6 April, 2006
Over on his blog, Raph posted a bunch of quotes trying to show how games will become less important in the future of online spaces. His argument boils down to the fact that non-game online spaces are getting more attention (particularly more investment money). The rise of places like MySpace.com has shown that these spaces can be hugely popular. Does this really spell the doom of games?
Not really. There are some important reasons why non-game online spaces won’t dominate all.
To be honest, a lot of this sounds similar to the dot-com boom back in the late 90′s. Things are cool because they’re online, baby! Money is being thrown around by people afraid of missing the next big thing. One hopes people with money are more cautious this time around. But, this gives me a bit of pause given the hype we saw before.
But, let’s take a look at what people are talking about. One of the common themes is a “common avatar” system, where you can create an avatar in one area and take it to another; in other words, you could take your avatar from one chat space to another. In more extreme visions, there is talk about taking your avatar from one game to another. You could find out of a Night Elf really could take on a Wood Elf!
The first problem here is the assumption that avatars are required for chat spaces. Why do you need a fully 3D representation if you just want to chat with someone? In current games people tend to ignore the avatars while chatting because they aren’t important. The avatars don’t add to communication because they don’t convey the nuances in body language that we use in everyday life. The best we can do is try to guess body language from context (either text which doesn’t have vocal nuances, or voice chat which is hard to parse), or set up a system for people to indicate moods as they change. Neither system will be 100% accurate.
You could even argue that a fully 3D program harms communication. Consider IMVU, which is “3D instant messaging”. I argue this misses the point. When I want to IM someone, I just want to drop them a quick message. Sometimes there will be a brief conversation, but it is usually asynchronous (as both the other person and myself might be working). Why would I want to load up a 3D program, with all the overhead that implies, just to drop a quick message? This seems needlessly complicated when I can just open a window and send some chat. If I want a deeper conversation, I can either call people or meet them face-to-face.
Now, there are some people that do want 3D representations: older people. This also includes people who are less comfortable with the concept of online spaces and want something to remind them of offline spaces they’re familiar with. However, this group is in the minority, compared to the young people who are starting to come into their own; people who have known the internet for a majority of their lives. These people are used to chat without 3D avatars.
But, what about simple 2D avatars? I’ll argue those aren’t important, either. Here’s a test: without scrolling the page back up, can you remember the avatar I have at the top of my blog pages? What does it look like? What are the two main colors? Of course, this isn’t a really good test, since many of the people reading this blog will have impressive memories. But, I’d bet most ordinary people will gloss over the image above, and might not even realize that this is the “avatar” I use in Meridian 59!
But, let’s assume I’m wrong about avatars. Let’s assume that people prefer avatars for chatting. Now we encounter the biggest problem: business reality. What is the compelling business reason for incorporating a common avatar system into my chat software?
To be honest, there isn’t. It’s the classic chicken-and-egg problem: in order for it to make sense to adopt such a common avatar system into my software, it has to be popular; if few people incorporate the system into their software, it will not become popular. It’s hard to see a particular system becoming popular enough.
“But, Brian,” you say, “What about the way the Internet crushed the proprietary online services like Prodigy, GEnie, etc.?” This is a false analogy, because the Internet was vastly different than any sort of avatar system will have to be. The Internet was funded by the government and isn’t controlled by any central authority. It was freely available in colleges and universities before it became mainstream, so you had people that came to rely on it. An avatar system will almost certainly be bogged down as someone will try to control and restrict it. It will need serious funding to be powerful enough to handle the demands it will come under, and if people are providing funding they will almost certainly want a return on investment. More than likely you will have competing systems with slight incompatibilities in order to encourage you to choose a specific one (and make money for them). In reality, the competing avatar systems will become like the proprietary online services, fragmenting the population instead of unifying it.
There are other arguments to be made, but I think these are the two most important ones. Note that this isn’t to say that I think that online socialization is a dead end. On the contrary, I realize that email, IM, and other forms of online communication have become vitally important. I’m just not as hopelessly optimistic about non-games spaces taking over like other people seem to be. I think the two reasons I’ve listed above means we won’t see Level 60 Night Elf Businessmen doing a corporate raid in World of Businesscraft.
What are your thoughts? Will graphical avatar-based chat spaces take over? Or will games remain the primary use of these types of spaces? Is there really a business model that makes sense for the avatar service providers?