Nicktropolis Looks Like Ass
i’ve been to a few great sessions at GDC 08 so far, and i’m sure i’ll write about them at some point. Before we get to that, i want to get this ugly little rant off my chest.
Easily the weakest session so far has been “Now That We’re All Here: Next Steps in Online Play Sessions” by Christopher Romero of Worldwide Biggies. The session title is extremely misleading. For the bulk of his talk, Romero did a project showcase of Nicktropolis, a virtual world on the website supporting US kids’ teevee network Nickelodeon. This was a little eyebrow raising, because the speaker admitted off the top that he no longer works on the project and, as he revealed later in the question period, he left the project between the open public beta and the mysterious multi-month gap that ensued before its live launch.
Sitting through Romero’s presentation was painful. Quite literally painful. Painful to the degree that i had to HIDE MY EYES from the presentation screen while he showcased grabs of the game. This was for one simple, inescapable reason: Nicktropolis looks like ass warmed over and poked with a stick.
Look closely at the pictures above. One of them is repulsive and difficult to watch for extended periods of time. The other is a picture of an ass.
i’ve worked with a kids’ teevee company for over seven years, so i know how strict brand managers can be with their precious properties. i built one simple Flash game with a certain young female explorer character that Nickelodeon owns, and there were some very strict brand rules to follow. i couldn’t deviate from the colour pallette, i had to use an approved still shot of the character, etc etc.
Contrastingly, Nicktropolis takes beloved and tightly brand-managed characters like Spongebob Squarepants and makes them look like they were designed by college interns designing drunk. Back at the kids’ station i worked for, we received fan art that looked better than most of the stuff in Nicktropolis. It’s, honestly, really hideous stuff, and i’m amazed that Viacom promotes the project without the slightest hint of shame or irony.
The Opposite of Sticky
The functionality in Nicktropolis matches its ass-thetics. The virtual world is split up into multiple mini-worlds, many of which promote the station brands. This is the one aspect of the game where brand managers did seem to have input. A Tak and the Power of Juju avatar would not mesh visually with a Dora the Explorer avatar. In an attempt to solve this problem, the Nicktropolis un-gineers force the player to tool a new avatar whenever he enters one of these sub-worlds.
Market research shows that the kids love creating avatars, so let’s make them do it every fifteen seconds. Exponential fun!
The result, as the speaker sheepishly pointed out, is that your very identity in Nicktropolis is stable as the shifting sands. One of the key hooks of participating in a virtual world is that you get to adopt and invest in an identity. Nicktropolis shreds this idea and throws it out the virtual window, resulting in a virtual world that is impossible to invest in personally and emotionally.
The real-life equivalent of this terrible idea might be a puppy that you’re not allowed to name, or having your own personal photo id card with someone else’s picture on it. Nicktropolis effectively answers the “Where am i” question, but flunks the “Who am i” test that’s so integral to virtual worlds.
Why return to an online community when you essentially have to wear a new body wherever you go? What emotional ties keep you tethered to that place? These are rhetorical questions. The fact remains that Nicktropolis failed at one – if not the – key hook in a virtual world.
Talk At Your Favourite Characters
The speaker spent a long time explaining the challenges he and his team faced designing Nickelodeon’s ChatBot system. This is a feature where you can converse with the station’s key characters using technology that dates back to at least the C64 where i first saw it. It’s little more than a text parser that analyzes certain key words and spits back an automated, robotic response. The C64 ChatBot i played with was a virtual shrink:
You: i like candy. Do you like candy?
Virtual Shrink: How does candy make you feel?
You: It makes me feel happy.
Virtual Shrink: How do you feel about happy?
You: Uh …
Virtual Shrink: Tell me more about your mother.
And so on. Even when i was eight years old and it was 1988 or whenever, this technology was fun for about five minutes and then we moved on to something else. You’re not going to convince anyone, kid or otherwise, that a ChatBot is bona fide Artificial Intelligence. You’re also not going to spend a whole lot of time interfacing with a ChatBot because frankly, the thrill wears off a little faster than your favourite chewing gum flavour.
And yet, Nickelodeon really pushed this feature on its release, ballyhooing the fact that you could “interact with your favourite Nickelodeon characters!” During launch week, i jumped into Nicktropolis and (after throwing up in my mouth a little), i beelined straight for Spongebob’s house.
And there he was! Spongebob! Or a reasonable facsimile. Well, more like an unreasonable facsimile, really. And he was … standing there. Staring. Staring at the wall.
i walked up to him with my horribly-animated anchovy avatar and, using the prohibitive white-label chat system, started asking him questions. i don’t think he responded. Even if he had, i’m not sure i could have been more disappointed.
Romero talked at length about how he and his team ate up a large portion of development time retooling the 3rd-party ChatBot solution to make the responses match the characters’ personalities. This, to me, is like meticulously decorating your dumpster bin. It’s not worth the effort to church up a fundamentally crummy feature.
What the dev team should have done was create a handful of what i like to call “puppet avatars” – characters that people on the live team can inhabit and walk around as. If virtual worlds are essentially theme parks, then these puppet avatars are the costumed characters, with the added advantage that they can actually chat with the players.
With puppet avatars, you might not see Spongebob in the game all the time, but those few times you did see him and got to ask him your burning question about the script error in episode #332, you would be RILED UP. It would be like catching Mickey and Minny smooching and hopping into a silver carriage in a scripted costumed character appearance at Disney World. i saw it happen there when i was seven, and i’ve never forgotten it.
Fifty Bazillion Kids CAN Be Wrong
To wrap up his presentation, the speaker used the same dodgy metrics that Viacom uses to paint the project in a better light. He talked about stats like the number of people who have signed up for an account or the number of rooms created in-world. In my opinion, the only stat that’s worth its salt in this case is “number of currently active players”. Active players can be people who have logged in in the past month, say. Active player stats really say something about the utility, stickiness and enduring appeal of your virtual world after the initial marketing push.
In other worlds, the total sign-ups might hold a little more water. But Viacom is pulling the digital wool over the media’s eyes because its existing membership base was rolled into the Nicktropolis membership system. That means that every kid who watched the immensely popular teevee station and signed up for member content was considered a Nicktropolis user, even if he signed up years before Nicktropolis was an ugly little gleam in a developer’s crusty left eye. That’s what i call dodgy marketing.
My sincerest apologies for ruining anyone’s lunch with these screenshots.
i also happen to know a little something something about the relationship between a teevee station and its support website. Basically, anything you launch on the site, if it’s supported on-air, will get far more plays than it might even deserve. i’ve seen numerous mediocre games launch on my former employer’s site, and the gameplay statistics come out rosy because a good portion of the on-air viewers decide to come and check it out. As game designers, we started to pay much closer attention to repeat plays when we analayzed whether a game was successful or not.
With Nicktropolis, Viacom and Nickelodeon are keeping the bar very low for online kid-targeted virtual worlds and MMOs. Kids don’t deserve the shovelware that their favourite brands feed them in the form of video games, from crummy licensed console titles to boxes of Krusty-Os with sharp metal sprockets inside them. In the face of the hype, the number-fudging and the self-congratulatory back-patting, i am declaring that this emporer has no clothes, and looks pretty rough in the nude to boot. In my opinion, Nicktropolis is a shameful, horrible waste of resources and a disservice to Nickelodeon’s once excellent online brand.
Over at his Clickable Culture blog, my fellow Canadian commentator Tony Walsh had the nuts to deride this steaming pile far more eloquently back when it launched:
That Nicktropolis is a terrible product isn’t an industry secret. But why a respected conference like GDC would invite Chris Romero to showcase it is.
Untold Entertainment is, not surprisingly, in no way affiliated with Viacom or its subsidiaries. All images used under Canadian fair dealing review provisions.
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