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The Secret of AWOMO’s Island

GDI reveal their plans :: December 7th, 2007 :: Interviews, Other services :: 22 Responses (Feed)

If there is one thing about the sale of video games that digital distribution hasn’t fixed, it’s the final action of making each purchase. You either pay or you don’t, subscriptions aside, and the binary nature of that choice has a large role to play in the industry’s unhealthy appetite of review scores and constant defecation of sequels.

“Rent-to-Own will be massive”

Reviews, demos and cheaper games all help, yet every one of us will have a story to tell of the time when one or more of them failed us. While other luxury goods are sold in part instalments to resolve these issues, games have always been seen as too cheap to buy and too easy to duplicate to be worth the same treatment.

As I’ve been discovering, A World of My Own’s genius is its realisation that in the age of digital distribution those roadbumps no longer exist. Enter: Rent-to-Own.

Buying with confidence

“Rent-to-Own will be massive as soon as people understand just what it offers them the opportunity to do,” says Game Domain International‘s Rob Donald during our interview. “Any registered user can play a game by paying by the hour, at a rate determined by dividing the full price on AWOMO by the maximum rental period (currently five hours). If the user plays the game for five hours then they will have paid the full cost of the game and won’t be charged any more for playing it. They will own it.”

Add to this scheme Free Time, which provides free access to full versions of games in the programme (Donald assures me these will include recent releases) until the clock ticks down, and it becomes clear that buying from AWOMO is not the moment in time we are used to but an ongoing event. We might start with the demo, move on to Free Time if we like it, initialise Rent-to-Own when we’re more confident, and if we’re still enjoying ourselves later in the day own the game forever and be automatically topped up with Free Time again. Change your mind half-way in? Just step away.

Buying from AWOMO is not the moment in time we are used to

AWOMO was billed as the “iTunes of games” during its announcement; a ridiculously big claim, an act of hubris perhaps, but, it is now clear, more accurate a soundbite than we thought. Free Time and Rent-to-Own make for a disarming simple but deliciously disruptive model that will genuinely change the way we buy the games industry’s product. I would question the need to buy a game to replenish an account’s Free Time, but that niggle aside it’s hard to image a better way to be eased through the purchasing process.

Don’t be misled by my brevity: once Rent-to-Own and its part instalments hit the market, it’s going be some time before the dust settles.

Ephemeral streaming

Which is all very well for gamers, but how will GDI hold on to their advantage? “It’s only when you combine the Rent-to-Own model with AWOMO’s streaming technology that it becomes appealing,” Donald replies. “There’s nothing great about being able to try a brand new AAA game for an hour if it takes 9 hours to download it”.

What happens in non-linear games?

AWOMO’s “AI-based” streaming technology follows in the footsteps of Exent and Triton. It processes in real-time, constantly downloading content based on a streaming profile generated by the distribution company. This compares very favourable to Steam, where streaming happens in level-by-level chunks if the developer has even bothered to create a profile in the first place.

It deviates from their established pattern in two very notable places. First is the Game Training Kit: downloaded by an army of volunteers who get free access to the AWOMO beta library for their troubles, it submits the streaming profiles it creates from each user’s experience to a central server for aggregation. It’s cheap, quick, decentralised and automated, which is to say an excellent idea all around. Valve should pay attention.

Second is the ephemeral model mentioned in AWOMO’s original announcement. “The consumer never has the whole game downloaded,” explains Donald; “only a stub that is stored on the hard disk. The rest of the info is streamed in when it’s needed and not stored”.

Steam was originally intended to work in this way. Valve abandoned the idea in favour of permanent local storage before its public release however, and not for no reason. What happens in non-linear games? What do mod developers do (or indeed mod players, as both Exent and Triton tear up the directory structure)? And in these days of cheap and abundant storage, does it really benefit the users anyway? Answers will have to wait until AWOMO is closer to release and the technology finalised, but one thing we do know is that it’s almost a requirement for Free Time – if content is on the computer, removing it from the system is only ever a matter of mathematics.

Not an MMO

AWOMO 3D world village
The 3D world is “an exciting way to interact with friends” — not an MMO.

It’s odd to think that I intended AWOMO’s 3D World to be the biggest aspect of this story when I began planning it. Since I last talked about AWOMO it has been shown to the public and proven technologically in beta, and Sony’s PlayStation Home has helped to vindicate the idea’s sustainability by taking it out of isolation, but we are still none the wiser as to how it helps us any more than windows, images, menus and pointers.

“When we first started talking about AWOMO everything concentrated on this 3D world that we were building,” Donald says. “Immediately everyone started talking MMO and probably we have to admit that we weren’t clear on that. But let’s set the record straight. Our 3D world doesn’t aim to be a game, just a different experience for people, an exciting way to interact with friends in a more advanced form than your every day web based social networking sites. Each district in the world is themed, so it’s also a neat way to browse games, just wandering around and seeing what you’ll find.”

There is demand for this. PlayStation Home as has been mentioned, but Second Life and more recently Metaplace have also shown that a virtual world with the capability for personalisation can be popular in and of itself — though “AWOMO is primarily about offering people the best possible way to buy and play games”, Donald cautions. Not so popular with you or me perhaps, but for us simple folk a 2D version of the client with overlay functionality much like the Steam Community is being made available.

There’s still plenty to talk about, and I’ll be keeping up to date with AWOMO as best I can as it draws closer to release.


22 Responses to this post:

11 Comments

  1. Seb Horsewell Says:

    I don’t see the appeal of rent-to-own.

    Let’s say a game costs £30.

    So, I have to pay £6 an hour, I then play 5 hours if I want to buy this. If I decide I don’t like the game after 3 hours play, i’ve already paid £18 so I might as well have paid the original £30 and bought the full game. Atleast it’s something to play if i’m bored.

    It seems more like a shifty way to make you purchase more games, than to make the purchasing better.

  2. Tom Edwards Says:

    If I decide I don’t like the game after 3 hours play, i’ve already paid £18 so I might as well have paid the original £30 and bought the full game.

    I bet your bank loves you.

    Before your three hours of Rent-to-Own you’ve probably already tried the traditional demo and spent a bit or all of your Free Time. Nobody’s going to leap straight into RtO unless they already have a pretty good idea that they like the game.

  3. Andy Simpson Says:

    I have to say that Rent-To-Own is a great idea. It makes logical sense, because it gives you the strengths of both models.

    However, like Mr Donald says, rent-to-own will not work without streaming, and streaming is fraught with pitfalls.

    Unless a game supports in in code, you’re going to have to deploy some kind of ugly hack to prevent bad things happening, e.g. the game trying to load an asset you haven’t downloaded yet. This is done by using a filesystem driver. As we found out with Steam and Red Orchestra, this is a disaster for loading times.

    These problems aside, for a very sequential game that has the right kind of content usage profile it might work, but they’re going to have hell dealing with edge cases, like games that load content dynamically, or are non-linear, where the developer has assumed that stuff is going to be coming quickly off hard-disk but has a fair likelyhood of hanging the game as it comes from the net.

    Not to mention all the issues of: “If it isn’t all on my HD, what if AWOMO goes down?”

    Generally, there’s a reason why Steam has quietly dropped this kind of grand scheme – it’s really hard to get it to work well. The more complex something is, the harder it is to implement, and the more fragile it will be.

    And in other miscellanea, AWOMO is an awful, awful name, and I agree with you on the 3D world thing, it’s unlikely to have any benefits beyond a 2D interface. It’s a big cool idea, but it may be yet another example of why simple is usually better.

  4. Tom Edwards Says:

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