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Making virtual worlds more lifelike

PARC researchers study challenges in creating satisfying face-to-face avatar and other interactions.

PALO ALTO, Calif.--Ever played an online game like "World of Warcraft" or "EverQuest" and wished the expressions on your avatar's face looked more realistic or that it was easier to communicate with other players?

If so, then a team of researchers from the famed Palo Alto Research Center might be your heroes.

The PARC team--Bob Moore, Nicolas Ducheneaut and Eric Nickell, plus Stanford's Nick Yee--have spent the better part of three years studying the social dimensions of so-called massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) to better understand the design challenges behind creating satisfying face-to-face avatar and other interactions in such environments.

"It's surprising how little the publishers know about their players, what makes them tick and how to get them to come back and play more regularly."
--Nicolas Ducheneaut, PARC research team

The basic concept behind the team's research, according to Moore, a sociologist in PARC's computing science laboratory, is to analyze and potentially develop systems that publishers would pay for to make their games more attractive to more players.

But along the way, the group says, it has encountered one substantial hurdle: conventional wisdom in the games industry that development resources should be spent on content, since content is what players want.

"When faced with the decision, 'Do I put in another dungeon or do I improve the experience for (groups of players)?'" said Ducheneaut, publishers often say "'I'll put in another dungeon.' I think that's incredibly shortsighted."

That's because the PARC team--whose project and blog are called PlayOn--firmly believes there's real money to be made in designing MMOs so that they make it substantially easier for players to not only slay beasts together, but also communicate and socialize.

The group acknowledges that it may be hard to convince publishers to change fundamental design principles of existing games in order to improve socialization. But should publishers do so, it may well make worthwhile the countless hours the team has spent collecting and analyzing data about the ways people play MMOs.

"We want to get in at the ground level" of a new MMO, said Moore, "before it's too late."

Ducheneaut, a member of the research staff of PARC's computer science lab (CSL), agreed.

"I think we can make a dollars-and-cents argument," Ducheneaut said. "They can look at a new dungeon and how many extra players it'll get them, and we can counter very easily, because now we have the numbers (showing the value of improved socialization tools) and you can translate that into money."

The group has studied large numbers of players, and their in-world interactions, in six online games and virtual worlds: "World of Warcraft," "EverQuest," "EverQuest II," "Star Wars Galaxies," "Second Life" and "There."

Massively multiplayer games like "EverQuest" are usually made up of tens or hundreds of thousands of players, each of whom pays a monthly fee to play. Some such games, like "World of Warcraft," have millions of players. Others, like "Second Life," are free to play, but charge for things like owning virtual land.

To Moore, the problem starts in the design phase of a game when publishers fail to see the value of, for example, making social spaces that players actually consider social.

Keeping design in mind
He pointed to a "cantina," or barlike place, in "Star Wars Galaxies" where players can come to get healed by spells and such. But the space is designed as a social place, and Moore and his colleagues noticed that few players ever took the time to stop and actually socialize.

"You can make them go to the cantina," Moore joked, "but you can't make them socialize."

The problem, Moore suggested, is that in the end the cantina wasn't designed with enough attention to making it the sort of spot players want to gather. He didn't detail what about it made it less appealing than it could be.

But at least one publisher disagrees with the notion that it doesn't pay enough attention to players' needs.

"We spend a great deal of time talking to our players about the game," said Chris Kramer, director of corporate communications at "Star Wars Galaxies" publisher Sony Online Entertainment. "(We ask) what they like about the games...and what they'd like to see in the games. We put a huge deal of effort into that."

Kramer said SOE's community relations team devotes a lot of time to communicating with players, especially "influencers," or top players around whom groups form, to make sure there's give and take between the players and the company.

But much of the source behind the problems, the PlayOn team argued, is that publishers may not know that much about who their paying customers are.

"It's incredible the palette of skills you need to design these spaces in the right way."
--Nicolas Ducheneaut, PARC research team

"It's surprising how little the publishers know about their players," said Ducheneaut, "what makes them tick and how to get them to come back and play more regularly. As you try to steal customers away (from other publishers' games), you have to know what makes them tick."

Moore added that many MMO publishers don't do a very good job of analyzing the player data they do capture.

Kramer doesn't dispute that notion.

"It's surprisingly true," he said, speaking for SOE. "We can know a lot about our players, but there are specific things we can track...but we have to really go digging for it."

In any case, said Moore, the crux of the socialization design problem comes down to fundamental issues with what he called "interactional realism," or the embodiments, gestures, methods of talking, eyes and facial expressions of 3D avatars in most MMOs.

And to Ducheneaut, it's not all that surprising that MMO publishers would fall short on some of the socialization elements that could make their games and the environments in them seem more lifelike.

"It's incredible the palette of skills you need to design these spaces in the right way," he said.

Among the skills that would be helpful would be urban planning, sociology and politics, fields of expertise game companies are not brimming with.

Meanwhile, one spark of hope the team has identified is that pieces of many individual games get it right. That means a social space in one game may work as it should, while the facial expressions in another may be very realistic.

"It's an exciting time in the industry," Moore said, "because they're discovering best practices."

Still, the team is betting its countless hours of research that there is money to be made in instructing MMO publishers how to overcome myriad problems with the way players interact with one another, and even with their own avatars, in these 3D environments.

Ultimately, the team thinks it can show MMO publishers that hidden in the massive amounts of data that can be collected from within the games are the keys to making better games--ones that players will want to come back to again and again.

"We know these companies are analyzing their data," said Nickell, a computer scientist in PARC's computer science lab. "But what is it that makes an MMO an MMO? The socialization. And we have yet to meet a company that (does serious social analysis on the data it collects)."