How can you add joy to your virtual world?

A couple of weeks ago, the ever-insightful Seth Godin pointed out that every new activity has a learning curve — and also a joy curve. Unfortunately, it sometimes takes a bit of time before we learn enough about how to do an activity to derive any joy from it.

This is particularly true for virtual worlds, where the learning process can be painful, and the payoff — if there is one — seems far-off or even completely nonexistent.

Godin suggests that if there’s a person on the other side of the learning curve cheering us on, convincing us that the climb is worth it, we would be more willing to put in the time.

If all our friends are riding around on bikes, having fun, we would be more willing to suffer the scrapes and bruises it costs to learn to ride.

But what if there’s nobody on the other side? Or the guy on the other side is an untrustworthy, pointy-haired manager trying to convince us that the the activity will be good for us — whereas we know it will only be good for the company.

This, unfortunately, is the situation many virtual worlds are in. It’s unclear to the beginning user what benefit the worlds could ever provide. The main cheerleaders are folks who want to save money on travel costs. And everybody else around is as equally dismissive of them as the user.

Lowering the hassle of using virtual worlds  at the start, when the user interface is difficult to learn is an important part of improving adoption rates.

But an equal amount of progress can be made by improving the joyful aspects of using virtual worlds, making them more fun for the new user.

For example, many virtual worlds start new users in an impersonal location, surrounded by instructional bill boards.

One prime example of this is the OSGrid, which puts the default landing zone for new residents — LBSA Plaza — inside a dark, creepy, impersonal chamber.

But there are other ways to convey information, new clothing and avatar shapes than signboards and notecards. And the starting location doesn’t have to look like a municipal building lobby.

Here are a few suggestions for ways to liven up the first-hour experience for new users:

Games and prizes

Everybody loves winning stuff. Teach your visitors how to interact with objects by using games. A one-armed bandit machine with a big “pull me” sign next to the arm can reward users with new clothes and accessories. A funhouse mirror could help them select new avatar shapes.

A ride on a dune buggy can get them familiar with movement controls. A ski slope can get them used to putting on and taking off accessories.  And a display board showing best times — and “personal bests” — would provide motivation to improve the skills.

Keeping games fresh, with new prizes, or new contests, will encourage existing users to return to the welcome area, which will provide even more motivation and role models for new arrivals.

Rides and tours

A trolley or a hot-air balloon or a gondola offer easy ways to take new arrivals around the center regions of your grid (you may need to enable megaregions to avoid uncomfortable border crossings). Combine this with an audio narration to instruct your visitors on the basics of getting around your grid, and using their viewer.

The ride is a payoff in and of itself — I still remember my first hot-air balloon ride in Second Life.

A ride also helps the visitor create a mental image of the key facilities of your grid, and where they are located, which can be useful on a corporate campus. This also helps create the feeling of the grid as an actual place, an exotic destination that they can visit rather than yet another software program that they need to learn.

A little spice of danger adds thrills to the experience. A gondola can go through a waterfall, or be circled by a shark, or careen down unexpected rapids.  A lightning strike can just miss the hot air balloon, or the volcano at the center of your tropical island can choose to rumble just as the balloon is going by. The possibilities for mild danger in a virtual world are unlimited. And even though the dangers are fake, the emotional effects are real — as the folks at Disney parks can testify on their way to the bank.

Beach vacations

Who among us wouldn’t like a beach vacation — minus the sand in our shorts and sun blisters? A virtual environment is a great place to give new users a quick mental break. Waves crashing over a shore line, palm trees swaying in the wind, the occasional bird circling overhead — all of these can provide a welcoming and relaxing entry point for new users.

An undersea grotto, or a cave hidden behind a waterfall can provide hiding places for treasure hunt prizes such as in-world items — or even real-world items, such as extra flex-time days.

Possible virtual prizes can include virtual fishtanks and exotic fish to fill them, plants to decorate an office, “antique” office furniture, desk toys, even virtual pets. Yes, a virtual pet can be a distraction in a business meeting — but you can always stick it back in your inventory if it gets out of hand. Until then, it makes a great conversation piece and object of envy for your colleagues.

For non-business grids, the range of possible prizes is even wider.

Social hangouts

If your grid’s welcome area is also a nice place to socialize, new arrivals won’t feel so isolated and lonely when they first log in.

OSGrid does this nicely, as LBSA has become the preferred hang-out spot on the grid. On ReactionGrid, the welcome area region Core 1 is also a pleasant spot to hang out and chat with grid administrators and visitors.

It’s hard to get a social lounge going, however, without a critical mass of people. OSGrid’s 5,000-plus active users are enough of a base so that there’s always a few people around on LBSA Plaza. Without that population, a grid might consider hiring greeters, Wal-Mart style, who will hang out in the welcome area and personally greet every new visitor and offer them a cool, frosty beverage.

Experience candy

When you visit an attractive website, the designers do their best to elicit warm and fuzzy feelings in you. Corporate websites show happy business people enjoying the company’s products. Social websites show pictures of people having fun — or photos of your close friends and loved ones. Color palettes are chosen to inspire feelings of security, or happiness, or — in the case of restaurants — hunger.

There’s an art to creating “eye candy” on a website. There needs to be enough to have its intended effect, but not so much as to overwhelm the visitor. Website design also seeks to create a strong focus point, so that the casual visitor isn’t too distracted by too many choices, while also offering clear — but not intrusive — options for those visitors who know what they’re looking for.

Similarly, a grid should offer “experience candy” on its welcome region, the grid equivalent of the home page, with a clear activity focus for first-time or casual visitors. Those who already know their way around should be able to quickly find the content that they need, such as a navigation board with teleports to key destinations.

Navigation bars

Website design has evolved to the point where we all now expect to find a menu bar where we can click to find out more about the company, get contact information, find the latest news, get answers to frequently asked questions.

Virtual world design hasn’t evolved to this point yet, but we can make some guesses about what people might expect to see when they first arrive in a welcome area. In addition to a navigation board, these features may include a calendar board showcasing upcoming events, and ways for visitors to contact company employees or request help. These features should be relatively unobtrusive, in order not to confuse people when they first log in, but obvious enough so that if someone is looking for them, they can easily find them.

Real-world metaphors might be useful here. For example, a building labeled “business office” can be home to an events calendar, employee mailboxes, a help desk, and other business functions.

A “company store” can offer grid-branded apparel, presentation tools, and a selection of office furniture.

But these facilities shouldn’t distract attention from the key experience offered by the welcome area — the game, the grid tour, the treasure hunt — that make visiting the grid fun immediately rewarding, not a chore to slog through.

Rising hassle, falling joy

Over time, some users begin to burn out on a virtual world. It demands to much time, too much attention without providing the joy it first did when the users gained basic mastery over the environment.

This is actually less of a problem for corporate grids designed as collaborative workspace for employees. After all, employees are paid to show up, whether or not they’re having fun that day. In addition, for companies, virtual platforms are a means to an end, not the end in themselves. Employees can use the platform to collaborate on fun and exciting projects for examples, that energize them even if the collaboration tools themselves don’t change.

However, social grids can quickly lose users to both boredom and drama overload. There are lessons to be gained, however, from successful and long-running games, like World of Warcraft. Users can continue to be motivated and engaged if they see a steady progression of challenges that stretch their abilities.

In a social grid, these challenges can be educational, like learning how to script or make sculpties. The challenges can be social, like helping organize a fund-raising drive for an important charity. The challenges can be business-related, or relationship-driven. Or they can come in the form of in-world games, like farming virtual chickens. By identifying and promoting new opportunities for grid residents to stretch themselves, to gain new skills, and find joy in new activities, grid owners can continue to keep them engaged and involved.

Maria Korolov