Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Innovative instant messaging service, lessons to learn.

Have you heard of IMVU? It's an instant messaging service with a twist. Instead of just text, you can use avatars. Not only that, you can place that avatar in settings like a room. Wait, there's more, you can dress up your avatar. Not good enough? Your avatar can even gesture and interact with someone else's avatar. Still not convinced? They allow consumers to create content of their own and sell that content. Yes, you heard right, they sell content in a cash store, similar to Korean games. That shirt you see there, it costs $.50. That's a hot shirt, worth every penny (Not a FFXI shirt though)

Sounds like an innovative and good idea to me.... so why hasn't it taken off? I heard about it when it launched. That was over a year ago, why haven't I heard anything about it since?

Instant messaging is huge (article on IM and IMVU here). There are so many numbers out there, I don't know which to quote you but for the teen to young adult demographic, IM is always the number one use of the Internet.

IMVU got $8million in funding, (Captain Obvious stepping in) that's a whole lot of money. Maybe I'm being unrealistic but I expected more from them. So what happened?

I think two things. #1 A miscalculation of human behavior. #2 Flawed execution of the cash store revenue model.

#1 Why do you instant message? It is a communication device that is wholly unique to our generation. You can chat with best friends and total strangers at the same time. You can talk about nothing at all or the explore the deepest of emotions. Seems like you can do anything. However, one word defines and confines instant messaging: Casual.

For me, it's a casual conversation, exchanged through a casual channel, at a casual pace. It is as easy for me to jump into a conversation as jump out. I can multi-task, talk to 20 different people at the same time (my record is actually 11). I can take time to respond and be as sage or witty as I want. All of this because I can reside safely behind the text. (By the way, this also applies to text messaging)

When you get imagery involved, a whole other part of our brain kicks in. Once we get visual, we expect responses; smiles, fidgets, nervous ticks, bashful turnaways etc. (PlayOn has a great post about this specific to MMORPGs). Suddenly you are no longer in the safe zone provided by "casual". Silences are no longer as comfortable. The ease of smilies is replaced by awkward animations. This is the same trap that has prevented webcams from taking off. Frankly, I don't think 3d instant messaging works.

#2 The second thing going against IMVU is their revenue model. It's one thing to take an accepted paid service and provide it for free (Acclaim's route). It's a entirely different challenge to take a free service and try to charge something for it. The revenue model they chose, however, probably made it worse. Don't get me wrong, I totally believe in cash stores and I definitely believe in allowing consumers to contribute products. The problem lies in the fact that they are charging for items that are inarguably connected to problem #1.

Don't underestimate the value of a visual, especially a visual used in a communication channel. We're no longer talking about a buddy icon, we're talking about what is supposed to represent you. I know what some of you are going to say, "What about MMORPGs"? In that situation, you're role playing and there's a cognitive disassociation you can achieve. This is not the case with instant messaging, you are representing yourself. That puts a lot of pressure on getting the right visual, the right things to represent you. You have no choice but to go through this with real clothes, but do you really want to do this with virtual clothes and then pay for it?

You add everything together and you have a combined effort of trying to teach the public a whole new way to communicate, charge them for something they had for free and convince them to pay for items.

There are lessons to learn and questions to ask from this that we can apply to online games. As more publishers move towards increasingly innovative entertainment and revenue models, these concerns will become more prominent.

First, be aware of human nature. Visuals have a lot of baggage attached to them. Take a step towards more realism and you better know what you're getting into (this is why I like the art direction WoW took, also check out this Wired article on better graphics creating less realism). Realism triggers instinctual responses that are tough to break.

Speaking of instincts, the human impulse to be social is a powerful tool and ally but are you doing it right? You have to create a social framework and hope expectations don't exceed your framework. I previously posted about feeling something was missing in EVE: the crowds. I was expecting it to be like other MMORPGs and I didn't get that.

Next, understand the value of your content and why someone would pay for this content. What do they gain from it? How does it change their use of your product? What does ownership of this content imply about the owner? Is your product balanced without the paid content? Regardless of whether or not they get a tangible item, people spend money for very specific reasons. Virtual content won't provide shelter or nutrition, so it's all about the social element. How will this increase my social standing, help me reproduce or increase my sense of self? These are the things your players will be asking when they think about spending money on your items and you better have thought through the answers.

Personalizing it a bit, these are the things I'm struggling with now. We have a cash store in BOTS. Is it going to work? I'm trying to make sure it provides value to us as well as to our players. I know I'm not going to be able to think of everything but I hope I thought of all the big issues. Is there something I didn't think about, let me know.

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