What can we learn from the death of virtual worlds?
Iterating Fun has a list of how virtual worlds never lived up to the hype and why they died. Mostly these apply to sandbox style virtual worlds. Where there is nothing and you are free to do anything. They are good lessons for us to learn when building the next virtual world.
What can they tell us about goals, themes, conflict and complexity?
No purpose, no goals
As a sandbox world there is nothing and your only goals are what you set yourself. These worlds lend themselves to socializing, building and exploring as self set goals. The world itself is devoid of meaning or direction. There is no surprise in a self set goal. You as a user need something to strive for, puzzles to solve. There needs to be an overarching theme that binds the virtual world with meaning and purpose to allows for goals. To allow for direction and action towards goals.
No themes, no culture
Sandboxes have no themes, no story, there is no thread to tie the users together with a unique shared history. Subreddits, tags, categories, WoW factions, clans or guilds, war, battle, competition or cooperation. These allow for themes and identity. These help you write your story in your virtual world.
Communities that grow organically develop their own themes, stories and spoken and unspoken social norms. Sandboxes have no structure to keep community created norms enforced. Old virtual worlds had no way to enforce organically evolved social norms on new players. And fragile societies crumbled into fighting and trolling. Chasing away the casual user and leaving only the hardest of users to fight in the rubble.
Virtual worlds need tools to dynamically enforce the ever changing social norms and allow for a growing culture to bind together users.
Sandbox virtual worlds had no automated feedback system. Instead they relied on the natural feedback users gave other users. The trouble with this is that it wasn't always timely or constructive. Iterating Fun talks about the addictive nature of feedback systems. I know I always look for the red notification when I login to facebook. They help make the world rewarding and let users know where they are on the road to goals. Virtual worlds need feedback systems. Be they leaderboards, notifications or personal stats. They will help engage users and make the world a fun place to play in.
Great technology doesn’t mean a great user experience. Virtual worlds offer great freedom, but also a LOT of complexity and ways to get stuck.
Here I think Iterating Fun is confusing complexity with a good interface design and user experience. Complexity alone did not aid in killing virtual worlds. WoW has complexity and it has millions of users. There are many games and websites littered with a large number of complex tools and interfaces. And yet they survive.
We must aim for simplicity of design and interaction. Where we have complexity we must simplify it for most users, and enhance it for power users. But we must not blame it alone for failure.
Needs met elsewhere
All of the previous reason combined together into too high a barrier for users. It was too hard and not rewarding enough. So they found other internet places, forums and myspace, where they could express themselves with ease. And when they found these other outlets they abandoned virtual worlds.
For virtual worlds to succeed they have to meet users needs without being too hard. They need a purpose, culture and feedback. They need something unique to offer. Something to make them special and engage users.
Zona Rosa (from the book Idoru) lived in her virtual world, forever flicking her switchblade. In Real Life she was a broken girl, crippled and shut off from the world. In her space she was born anew: she “has lived for the past five years in almost complete denial of her physical self.”
Sandboxes are fun for only so long. After we’ve built and destroyed so many castles we want more. We want a fuller story, who lives in the castle and why couldn’t they prevent it from being destroyed. And what will they do the next time the nothing comes to destroy their lands. Will they rise and fight with their clan members against the ever encroaching destruction? It’s that or they log off and go back to their lives, back to other toys and distractions.