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WIM Summit: Turbine's Steefel Talks MMO And Virtual World Convergence

Turbine executive producer Jeffrey Steefel was at the 2008 Worlds in Motion Summit to discuss the ways the spheres of traditional online games -- like his Lord of the Rings Online and virtual worlds are alike, and how they can benefit and evolve fr
Turbine executive producer Jeffrey Steefel was at the 2008 Worlds in Motion Summit to discuss the ways the spheres of traditional online games -- like his Lord of the Rings Online and virtual worlds are alike, and how they can benefit and evolve from one another's differences. So why do "worlds" need "games?" "Coming into a completely open environment, for a lot of people, is very overwhelming," Steefel noted. "Especially when you're reaching out to a broader audience." So structure is very important, he stressed, for any open-world environment. And while games are a great reference, it doesn't necessarily need to be one. The first structural element to add in an open world, says Steefel, is a sense of place. Elements of place create points of reference for the player. Secondly, a sense of purpose. "Where am I? Why am I here, and what do I want to do?" Asked Steefel, noting that certain things that dictate purpose are necessary. "There needs to be something to tell me 'I'm here for a reason,'" Steefel said. Finally, world users want to build a community based in identity and expression, Steefel said. Whether a real or fictitious identity, users want to express their own personal response to the place they're in and the goals that have been set. "The biggest interesection to me between games and virtual worlds is that games provide structure by their very nature," Steefel said. "That gives them some limitations, but I think there are things we can borrow from that to make sure these environments really have that sense of place and sense of purpose that spark creativity." There are multiple kinds of virtual environments in existence today, and Steefel says the most exciting part is how these different environments are beginning to converge. He demonstrated a Venn diagram showing the convergence area between social networks like Facebook and IMVU, MMOs and online worlds like Habbo. "We can get distracted easily by the word 'entertainment,'" Steefel says, "...But to be honest, any kind of interaction is entertainment." All of these approaches to entertainment media have their pros and cons, Steefel notes -- the directed experience of MMOs, alongside the focus on builders and the environmental openness of virtual worlds, beside the ease of use, accessibility and connectivity of social networks. On the downside, MMOs suffer from the limitations of their structure, while social worlds tend to suffer from the lack of unifying thematic elements. "They might have different areas with unified themes that are created by users, and that's the place we need to focus," Steefel says of traditional social worlds, "But it can become very chaotic." All the approaches, however, have key traits in common: A focus on identity, the creative expression of that identity, and the persistence of the world. "This identity, this world I'm creating... is not just something that exists for a moment in time," Steefel illustrates. "Access is our biggest challenge," Steefel says. "It's in direct conflict with trying to make this immersive, rich experience." The focus, he added, needs to be how to make the technology accessible to more people, and this, he says, is something that MMO developers have only just begun to focus on. Whether you're an MMO developer trying to make your world more accessible or a virtual world developer trying to create more thematic consistency, the solution lies in the balance between freedom and structure, Steefel says. "That balance... is something that we have to focus on all of the time." The task is further complicated, he continues, by noting that even within the same gameworld, players have divergent motivations -- some just want to explore, while others want to organize and gain power, while others are there for a sense of community. And yet, virtual worlds are still a nascent medium where the community is still small as compared to other forms of media. "How do we reach that critical mass?" He asked. "For MMO games, the challenge for us is we need to be less narrowly-defined. They tend to focus on a specific type of activity, a specific type of person and behavior. How can we open that up? How can we create an environment that has many more opportunities for different types of behavior?" At Turbine, Steefel says, they've already begun to attempt to answer these questions, focusing on the strengths of both the MMO and the virtual world. In his experience, the strengths most viable to build on from the MMO sphere are the immersive sense of place, the unifying world themes, and advancement opportunities that players find compelling. And MMO companies need to take those strengths to a broader audience through multiplatform access, more mainstream client requirements, providing immediate interactivity and feedback, improving user tools and developing more accessible pricing models. "The world itself needs to be web-aware," he continues. "How are these environments seamlessly coming together?" He also talked about mobile lifestyle integration. "If you look around you... mobile lifestyle is becoming a part of everybody's everyday experience. And how can you take that, and blend it in with these environments that you're creating? How... is this connectivity, this world environment, tied to these devices?" The value proposition between the consumer and the operator is a "spectrum," Steefel adds. "There are all kinds of ways for you to participate. How I participate in the business that runs this virtual world should be different depending on what my needs are," he says. "Do I want to play a little, or do I want to play a lot? Do I want to belong to social groups in this environment? What I want to do in the world should determine what it costs me to participate in this world. Or give me opportunities... to help the business sustain as a world without me having to pay a fee." In-game data, such as social networks and character profiles, should be "turned inside-out" and exposed to the web. For example, Turbine has borrowed Google Earth's API to offer players maps of quest locations on the web. And the in-game encyclopedia is hyperlinked to the web, with all sites connected to a player-contributed wiki. "It's really their database," Steefel stressed. "It's their lorebook." The ultimate goal is to create a "full-time existence" for the users, as opposed to a "walled garden" disparate experience that someone can only interact with sitting at the computer inside a 3D client.

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