Mourning the decline of 3D virtual worlds

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These days, social games like Farmville and Mafia Wars have captured the attention of a large part of the gaming and technology industries. But it wasn't so long ago that another game seemed to be on everybody's lips as the Next Big Thing: Second Life. Over at CNet, writer Daniel Terdiman has written up a thoughtful appreciation of immersive, 3D virtual spaces like Second Life, which he fears are being pushed aside for "a slew of profitable but essentially copy-cat low-fi social games and experiences" that he finds "increasingly boring."

The main reason for the transition away from full 3D virtual worlds, Terdiman reports, seems to be ease of use. While virtual spaces like Second Life could be incredibly deep and complex, they were "about as inviting to mainstream audiences as obscure European philosophy," as Terdiman puts it. Today's social games provide a similar (if less robust) way to interact with your social network without the need to download software or spend weeks learning how to navigate a complex and sometimes confusing new world. "It's all very easy to tap in to," as media consultant Ron Meiners put it to Terdiman. "It doesn't demand much."

And then there's the cost for the developers. Why spend the huge amounts of time and money creating an in-depth, 3D virtual world like Second Life when, for a fraction of the cost and manpower, you can crank out a simple Flash game like Farmville? "The return on investment is simply not there," Engage!Expo organizer Chris Sherman said of 3D virtual worlds.

The full story is well worth reading for anyone interested in the direction social games and virtual worlds seem to be heading.
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