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7/17/2007
04:23 PM
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Virtual World Plans Expansion Based On Real-Life Cities

Doppelganger Studios plans to expand its virtual world The Music Lounge based on real-life parts of Tokyo, Paris, New York, Milan, and Florida.

Doppelganger Studios is developing a set of virtual worlds based on real city locations to increase the size of its online, teen-oriented virtual world, called The Music Lounge.

Tentatively planned for release beginning in August, the new areas borrow architecture and urban planning from Harajuku and Shinjuku in Tokyo, the 7th Arrondissement in Paris, New York, and Milan, as well as planned communities like Seaside, Fla.

"We wanted to base it on a real world city because that's the environment the average user is familiar with," said Andrew Littlefield, the company's chief creative officer and founder. "And it gave us an opportunity to insert advertisements."

Advertisements clash with fantasy environments like the World of Warcraft, explained Littlefield. But teens readily accept them in a world with more verisimilitude.

"In a focus group, 90% of teens preferred commercial-rich environments because they felt it was more real," Littlefield said.

But Littlefield believes a light touch is necessary. "Teenagers today have really been the target of the most sophisticated media campaigns since they were born," he said. "They're very, very used to ads so one of the things we wanted to do was introduce these things with a very light touch, so it didn't feel like ads being jammed down their throats."

Littlefield said he became enthralled with the idea of socializing in virtual space years ago when he and his fellow programmers on a contract programming job logged into Doom servers to chat about work.

But today's technology allows Littlefield to strive for a refined aesthetic rather than "something that feels like a science fair project."

The company's first three employees were two architects and a clothing designer.

Chris Lee, Doppelganger's art director, has a graduate degree in architecture from MIT. He worked previously for game maker Bungie Software on Halo, Halo 2, and Oni, and later for Microsoft, after it acquired Bungie.

"The principles of urban planning are really useful," said Lee, who pointed to the management of foot traffic as an example. "We want every path and street to meander but lead to key locations to create density for socialization."

Not to mention advertising. There's a reason that billboards go up in city centers rather than corn fields.

One of the most popular virtual worlds, Second Life, has been criticized for lack of planning, though some argue that's a benefit rather than a problem. "SL's terrain is mostly a haphazard patchwork of individual plots, with little relationship to each other," said Steve Rose, writing recently for The Guardian. He observed that SL sprawl has left the world mostly unoccupied, apart from a few populated pockets.

With only 150,000 subscribers since it launched in May 2006, Doppelganger has a long way to go before it can match the 8 million people who have signed up for Second Life, But Littlefield expects the company will be profitable next year. That's the plan, at least.

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