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Mathew Kumar on Why Virtual Worlds Miss the Mark

A Scene from Home on PS3Speaking at an International Game Developers Association (IGDA) Ottawa event on February 26, 2009, Gamasutra contributing editor and one of Canada’s most renowned games journalists Mathew Kumar discussed the place of virtual world games in the video game industry.

Not shy to express his dislike for the concept as it has been executed so far, Kumar pointed out some of these games’ essential flaws to an intimate crowd at Ottawa’s bitHeads Studio. The event was organized as part of the Interactive Ontario gTalk game industry speaker series.

Kumar was quick to highlight that virtual worlds, which are usually based on social interaction functions, rarely succeed in their goal of being effective vehicles for social interaction. While their developers and marketers portray them as a great way to meet new people, most players don’t take advantage of these features. Read More...

Kumar could not deny the odd cases of individuals having met their wives or husbands playing World of Warcraft, but said that this was unusual and that he long ago stopped considering these individuals as part of the “mainstream”.

The Gamasutra writer compared these games with networking websites such as Facebook, where the key to social interaction is having an initial and real-life connection with those you call your friends. In virtual world games, players usually jump in with very few real-life acquaintances to connect with, which seriously limits the social component of these games. Most individuals don’t want to “get to know” people beyond the context of the game – which barely differentiates a virtual world from another video game with online multiplayer capabilities.

In Kumar’s opinion, most virtual worlds are bad. The way they come to exist plays a large role in their inadequacies, though Kumar does not expect much for the genre in any case. He explains that virtual world game developers often have little to no experience in “traditional” game development and are often backed by venture capitalists who know even less about what gamers want and like.

During the Q&A session following the talk, Kumar explored a few of these games drawing attention to some of their main flaws. Speaking about Second Life, he said that much of the reason why this game touched the imagination of mainstream media was that it was the first big hit of its genre. However, he mentions that the Second Life user base is growing stagnant and even dwindling now, proving its weak long-term potential.

Sony's PlayStation Home is another example of a poorly executed virtual world. In this case, creators were all too eager to include an endless amount of features, but never took the time to fully implement them. The result is a boring community space offering little to do other than staring at other’s avatars or waiting in line for one of the three chess boards. Kumar explains that this is the reason why many people have created their own fun, chasing around women avatars and attempting to “rape” them, for example.

Policing these environments, or the absence of such policing, is another issue with many virtual worlds that allow user-created content. Playing a game like Second Life may not be for everyone due to the sheer randomness (and overall deviant tone) of its user-generated content. Other games like EVE Online are simply too complex to be accessible to average players, though they present a detailed virtual world and a remarkable economic structure.

So what is the future of virtual world games according to Mathew Kumar? Perhaps none at all. Mathew Kumar urges game developers to stick to real games as the virtual world genre’s failures and inherent flaws are bound to doom it.