Since it’s Thanksgiving, this blog will be a bit of an ode to a previous mentor of mine: There.com
For those of you who don’t recall or may have forgotten, There.com was (and is) one of the first “Virtual Worlds”, allowing people to assume an identity, have friends, virtual real estate, virtual items, buy, sell, trade, and more — all within a snazzy 3D world.
In its heyday There.com was award winning and highly acclaimed. It even helped MTV win an Emmy for Virtual Laguna Beach which was built entirely on the There platform.
But that was about 10 years ago. Since then there have been many copy cats, and we’ve all seen the rise of Facebook and Tablets, and the fall of downloadable game clients. We’ve even witnessed the popularity crest of perhaps the greatest “Virtual World” ever — World of Warcraft — a 3D virtual world based on a downloadable client where you can assume an identity, have friends, and buy/sell virtual items — exactly what There was doing since 1998 or so.
Today, There is still around, but only by popular demand of its loyal users. It is now a pay-to-play service and according to the CEO’s blog, it’s been profitable for several months now.
The interest in a place where people can do what they can do in There is clearly …”there.” But the audience may be a dying breed; anyone who looks at the product for the first time would instantly assume it’s “old tech” just based on the look and feel of the website, let alone the art, graphics, sounds, etc..
So in hopes of somehow sparking a new There.com revolution — to bring back the once King of all online worlds, I offer the following 10 steps to improve There’s popularity.
1) Fix / Upgrade the controls and HUD
The current “start bar” and arrow-key navigation worked for then, but it falls short of today’s standards where World of Warcraft has innovated and refined. Making it easier to navigate and find what you’re looking for is central of a good user experience.
2) Quality Control
Clearly split There into 2 sections: High-Quality custom created areas, and “user created” areas. “Cities” and “Towns” could be metaphor: you go to the “City” for everything you’d expect to be there — shops, venues, clubs, bars, adventures…. All at high quality and carefully designed for a consistent user experience. Then if you want to venture to the outskirts, you can, but at your own risk. Make the default, central experience perfectly curated, and let the outskirts be the land of developer play. After all, people take vacations to the Ozarks, but they usually don’t want to live there.
3) Add Lighting(!)
There was built to run on any computer. Yes, even your grandmother’s computer. It can obviously run on newer graphics hardware, but it doesn’t yet take any advantage of newer graphics features — post process fx, higher polygon allowances, and of course, Lighting. Lighting makes everything POP, and it would add the visual dimension that There currently lacks. And the coolest part — it supports lighting right now, out of the box! It’s an Art Task (and a significant one at that) to add the necessary light maps. Time to get it done.
4) Modernize the Avatars
This one is tricky, but necessary. There Avatars are extremely capable. They have physics, fully customization clothing, accessories, and expressive, customization heads and faces… not to mention 100s of carefully designed animations. To throw all that away and start from scratch is a HUGE undertaking. However, I suspect that a middle ground is possible to find, where the lighting and shading of the avatars can be improved at the texture and code level, not at the art asset level. And while I appreciate the generic, non-competitive “style” of the Avatars, I truly think they need a redo to attract a larger audience and to compete with the “Virtual Avatar Standard” out there, currently set by XBox.
5) Update the Min Spec
It’s time to have There ship with a default resolution of 1280×720, full screen. Most laptops and computers can easily pull this off. Farmville 2 probably has more polygons and advanced lighting than There, and millions of people play that in their browsers every day. Time to upgrade. (Backward compatibility is no longer a compelling feature).
6) There Mobile
While potentially a significant undertaking, there’s no denying the advantages of a mobile client. For me, it’s the ability to sit back on a couch and touch my way around the world. It’s more natural and relaxing than sitting at a computer chair.
7) Add Delayed Gaming
Real-time gaming is great, and with There’s physics system it has some of the most unique online game play around. But with people’s busy schedules, delayed gaming is filling the gap between weekends where people have more dedicated time to play. There are 100s of examples (Zynga, Facebook), and with There’s unique world, some exciting turn-based games could be created fairly easily.
8) Integrate Skype, YouTube
Instantly bring “content” to There in the form of friends lists and Video feeds.
8b) Integrate Social Registration
This is less about a convenience for users and more about social media integration, opening There up to posts like, “Julia just won the buggy race at Zona Island! <Join Her>”
9) Throw the existing website away and build a new one from Scratch.
It doesn’t have to be complex, but the current one is just a newer revision of the old one, and it needs a fresh, modern, simplified take.
10) Open It up, Expose what’s There
There is currently closed — by design, I’m sure. You can’t browse anything more than the front page of the website without an account. When There was open, I’m pretty sure users could sift through the “Ebay” of developer content, live user location maps, user profiles, and more. Sliding the velvet rope a little back would give potential customers more to chew on before dropping the 10 bucks a month. Note – this improvement come s with the requirement that every web page that is exposed be improved from scratch (see above). You can’t release Avatar profile pages without the needed fresh look of the website.
Total price tag of this “Upgrade” is probably around 1M, I suspect. But the result? a fresh, compelling There.com that would do a better job at communicating the vast array of features it already offers, adding fresh accessibility and social integration for a new generation of There.com users.