Op/Ed: It’s the Avatar, Stupid.

by Alphaville Herald on 31/12/09 at 11:06 am

Magic ingredients for a compelling metaverse

by Tizzers Foxchase


Since the dawn of online gaming, the driving force which has kept players glued to their computer for hours has been the advancement of one's character by means of levels and better items. Many of you can probably the recall the satisfying feeling of accomplishment when your character looted that awesome rare item, dinged a certain level, or received a fancy new skill. That feeling of instant satisfaction glee is the magic sauce which leads to addiction because we fall in love with the pleasure of success, brought to you compliments of dopamine.

Time moves much faster in pixel land. Ever notice how a month in Second Life can seem like a year in real life? This time compression allows us to experience more satisfying adventures in a very short period. No wonder we have an entire generation of WoW addicted ADD kids! To them real life becomes bland because the time invested vs satisfaction ratio can simply not compete with the fast-paced release of dopamine offered by virtual worlds and games.

With this in mind, it is easy to see why other virtual worlds such as Lively and Metaplace failed to gain traction. A lack of satisfying experiences simply equates to a boring experience. The avatar and the ability to project oneself in a digital format fulfills a fundamental human need to express individuality. All of this boils down to one thing: "Does this virtual world make me feel good?"

Avatar customization is such a powerful aspect of virtual worlds, that current trends predict a multi-billion dollar virtual goods industry right around the corner. Though the Gartner virtual worlds hype cycle never fully came to fruition in 2009, Second Life remains the reigning king of virtual worlds because they have successfully implemented several key elements which revolve around the avatar.

* The Economy allows for free trade of virtual goods, more specifically avatar attachments which account for the vast majority of in-world micro transactions. The LindeX also serves as a gateway to RL monetary channels, providing economic incentive for content (Clothing, Skin, Hair) creators.

* Retention of Intellectual Property Rights provides economic incentive for content creators, allowing for a steady flow of new virtual items.

* A Comprehensive Set of In-World 3D Building Tools. The ability to collaborate and build in real-time is one key element which has set Second Life apart from the competition. Though sculpted prims gave us eye candy, we lost a bit of the real-time building collaboration in the process. I suspect we will see the same thing happen with the new mesh implementation.

* Avatars With Attachment Points give avatars the means by which this content becomes part of their virtual persona.

The acquisition of Xstreet and OnRez in 2009 by Linden Lab was no mere coincidence. Philip and M realized the importance of virtual goods and how it can possibly deliver the return on investment for which the Lab has been desperately searching. Unfortunately, the technology behind Second Life is almost a decade old. While the Lindens frivolously spend their time bolting on outsourced technology to their aging horse and buggy, new endeavors such as Blue Mars and MyCosm are busy inventing the automobile.

As the millennial generation grows older, virtual worlds will lose their taboo and will progressively be embraced by the mainstream. Competition will emerge, giving us gorgeous and immersive worlds which will penetrate multiple aspects of our daily lives. These new worlds should strive to allow human beings to augment reality in a way which allows us to better the human condition. Giving us the users access to tools which quench the need for expression will be the magic ingredients for a truly compelling metaverse in the future.

17 Responses to “Op/Ed: It’s the Avatar, Stupid.”

  1. Leftist Right-Hander

    Dec 31st, 2009

    tl;dr: People enjoy building their perfect fursona avatar so they can masturbate to it.

  2. Out of Touch Egghead Professor

    Dec 31st, 2009

    Tizzers, you hit a nail here:

    “As the millennial generation grows older, virtual worlds will lose their taboo and will be progressively be embraced by the mainstream”

    Yeah–but for now most of those kiddies live lives that are avatarian and they think SL and its ilk are “creepy.”

    When they lose their little cutesy-pie social scene from college and start working for the Man, they’ll seek it out online…somewhere. And then they’ll use avatars.

  3. marilyn murphy

    Dec 31st, 2009

    good article. i hope the prediction will pan out.

  4. Senban Babii

    Dec 31st, 2009

    Great article Ms Foxchase!

    “Since the dawn of online gaming, the driving force which has kept players glued to their computer for hours has been the advancement of one’s character by means of levels and better items.”

    Hmm, I know where you’re coming from but is this necessarily true? Your point actually predates online gaming and goes back to paper and pencil roleplaying games such as Dungeons & Dragons of course and perhaps even further. But I’d probably disagree about your analysis that these are the factors that keep people glued to the computer screens in virtual worlds. When you analyse the earliest incarnations of online environments, the MUDs, you see that what really kept people glued to their screens was the social interactions between avatars. There are many examples to back this up in Sherry Turkle’s “Life On The Screen” that are worth considering against your argument.

    However I would then also have to agree with your point if we view virtual worlds from a gaming perspective, which I am loathe to do as I think pointed out in a recent blog. Even as we speak, I am mining Scordite in EVE Online in another window. One of the things that keeps me interested in EVE Online since my friend got me into it quite recently is indeed the ability to improve skills, buy new ships and build things (in a limited way). But it is very much a game, just like Dungeons & Dragons (which I have also played for more years than I’m prepared to admit). They may indeed be socially interactive environments but ultimately they are games. To introduce the elements that make such games popular runs the risk of reducing the social interactivity of Second Life et al into a side issue of a gaming environment. I believe Second Life et al are progressions of the MUDs rather than progressions of online gaming. To a degree, there is no reason why there shouldn’t be an element of crossover, creating an alloy of concepts perhaps. We just have to be careful to avoid turning the one into the other and losing what makes it strong in the process.

    In a sense I think that this may have been what led to the downfall of Metaplace. Again as I discussed in a relatively recent blog, Metaplace touted itself as a social cyberspace but when you actually went in and looked around, what you actually had was a gaming cyberspace. It was trying to be one thing when it was actually another. We need Second Life to be good at what it does and borrow a few elements from the gaming cyberspaces to create a strong alloy, just like the gaming cyberspaces borrow elements from the social/creative cyberspaces to create alloys without losing what makes them strong in the first place.

    “As the millennial generation grows older, virtual worlds will lose their taboo and will be progressively be embraced by the mainstream.”

    There’s absolutely no question in my mind that the culture of simulation is growing more and more part of everyday experience, you’re absolutely correct. From simulated desktops on our computer screens that people have absorbed into their lives until they’ve become almost invisible to the increasing use of simulated communication/interaction which will likewise be so normalised in everyday experience as to be invisible.

  5. Darien Caldwell

    Dec 31st, 2009

    Well thought out arguments. I have to agree with most of it. The aspect of retention of Intellectual Property rights is pretty spotty at best though. And there is another factor which will help hasten the decline of LL’s horse and buggy, which is the act of adjusting the throttle to only go half as fast as before (otherwise known as script limits).

    The Avatar is the central feature to any successful world, without a doubt. The more customizable, detailed, and dare I say lifelike you can make it, the better chance one has to draw in and enrapture people with their alternate selves.

  6. Sigmund Leominster

    Dec 31st, 2009

    It’s important that folks who want to create their own virtual worlds treat it as a business and not a hobby. The technology to build “Siggy World” is relatively inexpensive and doubtless I could find some folks with the know-how to make it happen. However, I’m not convinced I could make a business out of it; which is also part of why Lively and Metaplace failed. So add “sustainable business model” as a pre-requisite for the worlds’ owners.

    Tizzers outlines some of the key features that VW creators need to have available to folks. Construction, commerce, communication, and constitution are another way to summarize the necessities of virtual life. You need to be able to build stuff, sell stuff, talk about stuff, and sue folks for stealing it. The latter remains a problem for Linden Lab but it’s at least identified and some folks have been quite happy to use regular real-world laws to protect their virtual property.

    Nice article, Tizzers.

  7. Corona anatine

    Dec 31st, 2009

    tl;dr: People enjoy building their perfect fursona avatar so they can masturbate to it.

    Surely that can be done without the avatar

    buying a PC and the associated internet monthly charges is an expensive way just to have a wank

  8. Rock Ramona

    Dec 31st, 2009

    Wow!!!!I walk in the door,set down my luggage and go to checking my email and I run across your article in the herald.Best article ive seen in ages,all until the last paragraph.I just spent 2 weeks basking in the sun and sucking down rum drinksat a private island of my friends in Turks Caicos,in the Carribean.My wife and I and 10 of my geekiest hacker buddies spent hours on the beach discussing the future of our hobby and for some,our jobs.In the 10 minutes they allowed me to discuss Second Life,we all came to the conclusion that Virtual Worlds will continue to appeal to a niche crowd,just like chatrooms,video games.The majority of the population will remain logged into real life.3 of these people working in upper management at Microsoft,2 being university professors from tech schools,1 an editor from a leading pc magazine,and the rest,game developers at some time of their life.I really think this group of people had come to a fair and balanced conclusion.But I truly cant wait to see more articles like this from you Ms Foxchase/me applauds

  9. P

    Dec 31st, 2009

    4chan get out

  10. Bro Wassep

    Jan 1st, 2010

    I hate to say it but….. Woodbury/4chan = New W-hat 2.0. Now with Vitamin E.

  11. Inniatzo

    Jan 1st, 2010

    This is an excellent op/ed, too often they are pointless screeds against LL. This is right on target.

  12. JustMe

    Jan 1st, 2010

    Tiny Empires and other in world games have helped satisfy the desire for “points” and “advancement’ for those who need those types of fulfillment. Plus, the “armies” and “battles” help with this need, also.

    Thus, SL is a social outlet with business capability, plus the opportunity to game as well. I see SL continuing well into the future for those reasons alone. SL is versatile enough to accomodate almost everyone’s online needs.

  13. P

    Jan 1st, 2010

    “I hate to say it but….. Woodbury/4chan = New W-hat 2.0. Now with Vitamin E.”

    I don’t know what the hell you just typed.

  14. Jumpman Lane

    Jan 1st, 2010

    Tizzeh! Tizzeh u was my onleh frend on that borefest metaplace! blue mars sux1 nice op ed! Es la verdad! Ciento por ciento puro!

  15. archie

    Jan 2nd, 2010

    My single most repeated comment in how to improve the SL experience forums has always been thus:

    Improve the avatar rendering

    4 years and I have still the same choppy dynamics I had when I started.

  16. Kate M.

    Jan 4th, 2010

    Very well expressed Tizzers, but I would argue with your opening point that character advancement is what keeps people invested in virtual worlds. In my experience, the social group one forms in virtual worlds, and especially SL, is what keeps people coming back – they feel like they have a community to belong to, and friends they like to see.

  17. IntLibber

    Jan 7th, 2010

    Kate makes a good point, but group building is something that is really a function of the content creator/merchant creating a believable theme around their venture and attracting users who give the creators work credit enough to become fans and loyal repeat users. A good example is the Merczateers/[Operations] relationship as a model. Same same with Toxian City, and any number of other themed communities. The community serves as a viral marketing fan-core for the business that helps fund the groups land and other activities. This is a microcosm of LL’s own crowdsourcing methodology.

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