The Future of Online Worlds
Today’s world is kind of a magical place.
Oh, sure, we have an international pandemic, we have wars and discrimination and famine and a host of other massive issues. Plenty is going wrong.
But the march of technology is undeniable. Whether it’s cars learning to drive themselves, mRNA vaccines, robots doing surgery, or snapshots of distant black holes, the evidence is all around us.
Take one of my favorites: I can hold an entire arcade in my pocket, have access to the libraries of all of humanity in an instant, and I just take it for granted. That’s like having an entire world in my hand.
Sometimes, I think, we take it so much for granted that we forget how big we had to dream to get here. And that means we don’t always realize what else is now within our grasp.
Look, I’ve been working with online worlds since 1993.
Some of you may remember that before we had worlds with pictures, we used to build them out of words. Sentence after glowing sentence, stacked together to make text-based worlds for players to roam.
Being just text, they were forced to be worlds of pure imagination, limited by the tech of the time, and maybe that is why we dreamed so big with them.
We dreamt of living worlds, back then: worlds we could fall into, ensorcelled by plausibility and consistency. Worlds that would immerse us. We dreamt of worlds that offered freedom, ways to play and live that the real one does not. We dreamt of worlds where we as players made a difference. Worlds with two moons, worlds with mysterious magics, worlds with secrets hidden at the bottom of caves dripping with crystalline water.
Back then, we kept our little worlds in temp space on university mainframes, and periodically the school admins would find them and wipe them away. It was a succession of tiny apocalypses. Our playable worlds receded back into dreams, and then we would rebuild.
A lot of those big dreams did not come true.
There are a lot of reasons why. We can blame the march of commerce. We can blame technology not being ready. Probably some of you out there want to blame designers for not chasing the particular dreams you happen to share. All those dreams about what virtual realities could be, filed away next to the flying cars we also didn’t get.
It doesn’t really matter, because here’s the bottom line.
The dreams have always been big. But now, they are within reach, because today’s world is a magical place. It’s time.
Over the next few weeks, I want to tell you about the potential that online worlds have been passing up. About the ways in which we can fulfill the dreams we once had.
I am going to tell you that yes, worlds can feel alive, like real places. Places where you can stake out your virtual homestead, and leave your mark in a lasting way. Online worlds can be dynamic, fully persistent, and modifiable by players, and not just unchanging cardboard set pieces an inch deep and monetized a mile wide.
We have the technology: cloud computing power lets us do things with simulation and AI that once seemed impossible. This dream can come true.
I am going to tell you that yes, worlds can be full of derring-do and danger, madcap adventures to the edge of the volcano’s lip as you reach the mysterious hidden temple – and also homes for the wide array of ways to play we see players enjoying in countless other games. It doesn’t make any sense that the only way to interact with other worlds is at the point of a sword or the barrel of a gun. Build! Craft! Trade! Collect! Create! We can make worlds playable in many ways for many kinds of players.
We have the design knowledge now to build player-driven economies where different kinds of people work together in large-scale online societies. This dream can come true.
I am going to tell you that yes, it is possible to have a world that is social and deep, but also fits into your life. I get it, some of you have kids. Jobs. You’re more likely to grab a phone for a few minutes of relaxation than you are to wait four hours for a pick-up raid group on a Friday night. Let’s face it, there’s been a lot of tediousness in the way of the fun.
We know you still dream of alternate dimensions, and with a modern cloud-native architecture it shouldn’t matter what device you have or how much time you have free. This dream can come true.
Yes, today’s world is a magical place. But our online alternatives have gotten kind of… mundane. Predictable. Kill some blues, collect some purples, fetch ten of whatever. They don’t have to be that way.
We can dream big again, together. It’s time to turn those dreams back into playable worlds.