time. And you have to find a way to marry the two of them."

Turbine's own LOTRO is about to increase its social networking footprint, with a functionality update planned for release in December. The update--separate from the Moria expansion--includes a Web page that links directly to game servers to provide accurate real-time news feeds, player profiles, friends lists, blogs, user videos, and character achievements. "It makes the world more sticky, but it also allows you to tap into that viral power of the social networks, which inevitably drive consumer activity," he said.

But while making MMOs more like social networks is Crowley's goal, he believes they won't ever rival the likes of Facebook or MySpace in sheer size. "The big social networks you see today are incredibly horizontal in nature. What we are talking about doing is driving a vertical intersection into that, so it can start spreading horizontally. I don't think any specific MMO will be of that [Facebook or MySpace] size, but you will see as MMOs turned themselves inside out and expose themselves into these social networks, that they'll start tapping into that community," he said.

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