Page last updated at 12:40 GMT, Wednesday, 8 October 2008 13:40 UK

Virtual worlds carve out new path

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Francesco Dorazio designed Myrl, a site to store avatars for virtual worlds.

By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter, BBC News

If you are walking with orcs in the World of Warcraft or setting up a business on planet Calypso, the real world is probably very far from your mind.

But for attendees at the Virtual Worlds Forum in London this week, the question of how to bridge the gap with the real world is a very pertinent one.

As well as gaining an audience beyond the core teenage male gamer, virtual worlds with real world connections offer a whole new way to make money.

There is a sharp divide between so-called Massively Multi-player Online games (MMOs) which aspire to draw from the real world, such as Second Life, and those, like World of Warcraft, which proudly inhabit a land of pure fantasy.

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Twinity is a virtual world from Metaversum with avatars that walk around real cities. Metaversum chief executive Jochen Hummel says people can feel as though they have been to a city.

Cityscape

Hoping to change that is Twinity, one of a growing number of games determined to make a link between the virtual world and the real.

Capturing the twin trends of social networking and fascination with 3D worlds, the Berlin-based firm is creating a backdrop that allows users to hang out in some of the world's most famous cities.

So far it has launched virtual Berlin - a faithful replica of the real thing - to public trial.

Next year a virtual London will be available with online models of Singapore and New York joining at some point after that.

People can explore their city of choice, visit shops, art galleries and museums and build apartments.

"Fantasy worlds give you freedom and allow you to fly but the fantasy element limits them for the real world," said Jochen Hummel, the chief executive of Metaversum, the company behind Twinity.

"Teenage boys are the biggest users but for adults there is a need to improve their real lives rather than escape from them," he said.

Networking avatars

[Virtual worlds have] to become far more ubiquitous, more like a toaster than a DVR
Raph Koster, Areae

Jessica Mulligan is the chief operating officer of ImaginVenture, a Swedish business incubator interested in virtual worlds.

She can see how more direct links to the high street would offer new ways to monetise such worlds but she is ambivalent about how much actual gamers want to bring the two together.

"Virtual worlds are about experimenting and doing something different," she said.

Closer ties with social networking are inevitable though, she thinks.

"They are two separate markets but you can bring things from each. For example it would make perfect sense for games to have links to social networks so people can put up pictures of their avatars alongside their real identities," she said.

Going one step farther, Myrl has created a social network exclusively for avatars.

The web-based Myrl platform allows users to manage their virtual lives, seeing what is happening in a range of virtual worlds while keeping up to date with what their or friends' avatars are doing.

"In virtual worlds you can be an alien one day, partying in New York another and laying on a beach the next and we felt that there was a need for a platform that integrated virtual worlds so that you could access these worlds from the web or the mobile as well as from a specific machine," said founder Francesco D'Orazio.

Anonymity

It appeals particularly to gamers who have created avatars in a variety of worlds.

Some 30% of Myrl's users have multiple avatars, on average they have three each, but one busy user is managing an impressive 16.

Among the 19 virtual worlds that are so far signed up are Twinity, Second Life, Habbo Hotel and Entropia

The avatars are linked from the virtual world they inhabit to the Myrl website via a badge which transmits data about what they are doing.

But the system cannot, as yet, link real people with their avatars.

"That's not possible yet because too many people want to maintain anonymity and don't want their avatar to be linked to their real identity," said Mr D'Orazio.

Ordinary people

Screenshot from Second Life
Second Life is struggling to keep user's interest

Some virtual worlds have incredibly loyal fan bases, who visit regularly and for long amounts of time but others are struggling to keep users engaged.

Figures for Second Life show that while 18 million people have downloaded the software, only 500,000 are still active users.

There are still big barriers to overcome before virtual gaming goes mainstream, thinks Ms Mulligan.

One of the big stumbling blocks for her is the way games are distributed.

Rather than have specialist software that has to be downloaded - a process which can be time-consuming and complicated - the web itself could increasingly be used as a platform, she thinks.

One of the firms experimenting with simpler virtual worlds is Areae, which has launched a free tool called Metaplace that allows anyone to create a virtual world.

The web-based program is the brainchild of Raph Koster, a man very keen to open virtual worlds up to the mass market.

"The first step is to have virtual worlds as a common medium for ordinary people. It has to become far more ubiquitous, more like a toaster than a DVR," he told the BBC.

"Virtual worlds have a lot of strengths and the web has a lot of strengths but the two do not necessarily coincide," he said.

Purposeful chat

What virtual worlds do well is contextualise social encounters in a way that social networking cannot do, he thinks.

"Without places it is hard to have activities. The bowling alley or the alcohol does not matter as much as the people but if you do not have the bowling alley or the alcohol it's just an empty room and no-one comes,"

Michael Cassius is the managing director of Dubit, a marketing agency that creates virtual worlds.

It has been conducting research on what youngsters are doing in virtual worlds. Club Penguin and Habbo Hotel, both worlds with a big emphasis on social networking, are the most popular, according to its study.

With the younger generation growing up on social networks the connection between the two will have to get closer Mr Cassius thinks.

"Virtual worlds are social networks with a purpose. Games have always been a platform for engagement between people," he said.




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