There’s a new game in town that’s caught my attention but it’s not something I’m sure I should be admitting publicly.
You see, it’s not a new MMO or some great new console game or even an exciting new web application combining clever AJAX scripting with edgy graphics.
It’s a Facebook app. Worse, it’s a Facebook app based very closely on the runaway success known as Farmville.
I suppose I might as well say it outright: Island Life launched as a beta application on Facebook last week and I’ve been playing it ever since.
I have to be honest, I have not been paying a lot of attention to the games on Facebook. I added a couple of applications to give my friends bonuses until I realised it was a never-ending proposition and covered my “profile” with spam. Then I removed and/or blocked most of them and went on my merry way. Tiny Adventures caught my eye as a text-based offering by Wizards of the Coast and it was fun for a short while but ultimately lacking in depth. I presumed that this was a general issue with Facebook applications and redirected my attention to PC and web-based games.
Metaplace was one of the most interesting Web-based projects that I had seen, a new launch by Raph Koster, well known for his work as lead designer on Ultima Online and creative director of Star Wars Galaxies.
Metaplace’s aim was to create a platform for users to create their own games within their own virtual worlds, offering an number of basic stylesheets and a library of objects for players/designers to drop onto their world and script movement and games to go with it. The concept was exciting but I found myself floundering without a clear mission. I created a beautiful forest scene and then broke it when I tried to add in more complicated interactions. I could visit other people’s worlds but many were simply dotted with a random assortment of objects, experiments left lying around. I wasn’t sure how to find the fun worlds, where to meet people.
I thought perhaps it was just me: I had the same experience in Second Life and I knew many people enjoyed the exploration and creation available there. I moved on.
But just before Christmas last year, Raph Koster announced that the Metaplace service was closing.
The reason? Well, it just hasn’t gotten traction. I have many thoughts on why, but I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t go into all of them right now. It is a sad day for us here, and I know many users are going to be very disappointed by this turn of events.
Metaplace Inc isn’t going away – in fact, we have some pretty exciting plans. But those plans are best shared on a future day.
And two weeks after Metaplace.com shut down, Island Life launched as a beta application on Facebook.
Dismissing accusations of “selling out,” Koster has pointed people to the statement he made in a gaming address he gave back in 1999:
I spent last Christmas holidays in Ohio, with my father’s side of the family. An architect, a teacher of disabled children, an ex-firefighter who now sells bathtub linings. They had many questions for me-they wanted to know if I was proud of what I did, and how I felt about videogames allegedly driving disturbed youths to acts of insane violence.
And boy, I longed to make a game for them. Because I knew that I could get them interested in an online game that personally touched them, that made them have a greater awareness of the world around them (for in my technologically savvy big city mind, I suspect I saw them as provincial in some ways. I don’t feel too proud of myself for feeling that way, either). An online game that connected them with people they wouldn’t have otherwise interacted with. That maybe didn’t have a single dragon or spaceship in it. A game-let’s be frank-an Internet-that is woven into the fabric of their lives. I know it can be done, and I also know that it’s not online backgammon.
So this is my challenge. The new guard, the boxed game companies, and the old guard, the online game diehards, may both miss the boat. That’s OK, because someone else will see the obvious and rush in to capture the audience that is waiting. But I know where I want to go: I want to go towards experiences that are emotionally resonant to the widest range of people possible, because in some kooky, idealistic way, I’d like my work to touch people.
Just over a week later, the beta application is showing 29,127 users and a thriving forum of people looking for neighbours. Island Life allows you to visit your neighbour’s islands to look around but unlike Farmville, you can also chat with other players on the same island and even throw a castaway party. There is also a real incentive to visit neighbouring islands (other than being social): you gain experience by fertilising other people’s crops and you can increase your cash by scavenging bits and pieces that have washed up to shore. The social aspect means that there’s a reason to hang around after you’ve done your chores: you can hang out and chat to your facebook friends in a pretty setting that you designed yourself.
I’ll be writing more about this game and what Metaplace is planning over the coming weeks. Just as soon as I finish harvesting my asparagus.