The BBC’s article “Beating Warcraft at its own game” featured a handful of games intent on snatching up a share of the alluring MMO market. But is that really how it works? What’s really behind a player’s decision to move from one world to another, be it single player, online, or MMO? Can two successful MMO worlds each take a “share” of the market, or would it be more true to say that this an all-or-nothing game? Ever since watching some of the controversy regarding Star Wars Galaxies, I’ve been fascinated by what you might call “gamer migrations.”
And so I started each interview out with a simple premise: that gamers were moving in tribes. World of Warcraft, in my mind, wasn’t the ‘king of the mountain’ because it was the best world out there, whatever our criteria might be. It was prominent because the right people played it, giving it a kind of social gravitational mass. The social bonds, whether forged in or outside of a game, influenced when gamers would move, and for how long they would stay. Some of these interviews dug deeply into this idea, while others carved out their own intriguing territory.
Each of the five academics interviewed added a unique flavor to these questions of how players move, where single player fits into the picture, and the kinds of games that we’ll be migrating to in the future. While ‘gamer tribes’ weren’t the only thing seen as dragging along gamers, many of these scholars agreed on the importance of people.
Even if gamers in these worlds are all, as the PARC Research Center suggests, “alone together,” it’s nice to think that we might occasionally grind with our wife’s level 70 Night Elf, or level 90 Jedi, or whatever. Or is sociality truly, in the grand scheme of things, unimportant? Following are interviews with Dr. Ed Castronova, Dr. Aaron Delwiche, Dr. Henry Jenkins, and PhD. Candidates Jeff McNeill and Florence Chee.
Edward Castronova heads the Synthetic Worlds Initiative, a research organization currently working on Arden, an online world based on the works of William Shakespeare. Edward is one of the foremost gaming academics in the world, and is well known for his work on the economies of MMO games, for organizing the Ludium conferences, and also for founding the popular Terra Nova blog. He has authored numerous publications, including the book Synthetic Worlds.
What are the major reasons that gamers go from one game to another?
Ed Castronova: There’s a bunch of stuff going on, and a big part of it is this social network element. You want to be on the network your friend is on, whether it’s a guild, group, or whatever. But this kind of a network is going to cap out at one or two hundred people. The network effect will peter out at a certain size.
But there are a few other reasons that we move around.
We’re going to see bigger worlds become more successful because of the production values. It’s kind of like a blockbuster movie, the ones that make the most are the ones that spend the most. So really expensive, high-quality virtual worlds are going to have an advantage here.
There’s a third thing that actually argues against size. I think there’s a broad distribution of taste about how you’re going to be heroic. Right now we’ve got space, and Tolkien, and not a whole lot else. There are a few different worlds, and its more than there were 4 or 5 years ago. But coming soon we’ll really see an explosion in the different types of Synthetic worlds out there: Star Trek, more Comic Book heroes, worlds that are tailored to the different fantasies that we have.
So you think that we’re going to see people move based on the fantasies that they’re looking for?
EC: Yeah, I do. I think most people have a tendency to get caught up in different fantasies in different points of their lives. Take a regular guy. He wants to buy a boat, so he buys a boat. Then he gets over it. Maybe. He could keep playing with the boat, or maybe go on to something else.
What other ideas do you have on how people move from one world to another?
EC: Sometimes we’ll see a big group of people that met in meatspace, and now they’re in cyberspace. I just joined this guild that goes back to Dark Age of Camelot. A guy in my D&D (Stormreach) group was in the guild, and that brought me in.
It seems true that you’ll sometimes see this anchoring effect. If one person plays this game over here, at some point it’s like a flock of birds. They all sort of fly off. This idea of tribalism seems fairly accurate.
It’s not that one world is going to capture people, there will be a lot of change. It’ll be more chunky change, it won’t be smooth.
What do you mean by chunky change?
EC: Rapid chaotic change, it’ll be going smooth for awhile, with periods of stability, and then suddenly you’ll see periods of bulky but large changes. For instance, you can say that in 2006 nothing really happened in the MMO space. At some point, well, we’re going to see some of these changes.
What’s in store for single player games?
EC: I think that pure single player is always going to be in the market, but I don’t think that it’s going to dominate the market. What we’re likely to see in the single player space are small towns where people meet and compare notes. You’ll play the game, and you’ll rarely encounter people, but there will be other players in the worlds that you’ll come across very occasionally.
Single player games are going to be quasi-public spaces, with the purity of a single player game, but the emotional significance that comes from multiplayer.
Finally, if you were trapped on a desert island with only one game to last you through the long years, what would it be?
EC: I would take the first Neverwinter Nights, because I could endlessly make adventures to play for myself. It’s not just a gameplay tool, but it’s an authoring tool.
One of my favorite things to do was to create two unique level one characters, make 40 copies of each, and then watch the epic battle. That NWN editor can be endlessly entertaining.