Making the virtual world a better place

At Austin Game Conference, game designers look to Vegas and beyond for ideas on making better and more successful online games.

AUSTIN, Texas--Since its inception, Blizzard Entertainment's "World of Warcraft" has gained more than 4 million subscribers, each of whom pay $15 a month for the privilege of running around slaying monsters and questing to find loot.

WoW, as it's often called, is far from the only 3D online game with large numbers of players. Yet many such games struggle to succeed the way Wow has, and often end up repeating mistakes made by other game publishers.

With that in mind, hundreds of game developers who gathered here this week for the spent the better part of two days discussing various ways publishers can put out games that will not only be financial successes but satisfy the whims of savvy players.


What's new:
Hundreds of game developers at the Austin Game Conference swapped strategies for making better and more financially successful online games. Bottom line:
Many online games struggle to succeed the way "World of Warcraft" has. Suggestions for changing that include emulating Vegas' casino spaces, encouraging user content and incorporating real-money trades into games.

More stories on virtual worlds

To that end, the conference-?which ran in conjunction with the Women's Game Conference and the Game Writer's Conference?-was top-heavy with panel discussions surrounding strategies for the creation of so-called massively multiplayer online games, or MMOs.

Among the sessions were "ROI: The economics of MMOs," "Physics in MMOs," "Managing relationships with guild leaders" and many others.

And while panels focused on other areas of video games, it seemed that online games--also sometimes called virtual worlds?-were the dominant subject. Throughout meeting rooms and hallways, game developers swapped ideas for how to create online games that work.

In one well-attended session, "What Vegas can teach MMO designers," Damion Schubert, lead designer at the game studio Wolfpack, talked about similarities between casinos in Sin City and 3D worlds like WoW, "EverQuest" and others.

Chief among his suggestions to developers was to look at the way Vegas casinos handle the use of space and apply lessons learned there to online games.

For example, Schubert explained how a former casino industry consultant, Bill Friedman, had studied why some large casinos did little gambling business while smaller ones with only fractions of the investment in interior design and d?cor were pulling in customers by the busload.

Players like to get cozy
He found, Schubert continued, that people didn't like gambling in the large, wide-open spaces often found in casinos like Vegas' Aladdin.

"It was too grandiose...with poorly defined sight lines," said Schubert. "It had a barn effect, and people don't like to spend time in barns. People like to visit these big casinos because they're ludicrous, but they don't like to gamble. Players prefer smaller alcoves, low ceilings and cozier experiences."

With that in mind, Schubert urged those gathered for his talk to focus the design of their virtual worlds around the creation of smaller game zones where players don't feel alone. He said that would enable them to feel social even when there aren't a huge number of other players around. The alternative, he said, is large game spaces where players feel lonely unless many others are nearby.

Schubert also suggested MMO publishers follow the casino industry's lead on loyalty programs. Those initiatives, pioneered by Harrah's, reward high-spending gamblers with free rooms, food, show tickets and more.

In online games, though, Schubert suggested, publishers should treat highly social players--those with lots of friends who are most likely to bring in new paying subscribers--well, finding ways to reward them for their loyalty.

Another panel, "User-Created Content: Boom or Bane," looked at the reasons why game publishers should implement models that encourage user-created content in virtual worlds.

Andrew Tepper, who runs eGenesis, the publisher of "A Tale in the Desert," argued that user-created content is a highly valuable way

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