Monday, January 02, 2006

Virtual Worlds of the Future

What to expect from the gaming industry in 5-8 years

2006. Online Interaction. It’s today’s big ‘buzzphrase’, what millions of people across the globe are experiencing every day of their lives. From simple applications like email and chatting on the net to exploring virtual worlds and earning virtual (and real) money, being connected or having the ability to stay connected has become a way of life for many.

Thomas Friedman (globalization guru, Pulitzer prize winner and author of “The World is Flat”) recently said

“Several technological and political forces have converged, and that has produced a global, Web-enabled playing field that allows for multiple forms of collaboration without regard to geography or distance - or soon, even language.”
And that’s the key pull factor for today’s world – the fact that you can get online, interact in various ways with people across cities, states and even continents in real time is changing they way we live and work, and making us more and more dependant on communication. And gaming has been one of the most popular applications of this new revolution.

These days, gaming has evolved to a nearly unrecognizable form of entertainment from what it was a decade ago, with people restricted to stand-alone gaming consoles at home and at best Multi-User Dungeons and Multi-User Shared Habitats. Fast forward to 10 years later, and we have consoles that have online playing capabilities, PC games with lush immersive 3-D worlds with over 100,000 people playing simultaneously and even thriving (and dying) virtual economies.

Before all this was a reality, in 1992, in his seminal book called “Snow Crash”, Neal Stephenson coined the phrase “The Metaverse” which was his vision of how a virtual reality-based Internet might evolve in the near future. In the book, people could access the Metaverse from nearly anywhere, roam this virtual world (apparently 1.6 times the size of earth in physical dimensions) and pretty much do whatever they wanted to, including build their own virtual buildings and money making ventures. You could plug in, travel to wherever you want to in just a few seconds, meet people, customize your avatar (your virtual persona) and interact with other Metaverse users in near-real-world ways.

And I think the Metaverse is where we’re headed, with the convergence of social and technological advances over the next 4-5 years. There already are people and companies trying to build their own Metaverse, i.e. virtual worlds that people don’t go to just to play a game, but to buy virtual land, build virtual buildings and shops and make virtual money which can be converted into real world currency.

The flow of real-world currency converted to virtual currency and vice versa has increased exponentially in the past 5 years, mainly due to the virtual economies that have sprung up with Massivly Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games. (MMORPGs). Some virtual world developers officially sell virtual items and currency for real-world money. For example, the MMOG There has “therebucks” that sell for US dollars. The currency in Project Entropia, Project Entropia Dollars, could be bought and redeemed for real-world money at a rate of 10 PED for U.S.$ 1. For instance, in October 2005, a virtual space resort being built in the online role-playing game, Project Entropia, was bought for $100,000 (Rs. 45 lakhs, real world currency) through an online auction that lasted 3 days. In 2004, another gamer bought a virtual island a gamer bought an island for $26,500 (Rs. 11.9 lakhs real world currency).

Virtual economies have sprung up in nearly all Massively Multiplayer Games out right now, and these are decisive forces in determining whether the game will survive or not. The largest virtual economies are currently found in MMORPGs, such as EverQuest, Ultima Online, Dark Age of Camelot, World of Warcraft, Lineage, and EVE Online.

These games are just the starting points for the coming future; one predominant virtual world accessible using different devices from PDAs to consoles and PCs. This world will have multiple continents, similar to real life, but divided on completely different metrics. With the technology driving this virtual world controlled by a non-profit organization (an open-source metaverse?) this could become the killer application for the next generation of internet users. Just like the internet caught on and got popular a little more than a decade ago, the metaverse will evolve, get interest from corporations, governments and individual people and become the primary source of information and interaction between people.

Sure, there are a lot of complications involved in such a virtual world, from companies collaborating to build it, to virtual crime, virtual politics and a host of other problems that have become a daily sight in our real lives. But the principle is very similar to that of the internet, and if it’s built in the same way, (very few control mechanisms) this is quite feasible even with today’s technologies. The bigger question of whether people really need a Second Life is another debate though :)

Sure, gaming will still be around, and hundreds of players will still be able to gather together and go off on raids – the only difference being that they will be paying in shards or realms of the main virtual world. There won’t be any distinction between the currency available in the games and the virtual worlds, and gaming will become just another way profession for people to make money. You could make $30 selling real-world items in the main virtual world, or choose to go dragon hunting in the gaming realm to earn $30.

Will all this lead to an alternative world physically linked to the human body similar to ‘The Matrix’ in 50 years? I believe we’re headed there, whether we like it or not.