Can Unity Save 3D Virtual Worlds?

Friends HangoutFriends Hangout is a new web-based virtual world in open Beta that’s been gaining a lot of attention from fans of the genre. As a special offer to Social Times readers, you can click this link to get 2000 extra virtual tokens to spend, when you create a free account. Developed by a small Tampa startup, it comes with FaceBook and Bebo integration, and enables players to create and share a one million square meter virtual world space with up to 10 of your friends (30 if you become a paying customer.) Unlike most other web-based virtual worlds, such as Habbo or Zynga’s YoVille, Friends Hangout boasts realistic 3D graphics running in the Unity 3D Web Player plugin, one of the best, perhaps last hopes to revive consumer interest in 3D virtual worlds.

Why “last”?

Well, consider what’s been happening in the last few years: A number of highly-touted 3D virtual worlds have underperformed or gone defunct: Despite heavy investment and a partnership with MTV, Makena Technologies’ world called There shut down last March. Linden Lab’s Second Life continues to grow, but very slowly in comparison to social games, which was probably one reason why the company laid off 30% of its staff last month. For that matter, even World of Warcraft, the West’s big dog in 3D interactive entertainment, hit a growth plateau last year. Many industry insiders believe the chief culprit to the stagnation is that these 3D worlds require a relatively large non-web client install, a barrier to entry in comparison to social games and web-based worlds, most of which run with the already ubiquitous Flash plugin.

Enter Unity 3D: Now with an install base of 30 million, the plugin is being embraced by many virtual world developers as a way of getting around the need to download separate software. The largest virtual world/MMO currently using Unity 3D is probably the Cartoon Network’s free-to-play FusionFall, which claims 9 million user accounts. (As a rule of thumb, 10-15% accounts in a freemium MMO are monthly active users.) Universal’s hit movie franchise The Mummy will soon get its own Unity-powered MMO.

Why so much effort to create 3D worlds, besides the pretty graphics? Generally speaking, MMOs and virtual worlds running in 3D attract higher monetization rates than 2D competitors; consumers are much more willing to pay for virtual fun, when it seems more vivid and real. But is it too late for Unity 3D to make a dent in a market that’s already shifted so strongly to the web? Stay tuned.