In preparation for an upcoming presentation, I made the (evidently treacherous) step of attempting to aggregate the entire population of self-proclaimed virtual worlds. This is a tricky effort for multiple reasons:
1) "What's in a name?"- The 'Virtual World' moniker runs the gambit from children's educational sites like Mokitown/Mobilekids through game-narrative-driven sites like World of Warcraft, and from web-based marketing vehicles like Coke Studios/MyCoke through to proprietary walled-garden worlds like Second Life and There.com. You may as well have called them 'Web 2.0' for all the ground the VW term covers.
2) "Actual Mileage may vary"- Each company measures users/residents of their virtual worlds differently, as you would expect for marketing spin reasons. These include 'total number of signups' (Second Life's 9M number comes to mind, as does the 80M Habbo Hotel number) to 'active users in last x days' to 'paying subscribers'. Many companies do not advertise the numbers at all, like Moove.
3) "Let me see some ID, kid!"- For some reason the industry has begun pushing an artificial boundary between 'kids worlds/games' and 'adult worlds/games'. This may just be a simple case of wanting to push the large kids worlds into a different category to make other worlds look larger (in their weight class).
4) "The Medium is the Message"- If you want to see a virtual world platform vendor get red in the face, mention some subscriber numbers from casual web/flash-based games. They will argue endlessly how they are two different species and do not deserve to be contrasted against each other. Ditto for social networking sites like Bebo who are re-skinning their social networking portals with some rudimentary avatar chat.
I'm going to waltz right in to the Lion's den at this point, and make some proposals for some common semantics and conclusions so we can at least harmonize the concepts we are talking about. This way, the people we are talking to don't need a decoder-ring to separate the hype from reality.
Who cares what it is called! Honestly.
Call it Virtual Worlds, 3D chat, Applesauce. As Randy Farmer said to me, "You don't need to be 3D to be an avatar." What we are talking about is people connecting with each other, either pre-arranged or spontaneous, for educational, business or recreational purposes, with everything from cartoonish-lego avatars with text to photorealistic avatars with spatial voice. If they are playing Mahjong or going on a WoW raid, they are connecting with each other. If they bump into each other in the Wondermark-meets-Terry-Gilliam-looking ff0000 world or in Second Life, they still connect. Then we can devolve into the 'which interaction is more signal-rich', when comparing text-chat+canned-2D-avatars against uncanny-valley-photo-realistic-avatars+wideband-audio-chatting
Recommendation- Companies will call their offering whatever is hot and trendy (many dot-com busts in the Valley were red-hot again after they re-treaded themselves as Web 2.0 companies) and nothing we do is going to change it. The market will sort it out, don't intervene.
The answer has to be around 'active users'. Total number of downloads/signups is pure fiction, no equivocation. Paying subscribers is a nice standard convention, but precludes use by free and ad-supported implementations. So, lets talk about 'unique individuals (excluding alts) who have been on longer than 2 minutes in the last 30 days'. There, simple and easy. There will be people who mask their alts, so there will be some double-counting, but that's ok. We will then not count people with one account and ten avatars, pets, whatever.
Why is this important? Three reasons:
- Young users go where their friends are. Watch teenagers and IM platform usage and you can see the cliques based on a top-down graph of IM-platform usage and friend-lists on MySpace. Other curious monkeys like myself will go to where my friends are not, so I can explore. I'll need to know enough about the heterogeneity of a platform to decide to go there or not.
- When you are talking about content creators going to a platform, be they users creating content or content firms like Sony, they make their platform decision based on the amount of people there. Individuals may want to freedom to create in a small community, whereas Sony will follow the Windows-developer creedo and aim for the place with the most users.
- When we talk about people advertising in these worlds (as distasteful as we all may believe it to be, it is happening), they will require hard metrics to determine how much the platform/intermediary will be paid.
Until we all agree on some common conventions about measuring users, then we have our current problem, which is that when you add up 47 of the major virtual world platforms, the total advertised users exceeds the population of all of North America. This may be true, especially when you add in Korea and China worlds, but we'll need to show bigger rigor in our bookkeeping before we can light the fireworks and break out the martinis.
Recommendation- If you want to be counted in the future major tracking indexes (Chris Sherman and Nick Wilson, this opportunity has your names all over it), use the 'unique users in the last 30 days' metric. This is why section two of the Wall Street Journal isn't denominated in fifty different currencies, but a single common denominator.
Newsflash- Not all avatars in Second Life are over 18 years of age.
Newsflash 2- Not all users of childrens sites are young children, or else there would be no market for a mobile phone widget for Webkinz, as most young children do not carry web-enabled smartphones (yet).
There is too much crossover between games, with kids and adults playing puzzles, and kids and adults exploring virtual worlds. MySpace is a good example of how hard it is to segregate 'grown-ups' from 'children', as there are probably more young teenage male fans of Led Zeppelin than Gen X'ers. Habbo Hotel is a quaint, lego-like cartoon environment that hosted the Prince of Darkness himself, Ozzy Ozborne, in March. I suspect all the pre-teens were expecting his cute little lego-avatar to bite the head off a lego-bat.
Recommendation- My advice is to implement a common identity model (OpenID is a great start), plus an industry self-imposed rating system for content like the ESRB, and implement it quickly before some government somewhere decides that it is their responsibility to 'protect the children from the Charleston, Jazz, Elvis, the Beatles, Internet porn, and online games' again.
Entertainment and Socialization are general enough concepts that you cannot segment platforms or sites based on an entirely subjective age-range. I hope we don't even try any further than we already have.
There are already a number of companies, including IBM, that are building chat gateways into SL, so you can communicate with your SL brethren from outside the grid. What happens when there are more people using the web-based chat client into SL pseudo-twitter than there are concurrent avatars 'in world'?
What happens when voice gateways connect Skype or the PSTN to There.com voice?
What about mobile virtual worlds from your iPhone? What about other hybrid use-cases?
Then the boundary between the virtual world and the real world becomes very permeable and the distinction between web-based and proprietary-immersive-free-roaming-worlds becomes very small.
Tish Shute mentioned to me this morning that the entire conversation around this to date also discounts the impact of P2P implementations, which I completely agree with.
Recommendation- Count them all together, as they are all facets of the same diamond. Lets rationalize this industry soon so we can 'skip to the end' of the platform wars and focus on the useful content piece. Imagine if we had debated HTML vs. 49 other options for a decade before de-facto deciding on HTML. Shudder.
And the only thing worse than multiple competing proprietary platforms is multiple competing open standard platforms. I understand why companies keep claiming themselves as a platform, but we are rapidly approaching over-population of the ecosystem, and there is neither flora nor predators enough to sustain the quantity of fauna popping into this industry.
In the immortal words of Dennis Miller, 'I rant therefore I am'. Here endeth the rant.