Monday, July 10, 2006

Online worlds become profitable, Hollywood takes notice

In a past blog I took a brief look at an online 'world' called Second Life. Residents of Second Life are represented in the environment by an avatar, which may be customised in a variety of ways and which (who?) exist in user-designed subcultures and countercultures.

Most Second Life cultures are built around 'groups'. Groups can be created by residents for a fee. Residents are then given 3 days to recruit an additional 2 members, or their investment is lost and the group is deleted. A group must then maintain a membership of at least 3 members at all times in order to remain active. The groups that each resident belongs to are displayed in that user's profile.

Group activity is usually centred on a particular interest, so creating groups can give people a common ground for discussion and provide an easy way to break the ice. Some groups maintain web sites to bridge the gap between real-life and 'Second Life'. Groups are allowed "ownership" of land and resources, so they comprise the closest thing to a corporation within the Second Life environment.

Aside from groups, many of the subcultures found in Second Life revolve around events. Events include many activities related to arts/culture, charity/support groups, commerce, discussion, education, games/contests, nightlife/entertainment, pageants, sports, etc.

Second Life blogs are a growing pheomenon. Here, residents detail their second lives, (sometimes more extensively than their 'real' ones!).

The amount of money spent on Second Life (to create groups, purchasing avatars, clothing, property etc.) continues to increase. Last month over $1.5 million was spent on virtual property. World of Warcraft, a (far less democratically run) subscription-based online gaming environment is posting turnover figures of $80 million per month. The estimated yearly spend on virtual worlds is close to a billion dollars.

Titanic director James Cameron has announced that his next film 'Project 880' (exact details are sketchy, but in his words it's going to be "A completely crazy, balls-out sci-fi flick" - excellent!) will be preceded by a World of Warcraft-type online world, in which thousands of Internet-connected players simultaneously interact, compete, and cooperate.

In a reversal of the usual movie-based-game formula, players will experience the story's events and characters before seeing the film. "So much of literary sci-fi is about creating worlds that are rich and detailed and make sense at a social level," explains Cameron. "We'll create a world for people, and then later present a narrative in that world."

In an interview with Business Online Cameron said:

"I want to see developers create games in which players can add to the worlds as they go along, so you can see what hundreds of thousands of people in this game environment can create. It's like each is being handed a tool set... Instead of creating a $50 million game, you're creating $2 million games and letting them grow themselves."

Other big directors are also planning online ventures. Imagine Entertainment, the company run by '24' creators Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, has teamed up with producer Jim Banister, Halo creator Alex Seropian, and others to develop a sci-fi reality show called XQuest. If it gets to prime-time, contestants will spend a month in a room designed to emulate a tiny, space-bound pod. Its flight simulators will subject them to a range of experiences, including six Gs of thrust. Players will zoom around space, while following a (very) loose plot structure.

Online gamers will track the mission and be provided with their own spaceships to participate in various adventures. The best players will then be picked for the following season.

"You are exploring the interaction of technology and the human imagination," says Cameron, "and you play it out in a highly competitive, fast-paced interaction. Movies can show what imagination looks like. Online worlds can show how it feels on the inside."

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