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Rumour: Ian Hetherington/Dave Jones about to buy back MyWorld

By on August 20, 2010

I’ve picked up a rumour that the founders of RealTime Worlds are looking at buying Project MyWorld, after the company went into administration earlier this week.

[UPDATE: Johnny Minkley at GamesIndustry.biz beat me to the punch by about 10 minutes. His story on the rumour is here: New studio set to rise from RTW ashes]

Chariman Ian Hetherington, with Dave Jones in the wings, are aiming to close the deal swiftly. The administrators announced on Thursday that they had hired back 23 of the original 60 MyWorld staff following strong interest from “both sides of the Atlantic”.

Project MyWorld was the secret “other” project that RTW was working on alongside APB. It was only announced publicly last month, and this is how the official website describes it:

Project: MyWorld is the “Placebook” for a next generation of social games.

Project: MyWorld turns the real world into a 3D social gaming experience. Project: MyWorld is a platform for creating a virtual version of the real world and combining it with 3D online gaming and social networks and media.

The project is an ambitious attempt to recreate the entire world (possibly only starting with the UK, based on the video above) “from the tallest building to the smallest detail”. Being ambitious is perhaps not surprising from the team that brought us APB, but it’s still a big, big idea.

But is it a good idea, and what might it look like?

Er… that’s a great question

It’s hard to get your head round what Project MyWorld will do. Over at Destructoid, there’s some hardcore gamer headscratching about its purpose.

Here’s what I’m thinking:

  • Sandboxes are great, because they allow people to do whatever they want. They are best when there are few rules or restrictions, because that allows players to create “emergent gameplay”
  • Platforms (like Facebook, Twitter, even PlayStation Home) can be great if they allow developers free rein to experiment with new applications and ideas.
  • Social networks are great when they allow people to connect together with their friends, or make new friends, and play together.

But taking each of these in turn shows some very real issues

Sandboxes reward the few, not the many

Being able to do anything – absolutely anything – is massively limiting. Very few of us are creative, not least because making good creative content is very, very hard.

Microsoft had a rule of thumb for its UGC strategy: 1% create, 10% comment, 100% consume. If you think, for example, about Twitter, there are lots of people who lurk and read comments, a few who actively retweet and very few who come up with interesting, valuable, pithy comments. The pattern is endlessly repeated across the Internet.

That means that you had better build something which makes it easy for people to consume or comment, not just create. If you develop a world for creators, you get a niche sandbox, and an empty one.

I think that might be, in a nutshell, the problem with Second Life.

Platforms need accessible, open APIs

A platform lives and dies by getting developers to experiment on it.

Microsoft and Sony succeed in that by investing very heavily (to the tune of billions of dollars) to build hardware and a marketing presence that encourages consumers to play expensive games. They don’t make it easy for developers to get on their platform (and make a virtue of this fact).

Facebook succeeds by being incredibly open, and offering developers an addressable market of 500 million users. It allows developers access to its API which allows them to benefit from Facebook’s scale quickly. It also, on the downside, keeps changing its rules such that any developer aiming at Facebook needs to have a team permanently adapting to the changes in the platform.

Apple sits somewhere in-between with its semi-open App Store.

So for MyWorld to work as a platform, it would need lots of users (acquired either by heavy marketing or brilliant viral hooks) and an open, easy-to-use API for third-part developers.

Social networks – well, actually, we don’t need any more for a while

Social networks need vast critical mass – that is, they need lots of users. But more than that, they need users to feel that adding their friends benefits the user AND the friend, NOT the social network. Too many people who try to build social networks (myself included) don’t put enough focus on the right type of benefits.

But right now, do we need another social network. I believe that we’ve all got social network fatigue – we signed up to Friends Reunited or Friendster, we signed up to Facebook, we signed up to Twitter, we signed up to Foursquare/Gowalla/MyTown. Enough already.

To be fair to be MyWorld, they are very clear in their video and their website that they plan to integrate with Facebook, Twitter and others, so it looks as if MyWorld is not a social network.

Phew.

Hasn’t it been tried before?

Well yes. Lots.

Google Earth 3D cathedral

There’s Google Earth, that lets you “fly anywhere on Earth to view satellite imagery, maps, terrain, 3D buildings, from galaxies in outer space to the canyons of the ocean. You can explore rich geographical content, save your toured places, and share with others.”

There’s Metaversum, whose Twinity 3D world accurately models the real world cities of London, Berlin, Singapore and Miami.

Their business pitch is: “Twinity offers businesses new ways of engaging with real people in real virtual cities. Through virtual shops and branded presences, in-world ad campaigns, product placement, and real and virtual sponsored events, Twinity lets you enter into a genuine, emotive dialog with your target group. Twinity is currently in public beta and open for business.“

Metaversum is well funded, It is backed by Balderton (who have also invested in Codemasters, NaturalMotion, Wee World and other games businesses). It has been running for half a decade and struggled to make much of an impact.

There’s startup NearGlobal, whichi offers “a new kind of interactive experience. Using the latest video-game technology Near enables you to walk the streets, browse and buy from retailers, watch concerts and films and share information with your friends, all in a beautifully realised environment.”

In short, there’s no shortage of competition.

So will it work?

Personally, I think not.

I have no insight into Project MyWorld at all, but with the APB experience (remember “if a game is built around a business model, that’s a recipe for failure”), I’m sceptical.

If Ian Hetherington and Dave Jones buy it back, I hope that they learn from the $104 million of investor money and experience at APB. I hope they focus on how to acquire customers cheaply, how to keep them engaged and how to make money from them.

Because otherwise Project MyWorld is the same thing, all over again.

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: thecurveonline.com