As the 2007 London Games Festival drew to a close, a busy Soho venue in central London housed one of the final open seminars that have made up much of the Fringe elements of this yearâs month-long calendar of events.
The London Development Agency funded Own-it organisation, who provide free intellectual property advice for creative businesses, hosted the event, which tackled the volatile topic of legal and commercial issues in virtual worlds. Despite the rather staid tone of the seminarâs subject matter, both the panel and audience tussled passionately with a whole range of important matters.
Across the area of discussion, an inevitable roll call of social spaces were brought to the table over and over, from Second Life and MMORPGs, through to Facebook and gambling sites, but the conversation was almost always relevant to the growth and maturing of games that invite players to join persistent real-time online worlds.
The panellists included IBM's virtual worlds authority Roo Reynolds and NCsoft's animated lead core programmer Adam Martin, along with Vincent Suheurer-Sarassin, a leading video game lawyer, and Frank Rickett, a successful virtual world entrepreneur who builds custom corporate machinima for businesses with a presence in Second Life.
Debate focused on the current hot potato of online worlds; namely the pitfalls and positives of allowing for user-generated content, which simultaneously defines and undermines the most popular online social spaces.
Reynolds, who is the most upbeat of all the speakers, calls himself a 'metaverse evangelist', and is charged with the role of monitoring and exploring online worlds as most of IBM's 300,000 employees take to Second Life and it's contemporaries. As ever, he was filled with optimism, and genuinely sees social spaces online as offering a great deal to companies, socially and professionally, thanks to a quality they posses that he simply defines as "a richness".
He was the first to enthuse on the boons of user-generated content, though his perspective is one concerned with social interaction and openness, not profit margins. Reynolds talked eagerly of "this idea that the web is no longer a space where it's the role of a privileged few to churn out professional content for people to consume; it's actually us", and he was quick to include games in his vision of the unifying web. "For me there is a distinction between a multi-user virtual environment and a computer game like Eve Online, but it is still a social space," he said.
But while a romantic notion of virtual worlds created by the user is one that is easy to warm to, games makers need to create real-time online spaces that are both maintainable and profitable, and an earnest Adam Martin was keen to highlight this.
"A cynical view is that you give away your data, let your users do all the work and you take all the money, and if you get this right, it's lots and lots of money. That's kind of half of how we view things," he explained, before bringing up the infamous gold farmers, who long ago became the rightful targets of abrupt discipline in NCsoft's MMO games.
"As a company that is very difficult for us as we are constantly having to strike the right balance between encouraging some businesses but destroying others, though probably destroying is a bad word to use."
While owners of the servers that underpin virtual worlds have every right to police their IP, the legal perspective from Suheurer-Sarassin sheds new light on the issue. He happily accepts that "terms of service are very important" to those protecting their online communities, but is concerned over the totalitarian control a service provider can execute, and the conflict between those terms of service and real world laws.
"There is a separate issue about whether that is the right way to run an online business," claimed Suheurer-Sarassin, "whether online worlds ought to be subject to some form of democratic government by end users as well as purely by the people who run the online world."
This is an issue IBM have clearly already pondered, and their strategy seems to be to have come up with something of a constitution, that they call the IBM Virtual World Guidelines. This loose rulebook of staff practice in online social spaces, Reynolds explained, is a document simultaneously created and updated by the IBM community as a whole.
Again Reynolds is talking of optimistic concepts, but for Martin the reality of maintaining the fantasy lies with good game design. He is happy to admit "money laundering and fraud are a massive, massive problem, and a financially massive problem, and even suspected fraud causes us material harm," but is not an explicit advocate of autonomous policing.
Instead, to protect the integrity of a virtual world, he points to moves to beat online fraudsters at their own game. "All the serious MMO developers are trying to turn gold farming into part of the game," he admits, "either to pull the rug out from under the gold farmers, or to make it something players have to do as part of the game."
Before the evening's debating concluded, there was brief discussion on the standardisation of online worlds. With ideas like transferable avatars that transcend social spaces, the dubious definition of web 2.0, and the strength of the unifying power of http as a foundation for convergence dominating the end of proceedings, Own-it's event ended on a resoundingly optimistic note.
"It's really interesting that the space of virtual worlds today is a very fragmented space where you have all these different proprietary walled gardens," said Reynolds with a brief flash of atypical cynicism, but as ever, he quickly returned to the positive future he sees for the entire sphere of social interactions in online spaces. Sighting the fledging years of the web's growth as an inspiration, Reynolds is hungry for progress. "Virtual worlds are currently playing catch up towards that space of openness," he explained with excitement; before affirming that "there is a huge amount of goodwill towards working together."
If that is the case, the outlook is bright for commercial success in open online worlds. The real challenge for the industry comes with striking a delicate balance between corporate collaboration, freedom for user generated content, and effective policing from both the community and IP owners. Quite simply, as Reynolds puts it, "that is what needs to happen."