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Weekend Whimsy

1. Protest – Second Life

2. Halloween in Second Life – 2008

3. Halloween Humbug

(This one is from Aussie SL content developers Top Dingo)

4. Lill Paradise Championship Rodeo 2008

Openlife sees benefit of Linden Lab price rise

The past 48 hours have been fascinating to observe. Since the announcement by Linden Lab of price rises for OpenSpaces sims in Second Life, there have been protests, petitions and the odd paragraph of doom-saying. It\’s been one of the larger resident backlashes since the gambling and banking bans, and some are voting with their feet already.

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Bettina Tizzy has reported on a not insignificant influx of new registrations to the Openlife grid, run by aussie Steve Sima (profile here). The number is more than 800 since the announcement, taking the resident count above the thirty-two thousand mark. (Update: Steve Sima states that more than 2000 have now registered since the Linden Lab announcement)

That\’s small change compared to Second Life but it\’s a nice base from which to grow – something we discussed back in September. It\’s a grid not as developed as Second life but that gap continues to close. The challenge for Openlife will increase if the spike in new user registrations continues – as Linden Lab only know too well, concurrency and scalability are big hurdles to jump. To that end, a development office in Taiwan is in the process of being set up, so it appears Openlife is a grid on the move.

On being level 70

Early this year I wrote about my initial experiences with World of Warcraft. Since then I\’ve been grinding away and recently I reached the Holy Grail of Level 70.

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I didn\’t track the hours spent reaching the top but I\’ve read estimates of 250 hours and that seems about right from my experience.

My thoughts on World of Warcraft after surviving this far:

1. Like any good MMO, the quests are challenging enough to keep you grinding through the levels.

2. Solo play is surprisingly engaging, although I\’m biased having played a Mage – I\’d be interested in hearing the perspective of other classes.

3. The performance of the game is exemplary – the servers are up and running pretty much 100% of the time except for the scheduled weekly to fortnightly maintenance on a Tuesday. That service level has dropped recently with the latest patch and preparation for the Wrath of the Lich King expansion, but given the scope of the change it\’s not unexpected.

4. I wish I\’d got involved with battlegrounds much earlier on in the piece. They\’re not only fun but I had totally failed to grasp the importance of honour points and am now playing a very large catch-up.

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Unless you\’re a WoW player yourself, this all may be a little boring, but I am actually working towards a point here. In the past decade, the time spent per game has increased incredibly. Some hardcore gamers I know would cover off a complete game in 10-30 hours. With the current MMOs, you\’re looking at potentially hundreds of hours just to level up. Since hitting Level 70, I\’ve spent roughly another 150 hours in WoW. Thanks to the recent achievements system implementation, I know that I\’ve achieved 69 out of a possible 750 achievement points. This means I could easily spend another couple of thousand hours before the expansion arrives in a couple of weeks. You don\’t need me to tell you that\’s a lot of time.

It\’s time that has to come at the expense of other activities, whether they be other recreational pursuits, time with family and friends, sleep or work. The obvious response to this is – \”well you don\’t need to achieve everything\” – and that\’s true. However, the intrinsic structure of most MMOs works toward the opposite. The WoW achievement system is a classic example – it directly motivates players to do quests they otherwise may not have done. Is that a problem? I think in a minority of cases it is.

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That said, I was certainly chuffed to reach level 70 and when I pick up the expansion pack I\’ll happily work toward level 80. The recent addition of a Barber Shop for avatar facial customisation was a godsend given I kept the bog standard face when I first registered. Now if only I could buy land…

The most successful virtual world: Nintendo Wii

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Here\’s an astounding statistic: nearly 36 million Nintendo Wii consoles have been sold, and that\’s a conservative figure. The Wii is streets ahead of the Sony Playstation 3 and the Xbox 360, and is likely to eclipse behemoths like the Playstation 2 – Sony have shifted nearly 120 million of those but the Wii is at a much earlier stage in its lifecycle than the moribund PS2.

Compare those numbers to even the largest virtual worlds like Habbo and World of Warcraft and they emphasise the dominance of game consoles over similar PC-based activities. It remains difficult in some parts of Australia to buy a Wii over the counter – three months ago when I purchased mine, it took three attempts at three different stores before I was able to pick one up. When I finally did so and set it up, I was really gobsmacked at the centrality avatars are given on the Wii.

It\’s all about Mii

A key part of the Wii experience is creating your avatar – your Mii (pronounced \’me\’). Every Mii is highly customisable and it\’s very simple to go back at anytime and change your Mii\’s appearance. In the pre-teen market this alone can provide hours of entertainment – I\’ve seen kids aged between six and ten endlessly altering their Mii. Once your chosen Mii is set up, it then follows you into the Wii games you play. The Wii Fit utilises your avatar totally – it\’s truly you as you enter a bunch of personal details like height, weight and eating habits . In the more game-like experiences such as Mario Kart, you can race your Mii against characters like Mario, Bowser and Princess Peach.

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I feel connected

All that said, an avatar alone does not a virtual world make – the key is the Wii\’s internet connectivity. Your Mii can mix with others you grant access and scores or Wii Fit results can be shared. There\’s Mii contests and most games have some sort of online mode – Mario Kart for example allows you to race against other players worldwide, which is enormously fun. Actually getting connected is fairly simple, assuming you know the basic of wireless networking.

Not surprisingly, there\’s also a Wii Shopping Channel where you can buy credits that can be exchanged for a range of products including old Nintendo Classic games like the original Mario and Zelda games. They work out at over $10 per download which isn\’t cheap given their age, but the pull of sentimentality and convenience is likely to persuade some.

The contender for the title

There\’s no standout aspect in the Wii offering that makes it a dominant virtual world contender – though the motion-aware Wii controller is an amazing piece of gear that cements that link between you and your avatar. It\’s the overall offering that makes me think it\’s likely to come out on top. Specifically:

  • It\’s extremely easy to set up after purchase
  • You\’re guided every step of the way when performing any activity the first few times
  • It\’s plain fun
  • It has wide age appeal
  • It\’s already got a lions share of the console market, and that\’s only going to increase in the medium term
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    On the age aspect, I\’ve seen people in their 60\’s immediately grasp the avatar concept as it\’s presented on the Wii – two had never owned a computer. The Wii is far from unique in its offering – the Xbox 360 is testament to that. However, Nintendo appear to have created a product that has penetrated the mainstream entertainment market in a way no other console has to date. When you\’ve got grandparents happily retelling stories of playing Wii sports with their grandchildren, something fundamental has occurred in the way gaming is perceived in society. Sony\’s Home offering may provide some stiff competition in the medium term – but until then it\’ll be fascinating to see how much the Wii saturates the market.

    So there\’s my hypothesis: by 2010 the Nintendo Wii will contain the world\’s most populated virtual world. I\’d really like to hear your thoughts on this.

    A big thanks to beastandbean on Flickr for the Wii Fit photo and to gamesweasel for the Mario Kart Wii pic.

    Linden Lab instigate price rises: backlash plus

    In a move that\’s already garnered some heavy criticism, Linden Lab today announced some significant prices on a type of land called Openspaces. It\’s the type of land meant for \’light\’ use. Over the past seven months that Openspaces has been available, some have exceeded any sane definition of \’light use\’.

    That\’s not a bone of contention – but Linden Lab\’s response to it is. Instead of warning or banning the offenders, all Openspaces owners are being slugged with an extra US$50 per month (from $75 to $125), effective 1st january 2009. In addition to that, the previously available educator discount is being removed. From an Australian perspective, our current exchange rate woes mean that the cost hit is even higher.

    To use a real-world example, this decision is the equivalent of a local council informing all ratepayers in a particular zoning area that they have to pay much higher rates each year because someone in their street has ignored zoning regulations. Add to that the real world economic situation and you can imagine the push back from Second Life residents. It\’s actually one of the more nonsensical decisions I\’ve seen Linden Lab make and aside from some short term revenue gains it seems the end result will be an even greater momentum for OpenSim grids who provide more competitive pricing. The educator discount hit is particularly significant – they\’re a key demographic driving innovation and interest in virtual worlds and treatment like this is far from deserved.

    No-one can fully blame a private company from seeking to increase revenue, but when the rationale doesn\’t match a community\’s expectations of fair play, only dissent and an impact on the Second Life economy are the likely outcomes.

    What are your thoughts? Is this decision going to affect your current land holdings or influence your future purchasing decisions?

    Update: There\’s an excellent roundup of the coverage and protest options on Vint Falken\’s blog.

    Update 2: Linden Lab CEO Mark Kingdon has communicated a backdown on the pricing policy.

    Educators: students of experience

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    As students, even when we come to education wanting to learn, and therefore are supposedly mentally prepared to take new ideas on board, we all have a tendency to balk at new and unexplored things, whether that be the course material or the tools that we are given to learn with.

    But does this always have to be the case? With proper management of expectations and knowledge about our tools and material, can we not reduce the rate of rejection?

    \”Iggy’s Syllabus: A Student’s Take on Second Life and Education\”

    Joe Essid\’s (Ignatius Onomatopoeia, or Iggy) last round of students benefited greatly from the experiences of the students who came through his classes previously: the most recent students engaged with Second Life rapidly and positively, having had the benefit of one-on-one orientations,  assignments that combined Second Life skill-building tasks with course content, and information about Second Life\’s uses as a creative learning platform. The earlier students were provided with far less in the way of introductions to Second Life; they were prone to wonder what the point of learning with Second Life was, and tended to finding it boring.

    Back in August of this year, AJ Tan, a Cornell student working for Metanomics over his summer break, published his opinions about Second Life, and why he found it boring. The upshot of his argument seems to be that he wants to be entertained and led, perhaps even pushed, at all times and under all circumstances. He does not expect to have to \’make his own fun\’. \”I do not wish to go out and find something to do, I have to do enough searching in the real world. I want to be entertained. Virtual worlds are supposed to be an escape from reality – Second Life is too close a parallel to the real thing.\”

    Educators will be relieved to know that while there are plenty of students out there with opinions similar to or the same as this, it\’s not the only opinion out there. Generation Y may require a little coaxing, but Second Life can allow enriching and interesting learning experiences for them, if only they are taught to give it a chance.

    One of Essid\’s students, Bridget K,  wrote a piece in her writing journal about the educational uses of Second Life, with a decidedly positive bent. It is apparent that she was inducted effectively in the uses of Second Life, and has found the experience beneficial and engaging. All this, despite having acknowledged that her generation \”sees education as \’ineffective, irrelevant, and unproductive\’ (Houck).\”

    Bridget notes that \”Second Life provides a unique educational setting for students.  Learners become immersed in their own education and in the environment he or she is in (\”National Education Technology Plan\”). Second Life provides the educational tool of role-playing.\” From the way this reads, she has found plenty of \’fun\’ experiences within digital environments, along with educational value.

    Additionally, Bridget notes that \”Second Life will benefit our educational system if used correctly.  There should be a balance between real world educational tools and virtual world educational tools,\” which sounds completely reasonable. At the end of the day, Second Life is a tool that can assist us in living our lives, but is not something that should take the place of them. Therefore, it should not take over in an educational setting either.

    \”The snowmen armies: reflections on teaching first year computer science in Second Life.\”

    Judy Robertson recounts her tale of teaching using Second Life; specifically, teaching Linden Scripting Language (LSL) to her first year computer science students.

    She too has come up against the boredom factor when teaching with Second Life – perhaps more students from gaming backgrounds not used to making their own fun? The class is made up of students of various ages with different academic backgrounds, and yet this attitude seems to pop up a lot. As Iggy found, those first few hours in which a student is exposed to a new idea, a new platform on which to learn, are precious and crucial to that student\’s concept of how the idea or platform can be used, and their worth.

    When confronted with the notion that Second Life is boring, Judy says, \”In my view, this is like being given a big box of plasticine and whining \”but there\’s nothing to play with\”. The point is – you\’re meant to make it yourself!\” Even more so than in other courses, perhaps – the computer science students are expected to design and implement their own creations in Second Life, so they are using a great deal of the functionality of the digital environment, being required to both build and script.

    \”It\’s a lot of fun for me to teach, and based on the learning logs from last year, a lot of fun for the students to learn with.\” Despite complaints of boredom during the term, it seems that students can and do come to appreciate and enjoy Second Life in the long run. Some of the students have found learning LSL to be easier than learning Java, which they are doing in a concurrent course. Judy speculates that this is because more rigour is expected in the design and implementation of Java applications. I speculate that despite the lack of documentation and features, that the scripting community, in addition to the course helpers, also improves the ease with which the language can be learned and used.

    Iggy managed his students expectations and experiences; he took his experiences with his first groups, learned what did and didn\’t work, and made changes.

    It sounds like Judy\’s class could have done with a little more management in the first few hours. Due to the excessively large number of students (138!) in the one class, she could not have had one-on-one orientations. However, some of the other methods Iggy used, such as distributing articles about Second Life showing it in a positive light and highlighting its creative potentials for his writing students, could have decreased the number of students complaining about Second Life boredom and vastly improved the overall learning outcomes.

    World of Warcraft demographics: no big surprises

    Over at GamerDNA they\’ve crunched some numbers on some key demographics of World of Warcraft players – the sample group are GamerDNA members combined with Armory data, so the sample is representative to say the least.

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    The results aren\’t surprising but still interesting. The key points:

    1. There remains a preference to sign up an Alliance character than a Horde one, particularly if the player is female.

    2. The Hunter class is the most popular across both factions.

    3. Men tend toward the more \’manly\’ classes such as Warrior.

    As Sanya Weathers, the data cruncher says:

    The most popular class, the Hunter, is slightly preferred by female players by the same margin in both factions. Same for Mages. Priests skew heavily female in both factions, again by roughly the same margin. Rogues and Paladins have the same stair step proportion across the factions, but with men outnumbering women. More men play Warriors than women across the board, but the difference is more pronounced on the Horde side thanks to the whole “women don’t do Orcs” thing.

    The only flaw I can see in the gender analysis applies across all virtual worlds: there\’s arguably a lot of avatars out there that are the opposite in gender to their real-world counterpart.

    Aside from the obvious interest of such stats to WoW players, there\’s a much wider application. Don\’t imagine that marketers, game developers and educators aren\’t looking at data like this intensively. There\’s a thousand PhD theses in this sort of information and a few hundred of them are likely well underway.

    If you\’re a WoW player, do the statistics match your impressions?