Raph, as usual, has been talking a lot about virtual worlds and what defines a virtual world. So that got me to thinking. I decided to attempt to break down and define what I consider to be the Primary Layers of Online Virtual Worlds. Every Online Virtual World will have at least one foot in each of the Primary Layers listed below.
The Three Primary Layers of an Online Virtual World are: Social, Environment, and Economy.
It can be argued that the Social layer is the most important. After all, that's why its online. But in addition to player-player interactions, this layer also includes such functionality as the chat system, available emotes, guild/player organization management and NPC-NPC interactions! What sort of tools do players have for in-game interactions? How does the game facilitate or hinder this? How does this affect out-of-game interactions? Is your website a social gathering spot for participants?
Environment covers the basic things you would think of. What is the world made of? What does it look like? Does the environment have a direct impact on the player? Can the player impact the environment? What are the visual elements of the environment? Also fitting into this category is the interface. How does the interface affect the players interactions with the Virtual World? Without a defining environment, you don't have much of a world. Environment is not just graphics. It includes ambiance, sound, NPC personalities, text descriptions, interactivity and more!
The Economic layer includes both in-world economics and out-of-world economics. Everything from RMT, to subscription model to in-game loot and trading options. How and what can players exchange in-world? Do these exchanges extend to real world money transactions? How are objects with economic value generated? Are they permanent? Are there ways for the world to keep inflation in check? How are players paying for access to the world? How does this business model effect the types of users you get? How do the types of users affect any in-game economy?
All three of the layers cover both in-game and out-of-game areas, and overlap with each other as well. I'll expand more on this in a future post as well as try to better flesh out the concept.
Note: Looking back on this post, I notice that I use the term 'game' quite a bit. This layer division is meant to cover non-game Virtual Worlds as well, but since a majority of my experience has been with the gaming aspect, it just ends up being an unconscious extension of my though patterns.