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Comparative Evaluation for Whirle

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					Comparative Evaluation for Whirled




                                 Team Disco Mouse
Executive Summary
The brainchild of Three Rings Design, a San Francisco-based game development
firm, Whirled is a new (alpha stage) online virtual world incorporating popular
features including games, user-generated content, a marketplace with an in-game
currency, and social networking. Whirled will initially target high school and college
students based on the assumption that they will be more interested in making things
than a much younger or older audience. Eventually, Three Rings Design hopes to
attract a much broader demographic to Whirled.

This report contains a comparative evaluation of Whirled’s experience environment
relative to three other online virtual world and/or gaming sites: Gaia Online, Club
Penguin, and Kongregate. Comparative evaluation is an important research method
for assessing usability and functionality, as it allows for consideration of the
strengths and weaknesses of sites that draw similar users.


Key Findings
   1. Whirled has succeeded in creating a unique experience that combines the
      best elements of its competitors.
   2. Whirled provides great incentive for users to contribute games, avatars, and
      decorations.
   3. Whirled’s navigation system through the virtual world does not seem to be as
      intuitive and easy to follow as some of its competitors.
   4. Whirled’s games are not as easy to reach as other sites, and the ranking
      system may be confusing or unclear.



Recommendations
   1. Provide a map or network of locations within virtual world
   2. Consider using an isometric or three-quarters perspective of the virtual world
   3. Break down games by genre
   4. Show popular and highly rated games
   5. Offer a guest account for users who are unwilling to register
   6. Emphasize medals and achievements over ranking score
   7. Consider keeping high scores for games
   8. Allow avatars that have different customizations such as color and accessories
   9. Hold parties and events to increase loyalty and socialization
   10. Make sure that movement in virtual world adheres to intuitive navigation
       principles
2. Overview of Whirled
Whirled is a web-based interactive virtual world that provides a venue for people to
create and socialize. In Whirled users are able to chat, play games and create their
own content. In Whirled, the interface allows users to interact with other users
through their avatars. This can be done through public in-world chat, private chat, or
through Whirled’s email system.

The ability to customize your avatar’s appearance and the appearance of your
environment is a major component of Whirled. In Whirled, users can purchase an
avatar from their catalog or upload your own. Users have a room that can also be
customized through the catalog or by uploading images. Users can further customize
rooms with furniture, pets and games from the catalog or by uploading content.

Rooms in Whirled are connected to one another with portals. Users can determine
the location and destination of portals for their room. This gives the users more
freedom but leads to haphazard architecture. Users can also navigate to rooms in
Whirled by using the links from the drop down menu in the places tab.

One of the major focuses of Whirled is playing games. The games span a variety of
genres from action games to word games. The users interact with the game directly
instead of having the action mediated through their avatar. The games have a range
of player options as well. Most can be played alone but all of the games allow for
group play. Several must be played with at least one other person. The games
typically have durations of 10-30 minutes to complete.



3. Methods and Systems Reviewed
A comparative evaluation allows researchers to analyze competing, or similar,
services with respect to usability and functionality. The objective is to improve
understanding of a given service, such as its strengths and weaknesses. During the
examination of several online game and/or virtual world web sites, our research
team determined which usability metrics to evaluate. For the purposes of this
analysis, usability metrics are broadly defined as criteria relevant to the entire user
experience, not criteria exclusively concerned with ease of use. The four main
categories examined are communication, customizability, navigation, and fun.
The design of Whirled and its combination of features are unique in the rapidly
evolving, networked gaming services industry. Whirled brings together in one
package online games, a virtual world, user-generated content opportunities, a
marketplace with an in-game currency, social networking features, and its own
aesthetic and point of view. Since very few potential competitors combine all of
these elements together in the same way, our research team chose to examine
comparative sites that excel in some of the content and functionality areas that
Whirled has developed. Kongregate provides a superior selection of entertainment
and games, but does not allow for the same level of socialization. Gaia Online is
very well-populated and has numerous features such as customizable avatars and a
virtual world with a lot to do, but does not offer much variety of games. Club
Penguin, while extremely popular, is aimed at a younger demographic.
We evaluated each of the systems using personas, which are profiles of fictional
people who use or would be interested in the system. Using personas allows for the
consideration of a user’s goals. Several personas were considered, all of who fit the
target demographic and psychographic provided by Whirled management.

Personas Used

                   Gloria Kim
                   19 years old
                   College student (freshman, USC)
                   Lives in Los Angeles, CA
                   Extremely social (over 600 Facebook friends) – Gloria is almost
                   always in the company of several friends.
                   Hangs out at the Beverly Center, PinkBerry, new downtown hot
                   spots, and Little Tokyo
                   Drives a hand-me-down white Mercedes from Mom, but is angling
                   for a new, sportier ride.
                   Gloria sees online interactions as an extension, or enhancement,
                   to her real world interactions. Gloria is a communication hub.
                   She will occasionally play an online game, but she does it to be
                   social.
                   Travis Cooper
                   17 years old
                   Junior at Badger High School
                   Lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with parents Donna and Roger
                   Has an older brother Logan, 22, and a younger sister Marie, 15
                   Enjoys playing Xbox 360, PC and NES games against school
                   friends
                   Plays online games through Facebook
                   Travis loves the competition that online games provide him
                   His motivations are to beat his own scores and, more
                   importantly, his friends’ scores.

                   Wendy Zhu
                   24 years old
                   Graduate from SFSU, with a bachelors in fine art
                   Lives in Daly City, CA
                   Lives with her boyfriend Drew
                   Has a full-time job working at a Flax art store in San Francisco,
                   she also does freelance illustration and design on occasion
                   Used to play World of Warcraft with classmates at SFSU, but
                   stopped after the time commitment became too great
                   Logan Gutierrez
                   17 years old
                   High School Student
                   Lives in Phoenix, AZ
                   Lives with Mom and his two younger sisters, Jane age 12 and
                   Maria age 15.
                   Has a part time job at Toys-R-Us as a clerk
                   His family owns a Wii which he plays with his sisters. He also
                   plays games online.
Gaia Online Overview




Gaia Online is anime themed interactive virtual community and forum. It purportedly
has one of the most active forums on the Internet with over a billion posts. Its also
has nearly two million unique visitors each month. It offers a range of activities to its
users including an expansive virtual world, a variety of games, a cinema, an active
forum, virtual chat rooms, customizable avatars and homes. Due to the aesthetic,
which is similar to many video games, and the activities that are supported, the
demographic of users would seem to be adolescent to young adult. However,
because of its size, the user base undoubtedly extends far beyond this range.


Comparison of Gaia Online and Whirled
Communication
GO has a similar structure to Whirled for its modes of communication. When the
users are interacting with other avatars, chat conversations appear above the
avatar’s head as a voice bubble. However, because avatars are smaller in GO, the
conversations in popular towns tend to be very cluttered. This visual clutter would
probably be off-putting to Wendy.

Customizability
All of the characters in GO are based on a template this means that any character
can wear any garment offered in the catalog. This has the benefit of allowing the
user to fine tune the appearance of their avatar. However since the avatars are
based on a template, their appearance can never diverge too much. The
customizability would be an advantage to Travis and Gloria, who are accustomed to
expressing their individuality through an avatar. However, users can’t create and
upload their own characters from scratch. This inability would probably be a
detriment to Wendy. Similarly, the homes are based on templates as well, and allow
for a degree of customizability but cannot be created by the user from scratch

Navigation
In GO, the perspective of the towns is from a bird’s eye view. This perspective, and
the scale of the towns, is consistent with many video games, making the mapping
natural and intuitive for users like Logan, Wendy and Travis. Furthermore, this
expansive perspective makes exploring towns easier. To further assist navigation GO
also has larger maps that allow you to see the layout of towns as they relate to the
larger world. From the map perspective, users can also bookmark areas, so that they
are easier to find again later. When combined, these factors make navigating GO far
easier than Whirled.

However, navigating the introduction was not so accommodating. The introduction
tries to walk you through the process of purchasing products, but if you decline not
to buy anything then the window keeps reappearing and can be aggravating. Also,
many of the dialog boxes where obscured by other dialog during the introduction
making it hard to understand what you are supposed to do. Logan or Travis, who are
at the site primarily to play games, may find these issues with the tutorial to be
barrier to adoption.

Fun
There are only a few games in GO and they are mostly of the puzzle genre. The only
game that stands out is “Rally”, a racing game, and it is also the only game that
supports multi-player. When playing a game, you are able to chat with and see the
progress of the other people playing that game. Being able to socialize with others
would appeal to Travis and Gloria. It may not be as important to Logan, who just
wants to play games. GO also has films and users can upload their own videos.

Advantages

       Maps improved global navigation
       Perspective on the world facilitates exploration
       Avatars are highly customizable

Hindrances
       Frustrating introduction
       Games lack diversity
       Avatars and homes can't be created by the user
Club Penguin Overview




The Walt Disney Company's Club Penguin is an extremely popular online game
among children ages 6 - 14, second only to Webkinz in web traffic. Club Penguin
attracts seven times the traffic of adult virtual world phenomenon Second Life. 1
Members of Club Penguin pay $5.95 a month to dress and care for penguin avatars,
decorate their igloo homes, chat and socialize with other penguins, and play mini-
games all in a snow-themed virtual world. Club Penguin is notable for its superior
privacy and parental control features, as well as its friendly, usable interface. The
site earned an "Editors Choice" award from Children's Technology Review Magazine
in 2006.



Comparison of Club Penguin and Whirled

Communication

Club Penguin has two options for communication between players: "Ultimate Safe
Chat" mode in which users select from a predetermined list of phrases, and "Open
Chat", which allows for custom messages. Ultimate Safe Chat mode is further
enhanced by the option to choose a server where only Ultimate Safe Chat is
allowed. Club Penguin employs moderators throughout the site as well as volunteer
user "secret agents" to police profanity. These safety controls, while attractive to
Club Penguin's younger demographic (and their parents), would not make sense for
Whirled.

Taking into account the difference in target audiences, the general usability of Club
Penguin’s and Whirled's core communication functionality is comparable. Club
Penguin does, however, offer a fun, non-verbal communication opportunity in the
form of virtual snowballs available for throwing at other penguins. The action is
intuitive and available from the primary navigation: a mouseover reveals the word
“snowball”, a first click pulls up a circular target icon, and a second click (on an
unsuspecting penguin) generates a perfect toss. The snowball serves a function
similar to Facebook’s well-known, popular poke. Whirled lacks these non-verbal
communication gestures, particularly those accessible to inexperienced users.




1
  Barnes, Brooks. “Web Playgrounds of the Very Young.” New York Times. 31 December
2007.
Customizability
Similar to Gaia Online, Club Penguin's customizability is based on templates.
Uniformity is even extended further in Club Penguin because all the avatars assume
a penguin form. Penguins can then be customized by color, clothing, and
accessories.
Whirled presents a very different proposition. Users can create and upload designs
of their own making from a broad range of categories – avatars, furniture, décor,
toys, etc. One consequence of this more flexible, user-generated approach is a non-
unified, often jarring, look within Whirled. Figure 1 illustrates what happened when
newbie, Alexis (the starfish avatar), chose a decor background (the modern
staircase) as instructed by Whirled’s tutorial for new members. The traditional
furnishings, which were part of Alexis’ template-based “start” room, are now
disturbingly floating in the middle of the background without any apparent
consideration to scale or placement. Figure 2 illustrates how Club Penguin addresses
this same type of a challenge; a simple note reads “your furniture will be moved to
storage when you upgrade.”




Figure 1: Alexis' room in Whirled
Figure 2: Club Penguin's catalog




Navigation
Club Penguin and Whirled use the same mouse action (clicking the desired
destination spot) to move an avatar within a room. Moving in Whirled rooms will be
second nature to Club Penguin alums.

Similar to Gaia Online, Club Penguin employs a map metaphor to help users orient
themselves and get around in the virtual world (Figure 3). Whirled lacks an
equivalent metaphor which allows for an intuitive grasp of navigation and the span of
the virtual space. Whirled's navigation is more web-like in this respect, but the
approach doesn't compare favorably with Club Penguin’s for younger users or virtual
world newbies.
Figure 3: Club Penguin world map


As seen in Figure 3, Club Penguin effectively extends the look and feel of their virtual
world to diverse navigational challenges. A paper-based catalog metaphor is
employed to help organize the shopping experience. Whirled's approach to catalog
organization is search and tags, which is appropriate for its older (13+)
demographic. Taking into account the difference in target audiences, Club Penguin’s
and Whirled's general usability with respect to customization functionality is
comparable. Whirled might consider a “preview” function or other options to make
Alexis’ initial catalog purchases less visually unfriendly.


Fun
Club Penguin is assuredly considered fun by its target audience. This is evidenced by
the site’s huge popularity and subscriber base, as well as the long average session
times (54 minutes on average).2 Direct "fun" comparisons with Whirled are difficult
to make because of the different demographics involved and Whirled's lack of critical
mass due to its "alpha" status.

One fun strategy that certainly translates across diverse demographics is parties and
events. Club Penguin's themed "parties" have been very successful.3 An example is
a snowstorm developed by Club Penguin’s writers for the holidays that was much
anticipated and then presented special challenges to the penguins, like needing to


2
  Hawn, Carleen. “Time to play, money to spend.” Business 2.0. 23 March 2007.
3
  Ibid. In December the number of unique visitors to Club Penguin jumped by more than 20
percent.
build tunnels as it had snowed inside their igloos. 4 Organized events in Whirled
would appeal to Club Penguin alums. Additionally or alternatively, Whirled could
encourage parties and events organized by micro-community leaders by providing
supporting tools, suggestions, and incentives.


Advantages
   Simplicity and ease of use
   Uses common metaphors and Gestalt principles for more intuitive design
   Uses “parties” and events to strengthen community and loyalty
   Clearer indication of result of actions
   Snowballs provide a simple and fun way to interact with others

Hindrances
           Help navigation is sub-optimal; often requires losing the “place” where the
            avatar was when “help” was initiated




4
    Ibid.
Kongregate Overview




Kongregate (http://www.kongregate.com/) is a site that combines a collection of
user-submitted Flash games with simple social networking. It also provides a
message board and chat application for users to communicate with each other.
Users can browse through the games by genre, rating and play count, mark games
as their favorites, see games that others are playing, and rate games. Kongregate
also keeps track of a player's overall ranking, which is improved by tasks such as
achieving high scores in games, rating and uploading games, and inviting friends. A
leaderboard shows players' scores and how many points they have earned in the
past week.

Kongregate is squarely aimed at visitors who enjoy playing games, as that is the
central focus of the site. In fact, Flash files that are not strictly games, such as
videos, are not allowed to be uploaded. The target demographic is largely young
and male, meaning that Travis and Logan are the exact type of people that
Kongregate is trying to reach.

Communication
The principal means of communication on Kongregate is through a browser-based
chat system. Users are automatically entered into a chat room where they can talk
with other users, and can switch to other rooms, including rooms in other
languages. However, it is worth noting that it is not clear which room a user is
entered in when he first logs on. The chat room also does not appear anywhere
unless the user is actually playing a game, which makes it inconvenient to go to the
site and just socialize. Furthermore, there is no association between the room that a
user is in and the game that a user is playing, meaning that conversations can be
difficult to follow. By placing its chat application within a virtual world environment,
Whirled gives the user a better sense of presence and flow, as well as making it
clearer who else is in the room.

Kongregate has some simple social networking aspects, such as marking other users
as your friends and inviting others. A small referral reward in the form of rating
points is given for inviting others, which provides incentive for users to spread the
word of Kongregate. This might be something for Whirled to consider, depending on
how membership is done in the final site. Every player also has a profile detailing
their friends, their favorite games, and their overall ranking score. This is similar to
how Whirled presents user profiles. However, Kongregate has a few additional
features on its profiles, such as "shouts" and "whispers", which are similar to
Facebook's "wall" feature. Travis and Gloria would benefit from a similar feature that
allows leaving public or private messages.

Finally, Kongregate has a message board feature which is integrated with its login
system. Users can discuss the site and games on Kongregate, ask for feedback or
collaboration, or just chat. At the time of this writing, the message board has over
70,000 posts in about 4000 topics, which corresponds to almost 200 posts per day.
Whirled has groups, which also have a message board system, but groups are more
difficult to reach than Kongregate's forums, which are available from any page on the
site.

Customizability
Kongregate does not offer as much in the way of customization as the other sites we
focused on. Users can only set their profile and choose an avatar image for
themselves. There is no currency or market to purchase items to further customize
a user's profile. Wendy is likely to find Kongregate to be more boring than Whirled,
since she cannot customize things to her liking.

However, Kongregate excels at encouraging users to submit their own games
through their rewards system. There is a bonus in ranking points just for submitting
a game, as well as additional bonuses for submitting a game that is highly rated.
The result is that Kongregate hosts many high-quality games, all of which are
developed by its users. Whirled only provides a bonus of flow if the game is actually
purchased, which is not necessary to play the game.

Navigation
As there is no virtual world in Kongregate, navigation tends to be simpler and more
conventional than in Whirled. In particular, it is much easier and more intuitive to
reach the games. Additionally, games are much better organized - games can be
browsed by rating, play count, and genre, and each game also has a list of similar
games. Whirled's games are primarily accessed through the Gallery of Ludology
through the virtual world, and there is no organization to the games catalog. Logan
is likely to get bored and give up if he cannot figure out how to get to the games
quickly.




Figure 4: Games menu in Kongregate
Additionally, registering for a new account is much easier in Kongregate than in
Whirled. There is a prominent link to register at the top of every page, and
registering simply requires filling out a simple form. Furthermore, registration is not
necessary to play games on Kongregate, which makes it very convenient for Logan.
However, registration does confer some advantages such as chatting and recording
high scores, which will provide Travis with an incentive to create an account.

Fun
Although Kongregate does not have the same range of media as Whirled or
GaiaOnline, its selection and variety of games is second to none. It also keeps track
of achievements and high scores, awarding ranking points for achievements. The
inclusion of multiplayer games helps add some interactivity and socialization as well.
Travis is very likely to be attracted to these features, as he will find it enjoyable to
beat his old high scores and top his friends' scores. Whirled might benefit from
recording individual high scores rather than simply having each player have a vague
rating for each game.

Advantages
       Games are better organized and easier to reach
       Players have easily understood high scores and achievements, rather than a
        rating
       Registration is optional, and registering bestows additional benefits

Hindrances

       Chat application only appears on game pages, yet is not integrated with
        games
       Little sense of presence or connection to others who are in the same game or
        chat room
       Little customization possible
Actionable Intelligence
Based on our discoveries from the comparative analysis, here is our list of items that
we feel that Whirled could be improved, as well as possible solutions for each item.
Item                                   Proposed Solution
Difficult to tell your location within Provide a map or network of locations within
the virtual world                      the world
Perspective of virtual world does      Consider using an isometric or three-quarters
not express a feeling of depth,        perspective instead of the current one
making world seem cluttered
Games are disorganized and             Break down games by genre; show popular and
difficult to reach                     highly rated games
Registration is required for all       Offer a “guest” account or a “lite” account for
actions                                users who are unwilling to register
Game ranking system is difficult to Emphasize medals and achievements over
understand                             ranking score; consider keeping high scores
Avatars are not customizable           Allow avatars that have different
                                       customizations, such as colors or accessories
Microcommunities may not have          Hold parties and events to increase loyalty and
required amount of loyalty             socialization
Navigation through virtual world is    Make sure that movement adheres to intuitive
not intuitive                          navigation principles




Summary
By conducting our comparative analysis, we feel that we have provided a perspective
for how Whirled fits into the online gaming and social networking landscape. We
identified a number of things that Whirled does well in comparison to its competition,
as well as areas for possible improvement. Using our personas helped us pinpoint
which features are most likely to appeal to the target audience.

Overall, we feel that Whirled does an excellent job to appealing to all of the personas
we looked at. Its range of activities from socialization to gaming to creating provides
use to a very broad audience. However, by focusing on the areas in the actionable
intelligence table, we feel that Whirled will be able to provide an even better and
more intuitive experience for all of its users.

				
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