Let’s start with this:
Seven million is a pretty good number for a company that’s built a business building virtual busyness — especially when they don’t even own the core technology to do so. I’m very impressed. From the ESC blogs, it sounds like they’re going to at the very least continue working on improving the open-source Second Life client and also maybe their version of the server. The client improvements are most likely in usability. The server (which has been partially reverse-engineered rather than open-sourced) may not be improved as much as “let loose” from Linden’s grid. Basically, that would allow Electric Sheep’s customers, or anyone, to have their own bubble worlds without going through Linden.
This whole notion of islands in SL, bubble worlds, and Wil Wright’s various discussions of the differences between Spore and the Sims online (i.e., that Spore is “massively single player”), leads me to think this whole social multi-player experiment has taken a wrong turn somewhere and people are just now correcting. I’m guessing it happened round about the time I started not having fun inside virtual worlds. And co-incidentally, that happened when we started introducing lots of random people into the mix.
Call me an introvert. but in my mind, on-line worlds–even massively shared ones–are best achieved in a rather anti-social way, or what I’d call Anti-Social Networking. ASN builds on the idea that we enjoy the company of those we know over strangers. The physical analog would be you, walking in Central Park or down Fifth Avenue, seeing only those people you want to see. Everyone else is invisible, gone, solipsized from your personal instance of the world.
Now, perhaps you don’t even know everyone you see. But the computer has selected them based on key parameters indicating how well you might like them. And it’s certainly weeded out the ones you already don’t like or have chosen to ignore. Your list might change, depending on your mood. But I’d personally have no problem with some people fading in and out of my slice of reality as I move about.
MMO designers typically try to achieve something like this via self-selection and spatial grouping, if at all. One zone/shard/server/grid is designated “player-vs-player KILL” for example, so all of the over-aggressive types can congregate there and leave me alone. Another zone might be for shopping, and so would have a more authoritarian presence. I can avoid that area too. And there are often social-networking tools to find or promote people I like. But what about the idea (remember Usenet kill files?) of simply fracturing reality such that people I don’t like don’t exist, but yet I can still go anywhere and fun?
Technically speaking, this is hard to do if the goal is to have everyone exert influence on the world, as happens with user-generated content. If I build a house and you can see the house but not me, that’s not exactly as if I didn’t exist in your world — especially if I drop my house on you by mistake. Moving away from the literal reality, where have very little power and lots of headaches, to a more comfortable virtual existence is technically doable, but non trivial. Visibility has to be mutual among each pair of people, and everyone’s different. And there has to be some way of re-integrating changes in the world that preserves the notion of persistence and evolution over time while discarding dangerous (even terroristic) actions.
Spore is taking this idea to one extreme, with its “massively single player” game. The idea seems to be that everyone’s self-designed-or-evolved content goes into a big mixer, such that I can see any creature or vehicle you design in my version of the world. But it sounds like I’m not seeing you or any content that’s controlled by you, just new NPC instances that show up in my game. This is pretty safe, then, from griefing and other direct harm (unless I design exploding reptiles, for example, or crash-happy cars — but even, there seems to be a rating system to help). And it solves the dropping house problem quite nicely. I’m intensely curious to see if I can take something you build and modify it — if so, it has even more potential for moving beyond single player but keeping gameplay fun.
Personally, I’d be happy with some middle-ground. I’d love a creative space in which I can build sand castles or make movies without some brat trampling them or walking into the frame. But I’d also like to invite friends to build something in the same shared space, collaborate, show off, maybe even make a game for random people to try without having to also play front-line customer support. I’d like to gently be exposed to people I like or might like while safely ignoring the rest. Basically, I want the best of reality embodied in a virtual world without the limitations of time, space, and crazy interpersonal politics we all endure (only made worse by anonymity).
Second life is one extreme. Spore will be another. So who’s building the middle-ground?