According to the latest Pew Generations Report, virtual worlds have less participants than any other online niche surveyed and are experiencing no growth. It's pretty pathetic. Virtual worlds were not just trounced by social networks and multimedia viewing, but even by religious information sites and online auctions. After seven years in the public eye, it's clear that neither incremental technology improvements nor new ad campaigns are going to dramatically increase the virtual world market in the foreseeable future.
After reading the report, I'm more convinced than ever that browser-based access to virtual worlds in conjunction with social network integration is the most credible light at the end of the tunnel. The way to move virtual worlds from their current isolated backwater into the integrated mainstream is by making them as seamlessly accessible and usable as every other category in the Pew Report. This will also require mobile-compatible clients, since mobile internet use will surpass computer-based use within the next few years.
As much as we love to hate Farmville, its success proves that typical Facebook users will flock to virtual environments that are embedded within their social networking experience. But they're not going to download and install a heavy-weight client. And they're not going to care about the 75% of the current functionality cluttering the UI that is outside the basic chat/play paradigm. It's likely that most people will just want to pop in for 3D chat, a fast social game or a live event.
I am NOT advocating getting rid of heavyweight clients or changing the user experience for the joyously immersed, or any solution that requires public association of an account with a human identity. My future vision is of a multi-client universe where users can access virtual worlds through a wide range of applications and devices. Although browser-based users could access any place on the grid, there would be special sims tailored to games, events, etc. optimized for the Facebook crowd or mobile users who may have limited functionality or bandwidth. I think this multi-dimensional paradigm would offer a great opportunity for community scripters, builders and entrepreneurs to reach a vastly greater market, perhaps one that is integrated with Facebook's payment system.
Finally, I think that OpenSim Hypergrid technology (or something like it) is the way ahead for those of us who want to continue to push forward the old-school Full Monty experience. An integrated system of grids owned by small businesses, non-profits and private individuals will not have the kind of financial pressures that necessitate the kind of growth that investors in venture-backed companies demand.
Time will tell! For now, here are a couple of tables from the Pew Generations 2000 Report. Grab a copy yourself. It's a free download and well worth a read.
|( From Pew Generations 2010 Report)|
| (From Pew Generations 2010 Report)|