"Inventing the Future of Games," a day-long symposium April 15 in Silicon Valley, aims to explore the possibilities of the next decade of gaming innovation and technology. Sponsored by the UC Santa Cruz Center for Games and Playable Media, the symposium will gather some of the brightest minds of academia and industry to discuss the advancement of game design and technology.
Keynote speaker Rod Humble, CEO of Linden Lab shared some insights at this symposium – about 50 minutes in length. After watching, I’ll go into a bit of analysis and personal opinion.
[TLDR Warning: But at least I’ve added pictures this time…]
Despite my raging cynicism at times, I do believe there are a lot of interesting ideas during this keynote, however I do have a fundamental issue with the premise of this symposium – or at least the choice of Rod Humble being the keynote speaker to kick it off.
If the purpose of a keynote speaker is to set the stage for the rest of the symposium, which in this case is gaming, then it may not be the best choice to have Rod Humble be that speaker. While Rod does have an extensive experience with gaming (coming from EA) the fact that he’s now the CEO of Linden Lab (Second Life) creates ambiguity for what it is that Second Life actually is, not to mentions creates the deliberate unspoken connection between Second Life and gaming.
First and foremost, Second Life is not a game. It is a an open ended, massive multi-user virtual environment. There are no goals but that which you make for yourself. That is the most glaring difference between Second Life and a game. Listening to the keynote speech left me in a constant state of cringing merely at just how many times I heard the word “game” used in the keynote.
While, luckily, Second Life and “game” weren’t used together in the same sentence (as far as I could ascertain), the sentiment was there nonetheless and that worries me.
Inventing the future of
When we think of games, we immediately begin to think of trivial things. This isn’t always the case, but it’s a majority thought. We don’t really talk about the experience of things like playing Rad Racer as a child, but we do talk about the experience which surrounded it. We remember our friends coming over to play, and competition, as well as the room we were in and what kind of day it was, or conversely what it was like when you unwrapped that game on your birthday, and the feeling of exhilaration as you placed the cartridge into the console… games play a trivial part of the overall experience.
That doesn’t mean that games aren’t an important part of that experience, but it’s good to keep things in perspective. When games began including more interaction and dependence on human players for the overall experience, let’s say MMORPG or the like, we began to merge the experience with the trivial game which staged the environment by which that experience would take place.
MMORPG is an excellent example, in that to me it represents a sort of hybrid approach to the experience. Much of the game environment is pre-generated and carefully planned by a multi-million dollar team of designers in a game studio somewhere and published for an open ended gaming community which participates and takes on these new quests either on their own or in groups.
This could be different from classic gaming wherein maybe 1-4 players could play at the same time, and the game was a static experience in that the level design (environment) and most of the experience was predetermined, with the exception of how the players interacted with that game environment.
But now we are beyond mere games, and even the constructs of MMORPG in the evolution of experience. We’re reaching into the next level of gaming environment where we shed the old and embrace the new – first with the notion that it’s just a game.
The Rise of Synthetic Environment Experiences
The difference between a game and a synthetic environment is that the synthetic environment takes no interest in pre-engineering the virtual space for the consumer of the experience. Much in the same way as we invent a toolbox to facilitate the creation of the environment, and the platform by which it will run, but do not give any indication of what the user of that platform and toolbox should be doing with their abilities.
Wherein a game company would clearly write out the premise of a game environment and the storyline by which the players should adhere, a synthetic environment has no such preconceived notion. We do not participate in a virtual world environment such as Second Life because there is a princess that needs saving, although such a premise could certainly arise from the users of the environment as they see fit to create (roleplayers, get your mind out of the gutter). Therein is the fundamental difference between a game and a synthetic environment space.
Awhile back I had made the assertion that the Second Life viewer needed a basic and advanced mode available in order to indoctrinate new users into the virtual environment without the complexity of the full viewer thrust upon them, and even went so far as to suggest that if a user was able to enable and utilize the advanced menu in the viewer then the option to switch to an advanced mode should be located there. It still remains a valid assertion, although the theory differs wildly from the practice as we can see in the actual implementation of the basic and advanced view in the latest viewer.
There are many things that bother me about the actual implementation of the basic and advanced view in the latest Second Life viewer, but most of all it illustrates a polar opposite to the complexity and quite possibly removes the most important elements of the experience – both important to the new user as well as important to Linden Lab as a company.
The most obvious loss in the basic viewer mode is the ability to spend Lindens.
There is no inventory, no landmarks, and no money (real or imagined).
The new user experience strips away the most important aspects of the community and oversimplifies to the point of absurdity. While I am not against simplification of the complexity that is the Second Life viewer, I do take offense at the premise that new users are altogether too stupid to spend money or change their clothes, or that the company responsible for those abilities somehow made the decision that it’s in their own best interest as well as the new users to simply remove those abilities from their immediate access.
This method of simplification strips away the importance of the basic premise of a synthetic environment such as Second Life – in that there is a thriving economic model of transaction, and that this transaction ability is what drives a majority of the content and creators in the environment. It is this same economic model which drives the users to have an inventory by which they can sort, collect and utilize their own creations and the creations of others, whether that be clothing, vehicles, gadgets or any number of other items. The same can be said as to why an outfit tab is required, or even landmarks… it simply boils down to the economic drive which is the model of the synthetic environment.
But I digress…
The conference itself was to highlight and brainstorm the future of gaming, and as intelligent as the speakers were who attended or spoke, I feel they are missing a bigger picture in much the same way as I believe that a gaming executive from EA is missing the bigger picture concerning Second Life.
First impressions mean a lot when it comes to games, and I use that term loosely and for clarification only. When you play a game, the fundamental abilities given to the user dictate what they should expect going forward as the experience progresses.
It’s like being forced to play Super Mario Brothers 3 from the beginning with only a single life, no power-ups, and without the ability to get extra lives by collecting money, and when you finally beat the game, the Princess tells you “Oh, by the way, you could collect money, buy extra lives, and use all of these super powers by pressing Select in the beginning of the game to turn them on”. Clearly the first words out of our mouth at the point would have been “You bitch…”
I liken this mentality to the Wizard of Oz syndrome. Dorothy, (the user), is presented with a fantastic new world to explore and take part in, but from the onset merely wants the ability to go home. She is forced to travel throughout Oz, doing mundane things and jeopardize her life a few times before Glinda (the admin) bothers to tell Dorothy that she’s been wearing the Ruby Slippers and had the ability to go home from the beginning. In the real world, how many people would have actually gone through all of that instead of giving up? Furthermore, what kind of benevolent witch is Glinda to keep that very obvious bit of information away from Dorothy to begin with? No, I’d have very different words for Glinda than “Thank you”.
While the experience is something Dorothy will likely remember, having the ability to do something that clearly constitutes the premise of the entire experience taken away from you is disturbing at best. It takes away the understanding of the experience, and in the context of Second Life, new users who see the basic viewer will get their first impressions of what Second Life actually is from that basic viewer.
As it stands, the basic viewer is a dumbed down 3D chat room. The experience is largely spoon-fed and linear in every aspect, from the pre-approved destinations guide, to the avatar itself. In short, Second Life is being treated like a game experience and not a robust synthetic environment, which is entirely expected behavior from a gaming executive. But what is more disturbing is that the Basic view on the Second Life viewer too closely resembles this interface from IMVU.
Not surprisingly, the best advances in the viewer aren’t coming from the company responsible for the product, but instead the community itself with TPVs. If the community can make a better viewer, and the community makes all of the content, and with OpenSim quickly gaining ground for the back-end, what exactly does Linden Lab expect to remain for themselves for the future?
I suspect in order for Linden Lab to actually make a difference again, they’ll have to be the leaders and innovators they once were in the industry, and not constantly playing catch up or “me too” in the industry. A majority of the innovation with Second Life is coming not from Linden Lab, but the prosumer community it relies on.
Years ago, and even to this day, I heard a single question repeatedly in ActiveWorlds from new users upon arrival at the gate – “How do I play this game?” and with Second Life under the guise of a video game mentality, I suspect we’ll hear the same question repeatedly asked all over the grid.
So, let’s take a moment to try to actually answer that question.
“How do you play the game Second Life?”
Trying to answer this question is like trying to answer the similar question “What is the Internet used for?”
Porn, video games, videos, research, web applications, email, blogs, social media, chat-rooms, news, and countless other things. But is the Internet just a game?
I don’t think it can be “just” anything, any more than a synthetic environment like Second Life can neatly fall into a preconceived notion. Treating Second Life like a video game and dumbing it down absurdly to meet that lowered expectation is not only a disservice to the new users as well as the existing long-time users, but quite frankly I find it incredibly insulting.
Of course, I also find it incredibly insulting to see an address bar at the top of the viewer along with a forward, back and home button but come to find out that one of the most popular 3D virtual environments in the world is apparently incapable of using the same space as a built in web browser. I mean, it’s not rocket science… Instead of integrating a web browser properly into the Second Life viewer, they decided to try their hand at integrating the Second Life viewer into a web page, all while making their Viewer 2 simply look like a web browser so it would seem familiar to new users.
How about actually finishing something for once, instead of getting halfway through it and saying “good enough”? A perfect example of this half-assed attitude is Windlight itself, and the idea of implementing mirrors, as well as a number of other half-implemented ideas.
Here’s what the integration of a real web browser in Second Life looks like, courtesy of the extensive JIRA I filed for it in September 2010.
Don’t bring Second Life to the web, bring the web to Second Life.
The future of gaming, or more importantly; The Future of Experience will come out of common sense and not trying to shoehorn old paradigms into emerging culture. This is why Second Life is beholden to the prosumer community that uses it, and is governed by the actions of that same community.
How often can a “game” company put a game engine in front of millions of people and say “You make the experience…”. That’s like Square|Enix releasing Final Fantasy: The “Whatever, here you finish making the game” Chronicles.
The Future of Games, as it were, is not in the game but in the communities that not only play and experience those environments, but increasingly they will also be the creators of those experiences from the ground up.
Being CEO of Linden Lab is like being the King of England, it’s really just a title without any real power. It’s possibly the only job where 99% of the people working for you aren’t actually on your pay roll, and in fact are literally paying your company to work for you. Unlike other companies, the majority of the product and experience in Second Life is created by the same people you are charging to do so, and it’s your job as CEO of Linden Lab to keep those people happy.
If you don’t, you’ll sink the ship, Captain.
I had quite a lot more to write about on this subject, The Future of Experience, but to be honest it would turn out to be the length of a small book and as we both know, these blog posts are already lengthy to begin with.
So let’s leave it off here, and I’ll continue in the next blog post:
The Future of Experience: Procedural Model of the World