Friday, December 11, 2009

Online worlds & Facebook

Hang on to your hats, this is going to get interesting...

Meez avatar busting some moves

They are two of the biggest trends on the net right now.  In one corner, online worlds & virtual chat.  These products continue their ascent picking up millions of new users, more content and more revenue.  They are places where people love escaping their daily lives into a rich online fantasy world and a countless virtual chat messages are being sent out every day.

And in the other corner, Facebook.  We have seen the stratospheric rise of the all conquering blue and white website, with its goal to dominate the planets free time, and a large chunk of its working time too with its endless status updates and army of cute farming mini games.

Hungry to gain more users at low cost, online worlds are hungrily eying Facebook with its hundreds of millions of users as a way to expand their presence. 

What's going to happen?

Well to answer this question we can look at what is already happening.

There a number of online worlds with avatars that have made some forays into Facebook, in some cases dipping their toes in the water through to all out jumping right in.  The different approaches have varied widely in their level of success in these early days, and no doubt there will be a lot of re-adjusting and scrambling to make the most out of the platform in months and years to come.

But first things first, it's important to define the, broadly speaking, two different types of online worlds out there today, because they both have radically different options when it comes to Facebook.

Download client worlds

Second Life, one of the largest download client worlds

You know, the type that you download and install, show up in your start menus and run standalone from your internet browser.

This has long been the defacto standard for 3d virtual worlds, and the two largest 3d online worlds, IMVU and SecondLife both use this approach as well as many others such as

Web browser worlds

These are the 3d worlds that are websites that you access and experience by using Internet Explorer, Firefox or (insert your favorite browser here).

They are not run separately and most use Flash or perhaps a browser plugin to enable the 3d graphics.  Some examples include Smallworlds, Frenzoo and Meez.  Traditionally they have been less graphically demanding than their download client worlds, although increasingly that gap is starting to close.

So what's possible?

Now we have the definitions sewn up, let's take a look at what's technically possible for integration into Facebook:

The "Link Elsewhere" approach 

Let's look at a couple of examples, IMVU, a client download world has a Facebook application that allows you to show and share your snapshots from the game world, view outfit challenges etc but doesn't let you 3d chat or dress up etc.  For that you link to to download the client and then run it separate from your browser and facebook.

Given the huge user base on IMVU and the success of the platform, the number of people using the application is small, likely due to the limited utility it offers within the app. In fact there are far more people who have commented on the fan page on Facebook than user the app. All the action is within their download client.

A similar story with the with their app, "Here and There" that similarly allows you to share your profile / pictures and other limited information. At only 44 monthly active users of the app yet in the millions of accounts on their worlds, it shows the limited appeal of simply a "share your profile" type app:

Self contained experience

One example of a web world who offers a full experience within a Facebook app is Smallworlds.  You can join, play, chat and have all the features on the Smallworlds website without ever leaving Facebook.  It makes for a richer and more user friendly experience:

At over 100,000 active monthly users and growing, this is an example of an app that is working well.

So what's the conclusion?

Pretty obvious from the above, right?

The level of engagement appears orders of magnitude on the self contained apps on Facebook,  proving people in Facebook apps prefer to stay there (simple enough). Forcing people to leave the site to do some or most of the functions translates to a fairly lackluster engagement with the app, so the numbers speak.

Online world operators, take note!
Asides and sundry

1 - What about Facebook connect?

You're right, apart from integrating an online world into Facebook, the reverse is possible - enabling Facebook within the world to help make registration and sharing to friends easier.  This does work, and increasingly it's becoming more prevelant, especially amongst the newer websites (for an example, check out Metaplace)

2 - You didn't mention anything about Facebook casual games or apps like Buddypoke?

You're right again, more and more we're seeing cute avatar apps and games that started on Facebook branch out into more sophisticated offerings within the platform, with features and functions akin to some web virtual worlds.  The lines are already blurring and in a couple of years they will disappear, in this authors humble opinion.

3 - What about a product (fan) or group page on Facebook?

Yeah, but that doesn't really count - there is no integration between the world and a Facebook fan page, it's just another channel to publish information and interact with users, but no practical linkages between the two.

4 - Online worlds and games?

What works in online worlds doesn't necessarily work in Facebook apps.  Pure chat apps on facebook haven't been that successful, the ones that have been usually adapt or incorporate gameplay elements.  People like to play games on Facebook, meeting new avatar friends is somewhat secondary.

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