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A Paper World

Avaloop VP of strategy Thomas Bidaux on the thinking behind the company's virtual world effort, Papermint

Papermint is another entry in the virtual world space that's attempting to bridge a specific art style with minigames and social interaction to target the 15-25 age demographic.

To explain more, GamesIndustry.biz spoke to Avaloop's Thomas Bidaux, formerly a key person involved in setting up Ncsoft Europe, to find out more about the game and how development was proceeding.

GamesIndustry.biz Explain a little bit about Papermint.
Thomas Bidaux

It's a virtual world in many ways - first it's a virtual world, then it's a social experience and then it's a game. So you're in the game and you have things to do. You construct plans, you extract the colours and dye your clothes with it. But ultimately it's all about meeting people and interacting with them.

All of the games you can play alone, but you can also share with other people - some of the things you do will be more efficient when done with someone else. There are a lot of minigames that can be done with just two people, but it's all about helping people to get in that space to bond with one another.

In the same way we have a profile feature in which you can tell who you are, and in a very simple way find other people. Let's say you are a more creative person, rather than a scientific person - well, you can see everybody else's profile and what they like. With one click you see which sort of person they are, and there's a ratings system where you can rate people you see, either good or bad, friendly or not - so everything is about player interaction and creating communities.

One of the very strong points is the art direction - it's all paper characters, 2D in 3D environments. All the buildings are like folded or glued paper, and when you go into the ocean to travel from one island to the other you fold into a paper boat. That art direction is very important for us, because we're trying to make something that is attractive, something that's not just vanilla-flavoured. It has a spirit, a soul, that will please some, but maybe not others.

It's interesting, in the first few days of the beta they already received demands for branded stuff, like T-shirts, or how to make your own paper doll in real life. So people seem to really like it.

Another thing is that it's extremely easy for us to create new content, to add new islands. We have different things we're doing because of that, and one of them is extremely localised content. So if you're in the UK you go into the UK island, which is different from the other islands. Maybe it's different because there are different outfits you can buy in the shop, maybe you have Parliament and Big Ben, or the London Eye - but in paper.

When you get there you only see people from the UK, so it's not the only English-speaking space, but it's the one with UK people, so you can relate to them. You can travel elsewhere but we want your first experience to be a good experience - we believe the good experience will be with people who are from where you are, follow the same soccer matches, or fashion shows, or whatever.

That we can do because it's straightforward, compared to standard MMOs, to create new islands. We've also worked hard to make it extremely accessible, so if you go on the website now there's a Flash player that loads, and you can create a character within that, it's very easy.

You can download the client in the background - it's a very small client, something like 60MB - and it uses Java. So it's trying to make it incredibly easy to get in, so there are no barriers to entry. If possible. There are always some barriers - you need an internet connection, for example - but we're trying to make it as streamlined as possible for people to get into the world.

Something that the content creation pipeline allows us to do is talk to artists, who have an artistic style that's compatible with Papermint, and we offer them the opportunity to create an island - we ask them if they want to create a part of a visual world. It's been extremely successful with the few artists we've experimented with - they love the idea of taking their universe and making it 3D in a paper world.

GamesIndustry.biz Describe your target audience then.
Thomas Bidaux

The biggest bet we've made is that we have an audience we feel is extremely hot for this product, and one of the questions is "Are we right?" - is this the audience that is going to like the game? The target audience is a range that few virtual worlds actually target, the 15-25 year-olds. There are lots of things for under-15s, lots of kids' worlds with Club Penguin and Habbo, and there are more virtual worlds created for that space than any other space. Tweens are swamped by virtual worlds.

So, 15-25 year old non-gamers and an equal proportion of male and female users. We know that our universe is very female-friendly, and we have evidence of that. We think it's also equally attractive to males, so we feel good about that, and we really want to have the non-gamer demographic - the people who want to meet people, but aren't necessarily comfortable with a flat space like Facebook.

GamesIndustry.biz You mention Club Penguin there - the guys behind that world created it for their kids, but as they grow up is it your hope that people like that might graduate to Papermint?
Thomas Bidaux

That's ideal, we'd love to manage to create that game, and make it so that kids who grow up with a virtual world that's a Disney place, but when you grow up you don't want to go to Disneyworld any more, you want to distance yourself from that brand.

GamesIndustry.biz People grow out of things, don't they?
Thomas Bidaux

Yeah, they grow ouy of things, but they still grow up with a virtual world - they have something that I never had, I'm 30 and I never grew up with a virtual world, so I'm trying to imagine how somebody would feel who did grow up with one.

What are they going to be looking for? Where do they go? What is the thing that the cool kids go to? What is the thing that is going to take me from a kid to a young adult in the virtual world space?

I really hope that Papermint can do that.

GamesIndustry.biz You mention non-gamers - how many non-gamers between the ages of 15-25 do you think there are?
Thomas Bidaux

We mean people who don't consider themselves as gamers - because everybody plays games all the time. There are people that know they are gamers, because they spend a certain amount of time on World of Warcraft or their Xbox 360 - but other games are played with buddies, like Mario Party or SingStar or Rock Band. Those latter ones are stilll games, but they're not considered in the same way.

So the definition of non-gamers is to do with people who don't see themselves as gamers - although actually we'd love to have gamers becoming interested in Papermint, but not from the game perspective.

GamesIndustry.biz Because those are the people that would be trying to level up, in the traditional way?
Thomas Bidaux

Yeah, and they can do it, but they would be disappointed, because the game is not designed that way - it's trying to make you feel good about hanging around with people and social actions, rather than levelling up. There is that dimension, but it's not a levelling curve in the sense that a traditional MMO would have.

GamesIndustry.biz Those people look at a game more as a process, a pipeline from A to B - whereas Papermint is where you need to be... it's the destination?
Thomas Bidaux

Precisely, that's the point. It's tricky to create a game that still has the gamer perspective. We still have a quest system, because we feel we need to take the player by the hand and explain the different game mechanisms - so we have some quests, we have a levelling system, we have an achievements system where people are rewarded for completing a number of things.

But it's balanced finely, and tuned so that it's not in your face. It's tricky, and we're very cautious. I think that 50 per cent of the work is not forgetting what is important, what is your focus, and the other 50 per cent is the actual work. We've managed to do the first 50 per cent though.

GamesIndustry.biz You mention things like gathering plants, creating dyes, changing appearances and so on - how far is customisation important?
Thomas Bidaux

In Papermint, because we have such strong art direction and want to stay true to it, we don't allow you to create big stuff, like your own island or universe. But at the same time one of the overall themes for Papermint is creativity, and people being able to be creative. So we provide tools to enable people to feel creative in the way that they design their clothes and colour them - so they can feel creative without breaking the art direction.

We allow a lot of things, but within certain parameters.

GamesIndustry.biz Does that help with moderation and maintaining a safe environment?
Thomas Bidaux

It does, yes - even though people will always find a way to be offensive. Always. You can do lots of things to try to prevent it, but somebody will always manage to cheat to make a penis out of something. We want people to feel creative, it's very important, so we have to find a balance there.

We also put different visual styles through the artist programme we have, so there's a way to be creative in the sense that if you go to a specific island, from a specific artist, you can get clothing that's unique to that island. Than you can take that clothing to another island, and you pick up the colours specific to that island - then you can create something that's totally unique and looks different to anything else. It's a way to stand out from the other users, which is the point.

GamesIndustry.biz When you don't have a levelling system, that's crucial - how do you keep people involved, and how do you allow them to differentiate themselves from others?
Thomas Bidaux

That kind of "leetness" aspect is definitely achieved by being creative with the different parameters you have access to. Even if they are few - it's not like Second Life where you can create your own pictures and stuff - you can still create so many things.

Even though the fact that there are rules and limits actually help you to measure yourself against others. If there are two things that you can play with, I will make something that looks better than yours because even, for example. With really extensive tools, most people get lost and don't know how to use them, but with more limited sets, people can take inspiration and create new things.

GamesIndustry.biz Media Molecule's Mark Healey has spoken about the history of creativity, and people making pictures from the high score tables on Space Invaders - the more you limit people, the more people will strive to find creativity.
Thomas Bidaux

Yes, absolutely, and we also look at things like Habbo Hotel, where creativity is achieved through things like the apartment, and how you furnish it. There are so many possibilities that people are extremely creative. We have something similar, a system for placing objects, and we hope that something similar is going to happen - and that people will make things we don't expect. We want them to do that, definitely.

GamesIndustry.biz What's the timescale for the game?
Thomas Bidaux

We've been in closed beta for a while, and there is still lots to do, but we hope to be in open beta by the end of the year. We do quick iterations, and since it's been in closed beta for well over a year, the team have run it like a live project, which I think is an extremely clever way to to work. So far so good - they have a 99 per cent uptime for the whole year.

Thomas Bidaux is VP of strategy at Avaloop. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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