A Poke-roundup



Game talk

My piece on how “AR is an MMO” traveled far and wide this week. Among the appearances:

There’s probably more to come — I was asked about interviews by several outlets this week, and actually said yes to at least one, as I recall.

If you’re looking for more to read from a game-design specific angle, I recommend

Also, you may recall I mentioned that alternate client views is common in MMOs? Well, here’s your global map of where all the Pokemon are. If you can get in — it’s overloading with traffic.

I really did mean “MMO”



Game talk

A lot of people, as I expected, have focused on the semantics of whether or not “AR is an MMO.” Mostly, they say “well, you really mean ‘it’s like an MMO.'”

It isn’t really “like.” It actually “is.” I think people fall into the trap of thinking that the physical trumps the virtual, but that’s not the case. The virtual trumps the physical, or as Marc Andreessen puts it, software swallows everything.

Think of it this way: the phrase “geotagging” suggests that we are applying a small bit of virtual to the real. But that’s not what is happening at all. What’s actually happening is that we are building a truly massive digital world, and attaching a tiny piece of real to it, via a DB entry with a coordinate.

Currently, there are a zillion databases that hold this sort of data, siloed from one another, but the big project that Google and others have been engaged in for quite some time is to unify them. Amazon’s ASIN is a great example of one such scheme to unify “template IDs” for as many object types as they can. Put another way: the single largest database of “object types” in the world is Amazon’s, and to build it, they basically cloned the existing UPC and ISBN and other such similar databases, plus some, and unified them. They created a metaobject type that became the parent object type, only they own the address space.

Just like virtual cash is more meaningful than real cash, a business’ virtual data trumps its real data. Its reviews, its balance sheet, its customer base, are all data. Businesses without a virtualized presence increasingly don’t exist. Businesses with a virtual presence but no physical one are on the rise. Real estate prices have been fluctuating thanks to primitive mirror world implementations like Zillow and Redfin for quite some time now. Homes, businesses — these have a whole host of disparate IDs on them already.

I even had this discussion on LinkedIn, which is basically an extended character sheet for your digital avatar. Make no mistake, what happened to objects thanks to Amazon can easily happen to people. After all, the existing databases are Facebook, LinkedIn, and your tax ID slash Social Security number (or local equivalent) and your credit report. Oh, and of course your Pokemon collection. All it takes is a meta-id sitting one level higher, and those can be unified. (Spokeo and the like certainly try to do this).

This mirror worlding process is going to swallow everything. It’s at the template id stage for objects–meaning one id for a type of object–, but Internet of Things is going to change that, and move it down to individual object IDs for instances. If you have one of those nifty keychains that connects to Bluetooth, you already assigned those an id like that, which will eventually be swallowed too. And believe me, there will be pressure to unify fictional and real databases too, because having a Pokemon gym in your house is important for Zillow to know, and so on. These are what often gets termed “layers” in these circles: basically aggregations of data that you choose or do not choose to view. In the AR contact lenses of the future, layers replace apps, and you choose to run them in parallel or individually. LinkedIn and Pokemon Go team over someone’s head, exactly like howw MMOs put name and guild affiliation.

So what we are building, in fits and starts, is a large scale spatial simulation that allows clients to connect to it, which has object types for every object in the world, will eventually track as many instances of objects (physical ones like buildings, keys, cars, shipping containers; and virtual ones like businesses, Pokemon gyms, and housing lots) as is feasible, maintains a persistent data store of all of those objects, and which includes an object type for “players” who are real people.

That is pretty much a textbook definition of what a virtual world is. And it is critical to understand that the client has never been the important part. Pretty much every virtual world ever made has supported multiple views of this simulated world: text, 2d, 3d, etc.

The fact that today “AR” sometimes means “superimposing anchored CG images over video” is pretty much the least important thing about AR. Yelp or directions in Maps tells us more about AR than most anything, right now. Because the client, the display, isn’t what matters; the server is. The database.

Also fairly irrelevant is the fact that people currently conceive of AR as geolocated to the end user. Already people have “teleport hacks” in Pokemon Go and Ingress. Yelp and Zillow are premised on “teleport hacks.” In fact, Pokemon Go depends on the player having a wider view of the world than what is physically possible. We call it “augmented” for a reason. If Niantic is smart, they’ll add long-distance ways to play with locations, and long-distance communication has already been implemented via the phenomenally popular Go Chat app (the 8th most popular social networking app on the App Store!). Amazon is already the item shop for the entire world, in large part because of its virtuality.

Despite how the Metaverse Roadmap saw it in 2007 as four segments, these technologies all converge, precisely because they basically require the same backend technology.

I wrote a little bit about this technology path here: How to Build the Scary Future Today.

And the social implications here: The World, Virtual.

And of course, in my piece on Oculus which I posted here on LinkedIn a while back, but which is here: Musings on the Oculus Sale.

So… yeah. Yes, of course there’s tons of real world impacts that are uncharted territory. But there’s no doubt in my mind, this is a virtual world we’re building, then basically moving into. In an awful lot of ways, the physical part of us is going to be the least important.

Frighteningly, the best qualified people to design this brave new world are game designers, because the social network folks seem clueless about human behavior, the product people only want to sell to them, and the GIS people tend to forget they exist altogether.

And let us not forget, virtual worlds have admins who have godlike power over you. They can see everything you do. They can erase you. They can cheat and help people. They can change the laws of physics around you.

On the other hand, it also kinda gives me hope. Most game designers are nice people who care more about having a good time than about money or power. 🙂

AR is an MMO



Game talk


I’ve said this before, but in the wake of the viral success of Pokémon GO, it needs to be said again. Augmented reality is just a virtual world, an MMO, a MUD even, with all of the same design issues, plus a few new ones.

The goggles fallacy


I asked a high-powered Silicon Valley exec about the ethical implications of social VR and AR. Their response was “what ethical implications?”

To some, particularly vets of online worlds of various stripes, this may seem obvious. But most days, it feels like the average person working in social VR, AR, and the like, is ignorant of this. It’s evident in the very large pile of past lessons they are failing to heed in their designs.

But then there are also those who see these experiences as somehow qualitatively different. The commonest argument given is what I call “the goggles fallacy.” Goggles or phones, as Pokémon GO is demonstrating, are just clients. A VR headset is also just a client. And as I’ve argued exhaustively before, clients are not the part that determines whether something is a virtual world. I’ll use MMO as the base term here, as it’s shorter to type and what people are currently most familiar with.

  • World of Warcraft has a server that simulates space. It uses a map that is based on something made up.
  • Pokémon GO has a server that simulates space. It uses a map that is based on the real world.
  • WoW has a server that tracks individual connected clients and positions them spatially on that map.
  • So does Pokémon GO.
  • WoW has little AI spawns you can interact with.
  • So does Pokémon GO.

In fact, if you compare the two servers, aside from the data set, they likely do the same thing across the board.

Proponents of the idea that the client matters more usually bring up questions around immersiveness, around visceral gut reactions, around ineffable sense of presence — perhaps forgetting that as originally coined, the notion of “telepresence” was achieved with pretty crude hardware. MMOs, mirror worlds, augmented reality, lifelogging, and son are all intimately related and use the same core tech. I know the makers of Pokémon GO know this, because their CEO was involved in Meridian 59, one of the earliest MMOs, as well as in Keyhole, one of the first major mirror worlds, which became Google Earth.

CnDiBcDUEAIgJYAYou are the client

With smartphones, we tend to think of “the client” as meaning the little screen we stare through to catch a Pokémon. But that’s not accurate. Take a look at the list of permissions that the game asks for. That’s not a self-contained app. That’s your whole life. You are fully an avatar. Pokémon has your email, and can send emails for you. Pokémon knows everywhere you walk. Pokémon can connect to your car. Pokémon knows who your friends are.

You are the client. You are the avatar. Your real life is what is being used for your friends list, location, chat system… all those things that you used to think of as packaged up behind an avatar, a false front. Sure, the fact is that smartphones have been gradually eating all your privacy and you’ve cheerfully given it up in order to get better directions and nifty alerts about traffic and so on. So this has been happening for a while. And yet.

The old adage is “never trust the client.” So a big first question is “can you be trusted, since you are the client?”

The answer is probably no. For example, there are no doubt thousands of people downloading the backdoored Pokémon GO app that takes complete remote control of your phone.

But that’s only the start of not trusting…

13592227_917469977094_9186634265535502710_nA user-generated world

The Pokémon GO database is basically a replicated version of the Ingress database, the previous game by Niantic. And said database was heavily crowdsourced. This has already led some enterprising players to wonder aloud whether they can use Ingress play to affect the locations of Pokéstops or gyms in Pokémon GO. It’s also led to complaints that rural areas are Pokémon deserts, because Ingress players never built up the database entries in those locations.

However, it’s also led to some artifacts that are very familiar. Here’s a guy who lives in a building that Ingress players (presumably) labeled as a Pokémon GO gym. What are the implications here? Aside from the very real risk of constant home invasions, we’re seeing a game AR layer used to directly affect home value and livability, outside of the owner’s control. Some are seeing this as a benefit, as in the examples of real estate listings using Pokémon GO data as a value-add. Others, who have reported a dozen people in their backyard at 2am, are less happy.

What is the fruition of this? Long ago, in Star Wars Galaxies, we allowed players to freely build homes and even cities, anywhere on the map that wasn’t explicitly disallowed. Cities allowed players to set rules about who could attack other players within their borders. A few sneaky players set up their cities surrounding or even directly on top of designer-created content, and then started extorting players who wanted to visit that content — or just killing them, in the game. (You can’t kill another player in Pokémon GO, but… you are the client. We’ll get back to that in a second).

70hVXDGAffecting the real world economy

So here we are affecting the livability of real estate. But Pokémon GO might also need to take heed of the lessons from managing game economies in MMOs as well. We learned through some very painful lessons exactly how powerful our control of the economy was pretty early on in MMOs, after some big mistakes. Like, that one time we accidentally created an entire secondary market and exchange rate between real world money and digital assets, oops. Surely that can’t happen with Pokémon , can it?

Well, actually… we’re already seeing coffee shops advertising discounts for those who happen to be on specific Pokémon GO teams, and today there was a Forbes article giving business advice about how to leverage the game layer for more customers. Make no mistake, these are the first steps towards real-money trade, and are another way in which the game is affecting the economy. There has already been discussion of how there will be Pokémon trading; expect this to spill over into real world effects immediately. After all, Randy Farmer laid it out very clearly back in 2004:

So, the steps on the virtual economy slippery slope are:

  1. Gifting → Twinking

  2. Gifting + Multiple Chars/Server →  Muling

  3. Gifting + Messaging + Trust →  Trading

  4. Trading – Messaging – Trust + In World Machinery →  Robust Trading

  5. Robust Trading + Scarcity + Liquidity →  External Market (eBay)

  6. External Market – Trust + In World Machinery →  GOM

Beyond that, there’s a very real question of fairness. If one coffee shop or bar is a Pokéstop and another one isn’t, Niantic or Nintendo are literally putting their thumb on the scale of which business does better on a given street. If the game continues to thrive, expect this to become a sore spot for people who suddenly found their real life business slurped into a game map.

Player versus player

Player vs player activity is a common element of the elder game in MMOs. Pokémon GO has gone ahead with this, and following on the model from Ingress and earlier AR games, has allowed for PvP activity in capturing gyms to one team or another.

But… you’re the client. It’s trivial to envisage a gym made physically inaccessible by other players — locked doors? Physical intimidation?

Already, given the recent shootings of black men and the sniper attack at the Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas, some have raised concerns about “Pokémon While Black” as a possible risk to life and limb. There are also, thank heavens, stories about the exact opposite as in the widely circulated image telling the story of a mixed race group in a park in the middle of the night, possibly suspected of making a drug deal, but instead persuading the police officer who showed up to instead join them in playing the game.


But is the fear overblown? Well, no. You’re the client, and there’s no PK switch in real life. In Ultima Online circa 1998, when we were available in Hong Kong, we suffered through the problem of actual real life triad gangs forming guilds and engaging in PK wars. Then they took those fights to the real life streets. Far as I know, Pokémon GO doesn’t have a “call the admins, uh, I mean police” panic button. Make no mistake: by creating teams at all, this game has put in place at least a little context encouraging players to aggress one another. The developers only hope that it only happens via game-sanctioned means.

The stuff that has not happened…. yet

Don’t get me wrong. The social element here is powerful. Pokémon GO has the best emote system available: the human body. It has the most elegant and all consuming chat system ever: smartphones for tells and local voice with full presence for local chat. It has the most detailed and highly simulated game map ever, thanks to the real world. We are seeing amazing social activity happening, amazing bursts of joy, across the world.

But we should absolutely expect everything that happened in MMOs to happen here, because AR is an MMO. Every bug, every emergent feature you thought was cool in WoW or EVE Online, to happen here, but in your local park and (goodness!) at your local church.

I’m happy to see that Niantic has decided, a few days after launch, that maybe it might be important to hire a community manager.

But really, it’s a little late to this idea that maybe they are running a community. It should have been obvious. After all, they have avatars. Who talk. Who will trade. Who move about a world. Who acquire stuff. Who interact. They affect the map. They affect the real world economy. Soon you’ll see each other’s profiles, sue the game to track them across the world, and probably much more, if not in this game, then in others.

This is a government

pokerobbersWe have a name for entities in the real world which have access to your private data, which have controls on the economy, which can unlaterally affect real estate values, and which can set forth rules via commission or omission on how people interact. In the virtual worlds, we said that those who had power over the world were gods, immortals, wizards.

Facebook, Google, and yes now Nintendo, The Pokémon Company, and Niantic, as they move into AR, are basically like governments. And if they are going to start impinging upon the public sphere, it’s getting to be time that they take it seriously and actually walk through the consequences and ripple effects of what they are doing.

In O’Fallon, Missouri, we see the game tool of “Pokémon lures” used to entrap armed robbery victims. This is a direct consequence of the game mechanics, a behavior that this game enables that was not possible before.

Already we see people photoshopping Pokémon onto armed police in SWAT gear in Baton Rouge. What happens when the tools you enable for this innocent game are used in radically different social contexts?

So here we go again, because every year this little bit of writing gets to be more and more pointed:

Someday there won’t be any admins. Someday it’s gonna be your bank records and your grocery shopping and your credit report and yes, your virtual homepage with data that exists nowhere else. Someday it’s gonna be Snow Crash and Neuromancer and Otherland all wrapped up into one, and it may be a little harder to write to Customer Service. Your avatar profile might be your credit record and your resume and your academic transcript, as well as your XP earned.

On the day that happens, I bet we’ll all wish we had a few more rights in the face of a very large, distributed server, anarchic, virtual world where it might be very very hard to move to a different service provider.

Not long ago, I spoke with a very high-powered Silicon Valley exec. I asked this person about the ethical implications of social VR and AR. Their response was “what ethical implications?”

Frankly, that scared the shit out of me. You design this society. Intentionally or unintentionally, you are shaping how people will behave.

EDIT: enough people challenged the title that I wrote a follow-up. Read it here.

Further Reading

There’s a bunch of science fiction you should read.

If you are doing anything at all with social VR or AR, please please please read up on the history of virtual worlds. Realize that in your cluelessness you may well recreate some famously ugly moments, only this time with even greater psychological and physical consequence. If you do, it’s entirely on you.

Alternatively, consider hiring any of the many folks experienced in this arena, and actually listening to them.