One Thousand Days Later

(or Fast Times at Cambridge High)

The predictive ability of science fiction is a very much hit and miss affair. For every astounding success made by the Clarkes and the Gibsons of the world, there are a hundred others that miss completely; after all, we aren’t flying to work in helicopters or living on Mars (yet). As a result, it’s difficult to tease out the likely predictions from the unlikely ones before the face – but it’s always fun to try.

Vernor Vinge is one of the better and more successful science fiction writers out there right now, and probably the most well known of his predictions is of online pseudonyms in his novella, True Names. In his most recent story, Fast Times at Fairmont High, Vinge depicts a world barrelling towards a head-on collision with the Singularity, where schoolkids can learn skills that would take us three years in as many days and the Internet permeates every part of life. As is usual with Vinge, it’s a great story, and it also has some truly original ideas. [1]

Fast Times

For almost two months, the world had haunted Brazilian towns and Brazil-oriented websites, building up the evidence for their ‘Invasion from the Cretaceous’. The echoes of that were still floating around, a secondary reality that absorbed the creative attention of millions. Over the last twenty years, the worldwide net had come to be a midden of bogus sites and recursive fraudulence. Until the copyrights ran out, and often for years afterwards, a movie’s on-line presence would grow and grow, becoming more elaborate and consistent than serious databases. Telling truth from fantasy was often the hardest thing about using the web. The standard joke was that if real ‘space monsters’ should ever visit Earth, they would take one look at the nightmares.

In Fast Times at Fairmont High, movies aren’t movies as we understand them – they aren’t just unidirectional, non-interactive pieces of entertainment that last for 120 minutes. Instead, movie studios create alternate realities that are seeded in our own world. They foster these creations and encourage the ‘audience’ to participate and create the story themselves, through the use of careful set-pieces and supplementary material. [2]

This is a more important idea than you might first think. These movies would be creating the nucleus of ideas that the fertile imaginations of the audience can tap into and expand, thus solving the age old problem of content being hard and expensive to develop. We can already see the primitive stages of this happening right now, with the huge proliferation of fan fiction on the Internet as well as massively multiplayer online role playing games, but to encourage fan fiction deliberately as the main goal of the movie is completely novel. And in this case, desirable. Movie studios tend to view fan fiction as detrimental, diluting their intellectual property. On the contrary, fan fiction can be used to increase the popularity and duration of a story, increasing mindshare and thus making money off supplementary material that is suddenly very popular (e.g. related games, non-interactive movies, etc).

“They’ve actually started the initial sequence. You know, what will attract hardcore early participants. The last few weeks there have been little environment changes in the park, unusual animal movements.”

Likewise, we know that early adopters/hardcore players/trailblazers are often the ones who first discover newly created ideas and concepts, and develop them. Witness the fanatical player communities that grow up around new games – and often games that haven’t even been released.

This will be the ultimate destination for massively multiplayer games – games essentially without rules, created in real-time by the interactions of the players, and subtly guided by an outside organisation. The game as life, in other words.

So, I’d like to pursue two threads for the rest of this essay. Firstly, what technologies can we expect to help us get to the scenario depicted in Fast Times, and secondly, how will immersive fiction games evolve to reach that point. I’m going to look at both threads in the perspective of where we might be in a thousand days – just under three years.

I’m only going to consider the future of immersive fiction games in this essay. Doubtless the current gaming genres we have now, such as first person shooters, puzzle games and simulation games, will continue to live on with increasing complexity, finesse and graphics. However, I find the development of immersive fiction games to be of the most interest since the emerging technologies will affect it most, and simply because it’s a completely new genre.

Technologies

The increasing penetration of the Internet into our everyday lives will be the driving force behind almost all of the innovations made in the immersive fiction genre. Raw computing power and bandwidth will be eclipsed in importance by the requirement for well constructed and organised paths of communication between players. Until we have AIs capable of creating and altering narratives, which will not happen within the next thousand days, the overriding concern of immersive fiction developers will be to make interaction between individual players and the game as easy and transparent as possible.

It’s hard to miss the general trend towards smaller and more portable devices that give you access to computing power and the Internet. Though at times it may seem that the introduction of affordable high-speed mobile Internet devices (3G mobile phones being the main player) is agonizingly slow, it’s worth noting that the majority of the United States and Western Europe have only had broadband Internet access for the last two years or so. 3G networks are set to become active across the world this year, and so even if we assume that uptake of high speed mobile Internet will actually be slower than that of fixed broadband, then in 1000 days we can still expect that there will be over 300 million worldwide subscribers. [3]

Coupled with GPS or other positioning systems, 3G phones and other mobile Internet devices will allow entire countries to become game ‘playgrounds’. Not that the potential isn’t already with us right now; geocaching could easily be turned into a large aspect of an immersive fiction game, and it doesn’t require any mobile Internet access. The different is, though, that without some form of mobile Internet, any players leaving their home computers are effectively cut off from each other and cannot co-operate or interact with other players as easily. The ability to access the Internet on the move will allow a widening of possibilities – for example, the spontaneous mass gathering of players (‘smart mobs’), interactive treasure hunts, etc.

A handy benefit of this will be a fostering of competition between different player groups within games (be it via geography or otherwise). In past immersive fiction games that players just don’t seem to split up into groups that compete in any real way; this is a problem because group competition often makes things more fun and allows the groups to entertain each other, saving the game developers some time. The simple reason behind this is because there’s just no incentive or basis to form different groups; if a game is conducted entirely on the Internet with no differentiation within the game (e.g. separate game threads) and thus no geographic differentiation, then how can you expect the players to split up?

However, once you put them into situations where they are interacting with a certain set of players for more time, they’ll naturally coalesce.

The nature of the competition can be determined by the game developers; anything from co-operating on major goals but competiting to be the ‘best’ group at solving individual goals, to complete paranoid out-and-out competition, is possible. It should add something to the experience.

Some possible requirements for ‘world playground’ games may include pinpointing player locations, which poses some obvious technical and privacy problems. Also desirable would be methods for game developers to peer in on player communications; this might be accomplished by inserting stooges into player groups or offering to host web forums for players.

Other problems will be created by the freedom given to players if they engage in world playground games; they may be more liable to deviate from planned activities and storylines. To counter this, game developers will have to both allow for greater flexibility in the game plan, and also limit the effect they are prepared to allow the players on the storyline.

Evolution

Current and past immersive fiction games have suffered largely from a combination of a poverty of high quality content, organisation and funding. Furthermore, it has never become clear to the media (and thus greater public) what immersive fiction games are. The positive publicity and momentum generated by the Microsoft AI game was quickly squandered by EA’s Majestic, and the failure of any similarly large organisation to field a successful immersive fiction game (ABC’s Push Nevada, BBC’s The Spooks) has further compounded the negative reputation the genre has gained.

As a result, the genre is stagnating. It will be difficult to raise funding for a serious effort at a new immersive fiction game; however, investors may be convinced if the game is significantly different from past games.

The immersive fiction genre is at an interesting point now. It’s not sink-or-swim, but I suspect there are still some companies out there willing to give immersive fiction one last, big shot. However, if these companies fail, the genre will probably go into hibernation for a fair few years, and we’ll only see amateur games.

Let’s talk about the next, and possibly last, batch of ‘big’ games. These will be released within the next twelve months or so, and there won’t be many of them. They’ll have funding on the level of that provided to EA’s Majestic; i.e. seven figures, and they will employ industry gaming veterans. Expect the Microsoft AI team to be snapped up pretty damn quickly, if they haven’t already gone. We’ll call these games the first generation.

High quality levels of production will feature in all of these games. It’s very unlikely that they will require paid subscriptions, instead being funded by some sort of sponsorship or advertising. If they do require players to pay, it will be in some qualitatively different way than what we’re used to. All evidence up to this point (Majestic, TerraQuest) indicates that players are not prepared to pay for immersive fiction games, as it stands now.

Mobile Internet gaming will form a large part of their pitch, although to be honest, it just isn’t feasible for a first generation game coming out in 2003, unless it happened in Japan. But they’ll experiment with the early adopters, and they’ll probably have a few media-worthy successes. The general format of the game will not deviate hugely from the Microsoft AI game; it’s the only format that’s worked so far. In other words, the player community will remain homogeneous and the play will be centred mostly online.

The second generation of games will include cross-promotion and may interact with other forms of media, e.g. television. The mobile Internet will feature a larger role, moving a significant proportion of the play ‘offline’ (insofar as it is away from a fixed computer. Note to self: I need a new term for this). Game developers will start to experiment with dividing up the player community and creating separate plot strands. There will be some real effort to open the genre up to a wider audience; you’ll probably be seeing fewer science fiction games, for example, but you will be seeing aggressive game promotion on TV, newspapers and other media outlets.

Smart mobs and mobile positioning devices will play a pioneering role in these games. It is very likely that mobile phone companies, and other makers of mobile Internet devices, will choose to sponsor immersive fiction games to showcase their products. However, game developers will also be hoping for sources of revenue other than from major advertisers. Possibilities include targeted microadvertising, for example on the geographic level using mobile positioning, and automated product placement. Direct income from the players themselves is still unlikely, although it’s possible that some games developers will pursue television or movie tie-ins. Finally, if any game is lucky enough to become a ‘phenomenon’, then it could pay its own way through sale of branded items.

Particularly adventurous second generation games will aim to recruit player-generated content (using the ‘fan fiction’ model). Ideas on how to implement this successfully will have been tested out in first generation games, so it should be possible to have a decent amount of content added this way. Other second generation games will decide that it’s not worth the trouble.

Many third generation games, taking place at around 2005-7, will offer significant opportunities for players wishing to ‘go mobile’, but all games will still probably cater for the large number of players who don’t. A new profession of interactive storyteller will emerge, in which they will carefully weave together player-generated stories and guide them along an overall arc. The starting phase of the game, by introducting the scenario and offering players ‘something new’ will become paramount. At this point, one thousand days from now, I fully expect that all media outlets will be watching immersive fiction like hawks, and movie studios will be sitting upright. Rather fitting, since it was the AI game that started the genre off.

Conclusion

The immersive fiction genre has to evolve if it is to survive in the increasingly competitive world of massively multiplayer games. Ironically, immersive fiction games also happen to be the best placed games to take advantage of the burgeoning mobile Internet technologies and the explosive growth in online communities. By emphasising their narrative-based nature as well as the ‘no rules’ aspect, immersive fiction games should be able to attract large numbers of players. In time, they have the potential to create an entirely new form of entertainment, one that is about the connections between individuals, both online and offline, both through geography and shared interests.

Some notes:

[1] Fast Times at Fairmont High used to be available online from Fictionwise for free, while it was a nominee for the 2002 Hugo Award. Now that it’s won the award, you have to pay $2.75 to download it. Alternatively, you could buy The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge, which also handily includes True Names.

[2] Actually, I’m not too certain about Vinge’s new concept of movies. At first I thought he believed that there would be no more non-interactive movies in the future, but I think what he’s doing is expanding the term so that it covers not only the non-interactive portions, but also the entire galaxy of entertainment associated with them (and of course what I’m saying is that the non-interactive portions are in fact less important than the others).

“My theory is Foxwarner is trying to top what Spielberg/Rowling did last year with the magma monsters. This will be something that starts small, and is overtly plausible. With Feretti and Voss as advisors, I’ll bet they’ll play it as an escape from a bioscience lab.� That would certainly fit the San Diego scene.

So let’s imagine Jurassic Park 6 is released in the Fast Times universe. The movie studio might choose to create a shadowy conspiracy that has seeded Argentina with dinosaurs running amock, such that it seems like a real conspiracy. Interested hard-core movie followers get wind of this, explore what the studio has created, generate huge amounts of media interest (because people still don’t know that this is definitely a movie teaser) and poke around the dinosaur sites. They’ll have lots of adventures, which will probably be caught on camera and sold to the public later (with a decent cut going to the impromptu actors) and when things are at a fever pitch, the non-interactive movie itself and a raft of games will be released across the world. Everyone will laugh, and everyone is happy. So really, in this case the movie teaser is far more important than the actual movie itself, and if done properly, could generate more money as well.

[3] You may think I am being overly optimistic about the uptake and penetration of 3G phones worldwide. I am not; by the end of 2003, at least three of the four mobile phone operators in the United Kingdom will be offering 3G coverage of all metropolitan areas, as well as full 3G enabled handsets. You can expect essentially the same situation for the US, delayed at most by six months. Hutchison Whampoa has ordered two million 3G phones for its initial rollout alone.

Also, IDC predicts over 70 million wireless gamers in the US in 2007. Bear in mind that ‘wireless gaming’ can be anything from immersive fiction to playing Tetris on your phone. Still, it does indicate a high uptake of multimedia capable phones with decent Internet connections.

Finally, don’t forget that mobile Internet does not equal mobile phone. More and more people are carrying around PDAs and laptops that have 802.11b connectivity, and at the same time, 802.11b coverage is increasing.

I suspect the difficult for games developers will not be a lack of players with mobile Internet connectivitiy, but finding a decent way of making relevant game content available to them in a way that is useful and consistent across many different platforms.

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