Kate's Comment

Thoughts on British ICT, energy & environment, cloud computing and security from Memset's MD

Online worlds

“Shoot ’em in the head!” was a shout to be heard emanating from our office late on Friday afternoon. No, not an attack of killer-zombies, but actually some research & development work. We have been doing a feasibility study into using our Miniserver technology as a game hosting solution, and no it is not just an excuse to explode co-workers’ virtual-selves with gigantic balls of flaming plasma death! Ahem.

Online gaming is becoming serious business, with exponential growth during the last 8 years to over 12 million players (chart courtsey of MMOGChart.com) and global revenues measured in billions of dollars. That demographic of users is not just teenage boys hiding their acne from an unforgiving world, either; more and more girls are playing for example, and more adults too with the average player age in many games being mid-to-late twenties.

Take me for instance; I first got properly hooked on a MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game) called City of Heroes when I was 26. While the appeal for many was running around a virtual city and clobbering villains into insensibility with a range of super-powers, I was drawn in by things like the social interaction (such games are very chat-room like), the ability to conjure up almost any costume imaginable (think 101 varieties of pink Spandex!), and trying to get my avatar to pull off nifty dance moves in the midst of some mighty battle of Good vs. Evil – I liked to let my trusty team mates do the actual dirty work!

Back then, admittedly, girl-gamers were still in a minority (perhaps 10-20% at most), but game designers are becoming ever more inventive at broadening their audience, and there is some solid research around it now too. According to an article I recently read in New Scientist, men and women have just as much fun engaging in virtual violence (for example), but women need more of a reason; a story line to follow. But then, we all know that men are more simpler creatures quite happy to take pleasure from blowing stuff up for no good reason. 😉

So are we all going to be playing online games in years to come? No, I don’t think so, however I do think that the lines between games and social activities will become ever more blurred. Take Second Life; like most MMORPG it is a virtual world where text-based chatting is enhanced by a personally customised avatar that can laugh, cry, dance, gesticulate and more, yet it is not really a game. Unlike the traditional MMORPGs, it has no specific objective – no target for participants to achieve. It is just an online environment where people can, if they wish, build a literal second life. In 2002 EverQuest became the first MMORPG to have a significant “economy” – arguably comparable in size to Russia’s. Second Life has a real-world currency exchange actually built in, which is so effective that some players have given up their “real world” job and instead earn in-game currency.

Regardless of their ever-changing nature, it seems clear that demand for online games and virtual worlds will continue to grow, and that means more demand for servers and bandwidth. So then guys, pick up your rocket-launchers and, er, get back to work!