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A purpose driven (virtual) life August 20, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in business models, gaming, social media, start-up, startups, virtual worlds, web 2.0.

We are continuing to see plenty of Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) and Virtual World startups. GigaOM recently listed the ten most popular MMOs (abridged description excerpted here – click through to the original for the full text):

1. World of Warcraft, released 2004 – 8.5 million subscribers.
2. Habbo Hotel, released 2000 – 7.5 million active users.
3. RuneScape, released 2001 – 5 million active users.
4. Club Penguin, released 2006 – 4 million active users.
5. Webkinz, released 2005 – 3.8 million active users.
6. Gaia Online, released 2003 – 2 million active users.
7. Guild Wars, released 2005 – 2 million active users.
8. Puzzle Pirates, released 2003 – 1.5 million active users
9. Lineage I/II, released 1998 – 1 million subscribers.
10. Second Life, released 2003 – 500,000 active users.

Of these ten, five are MMORPGs (WoW, Runescape, GuildWars, Puzzle Pirates and Lineage) and five are virtual worlds. The two types are discussed together so much that the lines are starting to blur. But I think that there is some value to clarifying the distinction

Virtual worlds are primarily about social activities. But this doesn’t distinguish them from MMORPGs. There is plenty of purely social activity going on in the MMORPGs as well. Indeed, for some players, MMORPGs (Bartle‘s “socializers”) are PRIMARILY about social activity.

What makes an MMORPG a game is something else. Wikipedia quotes several definitions of a game (italics mine):

* “An interactive, goal-oriented activity, active agents to play against, which any player (including active agents) could interfere one another, and which is designed to make money for the creator.” (Chris Crawford)
* “A form of play with goals and structure.” (Kevin Maroney)
* “A game is a form of art in which participants, termed players, make decisions in order to manage resources through game tokens in the pursuit of a goal.” (Greg Costikyan)
* “An activity with some rules engaged in for an outcome.” (Eric Zimmerman)

Crawford in his book Chris Crawford on Game Design says that a goal is what distinguishes a game from a toy. Games have a purpose. To borrow the title from Rick Warren’s best selling book, an MMORPG is a purpose driven (virtual) life.

In stark contrast, the virtual world Second Life is explicitly not a game, and explicitly does set goals for its users.

To push the metaphor a little further, Warren’s Christian “anti-self help” book tells its readers that they were put on earth to fulfill five purposes as defined by God. Similarly, a game player is placed into the game’s virtual world to fulfill purposes that are defined by the game designer. This can take all sorts of forms, from leveling up to achieving certain defined quests. But they are all defined and pre-ordained by the game designer, and I think that may be what distinguishes a virtual world from an MMORPG.

Is this just semantics, or are there differences in the way users behave in MMORPGs and virtual worlds? I’d like to hear what readers think, and will give some of my opinions in a later post


1. Matt Mihaly - August 20, 2007

Good article but one point: GigaOm’s list was somewhat laughably inaccurate. Puzzle Pirates, for instance, has about 10% of the number reported there according to its CEO Daniel James and Maple Story Online isn’t even on the list, which is crazy.

Gaia Online is neither a virtual world nor an MMORPG. It’s an online community, but while VWs/MMORPGs are generally community driven, most online communities are not VWs or MMORPGs.

Guild Wars certainly does not have 2 million active users. It’s had about 2 million users in total but if you’re simply measuring total users ever, then WoW gets pushed way down by Runescape, Habbo, Maple Story, and so on.

Anyway, that list is so riddled with poor research and omissions that it’s a bit pointless.

2. hunter - August 20, 2007

Virtual worlds still use game mechanics to help users direct their actions and to meter resources. These help to influence the inhabitants and creates a motivation for self-imposed goals. Of course the VW designer also makes a set of choices re: how implicit vs explicit these goals will be. For example, let’s take something like a “Friending” system. Implicitly people are going to set goals around meeting people (because we’re social animals) and to the extent that making official the act of friendship provides benefits (real or status), users will pursue making friends. Now put a “most friends” leaderboard into the VW and you’ve got explicit goal setting occurring.

One of the greatest differences between games and VW is the presence of a narrative – a story that has been created by the games authors to help explain and drive action. In a VW, that narrative is player created.

VWs that behave like games tend to create artificial scarcity and value which is not tied to resource consumption. For example, a digital good that provides hard-wired benefits and is rare (Wand of Fast Text Messaging) is a game mechanic. However, limiting creation of items based upon the server capacity (similar to what SL does), is more “real world.”

Regardless, and back to your original question, I actually think that given their druthers users WANT to behave pretty much the same in a VW or RPG. But in the latter, it’s the designers goals to lead them down a path.

3. Daniel - August 20, 2007

Good list. Think you should add Stardoll http://www.stardoll.com to the list as well.

4. Daniel James - August 20, 2007

@Hunter: I disagree on games having a ‘story’, I think perhaps ‘genre’ is more accurate. Puzzle Pirates is very much a game, but is an open-ended world in the tradition of many MUDs, UO, etc. There’s very little narrative, and originally there was very deliberately none at all in order to make the design achievable with very limited content and development resources.

I fear that VW vs. MMORPG is a little like semantic quibbling. There is a difference there; VW implies more of an platform without the context, genre or incentives of game mechanics — but that’s not at all the case with many successful VWs, e.g. Habbo — there’s a tonne of ‘game’ in collecting furni and bartering ‘services’ for such. Gaia is a great example of a web community that has game-like meta incentives throughout. If you really strip the game out of a VW, you have a chat room… VW’s also seem to imply user-created stuff. So perhaps it is just a MUD vs. MOO distinction.

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