Iris Ophelia's ongoing review of gaming and virtual world style
The more I think about Versu, Linden Lab's latest storytelling platform (which I covered late last week), the more it bothers me. Why? Maybe I'm cynical, but it feels like one more clever and creative little thing that just isn't going to go anywhere--even though it absolutely could and should. Interest in interactive stories like these is probably higher now than it's been a decade and a half at least, and lots of other little engines to create and support such stories have been springing up and developing devoted followships. So where does that leave Versu, and its older sibling, dio? Hint: Not in a very good position...
Yes, There is a Market
Last week Christine Love, the visual novelist and game designer behind some of the best things I played in 2012, spent a day playing around with a certain interactive storytelling development engine, which outputs your work as a page that others can visit and play. Does that sound familiar?
Well, that engine wasn't dio; it was Twine.
When I first saw Twine itself I was unimpressed, and I immediately compared it to dio (which you can read about here) minus a lot of the things that actually make dio pretty neat. I even went so far as to recommend it to Christine over Twitter (since she's a pretty friendly and engaging person to follow there), but her response was an unenthused "Hmm. Interesting." as she carried on with Twine. By the end of the day she had published Even Cowgirls Bleed, a short web-based interactive experience that blew away my preconceptions about what Twine was actually capable of producing, which in turn made me seriously reconsider what kind of niche-within-a-niche Linden Lab needed to carve out to make either dio or Versu resonate for people like Christine.
In the past decade it seems that there's been a sort of mini-renaissance of player choice and storytelling in games, and that's lead to a revival of game types and storytelling mechanics that were dismissed as obsolete in favor of the latest and greatest 3D game tech. Defining the story of a pre-existing game is only a few steps away from defining the story of your own game, and if you add the more recent indie gaming boom into the equation it should be no surprise that a lot of tools have been springing up to help facilitate amateur storytellers and gamemakers.
Linden Lab's Tools Don't Stand Out, Because They Aren't Ready to Stand Out
The point is, these products aren't unique even withing Linden Lab's portfolio, nevermind in the market.
As I mentioned last week in my slightly harsh review of Versu, it feels like Linden Lab has been throwing things out to see what sticks, but not necessarily giving those things the time or the care they need to flourish before throwing the next thing out. Quick question: When was the last Patterns patch? What changed? Did you know that Minecraft has giant robots?
They're Community-Driven Tools Without Communities
What the competition has that dio and Versu both lack are communities. Of course it's incredibly early yet so this could absolutely change, but it's a significant factor that puts Versu and dio at a disadvantage right out of the gate.
Check out the mega-active forums for Ren'Py (a python-based visual novel/dating sim engine) where creators and players share stories, art, ideas, progress, code, and help test and troubleshoot each others' work. Ren'Py has spawned a respectable number of successful indie games that in turn developed their own community followings, like cult favorite Hatoful Boyfriend for example. That's what success in this niche looks like.
It's not like Linden Lab has never had to foster a community for a zany little passion project before, that is literally how they got where they are today (for better and for worse). Second Life took years to really take off, but they stuck with it, nurtured it, and helped it grow with a lot of hands on community involvement. It's completely within their ability, but I'm still waiting for signs that that's what they intend to do.
What Second Life set out to do isn't even wildly different from dio and Versu. Their wheelhouse is empowering the users to be the creators, and both projects are squarely inside of it. However that also community isn't necessarily going to fall into their lap--or flow over from SL--no matter how long they wait.
They're Dividing Potential Users by Competing Against Themselves
Here's the conversation I had with Hamlet within my first five minutes of knowing what Versu was:
Hamlet: Tell me what you think
Iris: Ugh another thing?
Iris: This may the the one that interests me the most of the lot
Iris: but this is getting to be a bit much, isn't it?
It sounds jaded, but I haven't been able to shake that feeling since. Versu was released a mere two weeks after dio, and both offer a very similar set of features to a very similar audience--or they will, once Versu's creation tools are in place. The rush to get Versu out the door hot on the heels of dio without properly finishing it or adding key tools baffles me, given that both platforms are appealing to similar audiences and will eventually be offering similar products. dio's even supposed to be iPad compatible in the future, so where does that leave Versu? What are the odds that someone in this limited market will actively use both, instead of choosing one over the other?
Obviously, it would be much easier to build one big healthy snowballing community rather than building two fractured and sickly ones.
Unless dio and Versu are integrated and can work together I suspect that one (or both) of them will fade into obsolescence in record time. I'd absolutely prefer a world where there's a wider variety of creative tools available to suit each creator's specific needs. In that way I can appreciate that Linden Lab would try to bring two somewhat similar projects to term, but the fact remains that if they're going to compete with other available tools, they both need to become a lot stronger as quickly as possible. Both platforms do offer some things that distinguish them from the competition, but with a little restructuring to make them work with and compliment each other (something I discussed in some detail last week) they could have a tremendous advantage.
And again, who's going to want to type out a whole interactive novel on an iPad keyboard?
If they're going to keep launching these indie-esque projects and just leaving them to rot without fostering any of the functionality or community endearment that makes all the other projects like these that came before actually work, they are probably wasting their time. At that point they would be much better served focusing on the stream of revenue that they already have.
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Iris Ophelia (@bleatingheart, Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.