Visions of the coming game metaverse

Experienced hands from the online space brainstorm about how to bring online gaming to the mass market.

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The growing excitement over massively multiplayer online games continued to spill into E3’s conference program last Thursday in Los Angeles.

In a panel entitled “Mapping the Future of Mass Market Online Worlds: From Niche to Mass Market,” representatives from a variety of online gaming backgrounds addressed the problem of transforming the online games of today--products specialized for certain groups, or “niches”--into products for the mass market.

The session was moderated by Jessica Mulligan, executive producer of Asheron’s Call, and featured Tabula Rasa executive producer Richard Garriott of NCsoft Austin, Nexon CEO Won Il Suh, Visual Concepts Entertainment president Greg Thomas, and There, Inc. chief technology officer Ken Duda. No clear answer emerged, but all panelists agreed that massively multiplayer online game design needs radical rethinking.

“They really are niche products,” asserted Suh, speaking about popular online role-playing games like EverQuest and Lineage. Suh argued that the only current mass market online games are “casual” games such as chess and scrabble, and then questioned whether such games even count as massively multiplayer experiences. “I think there’s a middle area North America isn’t pursuing,” Suh stated, citing Worms as an example of a game with wider potential appeal.

Duda stressed that designers must consciously target people of all ages and backgrounds, and he posed the central question, “What’s in it for them?” Duda suggested that the mass market will come online primarily to meet with other people they can’t otherwise see in the real world. As a result, Duda reasoned that online games must allow players to “truly feel like they’re with the other person...so they really feel like they’re making a connection.” Mulligan seconded this focus on the interpersonal, stating that “social systems are incredibly important.”

Garriott argued that current online massively multiplayer games are too “hardcore,” and that mass market and hardcore games are “mutually exclusive.” As an example, Garriott criticized that in many online role-playing games, players can lose their entire social group if they fail to maintain the same experience level as their friends.

Thomas took a slightly different perspective, claiming, “The hardcore isn’t as hardcore as we think they are.” Drawing from his experience with the ESPN online sports games, Thomas pointed out that the most popular play times coincided with real sports events, during which gamers would use the service simply to chat.

Throughout the session, panelists addressed the greater popularity of massively multiplayer online games in Asia. Suh explained that in Korea, “games are much more simple.” Suh suggested that online games--especially sports games, “don’t need to be as realistic as they are now.” Instead, Suh recommended that designers “need to think more like the mass audience.” However, Garriott, citing the poor stateside sales of NCsoft's Lineage, pointed out that features popular in Asia are “not fine-tuned for success in the US market.” Mulligan agreed, describing the failure of Asheron’s Call to sell in Asia due to a user interface that was “all wrong for the culture.”

Duda predicted that massively multiplayer online games would ultimately reach the mass market, envisioning, “I believe that in our lifetime, the metaverse will be created.” Duda then suggested that the metaverse would emerge in one of three ways--by expanding upon existing online games, by building from scratch, or by augmenting popular instant messenger services like AOL or Yahoo.

Garriott responded that the metaverse would be built from scratch, elaborating that virtual avatars need to be built into the entirety of the online experience. Garriott also predicted that there will exist multiple, competing metaverses unless a free, cross-platform backbone akin to the World Wide Web emerges.

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