What’s out there? And which will win?
“Cyberspace” is a key concept for the future of the computer industry. Yet cyberspaces are already all around us. This survey analyzes many already-working (and some vaporware) systems, and suggests which ones will be most successful.
First things first: I define a “cyberspace” as “a simulated computer world.” This is an intentionally broad definition.
The Qualities of Modern Cyberspaces
Current cyberspace environments can be characterized in several ways:
Dimensionality. Is the world 2D or 3D? Or is it, even, no-D? (For example, is it text-based or Web-based?)
Amount of plot. Is the world set up in terms of a particular task, or a particular game? Or is the world open-ended, allowing the user to do whatever they like?
World activity. Do things keep happening in the virtual world while the player is inactive? Or is the player more or less the only thing moving?
Personal expression. Can people (human players) send messages to each other? Talk to each other?
Interaction speed. How fast does the world move? How fast do you need to move to deal with it?
Persistence. How long does the world last? Can you change part of the world and come back much later (days? weeks?) and find the place as you left it?
Realism. Is the world anything like the real world?
Production values. Are the elements of the world hastily contrived, or thoughtfully assembled?
Fun. Is the place fun?
Some Well-Known Cyberspaces
Doom is the seminal game that started the flood of 3D network games. After Doom, any game without network play seems lacking. Many other games (Heretic, Descent, etc.) are quite similar. These games are the 3D shooters, and are perhaps the best example of currently-profitable cyberspaces. They can be described like this:
3D environment; focused, combat, fight-for-life plot; creatures move but the world remains relatively static; you must move very fast; people can perhaps send brief messages but cannot talk; other creatures take a beating but the world stays static; realism is pretty low (comic-book style); the production values are high; the worlds are fun if you like the plot and the tempo.
Some recent 3D games have sought to push the reality envelope in various ways. The foremost example is Flight Unlimited, a new flight simulator which does, by all accounts, the best job ever of simulating the feel of flying. The experience is qualitatively different from other flight games. This visceral sensation is the primary selling point of Flight; there is no plot to the game, per se. Flight Unlimited is one of the few examples of a new genre: intrinsically amusing spaces. It can be described this way:
3D environment; free-form plot (fly as much as you want, take lessons, whatever); the world is completely static; you must be smooth and even in your motion; there is no multiplayer support yet; the world is completely static; realism is as high as currently possible; high production values; the world is fun if the realism feels good to you.
Another, interestingly contrasting example is Magic Carpet, which is essentially a 3D shooter, with an original free-motion-flight graphics engine that somehow manages to convey a sensation of dreamlike flight. Magic Carpet also seeks to make the feel of the world a differentiating, and compelling, element of the space. We have only begun to see the possibilities of doing interesting “good-feeling” world behavior.
Considering another type of amusing space, we come to SimCity and other “sim” programs. Here the main purpose is to model a miniature world, which evolves in a rich and non-obvious way, semi-independently of the player’s actions. The player is steering the world, acting as God. Other players, if they exist, are evident through their effects on the world, rather than through their actual presence. These games are fun because of the richness and autonomy of the microworld, and the scope of your possible effects on it. I consider these populated toy spaces, and describe them thus:
2D environment (generally); free-form plot (create or destroy, or both); the world is continuously active; you affect the world indirectly, but may need to move quickly; you may be able to send messages but perhaps not; the world stays around and can be saved and reloaded; realism is high, or at least complexity is high; production values are high; the worlds are fun if you want many little simulated critters under your thumb.
A further branch of cyberspace is social space, space whose primary purpose is to allow people to interact. The first examples were MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons), which were all text, and which allowed several people to run around within a small (and potentially expansible) world of words. The textual freeware social spaces break down as follows:
No-D environment (text); randomly varying plots, with different levels of urgency and focus; other characters, human and programmed, are active whether you are or not; your motion is only marginally a factor; you can send many types of messages, including changing your form or your surroundings; the world stays around after you log off; realism is usually very low; production values likewise; the worlds are fun if you enjoy wordplay and group improvisational writing.
The World Wide Web itself is a form of social space. There is no immediate interaction or communication with other humans via the Web, yet the Web is the first cyberspace where potentially anyone worldwide can add their own information. The Web’s main appeal lies in how many have already done so, and in how wide the variety of stuff they’ve put online is. The Web is a social document space, in which all interaction is by reading and writing relatively static documents:
2D data but “no-D” world (the world is made up of links); no plot except your own interests; the Web is continually growing and expanding; you don’t really “move”; you can send messages in many ways but they take a while to be received; the Web stays around when you log off; realism is not really applicable; production values vary; the Web is fun if you like hunting for interesting things, or being creative for a potential global audience.
The other main Internet social space is Usenet, home of the thousands of newsgroups. Since most postings on Usenet go away quickly, it is not really a document space… rather it is composed of topics and people. (FAQs are the exception to this “documents die” property.) Most writing on Usenet is of marginal quality because everyone knows whatever you say will be gone and likely forgotten in a week. Conversely, it is a great place to discuss breaking events or ask basic questions.
Several companies are attempting to bring more real-time contact into the world of the Web. One such company, Ubique, has a system which overlays your Web pages with icons representing other people browsing your page. Another such company, RealAudio, makes immediate audio available over the Web. The Internet Phone lets people talk to each other over the Net–again, potentially useful for “group browsing”.
There are now graphical social spaces to rival the textual ones. Some examples are Worlds Inc.’s product Worlds Chat and Fujitsu’s WorldsAway. These products provide a graphical environment (3D in Worlds, 2D in WorldsAway) which has a lot of pre-created space, and then turn the users loose, to explore and chat. Both products have large plans for worlds with lots of interesting contents, but the open-endedness of the spaces (what kind of rooms will people want?) and the time-intensive world-building (users cannot yet add their own spaces) reduce the fun factor. EnterTV is another company working to combine real-time voice with a 3D world; they have kept a low profile and may not be doing so well.
2D or 3D; no single plot, focus is on interaction with others; other characters are active but the world is comparatively immobile; motion is generally lethargic; sending messages is the whole point; the world stays around; realism is pretty low; production values are high; the worlds are fun if you want to chat while looking at pretty graphics.
All this is all very well, but we haven’t even mentioned virtual reality yet! And this is for good reason: very few “VR” applications have received wide distribution. Most VR applications have been focused on high-powered professional environments, with hardware costing an arm and a leg, and very low unit volume shipped. One can broadly lump VR applications such as design visualization (VR CAD) tools, and medical visualization devices together into the category Task-oriented professional cyberspaces. They break down as follows:
3D environment; task-specific tools and interface; the world is mostly static, being based in your current project; there is very focused communication, if any; the world is malleable within the limits of your design tools; realism is very high; production values vary widely; the world is not intended to be fun.
Military simulators are task-oriented professional cyberspaces, except they support many players and a persistent world which can get blown up in portions. Again, the focus is not on fun, but on getting the job done.
Then there is virtual reality as it is coming to the World Wide Web. Namely, the Virtual Reality Markup Language, which creates a standard for 3D Web pages. One can consider the Web server-VRML browser combo as a kind of cyberspace, which I would term the 3D document space. These spaces share many of the characteristics of the Web itself:
3D data but “no-D” world (the world is made up of links); no plot except your own interests; the Web is continually growing and expanding; you move in three-space; you can send messages in many ways but they take a while to be received–there is no company in your 3D world-of-the-moment; the Web stays around when you log off; realism is not really applicable; production values vary; fun if you really like looking at various people’s static geometry.
So, which one wins?
After all that, you want some actual opinions, I bet. Here are mine:
The Web will continue exploding for the next five years. Its balance between text-and-images (well suited to modern bandwidth) and full openness (millions of pages, millions of people) make it the best candidate for “most total users and most total content” of all these cyberspaces.
Add-ons to the Web (3D through VRML, interactivity through Ubique-like solutions) will not achieve anywhere near the same penetration as the basic Web. The Web is not a real-time space, and efforts to make it one will not succeed–at least not in the near term.
3D networked games will continue to dominate the entertainment software industry. We will see many more creative endeavors from these world-builders. Games will be where most 3D cyberspace building gets done, because games pay for themselves; by using a focused plot, one can constrain the amount of world-building to be done, while also adding many fun elements to the world. 3D world-building is still such an infant discipline that games provide the best risk-reward tradeoff for new experimentation.
Populated toy spaces will keep their current market, but as processor power increases, 3D games will become more densely populated with a wider variety of other creatures. An example is the Dungeon Keeper game under development by Bullfrog, which combines a 3D world with a lot of independently-minded critters. Even Magic Carpet is an example of this new “immersive God game” genre. Look for MUCH more to come along this line.
Social spaces (MUDs, Worlds Chat, etc.) will remain a niche market when compared to the total content/profit volumes of the Web or the games market. Building a graphical world is too labor-intensive for end users at present, and will remain so until we know much more about how to build large 3D shared spaces. And if users can’t shape the world, all they can do is talk to each other, and that’s not as much fun as game-playing. In a nutshell: it will be a few years before non-game graphical multi-user worlds will be viable.
Task-oriented professional cyberspaces will continue to emerge–witness the paperless Boeing 777, developed entirely in cyberspace. But relatively few people will use them.
What about the further future?
Eventually, I think that most game companies will reach a consensus on how 3D networking is basically done. 3D games which are currently low on persistence and low on openness will start to turn into worlds which last for longer than just one game, and which are extensible by more than just the original programmers.
Meanwhile, the Web will become increasingly transparent, becoming a near-universal way to make your information available to the world. When the technology reaches far enough, Web browsers will start to mix 2D and 3D–picture clicking on an object in your 3D world and seeing a page appear and zoom towards you, then clicking on the page and seeing the whole world shrink to be replaced by another world. The 2D desktop will become increasingly 3D.
Over the long term, much of the real world will be modeled in cyberspace; you will be able to navigate 3D versions of your own cities, and get to know all your neighborhood businesses’ home pages by walking down your virtual street. There’s much more to be said about making computers more real.