Monday, January 11, 2010

Thoughts on Metaplace - One world shuts, another opens up...

I have to admit, it was a shock to me to hear the news of web world closing.

Browser based avatar world, Metaplace

Whilst I didn't spend too much time there personally Metaplace always struck me as a pioneering service, in many ways well ahead of its time.

On paper it seemed to have virtually every "tick list" item for a modern MMO/game:
- Flash based
- All in the browser
- Embeddable to other sites
- 3D importing and UGC
- Scripting and support for game designers
- Marketplace
- Level system
- Missions
- Able to build your own worlds
- Facebook connect support
- Live streaming support, highly concurrent spaces
- Designed by famed MMO creator Raph Koster
- Lots of buzz!

Yet with all of that going for it, it failed to gain traction and the decision made to close the site down (the company itself is continuing, perhaps building its own game based on its technical platform - my guess, no inside info)

With so much seemingly going for it, the key question is why?  

Pondering on my own experience on the site and chatting with some Metaplace users and observers there are a few issues that I think were at play...

1/ Avatars didn't seem to "match" the 3d isometric environments

One thing that struck me on Metaplace was the beautiful backgrounds and environments, in lovely isometric view of 3d (pre-rendered) models.  Looking like something out of a wonderful picture book, yet the avatars themselves seemed very simplistic and 2d sprite looking.  This has a bit of a jarring effect, which seemed the avatars were just stuck on top of the lush backgrounds, and this could have made it difficult to connect emotionally with the avatars perhaps

2/ Avatar customizations?

One thing I've learned in my own experience running an avatar community over the past year is the importance users put on self expression and customization.  Everyone wants to wear the style they want, whether emo, punk, futuristic or sexy. Style is important! Actually Metaplace had quite a bit of diversity in looks but perhaps not as much as needed, and it didn't appear the UGC component was applied to helping out in this regard (we have 1000s of user created fashion items in many styles, but still we get users telling us they can't find what they are looking for!).  Some have suggested it was the avatar itself being too small, but Habbo and Gaia disprove that theory for many millions of users. For those though used to 3d avatars in other higher poly worlds such as SL, clearly they couldn't accept the MP avatars.

3/ Built for the builders, but not for the mainstream users

This one is a bit clearer, there was a great amount of feature support and tools added for world builders, but less tools or attractions for your average every day user.  It seemed like a classic chicken and egg situation - not enough users for attracting game devs, and not enough games/content to attract users?  The existing games on the site were ok but not up to the same level as many great flash games now, and the social elements and avatar stickiness perhaps wasn't up to many average users expect.  Perhaps MP should have jumpstarted some high quality gaming with internal development and showcase, and in parallel giving users something to get hooked on...

4/ Who was the audience?

This is an interesting one.  When I spent some time on the site I was struck how there seemed to be two distinct groups of users.  Those older, technically proficient game dev types who loved being able to tinker and create world.  And then a very young tween/young teen female set with "HoT ChiCs" clubs and looking for 14yo boyfriends.  It almost seemed to confirm the 2d avatars suited the young female crowd and the game APIs suited the game devs. 

But there didn't seem to be the missing middle audience, and the older "mainstream" users that you would see on sites like Gaia. I can't say this definitely as I wasn't online that much, but it did seem hard to understand who was the target user for this

Applying lessons?

All of this is very timely as we've just launched our own 3d web world in Frenzoo, funnily enough the same week of Metaplace closing.  The shutdown really brought to light a few things that I we're well positioned on, or areas we have to strengthen up and fast...

1/ Matching background with avatar - we've had this problem for some time, having great 3d avatars but only flat 2d backgrounds.  This was frankly hurting us for retention and a big driver for jumping to full 3d environments which we've done with this launch - now it just seems to look right.

3d avatar and scene in the new Frenzoo beta

2/ Having strong character and outfit customizations so people can identify with and express themselves through their avatar (a lot easier in a higher poly 3d environment thankfully, although much room to improve around body shapes etc)

3/ Balance content creation and social tools
This is not easy, we've tried early up like Metaplace to have a lot of content importing tools (although not as far as scripting support etc) which has helped a lot build an initial set of content, but in doing so we have lagged a bit in social features (eg parties, hangouts etc), which we're now rounding back to rapidly.  Our own experience bears out that this is crucial for average users having a good experience and wanting to return.

4/ Audience... ah the challenge of knowing who you should target, go broader and aim for wider penetration, or go nicher and aim for higher monetization etc  It's something we're still figuring out but getting better at understanding how we make those decisions.  Usability testing and focus groups are great avenues to do that.  We have now realized we need to raise the average age and make the site more mainsteam friendly, which it a road we're heading down at quite a rate of knots...

Final thoughts on Metaplace

All that said, I still think Metaplace had so much going for it and would have been able to be successful over time with more iteration and community building.  After all it took Second Life quite a while to get early critical mass.  Sadly it appeared they didn't have that luxury or decided to steer the boat to a different direction.   Metaplace had many features that were perhaps ahead of its time, and no doubt will be incorporated into other virtual worlds.

PS - It's always sad to see a virtual world end, I joined the final concert in the lead up towards midnight on 1st of Jan and the spirit of those staying to the end was admirable.  I give it to the Metaplace folks for handling the shutdown announcements and closing professionally and with a lot of respect for their fans and users. Wish them all the best with the new project, with a lot of learning behind them I have a feeling it will be a success.

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