Interview: The YouTube Of Games? James Talks Three Rings' Whirled

Could Whirled become the YouTube of games? Gamasutra sat down with Three Rings CEO and designer Daniel James to discuss the Puzzle Pirates creators' new virtual world/Flash portal/development platform, why they're "probably crazy" to make so
This Monday, Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates publisher and developer Three Rings officially launched its online service Whirled, a virtual realm-cum-flash game portal -- which James has compared to a YouTube for games. Gamasutra sat down with the company's CEO and designer Daniel James to discuss the meaning, future, and implications of Whirled, which allows beginners to enjoy a friendly virtual world. The free web-based service allows players to create avatars, chat in share groups and rooms, and play online games that have achievements and online high scores, as well as multiplayer functionality. But it also goes so far as to provide open-source tools which allow professional developers to create Flash games that can be plugged into the service's social features, and which can be enjoyed both in and out of the Whirled game space. In this in-depth chat, James, whose firm also created steampunk strategy online game Bang Howdy, discussed why he's "probably crazy" to make something this wide-ranging, using community competition to make better games, and much more: If you can sum up what you see Whirled as, because as you have said, it's a bit nebulous. Can you give the synopsis? Daniel James: I think Whirled is a conjunction of player-created virtual worlds and games in your web browser. There's Hollywood ways you can put it, like, "Flash Second Life," but none of these things are very good. Really, think about it as a virtual world in your web browser which is fun and is made by the people. That's what we're going for. I asked one of our players a while ago for a one-liner for Whirled, and he said, "Whirled: It has stuff." In a way, it tells you nothing, but it tells you everything. There's stuff! I think right now, we're pretty small. We have a small community, but they're doing all the things we want and making all the things and buying them, and they're playing the game. So we have a little ball, and the question is, is that going to be the snowball for an avalanche? That's what we're hoping. Something we were talking about during the presentation is that we're sort of at this crossroads, where developers are choosing where they want to go and whether they want to move into starting up and doing XNA Creators Club or XBLA or online or casual. How do you see that choice that people are presented with? How does your stuff in Whirled fit into that? DJ: I think it's awesome that people have the choice. That's the main thing. Developers are smart people. It's up to them to go in and look at what people have and make decisions. One of the things that I think we're very big on is transparency. We're going to throw our stuff out there. You can look at our code, see what it's about, and we're a very open company. We talk at GDC, we throw our numbers around, we put our numbers out there -- that kind of thing. I think that's one thing that we're going for. The technology and what we're providing is cool, and I think overall, what you have to look at is, "Do I think this platform is going to provide what I want and be successful?" That's a choice that you have to make. One of the things that I have issues with, though, is when you're looking at things like the iPhone or XBLA or XNA stuff is that if you've got arbitrary criteria that this platform provider, this third party, has control over that you have no control over, then it's kind of a crapshoot, with this business model. You're basically saying, "Well, hopefully Apple will feature my game." I know people who have made iPhone games have gotten on third-party sites, have gotten five-star reviews, and are really well-produced games, but because they're not on the featured list in the App Store, they've got no sales. That starts to look like the traditional mobile games business, which is, if you're on the carrier deck, you're golden. If you're not on the deck, then you're toast. Any distribution model where there's some person... so you go to the iPhone, and Apple has basically got you by the short and curlies. I love Apple, but I wouldn't want to be at the whim of Steve, although I give him ten percent of my income. The Church of Steve. Hallelujah! (laughter) DJ: I don't want him to decide whether I've got a business or not, let alone after spending half a year making a game that's stuck on that platform. To my mind, you want to look at, "What's the opportunity space for the platform?" Again, two million iPhones or whatever is cool, but if only 100,000 people are installing software from the App Store, that's worth thinking about, versus on the interwebs, there are hundreds of millions of people playing games, so you've got a very large potential audience. The nice thing about doing an online game of any kind, whether it's Whirled or not, is that no one can lock you out. You put up your website and get links, and if you succeed, you can become viral and be a huge success anytime, and there's no one who can tell you that you can't. I like that. That would be my criteria myself -- but say that to Jon Blow, who just made a fabulous amount of money and a great success with Braid. If you do have a good partner and they treat you well and can get promoted, then you can do well on a closed platform. It's just that it seems like it's risky, to me. Something I want to talk about with Whirled is that it's a world of blurry distinctions, both in terms's everything from a Flash game creation tool to a virtual world where people can hang out in rooms and stuff. Also, it's welcoming to people on the far end, from full-fledged game developers who make games for a living, all the way to kids who are customizing avatars or whatever. That's a very broad question, but if you can talk about it a little bit... DJ: Yeah, I think that's really important, because you want to have the biggest possible addressable group of people. You want to get people in and have them have fun, and we think that creating stuff, even on the small level like moving furniture around your room, is fun for a lot of people. And then you expect to have a pyramid going up. Someone's playing in the world. They're collecting stuff. They start customizing stuff, start uploading simple things like images initially, and then maybe they learn Flash skills and they start making sophisticated stuff, up to professional game developers, at the top of the pyramid, who have the most sophistication. We believe that every level of the pyramid is important. We've got to make something that's super-accessible at the base and has a really wide funnel, so lots and lots of people can come in and find something fun, and has the richness and complexity that game developers can think, "Yeah, I can actually build a cool game on top of this." That's obviously a big challenge. There's lots of challenges as well. When you started the question, it seemed more to me to be talking about the thing like, you've got virtual worlds and games, and what is it? That's definitely something that we grapple with a lot, because we're going for this big, somewhat nebulous thing. Puzzle Pirates is relatively simple. You make a pirate, you do puzzles, and you get booty. You explain that to people, and they go, "Oh yeah, I get the idea." Whereas with Whirled, it's like, "It's this virtual world, and you have a room and this stuff." No one said it was easy making a new kind of media, and I think that's sort of what we're doing here. It sounds pretentious, but the problems that we've had making this and making the UI work and trying to convey what the experience is about are nontrivial, aside from the technology problems and the complexity there. So in a way, that means that we're probably crazy and we should pick something simple, like putting videos on the internet three years ago, but instead, we're saying, "We're going to make a go at this, and maybe we'll be a footnote in history, because someone else will come along in a couple of years and ace it, but perhaps we have a chance at synthesizing something here that's genuinely new and cool." Something you talked about earlier is preparing for the graduates of Club Penguin, which is something I've also heard, obviously from Raph Koster -- no surprise -- and just as a general topic of discussion, which is that these kids are growing up with these kids virtual worlds, and as they grow up, they're going to expect virtual worlds to be a part of their entertainment lexicon. It's where their head's at. So what do you think about that merging market issue? DJ: I think it's awesome. I think it's really exciting. I grew up on MUDs. I was an 11-year-old MUDder, and it certainly changed my mental landscape completely. I'm psyched. People talk about the digital generation or whatever you want to call them, which is an annoying kind of terminology, but I think there is a genuine shift when you have access to something at a young age. It changes your way of looking at the world. I think it's going to be great. They are going to want stuff that's more in their hands and has more freedom to it. If you've grown up on a manicured environment, then it's going to be really exciting to have something free and open, so I think Raph and I are big believers in that. That again touches on, "What's a user of Whirled, versus a creator?" Someone will come to the experience at a young age, like 12 or something, as someone who's only been exposed to Club Penguin, in which the content only flows in one direction, and as they gradually acclimate to Whirled, they may expand their horizons. DJ: People seem to get the idea pretty fast. It taps into the same natural thing about MMOs, which is, "I want to acquire the shinies!" You quickly see people understanding why. "I'm acquiring the shiny, and so-and-so made the shiny." Now, if you are competitively-minded, there are definitely people on Whirled who are like, "Wow, that's really good. Now I'm going to make something as good as that." People are always setting the bar for each other. They seem to get that. I know that more tools and more cool things will increase that, but I think it's pretty exciting. Moreover, there is a shift there, where people are becoming more and more comfortable with the idea, "Oh yeah. Of course I can make that myself," or "At least I can have a laugh trying." One of the things that surprised us was that we thought there would be a problem with a lot of crap content, and that would be an issue for the community somehow. But as it turned out, people are cool with it. Someone makes a crappy animated avatar, or one with no animations, or whatever, and yeah, it gets rated three stars because it doesn't do many cool things, but people in the comments are like, "This is great! Why don't you add some states and stuff? You should learn how to do some kind of animation." It's a very, "Good first effort! Now do more." It's a closed environment to an extent, though, right now? DJ: No. It's been wide open for six months. All comers welcome. I'm just envisioning YouTube-style comments on stuff, as you attract a broader audience. DJ: I'm not saying that it's always going to be like that. If we get to 100 million people hitting the website a day, then there's certainly going to be more idiots. But I think a lot of how a community evolves is what the initial tone is. I'm not sure YouTube ever had a good, high-quality commenting culture, and Whirled has already built that. For a year in alpha, we had a very small community of a couple hundred people who were pretty high-brow. Similarly, Puzzle Pirates actually had the same thing. It's amazing. Six years after we started alpha testing Puzzle Pirates, that tone of the community is still present. Most of those people have gone, but once you've set the tone of a community, I think it can persist well beyond what you would expect. Do you think that's a natural evolution? Or do you have any policies or practices? DJ: No, we definitely have policies. We have active customer service, we respond very quickly to complaints and requests to remove people, and if someone's being offensive or swearing, we'll warn them, and if necessary, we'll ban them. We definitely want to keep things nice, and if someone posts, "This is rubbish," kinds of comments, we say, "Hey, look. Be positive. Don't be negative." Community standards are very important, and enforcing those is really important. You certainly can't just expect it to magically happen. Another thing that we've said with Whirled is that right now we're a PG environment. You have to say you're 13 to play. But we're not supporting mature content right now. We may in some method in the future, but right now, we have no plans to do that. And I think that's important, too, just to say, "Look, this is about having fun, playing games, and hanging out. It's not about naughtiness." There will be plenty of places where it is about naughtiness, and that's fine for them. You talked about that you had open-source code available for everyone, from amateurs to professionals, to get ahold of and work with. I was wondering if you could talk about where that came from and what's available, and how that works. DJ: We're still the game developer, and we put a lot of resources into Whirled. It's a big deal for us as a company. About half of those have been into the platform and the back end, and then about half went into content creation. For example, as simple as an avatar... for the example for the avatar, people have taken the avatar code and modified it and gone, "Oh, now I can make my own avatar," and changed out the imagery and stuff like that, up to a full multiplayer game. There's two things there. One is that we don't think we can make a bunch of technology and magically have people use it. Obviously, there has to be really cool content there to get people excited. But now, we don't really need to make avatars so much, because people are making avatars, but we still need to make really cool games, because it's going to take a while for people to finish their games and get them up to the level of polish that we can deliver. In six months, maybe we'll be able to focus more on making games, and worry less about filling the catalog. Perhaps we'll have game teams focus more on making money from our games ourselves. Something I wanted to talk about is referencing the open-source code that's available. Is that more of a philosophical decision, or is it more of a concrete, "If this is available, then it will, in the end, enrich our service?" DJ: It's both. The libraries and the low-level stuff is a philosophical thing, because my God, we built a company on a lot of open-source software, and we're big believers in it on principle. The practical benefits is negligible... some nice things are that when we recruit people, we can say, "Hey, make a game based on our stuff." That's a nice thing to be able to do. But I think it's mostly a religious, philosophical belief. In terms of the games and the examples and so on, obviously we hope that's going to contribute to the success of the platform. But I think it's still cool to throw out there. It's kind of like giving out your numbers. People are always really wary about giving out your numbers in business, but it doesn't actually cost you anything to give out your numbers. If it helps your competition a little bit, why do you care? If Raph Koster's Metaplace kicks our ass, they'll do that because they did a better job than us, not because we gave out our numbers or our source code or anything like that. They just would've done a better job, and fair enough. All you can ask for in the world is a meritocracy, I believe. Something I was interested to see is that some of the popular content on the beta version is based on IP that you don't control. There are Sonic the Hedgehog characters, and also... DJ: I don't ever look at that stuff. There's an artist that you referenced who had content based on Square Enix IP. Final Fantasy stuff. Where's your position on that? DJ: We'll respond to DMCA takedown notices. We do not review content for copyright infringement. In fact, we actively do not review content for copyright infringement, because it's the same as YouTube. If you filter the content, we make no representations about what people upload to Whirled. If someone complains about it and they have the right to say, "This is my content. Take it down," then we'll take it down. We have done that, and we're happy to continue to do that. But it's not appropriate or possible for us, as an organization, to be combing through the tens of thousands of things that people are uploading, and going, "Oh, we think that might be copyrighted." How do we know? Maybe I've played that Square game, but I personally haven't. I have no idea. Does it add a complexity to it? Because YouTube doesn't monetize its content through its users. Someone has made a Chocobo from Final Fantasy and put it on the site as an avatar, and she gets money for it. Does that complicate the issue? DJ: You'll have to ask the lawyers. I don't know. But I think it's more of an issue between her and whoever owns the copyright, rather than between us. But again, you'd have to ask the lawyers. Fair enough. DJ: No doubt at the point where we're fabulously successful, if we get to YouTube-like scale, no doubt there are going to be interesting legal questions that arise from that. And personally, I would rather people make completely original stuff out of their own heads. I think that's much cooler, and I think that will be the way things go. But it's not surprising that people are being inspired by their favorite stuff out of the gate. Something I want to also talk about is the time versus money equation. This is a pretty broad question that free-to-play is addressing right now. There's currency. As you play, you earn this currency -- the coins in your world. They're based on time investment. The avatar you showed me cost approximately an hour's worth of playing the game, or users can buy the avatar for ten cents. There's a real relevancy to it. How do you see those two things working together in your game? Who are they for, and what do they accomplish, having those two different currency systems? DJ: I think what you want is a situation where time and money are both valued. I think in a virtual environment, there's very few things -- and creativity, in our case -- there's very few things that you can look at and attach a monetary value to. If you look at real society, time and money and brilliance are generally modified for the value of your time, perhaps, or increases the scalability of your time. We think putting that into a virtual world makes a lot of sense. I think if you look at attempts to not support arbitrage between time and money -- like in World of Warcraft, banning gold farming, and so on -- I think it's like standing in the tide and telling it to go back out again. You may succeed if you're big enough and ban enough people and so on, but I think also, the uncomfortable thing is if you don't support it as a transparent market within your business, then you're basically telling it to go underground. If you tell it to go underground, then you introduce all sorts of possibilities, like markups, and money-making on arbitrage. The reason Chinese gold farmers who get paid a buck an hour to play WoW -- because of IGE and Blizzard banning people for it -- it's because the marketplace was in a gray market, rather than a truly transparent open market. If it was a transparent open market, the price of gold would probably have dropped to the point where you couldn't afford to pay Chinese farmers to do it, because there would be enough people who are like, "Oh yeah, I'll pay my subscription by doing that." Not, "I'll have a warehouse with 50 guys while playing 24/7 around the clock." That's something that was brought up at Austin GDC too, at the same session. Hilmar Veigar Petursson from CCP was saying that you have to support free-to-play with micro and subscription, otherwise the gray market is going to force the issue, which I found very interesting. DJ: We did this four years ago with Puzzle Pirates, and one of our principal beliefs was that we are going to bring the market within the game, and then remove outside arbitrage opportunities, and make it efficient and easy and accessible, like, "Oh yeah, I want doubloons. I'll just change over my pieces of eight," or vice-versa. On the business side of it, you enable the people who are willingly wanting to give you money give you a lot more money, because they can effectively buy time, and time is a prolific commodity in an online game, as opposed to content, which you're trying to sell them more content all the time.

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