What is the difference between the two pictures above? Realism?
Immersion? Fun? Success? Both are rendered from Virtual worlds. The
left one is from Gaia a low end (and extremely successful) 2.5D world.
The right picture is taking from Playstation Home, probably the most
realistic virtual word of today, only accessible with a Sony
Playstation 3.

Hamlet Au, one of the most famous authors in the Second Life Blogospere recently posted an arcticle about a new experimental version of Second Life, which provoked a lot of comments immediately. He questioned
if it was really desireble to have more graphics effects, more realism
in Second Life – especially if this leads to different user experiences
among the users – and quoted some interesting numbers:

Top virtual worlds/MMOs by use, as of 2008:
– World of Warcraft, 10 million subscribers
– Habbo Hotel, 8 million monthly active users
– RuneScape, 5 million monthly active users
– Club Penguin, 4 million monthly active users
– Webkinz, 4 million monthly active users

He concludes, that people probably don’t want realistic 3D worlds,
as 4 of 5 of the most successful virtual worlds are 2.5D and the only
3D one is certainly not "high end" or "realistic". 

I can’t follow his line of reasoning though.  While I won’t argue
his numbers (showing that a lot of 2.5D worlds are vastly more popular
than next gen 3D ones), it is tough to draw conclusions from such a
fact. When two factors are correlated this just means that they are …
correlated, NOT that one is the result of the other in a
cause-and-effect relationship. 🙂 Assuming cause-and-effect when there
is correlation is one of the most popular mistakes in logic.

There are many reasons for the popularity of 2.5D worlds. And the
most important one is probably their easy availability (often in the
browser) and their low hardware demands (nearly anything goes). I very
much doubt that people will run away from Habbo or Penguin as soon as
these games improve the visual fidelity. 🙂

They will run away (or not come anymore), though, if the makers of
these platforms DEMAND certain hardware standards (or compulsory
training sessions to learn a complicated user interface). Second Life’s
hardware/software demands and steep learning curve are already the most
important barriers between the platform and a more widespread adoption.
It would be a dangerous decision to raise this barrier – even if the
engineers in the development department would love to have better
graphics so they won’t have to be embarrassed anymore when having a
drink with their pals from the gaming companies. That should not be a
decisive factor, though. The target audience for virtual worlds is NOT
hardcore gamers (young men between 16 and 28).

Visual fidelity (not necessarily realism) is great – but certainly
not necessary for most applications of virtual worlds. It won’t hurt
neither, though.

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