Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The name of the game in virtual worlds? Monetization.

I'm at GDC (Game Developer's Conference) in San Francisco this week. Learning a lot, seeing some great, and some sketchy, sessions...I've only got the Summits & Tutorials pass, so I won't be able to comment on the regular conference sessions. They did away with the Virtual Worlds summit track this year, but they keep creeping into the other sessions. Lots on social gaming and mobile, and a bit hit or miss (but I think better) line up in the Serious Games summit track.

One initial observation? Much less discussion on design, unless of course you want to learn about design for monetization. Holy cats, I know people ultimately are in this to make some money, but the emphasis on the manipulation of players to convert them into paying customers, and if you're really lucky, subscribers, has been downright depressing. The session on what social gaming can learn from virtual worlds featured "Hangout" which is evidently a new teen world, and initially, primarily targeted to girls. It reinforced every superficial stereotype of young women that the media perpetuates, and it was described with such a casualness that everyone may have missed that it was a soulless vehicle to pander to the media bias that the most important things to teenage girls are clothes and boys. SIGH.

The best session I attended so far was by Eric Ries, who talked about the ecstasy and agony of being a start up, and provided two really interesting case studies on virtual worlds start up companies There.com and IMVU. For those who don't follow these things, There.com just shut down yesterday and IMVU is one of the most successful (if you look at profitability and active users) virtual worlds. Main lesson learned? There.com followed the "rules" and it killed them...IMVU did the opposite and it's flying above the carcasses of other dying worlds.

On a positive note, met some great guys working on some virtual world stuff for enterprise that, if what they say is true, is going to turn some existing platforms on their ears. There are cool things on the horizon...stay tuned for when I can actually talk about it (after I see it and sign an agreement to what I can actually say...) but its about time that we had a browser-based platform for corporate uses that leverages other open API technologies, no?

Its a different vibe this year. It seems a lot smaller. It actually seems a lot quieter, and a bit more desperate. I learn the most at GDC of any conference I attend because seeing what is happening in the entertainment space helps shape how we are designing for corporate learning. We're bolstering our knowledge of ARGs (alternate reality games) and mobile learning through the sessions and technology featured here. But the unrelenting circle-back to "this is how you can make money" is starting to bother me. Good design in entertainment should lead to more customers...good design in training materials should lead to more informed, more educated, more highly skilled learners. Yes, tell me how you're designing for engagement...but not to get someone to push the "Pay" button.

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