“Walled Gardens” are not the problem…

Maybe it is just me, but my experience has been that most people I talk to don’t have their own websites anymore. Instead, they have a page on myspace, a profile on facebook, a gallery on deviantART, items for sale on EBay, or they have a blog on one of the hosted blog communities (like wordpress or blogspot). In a similar fashion, gamers usually have distinct characters in multiple MMORPGs (and not always the same class or even gender).

One of the problems that everyone faces, is trying to manage all of these identities and profiles. It is a real pain in the neck creating a new account on the latest social networking site (fad!) or some other website. In the Web 2.0 world, there are a few options for creating an ID once and using the same login for other places, and a few social sites make it easy to import your basic profile data or even entire friends lists (sometimes even sending out email invites to everyone in your address book).

In the virtual world sector (including MMORPGs) several ideas have been bandied about concerning avatars that easily migrate from one world or game to another (where you create a character or avatar once and use it anywhere), and some virtual world platforms boast the goal of breaking down the so-called “walled gardens” to create hundreds of thousands or millions of virtual worlds…one for every user.

This sounds good on paper, but I wonder if anyone is considering problems this approach naturally creates, particularly given the social and psychological natures of humans.

First, I should probably define what a “Walled Garden” actually is. The term, particularly in regards to the internet, refers to an exclusive or proprietary environment or community that is “closed” or that requires membership of some type. AOL is a good example of a walled garden, in that you had to be a subscriber to access most of its content, and the whole thing was pretty much setup as a network within a network. For MMORPGs, each of them is, by definition, a closed garden. You need a unique client application to access the servers and game network. The client handles everything from rendering the world’s graphics to acting as the interface for chat and gameplay interaction with other players. You cannot use the client software from one game to access the virtual world of another game.

There are more than a few benefits to the “walled garden” approach. A few examples include security, management and moderation, contextual consistency, advanced features, “uniqueness”, easier access to the flow of traffic of other users, etc. etc.

The problems are also plentiful, but generally ignored (or perhaps unrealized by designers and evangelists?). To help make my point, let me go back to web communities and social networks which are all technically walled gardens at one level or another.

  • Ease of use and content generation

It is easier to setup a profile on any given social networking site or a hosted blog than it is to setup a server, register a domain, and set it all up yourself.

  • Easier to network and find traffic

It is deceptively simple to do a basic search and find friends that are already on a particular site, find new friends with similar interests, share just about anything, and so forth.

  • There is a strong sense of community or belonging

While the strongest feelings of belonging are based on smaller social circles, being a member of a particular site or community can engender similar feelings (even if they are very subtle or subconscious).

Remember, these are walled gardens…supposedly a bad thing in the minds of a lot of experts in virtual worlds, cyberspace/metaverse, etc.

But what are the problems if everyone can have their own virtual world? This is the same as everyone having their own website.

  • Traffic is harder to find and drive to your site. Without an overarching and all encompassing community or world, you basically have to use the entire internet as the replacement. Instead of being able to leverage internal stats, tracking, referrals, and other features and functionality, you end up trying to compete with everyone on the web for attention.
  • Client and Server applications must be open and freely available. The lowest common denominator wins the day for the greater market saturation and standardization. All content must be as simple and generic as possible for a truly open metaverse/internet. As soon as you start having to worry about downloading billions of modules, extensions, or versions so you can access one location over another, you realize that this misses the point, and it becomes a turn off for a lot of market share.
  • Open = unregulated and unmoderated. If anyone can make an avatar or character that can go to any virtual world or game, it becomes an imbroglio of issues to sort through when e-commerce becomes involved, not to mention hacking and security headaches. Sure, this isn’t an issue with the internet so much right now, but we are talking about webpages, not immersive worlds…this is a whole magnitude of difference in complexity and elements.

The better approach, I think, is a walled garden of many gardens. Yes, I think that at some point there will be a truly open and ubiquitous platform that is pretty much ungoverned and the transition from web 2D to cyberspace 3D will occur, but I think it will quickly denigrate into chaos and become a useless mishmash of crap. The true successful ventures will be the massive ones that are indeed a walled garden, but are also composed of nested worlds/gardens. You belong to Myspace, but you have your own unique page that you can customize to your heart’s content…but ultimately, it is moderated and controlled by Myspace.

Maybe I’m drawing too much of a distinction over what might be nothing more than a fine grey line. I dunno…I just think that trying to make the whole internet into an open (in all senses of the word) 3D universe isn’t the great idea that it sounds like. While I don’t like the idea of one company pretty much owning and controlling the virtuality that we have been dreaming of (particularly if it isn’t MY company), I think that this is exactly what is going to be required, at least in the interim of the next decade or so to push the industry forward, establish the standards, build the market, and so forth. Also, at least as far as MMORPGs go, making them all so generic as to allow characters to move from one to the other seamlessly is a really stupid idea. Then again, most of the titles coming out these days are virtual copies of each other in the most generic way possible, maybe it isn’t so bad…after all, they are starting to look alike, and you can find the same old static quests, missions, creatures, and classes in each one. Perhaps I’m getting bitter in my cynicism.

I feel like the voice in the desert sometimes…I have a clear vision of how things could and should be done, what the missing pieces are, where the convergences of various technologies needs to occur, and how to build “IT”. But the money flow keeps going towards the same ideas, the same people, and the same failing models…both in design, business, and execution. I’ll say it again for the hundredth time…where are the pioneers, innovators, and dreamweavers? Ten to fifteen years ago there was a tangible sense of excitement in the air and new ideas were constantly being explored and pursued (not just in the internet sector mind you). Now? It seems like the only exciting thing is another social network, another mobile phone, another way to shove ads in your face, or another MMORPG that is more static and single player oriented than a truly immersive world full of engaging experiences and a sense of wonder.

One way or the other, I’m going to shake things up (or at least get a damned good start at it) this year. 2007 was pretty crappy in many respects, but 2008 still has promise.

Yes, you will see me using “hybrid”, “convergence”, “adaptive”, and “evolving” a lot this year. Good stuff is coming.

PS: Yes, I realize that I sometimes ramble my way through these blog posts. Most of them are brain dumps and they aren’t intended to be edited and polished articles that follow a strict outline. So, if I need to clarify something, or I missed a point, feel free to comment or email me.