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.

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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 to get players engaged in games by giving them the opportunity to build content that other players enjoy.

A designer at Dragon's Eye Productions who called himself Dr. Cat for the panel, agreed, noting that while publisher-created content will likely be more polished than that made by users, content created by users--such as clothing, buildings, vehicles, weapons and the like-?can have more value to players because they recognize it was built by people they know.

Even better, the argument for user-created content goes, it can cut down significantly on the cost of developing online games. That's important in an era when virtual worlds like WoW can cost as much as $30 million to produce.

Paying for the privilege
Jim Purbrick, an engineer at Linden Labs, publisher of "Second Life," argued that because that title's 60,000 users are spending tens of thousands of hours a day creating content, the virtual world benefits-?even if a vast majority of content isn't very good-?from the creation of what the equivalent of around 300 full-time designers could do. And those members pay Linden Lab for the privilege.

At the same time, another panel investigated the ownership of virtual goods and the reason publishers want to make the end-user license agreements or terms of service players agree to as clear as possible.

Most publishers--Linden Lab being an exception-?assert that all virtual goods from their online games are their property, regardless of who created them.

Further, most companies deny players the right to trade those goods for real money. Yet in spite of that, the market for the trade of such goods is worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year, as players are willing to pay hard cash for weapons, clothing, vehicles and such goods.

"The EULA isn't going to be enough to stop this kind of creativity," said Ted Castronova, a leading expert on the economies of virtual worlds. "The sphere of economic development is absolutely powerful...There's a profit-seeking incentive that will (create) a market...The future is that every single one of these games is going to have this trading around it."

Thus, said Raph Koster, another panelist and the chief creative office at "EverQuest" publisher Sony Online Entertainment, companies may want to follow SOE's lead in incorporating real-money trades directly into their games.

SOE recently became the first major American publisher to do that when it unveiled Station Exchange, which allows some "EverQuest II" players to buy and sell that game's goods.

"It's making appreciable money," Koster said of Station Exchange. "It's clearly a viable business model going forward, so the question is where it makes sense and where is it applicable."

In any case, the Austin Game Conference was a place for discussion and the trading of strategies. Developers who are competitors the rest of the year came together to help each other refine business models and development plans for games.

And that's at least in part because everyone here believes that online games are going to be getting bigger and bigger as time goes by. And those in attendance here think there is no doubt that there is enough room for everyone.

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