Where virtual worlds once ruled, FarmVille dominates

Over the years, the innovation and investment that went into 3D immersive environments like Second Life has gone increasingly to social games and kids worlds.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read
Social games like FarmVille have led many companies to try to be 'the next Zynga,' its publisher. Zynga

Almost every week for the last few years, it seems, I've gotten a press release or a pitch touting some company's great new Facebook games network or kids' virtual world.

And why not? Companies like Zynga and Playfish are making money hand over fist with their collections of massively popular social games, and 2D Flash games aimed at children like Club Penguin, Webkinz, Habbo Hotel, and others have garnered vast amounts of virtual world investment dollars in recent years.

But to someone who cut his virtual world teeth on more immersive, 3D environments like There and Second Life, these never-ending announcements of new companies trying to jump on the social gaming bandwagon have left me with one nagging question: Where is the innovation?

To find the answer, one has only to do what investigative journalists were always trained to do: follow the money. But while Facebook games like FarmVille and Who Has the Biggest Brain, and social worlds for kids or teens like Gaia Online make financial sense, they aren't all that satisfying intellectually.

After all, while Second Life had no end of technical problems and was about as inviting to mainstream audiences as obscure European philosophy, it had a complex economy, a deep social structure, sophisticated politics and always seemed, to me, at least, as the jumping off point for truly groundbreaking technology.

In 2006, noted author Lawrence Lessig visited Second Life for a talk. That virtual world raised the bar for what was possible in 3D, immersive spaces, yet technology has largely not passed what was possible as far back as then. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

And I wasn't alone. There were significant numbers of people interested in the legal, social, economic, and intellectual aspects of 3D immersive virtual worlds and regular gatherings like State of Play, the Virtual Worlds conferences and others. The technology bar was set high as early as 2003, when There and Second Life launched, and it only looked like, over time, it would go higher.

Sometime around 2006, though, the innovation seemed to have sputtered, and in its place has come a slew of profitable but essentially copy-cat low-fi social games and experiences. And I may be alone, but I find these developments increasingly boring.

But does it make sense? Absolutely.

Leaving 3D worlds behind
In the spring of 2007, an Austin, Texas, company called Show Initiative put on the first Virtual Worlds conference, an event that saw dozens of companies flock to New York to talk about how marketing could work in these nascent digital environments. Second Life, There, Entropia Universe, and others working on 3D immersive worlds were the stars.

And that conference was just the first of many. But today, it is called the Engage! Expo and companies working in 3D have been pretty much forgotten.

"That's why we changed our name from the Virtual Worlds conference to Engage," said Chris Sherman, the lead organizer of the events. "It broadens the scope of our business. The major media companies aren't just looking at virtual worlds. They're looking at iPhone apps [and] social games."

The real question in my mind is why is all the money flowing to iPhone apps and 2D kids and Facebook games? The answer, according to those who spend the most time following these fields, has everything to do with how easy they are to use.

"The social networks have opened up some really rewarding social experiences to a lot of new people and sparked a new acceptance of game dynamics," said community and social media consultant Ron Meiners. "[Virtual] world designers are way behind the social-network sites in providing easy, connective, fun technologies."

The problem with environments like Second Life, which is still in operation and still boasts significant numbers of users (though those numbers pale in comparison to what's seen on the most popular kids' worlds or Facebook games), is that while they're extremely interesting to the people who put the time in to learn how to navigate them, they are very hard to use, and don't provide the kind of instant-on experience necessary to attract the mainstream.

A huge amount of work
Even some of the biggest innovators in the 3D virtual world space agree with Meiners' take.

"Using the Internet in a real-time, low-latency communicative way where it brings people together socially hasn't been broadly explored, and now it's beginning to be explored," said Second Life publisher Linden Lab founder and chairman Philip Rosedale, "whether it's Twitter or a 2D Flash game, so those systems generally offer people something, and they're relatively easy to build."

Indeed, the complexities of building immersive, 3D environments is likely one of the major reasons why no one has yet come out with a virtual world that raises the bar beyond where Second Life took it, even after all these years.

"The deeper, fully immersive virtual worlds, as Second Life has shown, it's just a huge amount of work," said Rosedale, who is no longer involved day to day at Linden Lab.

And the problem for people like me, who are eager to see that bar get raised, is that investors want to see a quick return on investment and don't necessarily see that 3D virtual worlds are going to provide that payoff.

"If you're not a believer, long-term, in the ideas of virtual reality, as I am," Rosedale continued, "then as an entrepreneur, you're probably going to spend your development money elsewhere."

Sherman agreed.

The cost of building 3D worlds and "the return on investment is simply not there," Sherman said. "It's cheaper to build a Flash game or cheaper to build an iPhone app...If you have an existing audience that you can tap into and know you can pour a lot of eyeballs [into] quickly, then it makes sense to build a [low-fi] virtual world" like Webkinz.

And low-fi experiences are definitely where the money is going. While the old-style 3D virtual worlds touted complex economies and substantial marketplaces of virtual goods like castles, sophisticated vehicles, technologically advanced digital toys, and more, they have been left in the dust by companies that are building huge businesses around much simpler kinds of goods.

In 2009, reported Sherman's Engage Digital Media, investors poured $1.38 billion into 87 companies working on one form or another of virtual goods. Looking through the roster of the firms that got that money, one does not see much in the way of 3D innovation, though Linden Lab was one of the recipients of that capital.

"If you're an entertainment company or media company, you may be exploring 3D virtual worlds," Sherman said, "but it's just [a small] part of your bag of tricks. You've got iPhone games, Flash games, and social games. You go where your users want to go, or where they're already at."

The rub
The rub of it, for folks like me, is that kids and tweens don't need 3D environments to get their social needs met. Rather, they need a platform that makes it simple and easy to get together with their friends, play simple games, and have fun. And the same seems to be true of the mainstream adult audience.

A game like FarmVille "does a lot of fun things," said Meiners. "It enables people to have a sense of accomplishment, satisfaction, fun, and to share that with others...the experience, but also gifts and such. And it's all very easy to tap in to. It doesn't demand much.

Still, Meiners thinks that the game is not over for the 3D virtual world. In his capacity as a well-known consultant, he said he's constantly being approached by people building one new kind of environment or another, and some of those entrepreneurs have set their sights on the terrain occupied by Second Life.

"Second Life was really painful to use and hard to navigate, and very cumbersome as a social platform," Meiners said. "But people could be wildly creative, and the extent to which it inspired people was really impressive. It's a powerful experience, and I think the potential for people, businesses, and other groups to create meaningful virtual experiences will keep motivating people to try again. Social networks are fine for a lightweight experience, but the virtue of a [3D] virtual world is that they can be much more immersive, and that's...compelling."

Meiners also thinks that the popularity of social games, either for adults or kids, is grooming new audiences for future immersive virtual worlds.

"I know people are graduating to more sophistication in their social games," he said. "I think some of it, at least, will lead to virtual world experiences."

Of course, there are millions of people who would say that an online game like World of Warcraft has kept the 3D virtual world in the mainstream. But WoW, as popular as it is, never offered the open-ended kind of experience that a Second Life or There did. And while there is plenty of energy being put into new kinds of alternate-reality games, interactive narratives, and other so-called "transmedia" productions, none so far, at least, offer what was available as early as 2003.

As Sherman put it, Second Life is [pretty much] the last man standing when it comes to full 3D robust virtual worlds.

And even Meiners, who said he's privy to some efforts that he thinks will eventually raise the 3D virtual world bar--particularly when it comes to technology that will make it easier to run the environments seamlessly in a browser and which could have advanced social tools--admitted that nothing is on the immediate horizon.

For many people, that's no big deal. Millions of people are happily farming away in Facebook games or having a great time tapping away on iPhone games. And a whole lot of money is being made in the process.

But for curmudgeons like me, I still say enough is enough. Let's see some real innovation.