Virtual Worlds 101 – part 2. Technology and the user experience (Section I)

Ambrosia Software's GooBall on Unity's browser platform

As you know, my goal with these posts is to express my passion and fascination with virtual worlds in a way that my non-techie friends can understand.  When I talk about technology in this section, kindly remember that I come from a marketing perspective.  While I have a pretty good grasp of the tech side of the space, that’s not my expertise.   Once again, I’ll add reference links for sites and data as I can over time.

As  a marketer, I am instead hyper-focused on the experiences of the first-time user, customer, consumer, or whatever you’d like to call the human perceptions.  It’s that initial interaction with the virtual world that will determine the likelihood of that human returning, thereby dictating whether there will be a large volume, user-based business going forward. 

Part 1 gave some brief definitions by way of giving examples of how virtual worlds are used.  Playing games, making friends, building things, looking at what others have built, are all important features or things to do so people will want to participate in some way and come back.  

Technology and the user experience (Section I).

Part 2 will talk about the virtual world technologies (or platforms on which the worlds are built), their impact on the initial user experience, and some of the controversies that have come up about these platform choices.  This is a pretty big topic so as this is the first post on technology, I’ve identified it as Section I.


The controversies that I’m referring to center around consumer-based virtual worlds that seek broad-based adoption – meaning that they want lots and lots of humans* to try, use, and keep coming back in large numbers e.g. millions of monthly, active human users.  These controversies don’t really apply to enterprise-level virtual worlds for business purposes.

*I say “humans” in all seriousness.  “Bots” or automated embedded scripts have been created to move in-world avatars around to trick the platform in counting them as being driven by a real live human being in real-time.  More on counting humans later.

For me, the best way to describe virtual world technologies and how they impact the user experience is by framing up the conversation around some of the controversies that have come up.

Controversy one:  Immersiveness.

The first controversial issue centers around how immersive the virtual experience is to people.  How real does it seem to people?   The most well-known immersive virtual world, Second Life, is a robust immersive virtual environment where you can:

  • view the world from your own eyeball-level perspective – 360 degrees around you and full up and down perspectives.   If you looked down, you’d see your feet.  If you looked up, you’d see only sky.
  • change the view of your surrounding and other avatars from a first person (through your eyeballs) to third person meaning that you’d see your avatar as a character on screen, too.
  • walk around in the world and items and people get bigger as you get closer to them, smaller as you move away.
  • walk around items and people, and they look whole.  You know, 3 dimensional.

I’d say that all these features make it feel like you are actually IN an entirely different world, in spite of your 2-dimensional monitor or laptop screen.

Data weight.

For anyone that captures digital video on their phone or camera, you know that moving images, aka video, takes a lot of data.  Video files can be quite large but are at least fixed data files (you see the same video everytime you play that file). 

Imagine then, the amount of data you need to have a full environmental image from every perspective.  A standing position alone takes an exponential amount of data.  Now image the data you need to have your avatar walk around, stop, change directions, change perspectives, move, interact, dance, etc.  Items and people get bigger or smaller, depending on if you’re coming closer to them or moving farther away.

And in most of these worlds, there are multiple environments to wander around in.  The amount of data is basically huge and the bulk of those images get loaded to your computer so you can move around and see things without having the images tile or stall.  That would be a bad or poor user experience.

Moreover, there are specific programs required to do each and every step – walk around, change directions, move, interact, dance, etc.  So you need a dedicated application downloaded to your computer that drives your computer to run the virtual world.  These are data intense or heavy applications and downloads.

Data heavy.  What does this mean to a new user?

As a new user to virtual worlds, even as someone who actually wants to use these, I found that the program downloads and steps to get started are actually daunting.  Even though they are generally one-time downloads, downloading and launching some of the apps hasn’t worked consistently for me and have crashed my computer several times.  When the download finally does work, opening it, registering and creating your avatar (the fun part) takes time. 

Then, depending on the virtual world, you can be dropped into the world without much assistance meaning that you are expected to figure out how to walk, talk, jump, change environments, or do whatever – on your own.  Thus far, my experiences have been pretty poor.  I set up accounts, create my avatars, and never come back.  Data shows that my experience is pretty typical for most new users of virtual worlds.

Second Life was notorious for this lack of help, the story being that it limited the users  (or Second Life “residents” ) to self-selected techno geeks, and that’s the way they liked it.  However, with the desire to drive more users, a new CEO – Mark Kingdon who hails from the agency world – has been brought aboard with the goal of making that initial experience more “user-friendly” with the hopes of keeping new residents around longer, and therefore, spend very real money.  Based on more recent data, the changes seem to be working.

Other consumer-focused, heavy virtual worlds that require an application download in addition to Second Life include, Vivaty, the Palace, Worlds of Warcraft, Runescape, Digital Space Traveler, Multiverse Places. 

Lightweight programs.

On the other end of the virtual world spectrum are the lightweight virtual worlds.  They are generally built on Adobe Flash which is installed on essentially 90% of all computers by now.  Therefore, no downloads to crash your computer; thus lightweight.  Depending on your flash version, you may need to update your flash program but again, very, very easy to do and most people are happy to do it since most casual games run on flash as well. 

Pretty much all the kid’s virtual worlds run on flash so Club Penguin, Habbo Hotel, Barbie, Ridemakerz, Neopets, GaiaOnline, Webkinz, Free Realms, Rocket On, Comcast iTown, Stardoll, Elf Island, Super Secret.

There is a third type of platform being developed by Small Worlds and Unity 3D that still requires a modest program download but then it runs in an internet browser window like Firefox or Internet Explorer.  These are new and I know of a few sites in beta but no significant launches and certainly no scale of adoption so more on those in my next post.  BTW, Unity’s live demos look awesome!

[UPDATE:  my bad!  significant 3-D browser-based launches include City of Eternals, Earth Eternal, and Cartoon Network’s Fusion Fall.  More in next post.]

Lightweight controversy.

So what’s controversial about lightweight virtual worlds?  Are they virtual worlds?  Yes, they are.  Immersive?  Not at all. 

The reason is that with flash, you basically have a fixed image as your background and your avatar moves around on top of that image.  The background image can be made extra wide so that it moves (or pans) when you move your avatar from one end of the image to the other making it seem like you’re exploring a new world.  You can also embed little surprises – short programs that run when you click on them or when your curser moves over them.  A closed treasure chest box can suddenly pop open with gold coins falling out. 

While everything can be illustrated using perspective (things further away from you are smaller, closer items are larger), they’re basically just 2-dimensional images.  You can scroll across the background but the perspective of the world doesn’t change (cannot fill your screen with only sky or your feet for that matter) as the perspective is fixed as third person.  Your avatar is also a 2D image, although it can change orientations (front view, side view, rear view) and do basic movements (dance, wave), they’re generally all the same size relative to one another.

But, with click of a mouse, you’re exploring, dancing, throwing snowballs, talking to people.  Nothing to learn.  Nothing to download.  Even a 5-year-old can do it.  Just like Diner Dash is a “casual” game, I’m now calling flash virtual worlds “casual” virtual worlds.

So there are two camps – those immersive purists who feel that only immersive virtual worlds are worthy of people’s time, attention, and money.  And those who create their worlds in flash. 

[UPDATE:  Adobe Flash 3D adds that 3-D effect to sites like City of Eternals.  More in next post.]

What does this controversy mean to everyday people?

Absolutely nothing.  Witness the rise in casual online games versus hard-core console games.  Same thing.  It’s an industry culture clash only.  But I can feel that clash when I go to meetings or talk to various folks in the industry.

Virtual worlds popularity.

My personal opinion is that it only takes looking at (a) the volume of monthly unique users and (b) the growing number of flash virtual worlds to say that casual virtual worlds provide really good experiences for their users.

Unique monthly users is a number that is defined differently by essentially everyone but it attempts to identify how many individual users login and use a site over the course of a month:

  • Club Penguin= 3.8 million monthly uniques at end of April 2008 (Nielsen; launched Oct 2003)
  • GaiaOnline = 7 million monthly uniques (per site; launched 2003)
  • Second Life = 750,000 monthly uniques at end of September 2009 (site blog; launched in June 2003)

Reality-like immersive or immersive with your own imagination? 

To me, it’s not whether a world is so immersive that it seems “real” but rather, I’m completely okay with using my imagination – and the fun aspects of what you can do in these flash worlds – to make these worlds equally real in people’s minds. 

This is something that kids do all the time in real live playtime – that world of make-believe when a red blankie tied around your neck turns you into Superman.  Or grab a stick and an eye-patch and suddenly you’re a pirate.  The ability to use your imagination and allow yourself to be immersed in play and just have fun is what we humans seem to lose as we become adults.  I believe casual virtual worlds in some way allows you to tap into your own imagination and add a greater element of fun for most people.

More technology controversies in my next post, Section II.

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