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Technology is Not Transparent
From the very first day of brainstorming our virtual world, we held ourselves to the goal of truly making the technology that ran our environments as transparent as possible. We wanted our members to connect with each other without being reminded that behind the scenes were servers, bandwidths, or bugs. We later learned that this lofty goal was a much harder task then any of us had first imagined. The reality of most online worlds is the technology that supports it can frequently remind your members exactly what its limits are. Despite our desire to have our world be entirely free of bugs which might distract you from your connecting with others, there was just no avoiding the unexpected and unwanted technical difficulties of running such a complicated web of new technologies. Basing our world on the physical, and allowing real world metaphors to guide our member's, works just as long as the difficulties they encounter are recognizably based on real world events. We all understand when a sudden thunderstorm arises, but we are less well equipped to deal with a friend's head slowly spinning clockwise from the middle of their chest, or our house disappearing and reappearing every thirty seconds. Having your world freeze, your clothes disappear, or your legs separate from your body are the stuff of nightmares and can easily pop the bubble of your fragile suspended disbelief.
It wasn't long before we realized that the vocabulary we used internally to describe these phenomena was also being used by our Members to describe their experience. Lag, framerate, physics correcting, and other words were becoming the best description of what it was like to be in the world we had created. Finding a balance between the limits of our technology and our aspiration for the experience we wanted to convey was always a challenge. No matter how immersive our world was, we needed to come to terms with the reality that our members may never be completely free of the occasional anomaly that might pull them momentarily out of their virtual experience.
Designing to Communicate to a Non-Technical Savvy Audience
I think, as game designers, we sometimes take for granted our customers are much more familiar with the sometimes abstract way in which our computers function. A gamers hands will automatically move to the W,A,S, and D keys when loading a 3D shooter for the first time, but not so the novice. This attitude unfortunately leaves out a large potential audience. This demographic, although they love their new computer, is still struggling with things as abstract as email and where attachments go when you download them. Designing for a technically un-savvy audience quickly reminds us how esoteric some of our traditional methods for navigating a virtual world can be. This also includes how a game is downloaded, where it lives on your hard drive, and how to open it. Each of these can become a scary barrier to the uninitiated, and might be the last thing they see just before they drag your product into their desktop recycling bin. This doesn't mean the challenge isn't worth the effort. In an industry that sits comfortably in the wallets of teen boys and college-aged men, we are missing a larger and potentially more lucrative audience. The computer and the Internet are wildly fascinating bits of technology and there are people with credit cards out there who would happily move beyond just email and online poker, if you could assure them they will not look foolish for attempting to use this new technology.
It has long been my belief that anyone will investigate infinite tomes of dry information if they see a goal they wish to achieve at the end of their effort. The opposite is also true; in that if you don't understand how a technology will directly enhance your life, you won't even click a hyperlink to find out more about it. Equally disheartening is finding out that your CPU muscle is just not going to measure up to the needs of this new computerized experience. These are not impossible hurdles for game designers to overcome, but it will come with some sacrifices. Creating a game that is intuitive to use "out of the box", and will run on a computer just purchased at Costco means constantly thinking about who your audience is and whether it will run on their lower end computer.
Make It and They Will Buy It
If there is any chief lesson we learned while building our virtual world, it is that the desire to own things is not purely a physical world pursuit. If you give your members things to purchase, they will, and beyond any rational expectation. From the beginning we had hoped that the purchasing of virtual merchandise would be a nice component to the interactive world we were designing. We created a modest catalog of items that included clothing, vehicles, and homes, and created some very basic tools to allow members to create items for sale as well. The truth is, our internal art team couldn't compete with the shear volume that a fan base of member-developers could produce, so this seemed a nice arrangement. Although our member tools were hard to use and acquired some knowledge of 3D modeling, our members persevered and produced an unprecedented amount of merchandise. It is true that you give away some of your aesthetic control over the product, but in trade, you establish loyal members/creators that build community through the objects they create. In the case of our product, those items created by our members were purchasable by others within the game and that profit could be turned back into real world cash or used to purchase other virtual objects. However, all of this success did not come without some sacrifices.
Watching Your World Evolve in the Hands of Your Audience
Probably the hardest thing to come to terms with while designing an aesthetically holistic virtual world was handing the keys and future of its design to its members. There is a reason why Disneyland does not allow Anaheim to spill into its themed lands. The question is -- where is the line drawn between consistent quality and unchecked member self-expression? One man's paradise could easily be another's eyesore. Various online games have tackled this challenge in their own way. While Linden Lab's Second Life is founded on the virtues of 100% member created content, games like Toontown Online allow you to purchase only Disney designed items, and Star Wars Galaxies allows you to create objects from only pre-approved assets. There are arguments against and in favor of each extreme, and it is up to their creators to decide which choice best fits the overall goals of their individual world. Probably the hardest for our project was communicating how these member-created environments might affect a member's overall experience of the product. While, as designers, we kept in mind the careful balance of polys and their effect on framerate, it became harder to articulate that a member's choice to display 200 objects on their virtual front lawn was actually hindering their computer's ability to display them, and was not a "bug" we could fix.
Another realization we made was that anyone running for city government discovers as soon as they are elected. Whether it is human nature or not, we are predisposed to distrust the motives of anyone placed in a seat of authority. Even though our deepest heartfelt desire was to fulfill the wishes and dreams of our members, our motivations were often questioned as potentially evil. As a society we have been trained to distrust "the man", whether government or corporate, and once we opened our service, our virtual community loudly questioned every choice we made, or failed to make. Where this affected me personally was when it concerned the dropping of personal objects throughout the landscape. While there was an outcry from individuals who complained that their neighbors were dumping the equivalent of a WalMart's worth of objects on their front lawn (causing their framerate to grind to a halt), there was an even louder group fighting for the "right" to place objects anywhere they liked. Ironically this argument worked its way deep into the halls of our company, where loud discussions were had as to where self-expression ended and enjoyment of the product began. This also included behavior in the form of "griefing" (purposely disrupting another person's fun for your own enjoyment). It seemed, almost organically, some areas of our product attracted griefing members more than others. Although our members agreed that griefing was an abhorrent activity, there was still a loud minority that argued griefers needed their own communities and to remove them would represent proof that all we were interested in was profit and not the health of our virtual society. Needless to say, there were no easy answers, and pure dedication to the product wasn't always enough to please everyone.
Just Because We Can… Should We?
I think we have come to a point in our history that will be defined by how we use the visual technologies we have at our disposal. As computers become more powerful, there is nothing we cannot visualize on our screens. The question arises, when is it too much? Can we still tell the story with less? Do games need to push our computer processors to be successful? Is it possible to create immersive online environments that transport not just gamers but everyone to yet unimagined new places?
It is easy to imagine that our desktop computers will soon be able to give us 40 hour long experiences that will rival anything we can see in the movie theatres. The realism, the storytelling, and the immersive interaction are something that is unparalleled in the entertainment industry, and is something we should always strive to improve upon. Unfortunately, the more we push that envelope, the more demands we make on our audience to purchase the state of the art hardware required to run it, especially when it comes to PC gaming. These demands limit this audience to a select demographic that can afford to upgrade their machines often and tend to have an insatiable appetite for ever more realistic recreations of Vietnam and WWII battlefields. The question is, just because we can produce this realism, and we do have a market that will consume it, should we stop just there? As game magazines are increasingly filled with what looks like the repackaging of the same game, I can't help but believe we are cheating ourselves out of many other opportunities to create truly diverse universes for our audiences to explore. When the expectations and the necessitates of huge profits cause games like Sam & Max 2 to be shut down in favor of "Counter-Strike with stormtroopers", we have to ask ourselves -- is it worth it? Are the only options for this technology to create increasingly realistic arenas for bloodshed?
All of this experience designing a virtual world did have the effect of illuminating the potential for a product to truly do more with less. If anything smothered our effort, it was our high expectations of return on our investment. Still, there remains the potential to transport a non-game savvy audience into a believable 3D environment for the purpose of something as simple as connecting with each other online. Although not the success we had imagined, our intentions were pure and innovative. If there is a glimmer of hope, let it be in the fact that as our computers become more powerful, these tools will be placed in the hands of designers not shackled by demographics and blockbuster budgets. Hopefully, we will all be able to experience and share our virtual world experiences with others, and not be so worried if they have the right system, understand the nuances of game playing, or have to want to frag their fellow player. Most of all, I hope players have an opportunity to experience some of the magic we encounter every day designing virtual places, without the emotional and financial cost being too high a barrier to allow them access.