A few years back, you couldn’t open any newspaper, magazine or law review journal without seeing yet another article about the crazy things that were going on in virtual worlds. Today, not so much. News of the closure of Metaplace didn’t even make it very far beyond the usual VW blogs… So what’s happened to them? Not much, according to Samuel Axon over at Mashable.
First, it should be noted that, with the exception of Metaplace, VWs aren’t going away. In fact, based on the report, adult worlds like Second Life and Warcraft continue to grow at a steady pace. And, from what I have seen from other analysts, such as KZero, there is massive growth in worlds targeting kids. But I think that Axon’s analysis is spot on when he posits that VWs do well when they offer a combination of services. Merely offering a 3-D space for chatrooms and a couple games may be enough for kids, but it can’t satisfy adults with lots of other responsibilities and opportunities competing for their time.
But even if VWs aren’t going away, that doesn’t mean they are going to take over the Internet, at least not soon. Second Life may offer a host of tools that allow users to design and implement whatever comes to mind, but the underlying interface is still pretty clunky and slow. If you can get games with better 3-D graphics on your smartphone, you might ask, why get invested in it now? Apparently Linden has some plans for a massive overhaul, called Viewer 2, that may improve the new user (n00b) experience. Whether that helps retain the 50%(!) of new users who never return, we’ll just have to wait and see…
My point is, virtual worlds are still in the “massive potential” stage. They are a niche market that has yet to demonstrate a “killer app” that will break them out into the mainstream the way Twitter and Facebook have. Which brings me back to the social media aspect. I think that this element will be the key for the future of virtual worlds because people need a reason to check in as often as they check Facebook or Twitter. The next VWs need to be much faster, more powerful, easier to use and loadable in a smartphone browser–in addition to having a real cash economy and better-defined avatar rights. That’s a tall order, but without it, I think we’re going to see VWs remain on the backburner of the social consciousness.
What do you think? Am I missing something?