Virtual worlds and social networks

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There are several topics around virtual worlds that I plan to get to in this blog, but I haven’t been able to find the time recently. Nevertheless, I recently answered a long series of questions from someone who is writing a book about virtual worlds, so I thought I would put out one of my responses for discussion.

The question was about the future of virtual worlds and social networks. I responded:

I think we will continue to have separate 3D virtual worlds and 2D social networks, but we will have some 3D virtual worlds become strong social networks.

Minimally, you can imagine moving something like a MySpace page to a 3D MySpace room, along with objects that you can inspect and possibly take or copy. Rooms can then be grouped in apartment complexes and you could relocate as necessary. For example, your room could be in a complex related to a college or high school, and then you could relocate it to another complex that is devoted to something like Latin American music. The point is that the apartment complex, as I have termed it, will allow you to wander around and meet people with similar interests or profiles.

A social network could use virtual world technology to meet its goals, just as it uses web technologies today. Indeed, a “social network” used to mean people meeting up in real life and interacting! I think a better question would have been “how will social networks evolve to make use of virtual world technology to extend their functionalities.” I gave an example above.

One topic that I hope to get to sooner rather than later is mentioned over in the Dark London blog:

But I believe there is a fourth rule that makes a 3D space a ‘world’ and that is it needs to have some kind of mythology, in the broadest sense of the term.

I’ve been thinking about this for weeks and I think it is highly important. Some virtual worlds will have a single, all encompassing mythology, while others like Second Life might develop separate mythologies for some of the distinct regions. Are mythologies what ultimately make some virtual worlds more “sticky” than others, to use the early web marketing term?


  1. Bob,

    The question of the relationship between mythology and “stickiness” (which in relation to myth might better be called loyalty) is an appealing one. My sense, however, is that its contribution is minor, and even then, only to really be found in MMOGs and not free-form virtual worlds.

    I think it’s reasonable to say that SL, VLB, There, AW, etc. have enormous problems with retention compared to MMOGs. Someone needs to do that study, but I can tell you that when I was at Sony and doing up the business model for Everquest, I put in a modest estimate for churn, and the real number was less than half that….retention was spectacular.

    Now, one reason virtual worlds have an apparent problem may be the lack of an enduring mythos or, more crudely, backstory or narrative conceit. But I think the real reason has to do with motivation. Let’s face it, if you do nothing in a non-game VW…nothing happens. But if you do nothing in a game, you die. Furthermore, in a vw there is no concept of attainment (leveling, for example) to provide positive motivation. This leaves many people with the sense of, ok, now what? Followed by acute boredom, followed by…buh-bye.

    In well-designed MMOGs, there is careful attention paid to play-balancing the early experience and in designing a mix of solo and social components. Over time, the requirements for team play emerge more and more…and the need to maintain level with your mates helps drive retention. None of this has anything to do with mythology, at least not in the literal sense I’m thinking about. Perhaps there are more post-modern concepts of mythology at work here, but in any event, my point is that dynamics more than myth drive loyalty.

    The challenge we have with VWs is that they have neither myth nor play dynamics. When Forterra was There (and ran There) we used to have this, um, frank and candid discussion about this element of design all the time. Instead of play mechanics, vw’s have an economy, which is of interest and benefit to the few rather than the many. But I think that’s why we see 8.5M paying and active subscribers to WoW…but for the VW community, the same number or larger of total email addresses but a miniscule fraction of active users, and of that group, a fraction of that, paying.

    All of which I see as opportunity….


  2. Ummm…. which part of fun on the playground didn’t you get to have?

    Buffy kept a loyal fan base for 8 seasons. It wasn’t the special effects. It is about compelling action, engaging plot and endearing characters.

    Creating those without a backstory is an exercise in mimicry.

    I spent the holiday working out some bugs in the River of Life character, Kamala. There is one article at on the development of her backstory. See “Walking Kamala”. While the idea was to blog the code that motivates her, blogging the history that motivates me to write the code is every bit as important and the part most world builders fail to grasp. Make up as many metaverseMaven terms as are needed to establish cred, but it is just storytelling. A better topic is what animation and interaction techniques drive a story in a free-roamer. It is tougher than a linear plot but it relies heavily on the backstory.

  3. I might not be clear here.

    A free roamer is what most call a virtual world. It may or may not be MU but it allows the user to freely roam the world, clica, etc. I’ve been working on storytelling techniques for the ROL free-roamer. The approach I am using is to build botAvatars that go their own way, do their actions, etc. If you click on them, you become privy to what they think and express. They will take you to places with other objects that you can click on for shows (integrated music, images, text). As she walks, she will automatically carry and display music and text but unless you are bound to her, you won’t see these. Given resource limits, it is straightforward enough to create characters that roam a world and evolve (think levels) as you interact with them and the objects they interact with. In the example of Kamala, she will walk that initial path until you work out what object to change, then she will go into a new cycle. If you interact with her correctly, she will go to the final cycle that ends the story of her character. The combinations are obvious.

    The hairy part is working out how to effectively manage states using X3D/VRMLs proto/externproto routing and local script fields. Note that I am not persisting any of this between sessions although with the SAI and http or xmlhttp, that isn’t difficult.

    But to your main point, I think the myth or backstory is very useful. The storytelling art is conveying it to the user so they begin to pick up clues. For example, unless one does figure out what is Kamala’s history, then the object to change her cycle has to be picked randomly. The free roamer aspects work anyway and you actually don’t have to involve yourself (the main advantage of a free roamer). The artful balance is when a world object entangles you without your volition and you have to work your way out to get back to free-roaming. Entangling with the characters are how you get the clues.

    So one might think of backstory as the story spine that creates the entanglement framework in a world in which one free roams but can be entangled or can select entanglement. Another word for that is karma. Backstory is karmic. Myth is dharma. If you buy into the myth of Kamala’s world, you know more about the objects in it. If you understand her backstory, you know more about her entanglements with them. Understanding both is how you can select your actions to successfully move her or any other character to different cycles (sequences that loop back to the beginning forever until you change something).

  4. Hi, I’ve added a follow up post that may or may not shine some light on what I meant when I talked about mythology! I agree with you Robert, that open platform vws will struggle with ‘mythology’ or backstory in a way that more game driven MMOs will not, but I still see Second Life, for example, as having a mythology based on Neal Stephenson’s conecpt of the ‘Metaverse’, even if this mythology is weaker in definition than the in depth back story for WoW or LotRO.

    You’re right that my use of the term mythology is informed by some of the postmodern definitions of the term, perhaps cosmology would be a better term, but as I describe it, it’s about knowing your place in the grand scheme of things. WoW for example does this very quickly through making players decide whether to be Horde or Alliance and they need not read any of the backstory to grasp this simple axis. As I suggest in my post, free-form vws could benefit from giving new entrants a series of choices based on their interests or inclinations, in doing so they would become aware of what other players might be doing in the world and find commonality or difference with them. As it happens anyone who sticks with Second Life eventually finds ‘their people’ as opposed to the people they’re not, it just takes longer for this mythology to emerge from the ‘noise’.

    One of the big problems for free-form vws is that new players are at a loss about what to do, so giving them choices and pointers instead of absolute freedom is a way to give them a sense of purpose, players can always choose to ignore this if they have pre-determined ideas about what they want (kind’ve like Oblivion where you can choose to be a class or invent your own) but some element of restricted choice is often beneficial. In fact you could argue that their is some mythology builtinto the choice of avatar made during the signing up process, yiu can choose conventional, furry or goth etc. but these choices should be built upon once people enter the vw.

    I also argue that brands entering Second Life need some kind of narrative structure and perhaps even ludic elements to create more captivating experiences, rather than the ‘ghost town’ shopping experiences that currently litter the less popular islands.

    Hope this is helpful.

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