What’s the difference between a virtual world and a game? Will Massively Multiplayer Online games eventually supersede conventional videogames? Is there more money to be made in the online space than in console gaming? Let us explore the apparent split in the world of games between online and offline play.
To begin with, let us consider our terms. Sites
like the distinguished academic crossroads Terra Nova use the term virtual
world to refer to the game spaces of massively multiplayer online games. The
meaning of terms become established by use, but during the early days of any
neologism there is room for discussion to shape the development of its
definition, or at least an opportunity to explore its implications. If we take
the term outside of this context (admittedly a dangerous move with language),
it seems apparent that San Andreas, Tamriel, Hyrule and the Forbidden Lands of Shadow
of the Colossus can also lay claim to being virtual worlds. Certainly, they
are worlds whose only existence is virtual.
In fact, continuing to consider the language outside of its context, the term virtual world seems to be more appropriate to a world such as San Andreas (which ceases to exist when it is not in use), while the old term persistent world might be more appropriate for most MMOGs. This shift in terms is no longer helpful, however, since games such as Animal Crossing are functionally equivalent to a persistent world, at least from the perspective of the player (and in games, it is this perspective which counts).
However, the term virtual world has stuck
as a descriptor for MMOGs, and attempts to oppose this trend are largely
counterproductive at this stage. What remains a possibility is extending the
use of the term to games that are neither persistent, nor online (such as the
examples given earlier).
Let us suppose this is a useful trend, and explore its consequences. Firstly, if virtual world describes the pseudo-physical game space of any videogame, what are the boundaries of this term? That is, what does not constitute a virtual world? Did the world of Colossal Cave Adventure constitute a virtual world? What about the levels of Super Monkey Ball? The board of Tetris? The virtual table in Solitaire?
The answer is naturally subjective, but it seems that there are at least two useful boundary conditions. Firstly, the player must be represented by one or more avatars, or be playing in first person, before we can imagine a world. By this criterion, Tetris and Solitaire are effortlessly excluded. But what about Bust a Move where the player has an avatar displayed but it is entirely cosmetic to the game? A second boundary condition would seem to be that the play is at least partially spatial, and to the extent that real world activities such as navigation are present in at least an abstract form. This suggests Colossal Cave Adventure qualifies, while Super Monkey Ball does not: its game spaces are spatially disconnected, and there is no navigation of any kind from one to another.
If we are to consider expanding the term
virtual world to describe the play space of any game with an illusion of physical
spatiality, what are the most useful distinctions that can then be drawn?
It is apparent that the MMOG virtual worlds are not the same as their offline cousins. But the distinction that they are hosted online is largely immaterial – after all, we can imagine a version of GTA: San Andreas that was hosted online but played only be lone players (imagine, for instance, charging a subscription fee instead of allowing the player access from a single purchase). It is not the online aspect which distinguishes these games, it is the social aspect. While single player virtual worlds may allow simulated social interactions, only an online virtual world allows the player to interact with other players. (That much of the possible interactions are shallow is an indictment of the populations of some online worlds, and not of the potential of this form).
Perhaps, then, we can consider MMOGs to be social
virtual worlds, while offline games constitute asocial worlds, or lone
What then is the difference between a game and a virtual world? On the line we are following, a virtual world is simply a descriptor of a contiguous play space in a game. Does that mean that all virtual worlds constitute games? It rests on how we choose to define ‘game’, but in the sense of representing a demarked space for play the term might as well stand.
In terms of game design, the distinction between
social and asocial virtual worlds is worth brief mention. Social virtual worlds
afford new options for interpersonal play, such as the formation of parties and
guilds, the possibility of story play to the standard possible in tabletop RPGs
(which we arguably saw in the MOOs and MUSEs more than we have in their
graphical descendants), not to mention the capacity to support complex economic
simulations. In this respect, social virtual worlds seem to be more variable
than asocial worlds.
But the converse is also true. In a lone virtual
world the player can be the centre of attention. This allows for far more
dramatic pre-scripted storylines (at least with our current dynamic
storytelling techniques), it allows for forms of play involving temporal
manipulation (impossible in a social game), it allows the player to indulge
themselves in excesses of acquisition, destruction and mischief that simply
would not be viable (or at least, not desirable) in a typical social world. And perhaps
most importantly, no-one else gets to influence in any way how one plays in an
asocial virtual world: except to the extent that the game design team manages to
obstruct your will, you are in complete charge of your play in such a game.
There is a commonly voiced view that the social virtual worlds will eventually drive the lone worlds into obscurity. This view, unsurprisingly, tends to come from those who study or work on social worlds. But the evidence does not support this assertion (at least not yet). The MMOG market supports as many as 8 million players for World of Warcraft, but while there could be this many players concentrated in this single virtual world, there are significantly fewer elsewhere (one or two have a million players, most have less than a quarter of a million). It is widely established that while some new uptake of players occur, the MMOG space is competing for the accounts of its players.
Compare the asocial virtual worlds. Super
Mario 64 sold 11 million copies, GTA: San Andreas sold 14 million
copies, while the original Pokémon games sold some 20 million copies. Selling
5 million copies of a game is no longer especially rare, although it is certainly
still sufficient to mark out a successful game. If we take the largest number
of consoles ever sold as an estimated boundary condition for the number of
players in circulation, there are at least 100 million players (the number of PlayStations
and PS2s sold). This means the most successful asocial worlds are courting
about 20% of players, while the most successful social worlds are courting
about 8% of players (even collecting all such games together they only account
for about 12% of players).
There will always be players who would rather play without the interference of other players, and there will always be players who are more drawn to playing with other people. If psychological models of introversion and extraversion apply to this split, we would expect players to be divided pretty much 50-50 between the two camps. Whichever way you look at it, it does not seem that social virtual worlds are replacing their single player relatives, but rather establishing their own parallel market. There are certainly economic questions as to which game industry business models are the best investment, but there is no question that both kinds of virtual world will continue to be commercially relevant for the foreseeable future.