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Virtual worlds need games

As the three "spheres" of social networks, virtual worlds and MMOs collide, their creators can learn from each other said Turbine's Jeffrey Steefel

As the three "spheres" of social networks, virtual worlds and MMOs collide, their creators can learn from each other said Turbine's Jeffrey Steefel.

In a GDC discussion entitled "Gaming's Future via Online Worlds," Steefel, an executive producer for The Lord of the Rings Online, explained why "worlds" need "games."

Noting that the development community talks a lot about freedom of choice, lots of opportunities and infinite spaces, he nevertheless pointed out that structure is important for any open world environment.

"Coming into a completely open environment for a lot of people is completely overwhelming, especially when you reach out into a broader audience," Steefel said.

He explained that users need a sense of place, a sense of purpose and opportunity for expression and identity — whether it be a real-life identity or a fictitious identity expressed through an avatar.

"The biggest intersection between games and virtual worlds is that games provide structure by their very nature," he said.

Steefel broke down today's virtual environments into three spheres — social networking, virtual worlds and MMO games — noting the strengths and weaknesses of each.

Social networks such as MySpace and Facebook — which Steefel compared to affinity-based clubs - are the most accessible, allowing users to easily create and share virtual identities in communities.

Virtual worlds such as Second Life and Habbo — comparable to sandboxes — provide a heavy focus on building but often lack a unified thematic structure.

Online games such as World of Warcraft — like theme parks, in Steefel's estimation — are immersive but mostly directed experiences, with limited opportunities for users to build and create.

Common to all three spheres, however, is the notion of identity, creative expression and social persistence.

"Our jobs going forward, and the art of what we are doing, is in the balance between freedom and structure," Steefel said.

In order to move forward, he suggested that developers build on the strengths of MMOs — an immersive sense of place, unifying world theme and compelling advancement opportunities — while extending their reach to a broader audience.

But reaching a broader audience will require multi-platform access, significantly improved user tools, more mainstream client requirements, immediate feedback/interactivity and more accessible pricing models.

"What I want to do in the world should determine what it costs for me to participate in this world," he offered.

Steefel also said that worlds need to be "web aware" and integrated into the mobile lifestyle. "It's not about trying to take a 3D world environment and port it over to a cell phone," he said, but instead it's more about figuring out how to tie that environment to mobile devices, recognising the desire for persistency.

On The Lord of the Rings Online game, Steefel said that Turbine had turned the game "inside out" to expose in-game social networks, share tools, integrate character/player personas online and offer social networking in and out of the world.

He specifically referred to the game's music system, in which players could obtain instruments, map them to their keyboard, and both play and create music. Steefel has seen a lot of people forming bands in Middle Earth to play music together, going so far as to record videos and post them on YouTube.

In an attempt to broaden the experience, Turbine is also using the Google Map API for the lands of Middle Earth and has established a wiki-based system that allows the game's player community to edit and augment data.

For the future, Steefel anticipates compelling virtual worlds that inspire creativity, exploration and community.

He wants flexible thematic content with opportunities to share goals and motivation with like-minded users and easy-to-use tools for users to have a relevant impact on their world and communities - and users should also have opportunities to sustain a social persistence across all connected media.

As the three spheres collide, and adapt from each other, the differences will start to disappear.

"The old argument — Is it a game? Is it a virtual world? — doesn't really matter," Steefel said. "It is all a virtual world."

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