August 5 2007
The avatars roaming many online virtual communities may be cartoonish and their activities inconsequential, but the recent sale of Club Penguin to Disney for $350 million (with $350 million in earn out) demonstrates that the business of casual immersive worlds, or virtual hangouts, is not entirely child’s play.
Virtual hangouts are where people can engage each other using imaginary characters in imaginary environments. They have been around and popular in Europe and Asia for years. However, they appear to be gaining traction in the United States as of late. Some commentators even believe that the type of experience provided by these destinations could very well become integral to the forthcoming Web 3.0 era.
The newly released MultiVerse platform, which is designed for the creation of online 3D worlds, certainly anticipates a future in which developers demand the tools necessary to build niche virtual communities because such communities have gone mainstream.
Currently, virtual hangouts differentiate themselves by targeting particular audiences and providing certain types of immersive experiences.
Destinations such as Club Penguin and Barbie Girls cater to children and pre-teenagers with their simple user interfaces, basic games, and cartoon graphics. Other immersive worlds such as Second Life and Habbo Hotel shoot for a broader audience by providing more advanced chat capabilities, more realistic simulations of reality, and tools to design objects and surroundings. Then there is Red Light Center (NSFW), which targets mature adults to give them an altogether more explicit breed of entertainment.
The worlds meant for children are designed with a concern for the safety and security of their users. Webkinz, for example, only lets users chat with a preselected assortment of phrases so no one can say anything inappropriate or share personal information. The services meant for general audiences lack such restrictions and theoretically can be enjoyed by all types of people, although this freedom often translates into behavior that would be utterly inappropriate for children. Second Life, for example, does not explicitly promote adult behavior but has become notorious for it nonetheless. Embracing the more voluptuous side of human behavior, services like Red Light Center are professedly all adult, all the time and encourage users to participate in explicit behavior.
Virtual hangouts range not only in the audiences they target but also in the level of immersion they provide. Some, such as Second Life and Active Worlds, put you in 3D-rendered environments with first person points of view in an attempt to approximate virtual reality. Others, such as Gaia (“the world’s fastest growing online world hangout for teens”) and Barbie Girls, use sprites (two-dimensional pre-rendered figures) to provide a bird’s-eye view of characters moving around in largely static settings. Even further down the immersion scale, the “worlds” of certain services such as Cyworld and Neopets are produced simply using HTML images and Flash animations.
Hangouts intended for younger audiences are generally less immersive than those meant for more mature audiences. Perhaps the only reason for this lies in a child’s inability to navigate more complex simulated worlds. However, children and pre-teenagers may also get something entirely different out of virtual hangouts than adults. While adults are presumably drawn to these services because they provide the opportunity for escapism, younger audiences may treat these products as interactive cartoons and toys. Thus, while all of these services provide a similar opportunity to hang out virtually, they may possess fundamentally distinct appeals for different demographics. The variety in immersion levels will probably continue to reflect these differences.
The chart in this post provides a basic comparison of these services to convey the range of virtual hangouts that currently exists. It should be noted that we tried to draw a distinction between online worlds where people hang out and worlds where people play role playing games, as is the case with World of Warcraft and Entropia Universe.
The following services are included in the chart: