Jan 072009
 

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Reflections by me? Been a bit slow off the mark blog wise this year as endless layers of projects overlap and blogging has fallen off the list. But there are some goodies about to be blogged here, just simmering, almost ready for serving. Smell that goodness.

For the moment though two of my ‘thinks’ that others published for me. The first from Bettina TIzzy’s great (‘What the World Needs Now is‘) Not Possible in Real Life (NPIRL) blog who posted a selection of my slightly half-baked thoughts re: virtual worlds. Following that, also featuring SL & Telstra, a rather positive retrospective from ITWire extensively quoting me, about how companies can engage properly, The Pond is a build I created back in early 2007.

OK to the post. I know, a lazy re-posting but there are a few nuggets in here…over to NPIRL.

Gary Hazlitt turns the page on 2008 – What happened and what’s coming in virtual worlds

Sydney-based Brit and marketing wiz, musician, composer and rich content creator in virtual worlds Gary Hazlitt (aka Gary Hayes), is already done celebrating the incoming year, while we wait for a few more hours in the Western Hemisphere for 2009 to arrive.

Gary, who studied physics, is the director of the Australian Laboratory for Advanced Media Production (LAMP), and also heads up Virtual Worlds for the UK-based The Project Factory, for which he produced the highly successful and eminently revistable (as the traffic numbers indicate) Australian Telstra and ABC Second Life presences.

I welcome Gary’s guest blogpost and knowledgeable take on the recent past and the coming adventures of virtual worlds. Happy New Year, everyone! – Bettina Tizzy

In the social Virtual Worlds context, 2006 was about hype… another new frontier ‘kid-on-the-block,’ but became about fast bucks and cheap and cheerful PR. We saw that bubble gently burst in 2007 as the realisation that one world in particular, Second Life – (which is still the leading example of culturally created virtual content), was really about creative communication and artistic expression versus the local shopping mall or a crude business tool.

Last year, 2008, we witnessed a distillation in what Second Life (and by implication other customisable worlds) is really about, leading to a proliferation of new, niche virtual worlds meeting the cultural and entertainment needs of much broader demographics. We effectively saw the ‘fat’ surgically removed from Second Life and an acceptance that this new medium and form is still in its very early days, but in 2008 there are clearer reasons for being a part of the social web mix:

1. An immersive expression of community – Facebook and MySpace-meets-World of Warcraft. This community can create their own environments or swarm around trusted film, TV or lifestyle brands, too.

2. For business, it is more about a place to meet, present and recruit and far less about brand awareness, product sales or vacuous hype. The business model in 2008 clearly came into focus: the community selling to itself – brands needed to court existing inhabitants very carefully.

3. For education, Second Life is one of the most efficient tools in the learning process. Education becomes democratised, everyone can contribute and learn equally, remote learning is far more compelling, fun and immersive.

4 A creative tool. Second Life, in particular, showed significant maturity as we saw a higher number of serious live performance (CARP Cybernetic Art Research Project, NMC, DanCoyote Antonelli, for example), a record number of in-world ‘machinima & TV-like programs’ and by far the largest array of creative statements from virtual environment artists, many members of the NPIRL group. The quality of ‘experience’ creation from talented musicians, designers, photographers, artists, etc., reached new heights.

GROWTH OF WORLDS

Investment across the board – more than $900 million US invested since Oct 2007 – has moved away from generalist worlds like Second Life to more focused niche or user base environments with many starting to exhibit core game elements. These include those with renewed investment after new’ish launches: vSide, Football Superstars, Stardoll, Home, IMVU, Metaplace, Multiverse Places, and Music Mogul.

Towards the end of the year, console social worlds came onto the scene. XBox360 and Wii are very similar in ‘cartoon’ aesthetic, whereas Sony is far more game focused. All have very similar business models – create a space to hang out and be ‘tempted’ by games/film/merchandise. Although these are not yet places for community creation, they will soon learn that to keep inhabitants they will need to be or, like Google Lively, have to pull the plug. Embeddable or layered worlds began in 2008 and are likely to be significant in getting people used to real time communication through ‘representational’ avatars – vs text based ‘social network’ profiles. Also, Facebook worlds like YoVille or Vivaty, or layered worlds like Rocketon or Weblin that are embedded on the existing 2D web. The dominance of the likes of Club Penguin and Webkinz at the tweens end of the spectrum will be duplicated through teens and gen y’s as a series of new, highly focused and targeted social worlds launch next year. This has already begun with Football Superstars and Music Mogul but expect to see many more – including several with user created content as a feature alongside the virtual economy.

HIGHLIGHTS OF 2008

– Graphics in Second Life become teenagers. Still some way from the likes of Crysis, Second Life Windlight turned the world into something far more fantastical for many. It added layers of light, glow and control to a previously very ‘flatly lit’ world. We still wait for dynamic shadows, better environmental sound and an even more useful scripting language (post Mono), but this was a paradigm shift for environmental artists.

– Some companies got it! There was not a plethora of companies or brands entering Second Life but those that did had continued success as they concentrated on the social (people) rather than ‘product’ aspects of their business. Although the Pond leads in dwell terms, new entrants like Warner’s Gossip Girl have done exceedingly well. Car companies still do well even though Pontiac walked away from Second Life, and Toyota, Fiat and Nissan are always in the top 10 brands.

– The quality of machinima across all social and game worlds increased exponentially this year and a growth in communities watching ‘documents’ of the worlds they spend most of their time in. In addition to some machinima appearing in heritage media (“Molotov Alva and his Search for the Creator” and HBO/Cinemax, for example) there has been a growth in long form game-engine films and notably many more serious issues tackled.

– The New Worlds. A fracturing, as it became obvious that Second Life cannot be all things to all avatars – so nearly 70 other worlds all showed up on the radar. Many are focusing on niche interest or are highly branded. Several of the new ‘jack-of-all-trades’ entrants will learn that enabling community creativity and an economy is absolutely necessary. There were several walled garden/locked content mirror worlds and builds in 2008, which will learn to be not about ‘broadcast’ spaces, and realise that their worlds are far more significant than modelling what is around us – “In augmented and online virtual worlds, humanity will exponentially evolve, free from the limiting ghosts of that other virtual world we called reality”.

The second item appeared following my presentation at the Online Distribution and Business Collaboration conference from November 2008 in which I hurriedly went through some good inworld and game marketing case studies. Kathryn Small here picked up on why Australia’s BigPond is working really well – and no, it is not all about the broadband capping situation in Australia. Most of the regular inhabitants are on other ISP’s – anyway the article covers my thoughts on this and I have a much longer analysis with stats for the nearly 2 years it has been active, in the pipeline. (Also worth mentioning something about the item at the start of this one – Tourism Victoria didn’t withdraw its funding, Multimedia Victoria requested I take down a temporary ‘trial’ build of Melbourne Laneways – which had an original 3 month ‘learn as we go’ tenure on ABC Island. Otherwise a good item below.

Despite reports, Telstra and Second Life remain inseparable
By Kathryn Small 28 November 2008 02:20PM

It’s a match made in heaven: Telstra is Australia’s biggest telco and ISP, while Second Life is one of the world’s hottest social networking tools. So when the media reported that “the game was almost over” for Second Life, Telstra was quick to defend its investment.

Recently, Tourism Victoria withdrew its advertising funding from Second Life’s ABC Island. This prompted Deacons technology and media partner Nick Abrahams to comment to The Australian that “the drop in commercial interest in Second Life had been noticeable over the past nine months”.

Abrahams said that at any given time, fewer than a couple of hundred Australians might be in Second Life.

But virtual worlds expert Gary Hayes said that virtual world ratings should be measured in engagement and user hours, not just hits.

“Immersive online experiences need new metrics, and marketeers and academics are realising that social worlds do provide the potential for very high dwell figures,” said Hayes.

“Facebook has 65 million users on for just four hours per month. 132 Americans watch YouTube but they watch only about five minutes per day or 2.5 hours per month,” said Hayes.

“Second Life (and other social virtual worlds) has the highest rates of loyalty and stickiness of any social network generation, more than 50 hours per month per user.”

Hayes said that Telstra’s islands, known as The Pond, had a steady stream of around 50-100 users at any given time.

Telstra spokesperson Peter Habib quoted figures compiled by The Project Factory which said that BigPond’s islands were the most popular in Second Life.

The Ponds were founded in March 2007 with 11 islands (now 16) which have hosted virtual concerts, ANZAC Day commemorations and even New Year and Australia Day events.

BigPond recently hosted an AUSTAFE event which involved live streaming of the event from Adelaide into Second Life.

The Ponds also contains five residential islands for users to build themselves virtual real estate to live in, at near 100 per cent occupancy.

Telstra spokesperson Peter Habib told iTnews, “BigPond’s commitment to innovation, interactivity and entertainment in Second Life is a key part of our success.”

Habib said that BigPond has opened a virtual in-world service kiosk that allows Second Life users to interact with BigPond customer service staff in a virtual way.

Hayes said that The Pond’s approach to customers differentiated it from many other brands.

“The real success of The Pond is more about the regular events, the creativity of the builders who often come from the community, elements of nationalism, and many of the organic spaces that promote stickiness by their ‘ambience’ rather than superficial interactivity. This has been a real differentiator.”

Habib dismissed the concerns of other providers with success on Second Life.

“While other companies may not share BigPond’s successes, we are more than pleased with the popularity of our Second Life islands”

Hayes said that companies might not succeed in Second Life for two reasons. First, that many brands were brought into Second Life for the wrong reasons, and with misunderstandings about the social network. “You cannot build into a social network and not be social,” said Hayes. “Early entrants simply did not act human; they acted like a corporation, and built clones of the real world, and didn’t think experientally.”

Second, Hayes said that companies needed to change their offering to virtual customers.

“We are seeing the natural exodus of ‘showroom, build-it-big-and-boring’ brands and the settling of second generation ‘social’ and ‘purposeful’  brands. So The Pond, Accenture, Playboy, The L Word, and about five other key brands are really getting to grips with setting up a virtual base in a social world.”

John Brand, research director at Hydrasight, agreed.

“Only organisations who want to be perceived as ‘bleeding edge’ should ever have been involved in Second Life in the first place,” said Brand.

“Now that Second Life is entering its relative teenage years (measured in Internet years at least), the early adopter bandwagon has well and truly been jumped on.”

But Brand (edit: Hayes) noted that Second Life is not the only virtual world.

“There are at least 50 other mainstream entities and the total audience (according to a trusted site on this topic, KZero) is well over 300 million. In the second quarter of 2008, $161 million was invested in 14 virtual worlds, in the first quarter $184 million put into 23 virtual worlds, so the total this year alone is $345 million across 37 new worlds.

“Australia is a tiny market compared with Europe, Asia, South America and the USA, so fluctuations are highly likely. The fact that the user base of one virtual world fell by 23 per cent in a year is common with any service coming out of a hype phase into a stable mature phase.”

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.

IS THERE REAL INVESTMENT?

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

BUSINESS WAKES UP

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.”

SHOW ME THE VIRTUAL MONEY

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.

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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…