Feb 012009

What may save TV may also truly grow Social Virtual Worlds. As online audiences continue to ignore TV and vanilla/social virtual worlds suffer from a lack of direction, perhaps the marriage of the two will save both from irrelevancy? A report by Gary Hazlitt in various TV branded virtual world spaces.

twinityspiritThere have been several forays by TV properties (gradually losing their audience and associated ad revenues) into social virtual worlds over the past two years. I don’t just mean branded one-off events but actually setting up shop, building a familiar and representive space for the ‘users’ to play in. These forays range from at one end, simple branded spaces pushing episodes on screens through to actually running variants of the TV format to be played out by participant avatars in a detailed build -with many points in-between. But before the meat of the post (a couple of new entrants) here is a quick list to give you an idea of some of the shows and channels that have tried, had some success or failed. As I have been involved in a few of them and visited all, I have listed ones I think have had most impact (engagement) through to those who didn’t quite get it (reversioning).

  1. NBC’s Gossip Girl
  2. MTV’s – Laguna Beach on There.com (also Hills, PimpMyRide etc)
  3. Big Brother – PersonalizeMedia detailed report & at launch
  4. Showtimes The L Word
  5. CBS -  CSI:New York and from TechCrunch
  6. Weather Channel – Info, simulations and Extreme Sports area
  7. Australia’s ABC TV Island – Channel & some programmes (eg: Librarians)
  8. NBC Universal Media Island – Channel & concerts & events
  9. London Live – the first music show to appear on the cyberchannel: Virtual Life.TV
  10. SkyNews Island – News Set role play
  11. The Money Programme BBC screening
  12. Channel 4 – Radio Station
  13. Sundance Channel – Virtual screening room
  14. Inhabited TV 1997! – BBC, BT, Illuminations and others
  15. many more…0ver to you and comments!

twinityspirit01There is a rule of thumb regarding TV execs and virtual worlds or serious games initiatives – do not let the TV folk take control as they have too much ingrained baggage around non-participatory media and the resultant compromise is often of no use to anyone – get people who understand game play (and be aware that often excludes traditional game developers) and social media involved or face the consequences. The ones above that really worked allowed the participant audience to really ‘live’ in the shoes of the characters either by having activities similar to the protagonists, meeting the ‘fictional characters’, a social space that resonated with the shows aesthetic or a great set with game-like elements. I have talked a lot about Mixed Reality Entertainment in the past and how one of the most innovative uses of virtual space is to extend the TV or Film property into a 24/7, participatory environment. The main reason for doing this is to drive traffic to the TV but also to keep existing followers loyal to the branded property. As an example there is more detail about the reasoning on my post on Big Brother (good and bad) in Second Life (Witnessing the Birth of an Entertainment Form) as well as posts nearby on CSI in Second Life and many of MTVs properties in There.com (TV Property Branded Virtual Worlds – The Beginning). There are moves around the world including BBC and many European broadcasters who are creating worlds alongside and in some cases in front of the TV episodics and this is the important point. Promoting films with games or virtual world spaces has a very limited life span, forging a strong link between virtual world events and TV episodics is to me a virtuous circle – especially considering the 200 plus worlds populated by the youth audience who are typically turning off TV – teens and tweens. Earlier there were many experiments of TV/World hybrids and I was involved, as mentioned before, in the Mirror. Here is John Wyver (then Illuminations) talking about that (remember this is circa 1997!).

The other key element that contributed to the success of The Mirror, much as in real life, was the provision of regular “hosts” for the space. These needed to be frequent visitors who spent a significant amount of their time in the world, and whom users could have some reasonable expectation of encountering when they logged on. These hosts would greet new entrants, introduce people to each other, point out activities and generally help people around. More than this, however, over time they became the core of the community of the world, encouraging people to return and beginning to develop the particular language and culture of The Mirror. Needless to say, they were the saddest to see it turned off after seven weeks – although a number of relationships begun virtually have continued in the real world – including at least one marriage and one recently born child.

Recent company start-ups or collaborations also suggest that there are moves afoot. Icarus studios are squarely aiming at the TV/VirtualWorld hybrid and about 18 months ago Endemol & EA teamed up to create Virtual World TV formats (VirtualMe) based on Deal or No Deal and Big Brother. Also there have been a plethora of immersive film launches (play-in-the-set-type builds) across the metaverse and I Legend, Digital Hollywood, Iron Man, Quantum of Solace and Transformers spring to mind as I write – but as I said this post is more to do with a continuous, what happens on TV resonantes into the virtual world and what happens there is reflected into the TV episodics. (I regularly consult on this specific area so won’t go into any more detail!)…


So, it is interesting to see this trend continuing as new world Twinity starts to do more experiential ‘film’ property marketing and even more ‘demographically focussed’ the current series of Heroes being extended into Habbo

The agreement was brokered by the William Morris Agency and marks the first time ‘Heroes’ has partnered with a virtual world.

..but not in the usual way. As reported by LA Times “‘Heroes’ hops on to Habbo’s virtual world” they will be introducing a virtual-only character Syn Anders who will act as a bridge or guide to the TV series. NBC themselves give more detail here.

While following directions from a mysterious virtual messenger, the new character will take the audience on an adventure as she discovers the history of ‘Heroes’ through a journey that travels back and forth between Habbo.com and the ‘Heroes’ Evolutions site. “We’re excited to work with Habbo to introduce a new character that will extend the enormously popular and Emmy® Award winning ‘Heroes’ interactive story beyond the official Web site on NBC.com,” said Stephen Andrade, senior vice president, Digital Development and General Manager, NBC.com. On Habbo.com, fans of the show will be able to interact with the new virtual hero through a variety of in-game activities. Habbos participating in a weeklong quest will discover their own special powers and will be recruited as new heroes. Those who successfully complete the mission will be awarded various virtual prizes. On the ‘Heroes’ Evolutions site, the new virtual hero will be woven into several of the in-universe, interactive extensions of the on-air show, including a character profile, the Primatech Paper Assignment Tracker and new chapters of the ‘Heroes’ graphic novels.

One of the more obvious links between TV and film of course is simply to broadcast a seed back story as a series, animated makes most sense to keep a strong visual link and then run a MMOG alongside it. This extends, involves the audience more in the narrative and allows them to personalize the experience. We are seeing this about to play out (in Asia at least) with Fusion Fall on the Cartoon network.

This is a great use of virtual worlds and it also shows that you don’t need richly rendered environments to be able to engage with participants in these spaces. Also in terms of the ‘linking’ paradigm, it is close to ‘my’ level 3 wikipedia cross-media definition

Excerpt “Cross-media 3.0“ Bridges. – The truest form of cross-media where the story or service structure is specifically authored to drive the audience using strong Call-To-Actions, across media devices to continue the journey. The content placed on the other platform is critical to staying in touch with the experience and the narrative bridges tease you towards investigating or moving to another media form/platform. Obvious examples include a TV show that ends suddenly and gives you a URL to explore more. It may be an SMS that teases and points you towards a live concert in a city square which then leads you to a TV show, then to a podcast then to subscription emails. The trigger, or bridge, is the critical component of this in motivating the cross-media action.”

twinityspirit02Onto Twinity and the images here and above are me playing around in the pre-build set of the recently released and not universally praised film The Spirit. Although it grossed $10 million in the first 4 days it was pulled up for being unemotional and 2D. Well part of the problem generally with many big features now is that audiences have changed and want something more experiential – especially with ‘comic-noir’ films – why not let them ‘live’ in the story environment (my wikipedia item)? Twinity though have teamed up with Will Eisner studios to do this event (not in any way my ideal episodic but potentially a way for the Twinity user base to ‘create episodic, comic-noir’ machinima on-going?

CineStar Spirits you Away to Another World – CineStar’s CUBIX cinema in virtual Berlin is the premiere address for all movie-related events in Twinity. The cinema is currently showing the trailer and other exciting movie material from the upcoming premiere of The Spirit, a movie based on Will Eisner’s cult 1940s comic book series, which will be coming to a cinema screen near you from 5 February.  Fans of the movie can get their hands on exclusive Spirit merchandising: including posters, standees, and an incredible Spirit mask that lets you see special visual effects inworld. Find more information here. Save the date and come to the opening party!
Date: Monday, 2 February
Time: 17:00 Berlin, 11am NYC, 00:00 Singapore
Where: CineStar CUBIX

twinityspirit03Twinity (by Metaversum, the German created virtual world) are a long ways from a mature stable platform, hence being in beta for the past 12 months or so, but are already exhibiting the best ‘world-led’ event-based, user activation. This in my mind is high on the list of reasons for likely success over many of the areas that over-hyped Second Life suffered from in the early days. OK the world is quite big and empty and many ‘social’ tools are not yet available inworld but the kind of activity quoted below (calling for videos, images, stories etc: attached to some well know brands) is great first step community building and more importantly getting a growing community to market for you. Even I had a go at one a few months ago – video embedded below 🙂 BTW Metaversum you really need to improve the video tools (detached camera please!).

Submit Your Artwork and Win! – Take part in The Spirit Screenshot and Machinima Contest and win an exclusive film poster signed by cult film director Frank Miller or The Spirit action figures.
Things Are Looking A Little Different Around Hereos
Wear the mask and see Twinity through the eyes of the Spirit! – Use Twinity’s screenshot and recording tools to create incredible Spirit- inspired images! To be eligible to win the contest, screenshots must be created while wearing the Spirit Mask and its visual effects must be demonstrated in your machinima. Screenshots may be submitted in jpg, png or gif formats.
Sensational Prizes – You have the chance to win sensational The Spirit prizes! Three prizes will be given out to the lucky winners of the Screenshot and Machinima Contest:
* 1st prize: The Spirit action figure and film poster signed by Frank Miller
* 2nd prize: The Spirit film poster signed by Frank Miller
* 3rd prize: The Spirit action figure
To take part in the contest, all you have to do is:

  • Submit your screenshots together with your Twinity name to quest@twinity.com or
  • Upload your movie to a video sharing website, for example “YouTube”, then submit the link to your uploaded video together with your Twinity name to quest@twinity.com
  • Competition deadline: 28 February 2009

We’ll celebrate the winning entries with a Winner’s Gallery party in the CineStar Event Hall! Artwork will be displayed in the CUBIX cinema during The Spirit promotion. Keep an eye on Twinity’s Event Calendar for further details!

Of course I would encourage all TV producers to think about their current audience and whether they want to reach them this way. More importantly you need to think of the appropriateness of creating inworld characters or environments for them to exist in – serious games (from documentaries) and childrens episodics are hot ones at the moment . The real effort is more about having great characters that are persistant in the space but beware of bots or NPC’s (non player characters) pretending to be real, this can have a strong counter productive effect. More later.

Dec 112008

…and a little end of 2008 Virtual Worlds, State of Play…

Broome Australia 2008_07

Just back from a short break in the lovely town of Broome in NW Australia (my pics). It was interesting being disconnected from ‘the cloud’ but in the process having a few ‘virtual experiential’ moments. One of these was watching the controversial film ‘Australia’ in the worlds oldest picture gardens, Sun Pictures (pictured below). Several parts of the film are set in an open air cinema in the 40s and it was so odd to actually be ‘in’ more or less the same scene of deck chairs, insects buzzing around – as the real sun set, the wind blew off the Northern Territories outback while the film panned around those environments, and lizards crawled around on the screen, bats flew overhead, propeller planes took off from the nearby Broome airport and in the audience several from the Broome aboriginal community. A kind of forget 3D lets get to 4D film experiences.

In other parts of Broome I talked to a few people about some of my work, y’know, the web, cross-media, film and virtual worlds (and just like those low hanging fruit journalists who are constantly predicting the end of 3D worlds) even out here in the styzx a couple of folk suggested that games & social virtual worlds especially will really suffer in this economic downturn and may not survive. Which leads to the point of this post to put things in a little perspective.


First lets look at investor confidence in them. From Virtual Worlds Management Reports there was $1 billion US invested in 35 virtual world companies between Oct 06-07 – and since Oct 07 to the present day there has already been $918 million trusted to the success of this particular industry. This breaks down roughly as:

  • Q3 08 – $148.5 million invested in 12 VW companies
  • Q2 08 – $161 million in 16 VW companies
  • Q1 08 – $184 million in 23 VW companies
  • Q4 07 – $425 million in 15 VW companies

As a topical reference, and to put things into heritage media perspective the total spend on all film and tv drama in Australia in 07-08 was $420 million US (at current exchanges). Now the majority of these worlds invested in are youth based but many specialised ones aimed at the Gen Y hole (see kzero.co.uk charts for more info) that are focusing on key niches. These start to fill in the gaps that ‘generic’, jack-of-all-trades, social virtual worlds such as Second Life cannot truly cut the mustard as sub-builds inside the service. So we have recently had in the last week the to user launches of a dedicated real life buy with real cash Virtual eShopping just in time for XMas and what will be a real winner in my view (having just tried it finally) the social sports virtual world, Football Superstars which combines EA-like footy with there.com-like social activity and even has a bit of WoW-like quest giving challenges.

The social aspect of virtual worlds are not lost on the big consoles either with the Launch of XBox and PS3 virtual worlds that I covered in a recent post and also the Inquirer’s article Sony, Microsoft begin battle of Virtual Worlds. I was going to talk a lot about how during hard economic times people turn to escapist activities. In the past it used to be film or TV, but now there are many more choices and as we haven’t seen a global economic downturn of this scale since the 2nd world war – the escapism of choice is now immersive interactive media. This will not be lost on advertisers who also need to optimise their spend across the many variants of shared social worlds.

Shared Social Worlds Diagram


Savvy businesses have now moved beyond the hype bubble of Second Life’s superficiality and realise the power of social collective collaboration. As well as education and science virtual worlds as ‘tools’ are developing into major economic government initiatives. The Athena Alliance have released a report called “Virtual Worlds and the Transformation of Business” with some optimistic summary lines.

The rise of the collaborative enterprise that is likely to result from the successful deployment of Virtual World technologies will usher in a new era of business. It will change the way firms compete with one another for customers in both goods and services industries. It is our firm belief that if our nation accelerates the development and maturation of Virtual Worlds, it will encourage a more collaborative and enterprising form of business. This will lead to greater innovation, sustained productivity, and competitive growth in the world economy.. the companies and workers can use the tools of Virtual Worlds to transform the United States into a collaborative enterprise-driven economy.”

The use of virtual worlds for simulation is not lost on the military either. This goes way beyond using first person shooter games to train late teens for an army life using well, first person shooter game technology in war zones. Last week the largest global simulation conference ever was held “The Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference (I/ITSEC)” focused on the use of more social virtual worlds for training and education for military and scientific use. It was keynoted by General Wallace, the Commander, United States Army Training and Doctrine Command who talked with other big government players about the likely hundreds of billions of dollars that will be invested in virtual simulation technology. As we know most media developments have come about from love and death, porn and war. So this growth as always will resonate in the commercial entertainment industry. An example of how military and education are mixing here is The University of Florida recently announced too that it will be spending $1.25 million on building a Second China for the US Foreign Service and Military to understand the culture without the need to go there and fail-forward.

“The goal of the federally funded research project: To educate and prepare foreign service or other government professionals to arrive in the country prepared and ready to work.”


On the money side there is a great deal of research now going into how virtual world economic models and currencies will evolve from a range of closed systems to a state that may become viable alternatives to ‘real world’ currencies. The Virtual Economy Research Network just had an interesting article on the VW freemium model – free-to-play but encourages the adoption of the inworld currency rapidly, for example.

A brief look forward and in terms of users of these worlds there is going to be a big acceleration over the next 3 years with a recent Instat report suggesting that “registered users of virtual worlds are expected to exceed 1 billion” by 2012 and total revenue is expected to exceed US $3 billion. The majority of this revenue is not from an expected subscription or advertising but “90% of their revenue from the sale of virtual items, currency, land, and fees associated with these items”. Finally a reason why there is even more investment in youth worlds “70% of the more than 300 million registered users of virtual worlds are younger than 18.”

Forester and MillionsOfUs have just published a report looking at how traditional corporate business will begin to flourish in these spaces and to quote their executive four point summary:

  1. It grants unprecedented depth of engagement with consumers. Second only to inperson
    consumer meetings, virtual worlds allow marketers to get up close and personal
    with individual consumers. Using these interactions to allow for feedback, creative tasks,
    and just plain fun creates brand and product advocates in the user base who go far beyond
    in-world influence.
  2. It taps into an audience that is difficult to reach via other channels. Today’s virtual
    world users are seen as a minority vanguard for future usage, but they are also difficult to
    reach via other channels. This is especially true of youth groups and deeply creative
    communities supported by various virtual worlds.
  3. Newer worlds offer better opportunities for cross-channel tracking and more
    targeted audiences.
    Early virtual worlds, while technically groundbreaking and providing
    the necessary foundation for future worlds, often lacked audience-tracking tools and were
    open playgrounds without a specific purpose. New, recently launched worlds or those just
    around the corner will offer better tools for customer tracking and tend to target gamers,
    youth, conversation, or other specific tasks, rather than just being open. This allows better
    brand alignment and campaign integration.
  4. Virtual merchandizing resonates with youth — and can be very cost-effective. Virtual
    items and other digital assets resonate with Gen Y consumers far more than with older
    (physical-media-loving) consumers. They appreciate novel, unique items and accept brand
    involvement in these items and their distribution — provided it has been thought through.
    Needless to say, the creation, storage, and distribution of virtual items can be very costeffective
    compared with traditional merchandise like t-shirts and caps.

There is no decline happening. So journos, nay sayers, please look at your own industries please. To reiterate the above examples are social or simulation virtual worlds and there are around 78 currently being used by 360 million people. I haven’t touched on online game worlds or offline games which starts to turn the whole affair into a $40-50 billion industry overtaking movies (including home entertainment elements too). All suggestions are that VWs and Games will be the dominant entertainment form and a widely used tool for business and education and revenues will start to match that of the $300 billion TV industry within five years time. A big issue for me is the lack or real courses in higher education in this space too. Most training is on how to use software to make fps console-type games, there needs to be a paradigm shift otherwise media education will be irrelevant as the heritage media linear form falls into the background.


Now tell me again that these wacky 3D worlds are about to disappear?

To finish I will be adding a presentation I gave at the Online Distribution and Business Collaboration Conference two weeks ago as it contains many references to the above post…hold your breath…