April 20, 2006

Notes from Massive

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 2:43 pm

I’m at UCI’s Massive gathering today, although I had to arrive a little late.

One of the more intriguing things I’ve heard so far is about some developments in Second Life. They’re building an API into the system. It sounds like it might just be for pulling live data out of Second Life for use elsewhere, but my hope is that it will be possible to structure and control elements of Second Life via external processes (e.g., characters controlled by AI running outside Second Life‘s scripting system). Similarly, they’re working toward an open source viewer that they imagine being customized by different communities. These might both open up interesting possibilities for researchers and artists.

There’s an interesting mix of developers and academics — and, at least at the outset, there’s a strong convergence in what they’re discussing. Who are the upcoming audiences? What are the new possibilities? Which leads to the questions we only have partial answers for now: Who currently plays? What do they actually do with their time while online? How do they understand their experience and how is it structured? Robert J. Moore, who is presenting right now, is from PARC’s Play On group — and he’s both in industry and a sociologist. The methods people are discussing: virtual ethnography, video capture followed by analysis, quantitative analysis from data scraping, the registration and time online data that companies are willing to share. PARC group sees this kind of trajectory: from visual realism to interactional realism, from 3D modeling to the “3rd place,” from single player to networks of players.

A number of presenters have talked about currently growing groups of players: older players and teen girls. Teens are hungrier for information outside the game. Not just “A/S/L,” but outside research, and sitting together in physical space while a subset of the group are controlling in-game characters. But when you’re putting together an online group to do an activity, it’s more important whether the physical world is going to interrupt players (e.g., players with kids) than other aspects of their identity. On the other hand, people often play with friends and family from the physical world. (I hope people here are reading TL Taylor’s book…) Tom Boellstorff points out that many of these questions are old hat in anthropology and sociology. We know that people have to collaborate with colleagues to understand cultures, each only taking a piece, when studying real-world culture. We need to come to understand that about virtual worlds: no one is going to be able to try to take every useful approach to every interesting aspect. He could learn a lot by quantitative analysis of large amounts of behavior of many Japanese people without knowing Japanese. Or he could hang out with a few Japanese people for a few years and learn to speak Japanese and learn lots of other things about the culture.

Now, after lunch, Robert Nideffer, Bill Tomlinson, Julian Bleecker, and Antoinette LaFarge are taking different approaches to game space. Bill’s project involves using tablet PCs to move animated characters and other elements between PC “islands.” Julian talks about “games as theory that inform and shape human interaction rituals” — bringing game pieces into the physical world, using everyday objects as game controllers, hybrid inworld/online games, games as “life hacks.” Robert’s “unexceptional.net” is an interesting example of many of these things: a game played via blog, cell phone, 3D environment, GPS — which involves a story about love lost and personal transformation (very much life hacking). Antoinette speaks from the perspective of someone who not only has deep experience of games like WoW (two level 60 characters) but also deep experience of environments like MUDs/MOOs. Her feeling is that questions such as those people have been raising about slippage (“Who am I speaking with?”) are important signs of success in one’s projects.

The next panel begins with Walt Scacchi talking about open source game modding. A total conversion mod that turns Unreal Tournament into a dance club. Building a giant LAN for a game con — collaborative, unpaid high-end network development. How can we think of massively participatory game development beyond assets and into code?

Steve Cutchin says he is “building a home for bad games.” He’s from the San Diego Supercomputer Center and they have a gaming grid for education and research (processor farms, storage, etc). They’re interested in supporting games that would be beyond the capabilities of small educational labs but too unusual or experimental for industry. Perhaps move away from the emphasis on violent games toward other types of dynamics and interactions (didn’t Michael give a keynote about this?). Educators, scientists, and others are welcome to put together proposals to SDSC. They expect to host many games, and have a good percentage fail, so that there can be enough to find some interesting and new things. (Noah wonders how to build up an audience for these experiments. Wouldn’t it be better if you could use something like the Second Life API to offer a novel experience served by the SDSC machines to an existing audience? Of course, then, while you have an existing audience, growing your audience requires people subscribing to Second Life.) They’re actively looking for games to host now — the grid is in a “beta” stage, and will go “live” later this year.

Now Corey Bridges from Multiverse is talking about their platform for the creation and distribution of virtual worlds. They give it away free to academe, and developers get it for no up-front cost (just revenue sharing). (Andrew linked to this recently.) How could we get away from “men in tights” games toward utterly different experiences? What would be a humor-based MMO? He envisions people from different backgrounds in different locations being able to collaborate on building MMO experience, and having a kind of “peer review” infrastructure for player contributions. Multiverse is also building an MMO on top of their platform (in part to prove their technology works) which they’re going to release open source and allow people to learn and experiment by modifying it.

Michael Steele, from Emergent Game Technologies, talks about middleware for AAA titles (rather than research or education projects). Most MMO companies are reinventing core IT technologies (scaling up to huge numbers of users) and running into content creation cost barriers. Also, MMO games are transitioning into a service industry, and outages and billing problems aren’t acceptable any more. His company came from a previous incarnation called Butterfly, and what they found is that games and open grid technologies don’t mix. You need specialized hardware (and software — he warns audience to beware of high-level scripting languages in development, cites Star Wars Galaxies). Using off the shelf software for things that aren’t core competencies of game developers, using quick iterations of building and testing.

The final panel is about collaboration between industry and academe. Walt Scacchi lays out some of the landscape: academe, government, and corporate funding (including both non-profit and for-profit corporations). Presents the idea of adapting Google’s “Summer of Code” concept to games — EA is unlikely to play a role like Google’s, but what about a consortium involving people from Epic (“Make Something Unreal”) to the Korean ministry of culture?

Jen Sun and Yasmin Kafai, next, are talking about Whyville. There’s an economy based on “clams,” and clams are earned by participating in educational simulations (as much as possible: open ended and engaged in daily lives). For example, there are periodic outbreaks of WhyPox (they make avatars look bad and unable to chat without sneezing). This motivates players to learn about infectious diseases, which is becoming much more on the minds of children (and adults) with avian flu, SARS, etc — and producing many misconceptions. There was a collaborative NSF grant for the Whyville people and UCLA, and they developed educational materials and tracked all the behavior of participants (after signing consent forms). They made vaccine deliberately scarce, and people traded it on the in-game auction site. Fake “cures” and counterfeit vaccine emerged at the end of a recent outbreak. Still analyzing data. There’s also a “Girls ‘n’ Games” event at UCLA on Tuesday May 9th.

William Fisher is next, from Quicksilver, talking about Full Spectrum Command and Full Spectrum Leader. Trying to bridge the gap between “those video games” and “those uncool educational projects.” They’ve had problems collaborating with academics. Specifically, they had someone design a great AI system that didn’t get completed in time for them to ship one of their games. A better experience working with USC’s ICT, which built a separate AI system that ran alongside one of their games. The full source code of these projects could be made available to people doing research that requires a military simulation engine — he can identify the right DoD person to ask.

Sheldon Brown, director of the Center for Research in Computing and the Arts at UCSD, is the last up. He begins by asking why artists would want to work with industry, and vice versa, as opposed to traditional art/tech development models. He points to the 1990s “virtual reality” infrastructure companies that artists worked with interestingly: new kinds of artwork, novel systems integration, proof of concept projects, publicity, cultivating student expertise, etc. With gaming, there’s a big difference. Game companies are often focused on content, rather than infrastructure. Academics collaborating with industry now can explore new cultural forms, devise new aesthetics, experiment with new technologies, explore new development processes, and (again) cultivate student talent.

After this are demos — many of which involve walking around to different sites, so I won’t be blogging. But it’s definitely been an interesting day, and I expect it to continue through the demos. Congrats to the organizers!