The global MMO market has about 400 million users. In his recent VWBPE keynote, Philip Rosedale estimated there are about a million virtual world users. Why have immersive games, a relatively narrow use of VR, captured hundreds of times as many users as full-blown VR platforms like Second Life? One reason is that most new users who try Second Life never experience a state of immersion.
My perspective is influenced by Marshall McLuhan, who viewed all mediums as extensions of biological human capabilities. So the wheel extends the leg. The alphabet our voice. Paper our memory, and so on. So when I consider virtual worlds and MMOs, I see them as extensions of our physical body, our senses of sight and hearing and our identity. Psychological immersion is required to fully actualize those unique extensions of human capability and awareness.
Immersion takes place when one's point of view shifts from looking into a virtual environment through a computer monitor to the visceral sense of being physically present within both the world and your avatar. It’s akin to becoming so engrossed in a movie that you temporarily lose awareness of sitting in the theater. Unlike a movie where you can sit down and quickly become immersed by passively watching a story unfold, immersion in a virtual environment requires active engagement by new users. Without immersion, virtual worlds and MMOs aren't very compelling.
In Second Life and other similar virtual worlds, new users must go through many hours of frustration before they gain enough mastery of the software for the shift in consciousness to take place. Some people report having spent weeks or even a month in Second Life before they felt they had mastered the environment. In its first years, Second Life drew early adopters who were so enthusiastic about the virtual world medium that they were willing to take the time to master it and then go on to contribute content to the platform. Second Life’s growth has been stagnant over the last five years because the public is now jaded to the concept of experiencing a virtual environment through an avatar. They have hundreds of other less frustrating options including games and 3D chat platforms like IMVU. This brings up the second related reason that immersive games are more popular than virtual worlds:
The Value Proposition
Immersive games offer users a clear value proposition, which is the fun of playing. Games are strategically designed to not only motivate players through the initial learning curve, but to encourage them throughout the entire course of weeks or months of gameplay. Game designers achieve this by balancing challenges and reward to keep players interested in (some say addicted to) progressing through a game. If it’s too hard, users give up. If it’s too easy, they lose interest.
Second Life is not a game. When a new user enters Second Life there are no game mechanics that provide the staged series of challenges, achievements and rewards delivered by games. The user receives practically no direction or support. They must not only learn out how to use a dense and complicated interface, but also figure out what to do, where to go and why to keep coming back. The reason to learn a game is obvious for those who enjoy them. The reason for a newcomer to go through the learning curve and keep coming back to Second Life is much more nebulous.