Dr. Richard Bartle has been a veteran in online worlds since he co-wrote the first multi-user dungeon in 1978. At the Indie MMO Game Developers Conference in Minnesota, he addressed the question, "Where will virtual worlds be in ten years?"
Bartle joked, in starting, that the implication of the question is that people assume that he is surprised virtual worlds have come so far as they have, when in fact he thinks they haven't gone far enough.
As to the future, Bartle explained, how he answers the question varies depending on which conference he's at. With designers and developers, he's excited about the future.
But he's attended many events, often finding himself frustrated and depressed by business folk and educators. At all of these engagements, total strangers have asked him what the future will be like -- and he joked that, when dealing with accountants and lawyers, he's left wondering if virtual worlds even have a future.
So Bartle outlined possible futures from the perspective of each group.
The Lawyers And Accountants
From this point of view, he speculated on what people might say, looking back, in 2028, and thought it might sound something like this: "People thought games and non-games should be treated differently by the law," Bartle said. "They still are for boxing, football and other sports, but not virtual worlds. Back in 2008, they were separate."
Continuing his hypothetical look back from this future, Bartle reflected, "Only one well-meaning judge applied Second Life thinking to WoW. The rot started when the EULA was struck down in 2007; EULAs aren't bulletproof, particularly those parts that seemed to sign away the rights of players. The critical point was when players won ownership of their goods into play."
As Bartle pointed out, under IP laws, if people own things you don't get to destroy or alter those things -- in design terms, you don't get to nerf them. "Plus," he continued, "you didn't get to deny people access to their property by banning them. You can't stop people from selling stuff they own. Real-money transactions are supported by the law; with RMTs, endemic virtual objects could have real-world value."
That means, then, that killing mobs for drops becomes a "game of chance" with a cash reward -- and Middle America would go up in arms over the "gambling."
Theft and gold-farming actually could become a way to launder money, too, using petabytes of data every day, prompting, in Bartle's scenario, legislation to enact taxation laws that force users to pay income tax on virtual items they earn in games.
"When I go to a law conference, this is the future that appears before me," Bartle said. "Ownership of goods is almost accepted as an inevitable future -- it's quite scary and depressing. Programmers see bugs in code, lawyers see bugs in the law, accountants see bugs in everything."
He continued, "Common sense may prevail, because if you know there is an issue, you can avoid it. but how many law people go to games events? How many games devs go to lawyer events? It's all going on in the background."
The Academics And Business Folks
In the second scenario, Bartle says, 2028 might look back on a real world that's moved on, leaving the gamers behind and making them irrelevant.
What would historians say about the time since 2007 in this fictional future scenario? "Gamers were the pioneers who tamed the new lands. Some found gold. Some didn't. But on the whole they went out there to explore, not to profit. They could do things with the freedom they had -- the reason people make games, is they have the freedom to do it. Once civilization appears you're trapped into doing what's happened in the past; you're trapped in a paradigm and you follow a model."
So while in our present day 2007 we may be in a time when independent developers can make things they couldn't five years ago, in five years they might not be able to make them, Bartle suggested, as business folks and academics begin their "migration" into the space.
His hypothetical speculation in this scenario? If it were 2028, people might look back and say, "The mountain man came down and found there were auto sellers there. Virtual worlds were attractive because of the specialness. The settlers removed the special and applied their own ideas of fun, [creating] a pale shadow of what once was in 2018."
Rather than a distinction between game worlds -- places of excitement and freedom -- and virtual worlds, as adjuncts to reality, Bartle hypothesized this line could be erased. In the future, he says, MMOs could be all the same -- same protocols, transferable characters. Once, their separateness made them special.
Looking back on this time from 2028, Bartle might say of MMOs, "When they became part of the real world, too much reality broke through, they were absorbed."
Bartle said that when he goes to business or education conferences, the "future" makes MMOs look like ways to sell people things or to paper over cracks in the school system. "Virtual worlds as part of the real world are not special," he said. "They're regarded as just tools, content delivery mechanisms, just another part of the world wide web blandness, a dilution of the paradigm could remove everything they have to offer."
He added, "Some corporate types see no difference between Second Life, WoW, and Facebook, [as if they] all are there for the same purpose."
The Game Developer's Future
In the last future scenario, Bartle foresees the flowering of independent MMOs bringing in new players. "Not everybody likes elves or ray guns or zombies," he pointed out. "Some like all three, especially when the ray guns are turned on the elves by the zombies."
He added, "Casual doesn't mean... abstract or bad. Casual games players don't all read the same books or watch the same movies. Giving them more of the same won't work; they want new and different things. [If] MMO devkits and low-cost art animation assets owned up to all and sundry, the real world [becomes] a better place."
This imaginative and accessible future is the one Bartle sees when he speaks to designers and developers. "Passion can be brought to the work," he said. "Imagination and freedom of spirit are tremendous drivers. What you get from MMOs, you can't get anywhere else... You can only get that from a space that is separate from reality."
So he calls these futures The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly -- the Good, where virtual worlds give humans a place to be human; the Bad, where virtual worlds are stifled by laws; and the Ugly, where they become "staggeringly mundane."
He then asked for audience predictions as to which of these outcomes is the most likely -- the audience just about split equally into thirds, "just as I expected." But Bartle thinks that MMOs will win.
He concluded, "More seriously, the future is unknown in ten years time, but it will look like this. MMOs provide too much for people for them not to succeed. We'll never be condemned to obscurity, they're just too damn good for any problems or obstacles to be any more than a temporary setback."