This article is primarily inspired by Virtual Worlds By The Numbers: Today and The Future, a session in the Marketing and Entertainment track of Virtual Worlds 2008 conference in New York City. The panel included Yuanzhe (Michael) Cai, the Director of Broadband & Gaming at Parks Associates; Jack Myers, President of Myers Publishing, LLC; and Joey Seiler, Editor of Virtual World News. It is part of a series on Virtual Worlds 2008.

In the face of significant competition, the biggest challenge for a new virtual world isn’t attracting new users, its retaining them from month to month. This challenge is particularly acute for virtual worlds targeting a younger demographic who have short attention spans and often migrate between worlds.

In the past, it seemed that the best practice for retaining virtual world users was to provide an open world that put the social aspects at the front and center of the experience. This reflects the notion that virtual worlds are open playgrounds rather than lightweight video games.

Today, there’s an evolution that is happening at both the micro level (i.e., for each individual player) and the macro level (i.e., for the industry as a whole). As the initial social novelty of a virtual world wears off, users seek out more structured activities to keep themselves entertained. Open virtual worlds, like Second Life, give players the tools to create their own structured activities. Tringo, a multiplayer game created by a resident of Second Life, is a great example of how a single user’s efforts enriches the overall world.

However, relying on users to keep themselves entertained can be a tricky business — especially when greener pastures are just a click away. In Designing a Gameless Game, Sulka Haro discusses how Sulake enriched the Habbo Hotel experience with game-like elements and structured activities. In some cases, this involved canonizing ad-hoc activities into formal mini-games and in other cases it involved adding lightweight mechanics that act like the jungle gym on a playground. These additions have helped Habbo achieve its impressive growth.

Michael Cai presented data that confirms today’s conventional wisdom that users want more game-like experiences from their virtual worlds. When users were asked why they participate in virtual worlds, they answered:

  • 36% to play games
  • 29% to escape real life
  • 21% to create and manage an avatar
  • 19% to interact with other members

But, as designers add game mechanics to virtual worlds, there’s a danger of virtual worlds losing their distinct identity and being subsumed into MMORPG’s. Jack Myers described what users want in a different way. He proposed that users don’t necessarily want gameplay, they want “curated experiences”.

That’s a brilliant way to describe what users want because its so much more open and appropriate than thinking in terms of gameplay alone. The curator of a user’s experience can take many forms: game mechanics, tutorials, community managers, virtual companions, other users, and even the user himself. And the experience can take many forms as well. It can be as simple as traversing the world or as sophisticated as creating parts of that world.

Ultimately, curated experiences are a way to suggest goals to a user and guide that user to achieving those goals. When a virtual world’s users don’t have goals, wanderlust sets in and that world risks losing its hard won audience. Like an accomplished museum curator, virtual world operators must act with a subtle hand to guide their audience to the most compelling parts of their collection.