“Second Life is not a game.” How often have we heard that claim? And it’s true in many respects. Second Life doesn’t by default have any of the mechanisms associated with games. There are no levels to achieve, no goals to attain, no objectives to meet, and so on. So to simply dismiss it as a “game” is to both underestimate the potential of the platform and demonstrate a lack of understanding about it, and we’re right to point out that it isn’t, of itself “a game”.
However, there are times when “Second Life is not a game” can be used as a rolling-pin with which to thwack Linden Lab because of changes they bring to the system which appear to be focused on gaming or because of initiatives the Lab takes to reach out to potential users. When I come across this latter aspect of the rallying-cry in forum threads blog comments, etc., I’m actually surprised and not a little disappointed.
True, Second Life may not itself be a game – but that doesn’t rule out the fact that it is a very legitimate platform for game play in a wide variety of forms (of which role-play is perhaps the largest, and possibly the reason why (leaving the sex aside) a good proportion of SL users keep logging into the platform. It’s also a more than capable platform for game development and offering people many and varied means of game-like entertainment.
The fact is that Second Life is a platform which allows you to log-in and say, “OK, today, I will be a pirate!” and go off and sail the high seas,” or, “Time to go dogfight over the trenches of World War 1”, or don a period costume and explore some of the history of 18th Century France where yesterday you logged-in a followed the clues to solve a mystery (and gained some nice prizes and trinkets along the way) before engaging in some combat with friends, and tomorrow you might set-out to kill a few zombies before sitting down and enjoying a few rounds of a board game.
Started five years ago by Kiana Writer (Mari Mitchell in real life), MadPea Games has become synonymous with the provision of immersive, imaginative and genre-leading games in Second Life and stands as a shining example of something Rod Humble recently pointed-out in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle: that while it may be true that “big business” initially jumping into SL and then deserting SL, this didn’t leave the platform dead. Rather, it left the way clear for “amateurs” and “specialists in it” (the platform) to establish very successful business presences in Second Life – and in some cases, extend their reach well beyond SL.
MadPea Games is an international team. With Kiana leading the operation out of Finland, other team members are based in France, Germany, The Netherlands, the UK and the USA. Over the years they have created a broad range of games in Second Life, spanning the genres of mystery, adventure, horror, cartoons, hunts, role-play – and more.
“I really don’t know why more people are not using virtual worlds like we do,” Kiana states at the start of the video. Looking at MadPea’s résumé, she makes a fair point. Not only have the team produced some of the most memorable games in Second Life, they’ve also worked on a number of SL / real-world cross-over projects as well. In 2009 they produced The Kaaos Effect interactive adventure in collaboration with Orange. A second collaboration with Orange in 2012 resulted in Firefly, described as a “haunting love story”.
MadPea have also worked with Nature Publishing Group and MacMillan Publishers to produce Notes from the Voyage, an educational game about the travels of Charles Darwin, and with Sigma-Aldrich to create Reaction, an interactive means to learn about chemistry. All of these demonstrate the sheer power of Second Life as a immersive medium – and the value in allowing gameplay and game-like mechanisms within it.
Kiana was not herself a “gamer” but more of a storyteller, and in Second Life she immediately saw a new potential, “I came to Second Life and I was, ‘Hey! This is a great place! I could actually bring my stories to life here!'” In describing the uniqueness of the platform compared to other games, she observes, “Immersive storytelling is when you get so lost in the story that you become the hero of the story; you’re feeling the whole environment. This is why our games are working … because with a lot of console games you become a totally different person, but in Second Life, so many people identify themselves as their avatars, so they get to play as themselves, and that’s really huge.”
Of course, there are limits to what can be achieved in Second Life; as a dynamic environment where so much is open to the users themselves in terms of how they develop their avatars, there has to be a number of checks and balances to keep gameplay in line with some of the more limiting factors of the platform, as Kiana notes, “I don’t think many people actually realise how much work it is to make sure the island is smooth. Everything is so optimised that there is absolutely zero lag. And then the crowds come in, (laughs) and then they start complaining, ‘there’s a lag! there’s a lag!’, and it’s like, ‘Yeah, because you are, as an avatar, taking most of the resources of the sim!'”
Throughout their time in SL, MadPea Games have constantly pushed the boundaries and repeatedly raised the bar on what they strive to achieve. In keeping with this – and as teased during the show – their next project Unia, promises to do so again, as they work to implement an action game within SL.
Fittingly, this segment of the show is itself a rich piece of storytelling, demonstrating not only the power of creativity within Second Life, but also the way in which it can bring people from around the globe together both as colleagues engaged in collaborative efforts and as friends. It is also one which dives into the complexities of creating immersive, interactive environments not so much by what is said, but by what is shown – kudos again to Drax for bringing together an ideal mix images and scenes to perfectly underline Kiana’s words and views.
And I have to say, I really like the role-reversal!
A Conversation with Drax 4: Of Games, Retention, Marketing and Saturation
The Drax Files have taken Second Life by storm. Each segment is a rich piece of video journalism which reaches right into the heart of Second Life, its appeal and its potential. So much so that they invite discussion and feedback – and who better to do that with than the man behind the series: Draxtor Despres.
As regulars will know, Drax and I have been chatting about each new episode as it has launched, hopefully providing readers with both food for thought – whether or not our views are agreed with – and, more importantly, insight into the entire process of bringing something like The Drax Files to life.
Draxtor Despres (DD): It’s interesting you’re leading this piece with the whole discussion of “it’s a game / it’s not a game” – I wrote that in the You Tube description a little bit. It’s this whole back and forth…
Inara Pey (IP): There are valid arguments for SL not being promoted or presented as a game in the traditional sense of the word, but it is a platform which can be used to created immersive and engaging games – which in turn form a major part of the attraction for many who HAVE heard of SL and subsequently sign-up for an account.
DD: I’m 100% with you, and that’s actually a great way of putting it … It’s a fact that games, or the word “game”, or the category “games” is the top category in the Destination Guide. People go into SL like Rod Humble said, and they [Linden Lab] don’t know how bring people to the content quickly, which then in turn influences retention. So if “games” is in fact the number one category, then you want to bring people to games that work.
IP: It’s an incredibly rich environment which allows for a wide variety of games as well, as the MadPea portfolio demonstrates, something which is unique to this kind of immersive, user-driven space.
DD: That’s what Kiana also states in the episode. For Second Life or any virtual world which comes after it or parallels it or surpasses it, the key component is that you are yourself. You have agency over your avatar and you identify with your avatar, and when you play a game or an immersive quest with yourself, it’s much more compelling.
The metaverse that SL should be, should have everything interconnected so you can just teleport to a gaming centre – and you’re somewhere else, exactly like you say: I can be a starship captain and fight there, then I can go over there and be something else entirely.
IP: Many would perhaps say that Second Life is flawed as a game environment – in the show Kiana mentions lag, which can often be the killer for any immersive experience. It’s also something where blame is frequently and wrongly placed on the creators or the Lab, again as Kiana states.
But there are other issues which are pointed to as being reasons why SL isn’t best suited for games – such as the complexity of the UI. It’s not something I personally agree with – after all, whether we were looking for games our not, you and I and everyone else involved in SL today survived the UI, and all of us collectively engage in just about everything SL can offer. What are your thoughts on this?
DD: I think it is wider than that, and it goes right to the heart of engagement and retention. It’s a huge obstacle that Linden Lab is facing, and every other entertainment brand or company is facing – and we need to look at SL as entertainment for the purposes of understanding why it’s not growing or why it is stagnant in terms of growth. It is simply because entertainment is fragmented, just like media is fragmented with blogs and such. People are overwhelmed. And that goes with people being in the rat-race, people trying to earn money, trying to make a living.
Second Life is offering all sorts of awesome things, but it takes time to master them when you create stuff and it takes time to find the content. It’s a potent mix, and a bad mix when entertainment is so fragmented with such a huge offering for us as consumers that when you come home from work and you want to do something, the simplest thing to do is download a movie from iTunes or play a game where somebody tells you, “here is what you have to do.”
Linden Lab has an awesome product, and it’s not just the interface, it’s simply that there’s so much going on in our lives, vying for our attention.
IP: Which could be said to be true of the Lab’s new products as well: they also face an uphill battle for time and attention.
DD: Exactly. I’ve tried all their new products and I think Creatorverse is great, but it’s not at all surprising to me that the downloads from the app stores are not huge. I mean there is an incredible saturation of this market – I mean how many apps are out there? You need to mount a significant marketing campaign to cut through all this clutter. I mean the sheer number of games out there – how do you get noticed?
IP: you lead this episode with a quote from Kiana – which I’ve also used in the article – in which she expresses surprise that more people aren’t doing what MadPea does. Having worked with them, what would you give as reasons for this being so?
DD: Well, time for one thing, like I’ve said. Linden Lab has been cranking out features that are very specific to game functionality, such as pathfinding, and so on and so forth. In theory, you could build really great games, but you need the time. MadPea is a group that eats up every feature that comes along, and the dissect it and they use it in whatever they do next. They are incredibly productive, but they’re also Linden Lab’s best customer in the sense that they use the features right away. Not many people do that, and that’s simply because it takes time.
What MadPea puts in there time-wise and how meticulously they design the stuff and the functionality – it’s a huge commitment and can take a big team. I think it is so impressive how Kiana in Finland manages this team of very creative people. I mean, you know how it is with creative people; sometimes they are not easy to manage because they all have their own ideas, so that’s impressive.
IP: In discussing the whole is/is not a game debate, I’ve sensed you have the same impatience as I do when it comes to people lambasting the Lab for bringing things like game-enabling functionality to the table and seeking – at least lat year – to try to provide SL to the Steam gaming community.
DD: I do. And not just with gaming mechanics. I’m so sick of people accusing Linden Lab of turning SL into Facebook by providing the profile feeds or turning it into a game by adding game mechanics. It’s ridiculous. The profile feed is actually a nice tool. It’s like a private Destination Guide; people post photos with a link to the location and I get inspired by it. There’s discussions about things, what the profile feed does is entirely related to Second Life and it entices me as a person to go back in-world, it doesn’t keep me from going in-world. It’s also a way of keeping in contact with what’s going-on when I’m not able to go in-world.
The link-up with Steam – well, there’s a lot of different opinions about that I heard a lot of people say that they’re not going into Steam because they’re afraid of getting slammed by gamers who hate SL and so there’s more negative backlash or something. I would say at this point that they don’t care about how they’re being perceived (laughs), otherwise they’d be proactively working against it, which they’re not doing.
IP: Having had the opportunity to raise the issue of Steam in particular with Rod Humble, I can say that it’s highly unlikely that an worries about perceptions or possible negative backlash has contributed to the delay / suspension of the Steam deal – but that’s a topic for elsewhere.
DD: I think SL belongs on Steam, although I’m not a gamer, because I believe that anything which opens-up SL to a potentially larger user base is good.
That’s why I also support Amazon. People say, “Oh no, they’re tying it to the real-life identity!” But – nobody forces you to buy stuff on Amazon; they’re not removing the anonymity. They’re giving people choices. I mean, imagine having the entire Marketplace catalogue on Amazon! Imagine what a coup that is, marketing-wise. So somebody searches for something on Amazon like a coffee maker, and there’s a bunch of high-quality mesh coffee makers from SL! And people who have never heard of SL look at them and investigate further … and they become potential customers.
IP: Staying with the topic of perceptions a moment, although it moves us away from SL and games per se. We’ve batted this subject back and forth in our exchanges over the months and only lightly touched on the subject from time-to-time. Perhaps it’s worthy of a conversation in its own right. But we do hear so much – generally from those involved in Second Life – that as a brand name, it is tarnished and holding the platform back from wider adoption. What are your thoughts on this?
DD: I personally embrace the name (Second Life) and I will use the name and I will not shy away from it.
Yes, there is a stigma attached to it, but there is also an untapped potential market. There are people out there who have no preconceptions and where the name is not tarnished. Let me give you an anecdotal example. I was at a birthday party of a friend of mine, and was talking to a librarian who asked me “what do you do for a living?”
Now, I kind-of dread this question – so I said, “Ah, it’s kind-of complicated and I work with virtual worlds and do all sorts of things,” and had this long monologue, and I didn’t mention any names; and she seemed interested and said, “You know, that’s interesting. I have an account in Second Life from 2006, because they asked all librarians to sign-up, but I never logged-in. Is that kind-of what you do?” And I said, “Yeah, that’s exactly what I do.” Then, the next day, I have five e-mail from her asking about Second Life and whether I’d have time to show her around in-world. Some the name, for me, maybe isn’t as tarnished as we me think.
IP: I have a feeling that reputations, capabilities and retention are themes we’re going to be revisiting in future chats. For now, however, I fear we’re out of time!