For the last two weeks I’ve been locked up at home with a lung infection. Certainly not my idea of fun, but in an attempt to make the best out of feverish coughing, I spent some of my downtime playing World of Warcraft, and the rest of the time getting to know Second Life. The former is a wonderfully entertaining way to waste some time, but I’m afraid that the latter didn’t make me feel much better.
Let me say it up front: I’ve been playing World of Warcraft on and off for a couple of years. In contrast, I’m a complete n00b when it comes to Second Life. I registered early last year, looked at it for a day or two, and was so disappointed I gave up on it. Considering the recent boom in commercial and media interest in Second Life, I decided to have another look and make a concerted effort to give it another chance.
While fooling around with both during the last two weeks I couldn’t avoid comparing them. On the surface they seem to be pretty similar: 3D worlds in which I am represented by an avatar, or virtual body, as are the other real people who are running around in the world at the same time. That’s about where the similarity ends. Whereas World of Warcraft is a product designed to entertain, created with the same loving attention to detail which goes into the best movies, Second Life has the feeling of a university programming student’s homework.
Second Life (SL) already has a pretty amazing user base (which to be honest I don’t understand, but that’s material for another article), but if they ever want to be more than a dressed up chat system, Linden Labs would do well to take a close look at games like World of Warcraft (WoW) and why they work.
There’s No There There
As virtual worlds, SL and WoW are both about place, i.e. giving the user a convincing feeling of being somewhere. However the strength of this feeling varies widely between the two. SL is a neutral framework with no story, no history, no genre and no limits. Any user can build anything they can imagine. This freedom is an exciting idea, however it leads to thousands of disparate bubbles which are connected only by proximity, but do not add up to a world which makes any kind of sense. WoW on the other hand has a clearly defined genre, history, geography and characters. These elements are worked into every experience the user has anywhere in the world – from interaction with other characters to loading screens – which sucks you into the world, drives you to explore and discover, and constantly reenforces the feeling of being somewhere.
Lost the Plot
WoW has a story, which never ceases to surprise with its depth and complexity. SL has no story at all, which leaves all interactions, discoveries and experiences feeling rather shallow and two dimensional. What little story has been developed by SL users in their spare time can, not surprisingly, not compare with what the professional team behind WoW provides.
WoW simply oozes visual sex. Rare and powerful weapons glow and throw sparks, there’s a huge variety of intricate clothing your avatar can put on, swords are wielded with smooth artistry and magic effects snap, crackle and pop. SL is about as sexy as a stack of cardboard boxes. It’s a world built by retarded children with Lego, peopled by poorly articulated marionettes being steered by drunks. A virtual world worth anything should make you think “wow!” over and over again, and not leave you wondering why your avatar is sinking through the floor and wondering how you managed to wear a cocktail glass on your foot and why it’s possible in the first place.
Interface is Place
As a virtual world which lacks a feeling of place, has no story and allows anyone to build anything they want, it’s no surprise that SL’s interface is neutral and technical. It allows you to do what you want (although how most of it’s done leaves quite a bit to be desired) and does nothing more than that. WoW’s interface has obviously had a lot more thought put into it, so other than making it considerably easier to do what you want than SL’s interface, it also, due to the game’s feeling of place, makes sense in the world and deepens the user experience. For example: SL has an inventory with folders in a tree structure, WoW has a backpack. WoW’s interface reenforces the feeling of immersion in the world, whereas SL’s throws you out of the world, putting you back on the desktop navigating windows and folders. If there’s no concept behind the world, there’s no guiding principle for the interface and the result is simply boring.
Left is not Right
At the risk of making something too big out of this, the differences between Second Life and World of Warcraft are the same differences between Microsoft Windows and Mac OS, or the internet of the late 90’s and what I hope will be the internet of the near future.
Way down at the roots, it’s a left-brain / right-brain split.
Second Life, Microsoft and the internet’s past are all about left-brain techie-wow. The more functions, the more code and the more scalability, the better. This is the world of the programmer, who salivates over a particularly elegant algorithm, but couldn’t tell an entertaining story if his life depended on it. If code comes first, you can’t entertain, captivate or tell a story worth hearing.
World of Warcraft, Apple and the future of the internet are about right-brain entertainment. Better stories, more beauty and more fun are the rule. It’s not about the technology, it’s about the user and how he feels when using it. The technology is just the medium.
When I started using the net in 1992, it was all about the technology. At a guess, I’d say that back then 80% of netizens were programmers, and the rest were university students. Your mother, secretary and grandfather hadn’t even heard of it yet. No company you’ve ever heard of had an email address. Back then, it was natural for the whole thing to look and feel like a computer science course, but we’ve come a long way since then.
A house designed by a builder works, but it’s unlikely that it will be elegant or enjoyable — that’s why we have architects. The net is a technical medium, so of course programmers (the builders) are necessary, even essential, but it’s time we took the steering wheel out of their hands and put them under the hood where they belong. If Second Life, the internet or computers themselves are ever going to truly be a joy to use, we need to let designers, writers, thinkers and dreamers — people who know how to tell stories and stir emotions — start driving.