AGC: The Future of Virtual Worlds

Raph Koster, Cory Ondrejka and Corey Bridges discuss the future of MMOs, and how you’ll be a part of it.

The first panel we attended at AGC was held in a mostly-prepared conference room on Wednesday, a day before the conference was “officially” to open. On the show floor, booths were still being pulled out of boxes and hastily assembled, while the show’s volunteer workers were scrambling to match the right colored access ribbon to the right name badge to the right person. It took us about half an hour to get appropriately badged (we had a booth, so we got yellow ribbons), but they were nice about it, and gave us stuff. So it all works out.

Amid all this chaos, some of the industry’s most influential people sat along one table and debated the ins and outs of creating online games.

“The Future of Virtual Worlds” panel was moderated by Jerry Paffendorf, of The Electric Sheep Company, a pioneer in the field of virtual world construction, which currently specializes in designing and coding online presences for organizations and companies in Second Life (they also built The Escapist pavilion).

Joining Jerry were: Corey Bridges, Executive Producer of The Multiverse Network, a project to create a set of MMO “middleware” for independent game developers; Raph Koster, of Raph Koster fame; Mark Wallace, Editor of the blog; and Cory Ondrejka, CTO of Linden Labs, the creators of Second Life.

The ostensible purpose of the panel was to get a handle on what these fine gents saw as the future of online communities in the wake of the unpredicted, yet phenomenal success of sites like MySpace, Google Earth and Second Life.

Raph Koster threw down the gauntlet early on, plugging his own lecture scheduled for the next day titled “The Age of the Dinosaurs.”

“1995-97,” he said, “was an era of dramatic shift driven by Mosaic and graphical web browsing. The previously dominating players underwent radical shifts.”

He then described cycles of change, whereby different factors, like Mosaic, would drive one cycle to a logical end, where a new cycle would begin, say with JAVA, or MMOs.

“Cycles are the norm of this business as a whole,” he said. WoW is the last of the current cycle. What comes after that?”

And that’s the real question. World of Warcraft has dominated the MMO market, expended it and then dominated the expansion, leaving many in the industry wondering if they can do the same, or if maybe, just maybe, they can take some of that pie away from WoW. Which is why every game developer and their dog is now working on an MMO.

But the fine folks at this panel, including Raph, are convinced that a big-budget, Hollywood-style MMO is not the next logical step. In fact, they see the days of that kind of game as numbered.

“Seamlessness is doomed,” said Raph Koster. “The future is lots of segmented bits. Great, big worlds don’t make financial sense.”

“Big worlds are something that we shouldn’t’ give up on just because it’s hard,” replied Ondrejka, defending the “big world” approach of Second Life.

Prompting Koster to clarify: “I don’t think big worlds are going to go away, but I do see the big percentage of people doing one thing …”

Corey Bridges’ vision of the future, unsurprisingly, involves Multiverse and the “around 100” independent developers who are currently crafting game worlds around their technology. Cory Ondrejka’s involves Second Life, and Raph’s involves whatever it is that he’s working on now, but can’t talk about. What’s interesting, however, is that they all seemed convinced that their visions are mutually exclusive.

“Myspace was a vast technical achievement,” says Bridges. But he resists the idea that user-generated content will be the wave of the future, asking if blogs and podcasts are “user-generated content, or just content.” Bridges imagines the purveyors of the net’s most successful content in the future as “pro-sumer” content generators, and sees the developers of Multiverse in the same light.

“‘Amateur’ doesn’t mean ‘untalented,'” says Ondrejka. Citing Second Life’s 650,000 registered users, he pointed out that there are more developers employed by companies using Second Life than by Linden labs itself. He suggested that this will be the future: people using worlds like Second Life to make their own games. The only obstacles are the tools. “Our system is like C, only worse,” he says. ‘Because it was written in one night – by me.”

“What was once rocket science,” added Raph Koster, “no longer is.” He suggested that browser-based or PHP MMOs will over take AAA titles in the future. That there will be more “targeted projects.”

“Lots of people want to get into this space,” said Corey Bridges, predicting a rise of “indie” developers – all using more refined tools like Multiverse “And not to make little, cutesy things, but to make things the likes of which we haven’t seen.”

After an hour, it was clear that these three wouldn’t be collaborating any time soon, but that they all were working on something. Second Life is here, and growing. No one was willing to say that Second Life would be the next WoW, but they were all certain that somebody would be taking take that crown in the near future – and they were all trying it on for size.

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