June 8, 2006 4:00 AM PDT

Making virtual worlds more lifelike

PALO ALTO, Calif.--Ever played an online game like "World of Warcraft" or "EverQuest" and wished the expressions on your avatar's face looked more realistic or that it was easier to communicate with other players?

If so, then a team of researchers from the famed Palo Alto Research Center might be your heroes.

The PARC team--Bob Moore, Nicolas Ducheneaut and Eric Nickell, plus Stanford's Nick Yee--have spent the better part of three years studying the social dimensions of so-called massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) to better understand the design challenges behind creating satisfying face-to-face avatar and other interactions in such environments.

"It's surprising how little the publishers know about their players, what makes them tick and how to get them to come back and play more regularly."
--Nicolas Ducheneaut, PARC research team

The basic concept behind the team's research, according to Moore, a sociologist in PARC's computing science laboratory, is to analyze and potentially develop systems that publishers would pay for to make their games more attractive to more players.

But along the way, the group says, it has encountered one substantial hurdle: conventional wisdom in the games industry that development resources should be spent on content, since content is what players want.

"When faced with the decision, 'Do I put in another dungeon or do I improve the experience for (groups of players)?'" said Ducheneaut, publishers often say "'I'll put in another dungeon.' I think that's incredibly shortsighted."

That's because the PARC team--whose project and blog are called PlayOn--firmly believes there's real money to be made in designing MMOs so that they make it substantially easier for players to not only slay beasts together, but also communicate and socialize.

The group acknowledges that it may be hard to convince publishers to change fundamental design principles of existing games in order to improve socialization. But should publishers do so, it may well make worthwhile the countless hours the team has spent collecting and analyzing data about the ways people play MMOs.

"We want to get in at the ground level" of a new MMO, said Moore, "before it's too late."

Ducheneaut, a member of the research staff of PARC's computer science lab (CSL), agreed.

"I think we can make a dollars-and-cents argument," Ducheneaut said. "They can look at a new dungeon and how many extra players it'll get them, and we can counter very easily, because now we have the numbers (showing the value of improved socialization tools) and you can translate that into money."

The group has studied large numbers of players, and their in-world interactions, in six online games and virtual worlds: "World of Warcraft," "EverQuest," "EverQuest II," "Star Wars Galaxies," "Second Life" and "There."

Massively multiplayer games like "EverQuest" are usually made up of tens or hundreds of thousands of players, each of whom pays a monthly fee to play. Some such games, like "World of Warcraft," have millions of players. Others, like "Second Life," are free to play, but charge for things like owning virtual land.

To Moore, the problem starts in the design phase of a game when publishers fail to see the value of, for example, making social spaces that players actually consider social.

Keeping design in mind
He pointed to a "cantina," or barlike place, in "Star Wars Galaxies" where players can come to get healed by spells and such. But the space is designed as a social place, and Moore and his colleagues noticed that few players ever took the time to stop and actually socialize.

"You can make them go to the cantina," Moore joked, "but you can't make them socialize."

The problem, Moore suggested, is that in the end the cantina wasn't designed with enough attention to making it the sort of spot players want to gather. He didn't detail what about it made it less appealing than it could be.

But at least one publisher disagrees with the notion that it doesn't pay enough attention to players' needs.

"We spend a great deal of time talking to our players about the game," said Chris Kramer, director of corporate communications at "Star Wars Galaxies" publisher Sony Online Entertainment. "(We ask) what they like about the games...and what they'd like to see in the games. We put a huge deal of effort into that."

CONTINUED: Know your customer…
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6 comments

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Not chat rooms...
Obviously, these guys haven't spent much time playing these MMOs. The main reason WoW is so successful is the large amount of casual player content which reduces the amount of 'down-time' and thus it has less socializing. There is the occasional banter, but for the most part, people are not there to chat.

A 3-D chat room on the other hand would likely benefit from their research.
Posted by freemarket--2008 (5058 comments )
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True...
Having natural facial expressions and emotes are wonderful and great. But over 90% of an MMO's "fun" time is spent explorering content and is usually "zoomed out" so facial expressions would never be seen.

Second Life may be able to use this, and other Social games, but MMORPGs and other games where being social is just a by-product of playing the game, this would just not add much value.

Ask me whether I want a new dungeon or the ability to wink; COME ON... a new dungeon of course!
Posted by umbrae (1073 comments )
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these guys have no experience with mmorpgs
Players are not interested in chatting in rooms with more realistic facial motions and gestures. It's one of the reasons why mmorpgs like WoW are more popular than simulations like Second Life.

Players are interested in gaining social recognition, through acquisition of the rare sword, that unique spell, etc. Social bonds between individuals come later, through hours of collaborative game play.

I played a Paladin in WoW up to lvl 60, and acquired most of my end-game gear. I didn't develop social relationships with other people until late in the endgame when it was the only way to obtain the gear I needed. The perks from social interaction can not be used as incentive to excite and interest players. They are simply a necessity for gaining individual goals in the end-game!
Posted by ctbcctbc (8 comments )
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webcams and authentically reactive avatars
I'm sure at some point someone in the industry has had an idea like this (and probably started implementing it), and if not I'm certainly in no position to profit from it anyways so I'll toss it out here. How cool would it be if with a webcam and some cleverly written software the facial expressions and posture of your avatars in these mmorpgs could actually reflect your own, sitting in front of the computer. I'm sure one curious side effect would be that I'd become more conscious of the fact that I'm constantly hunched forward towards the screen. It would create a sort of feedback loop and, to me at least, make the game much, much more interesting and meaningful.

I'd love to see this feature start appearing in the next year or so, and I don't honestly think it would be that hard (for a software company with massive resources) to accomplish. I can't wait.

Peace,
ephraim ross
Posted by elr01998 (1 comment )
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