Automattic Acquires Gravatar!

In a surprising move, Automattic has acquired Gravatar, which was announced this morning in Gravatar’s new WordPress installation. This breathes life into a quality idea that had floundered due to fast popularity and (I can only assume) poor funding.

For those of you that don’t know what Gravatar is:

A gravatar, or globally recognized avatar, is quite simply an 80×80 pixel avatar image that follows you from weblog to weblog appearing beside your name when you comment on gravatar enabled sites. Avatars help identify your posts on web forums, so why not on weblogs?

I became a fan of Gravatar during my first launch of the SexyComments WordPress Plugin and was saddened at the instability and slowness of the avatar service after a few months of usage. My frustration grew so much that I looked to MyBlogLog as an avatar service despite its lack of features. As of release 1.4 of SexyComments, I had almost entirely wiped my hands of Gravatar.

Until now. Gravatar once again serves up avatars in the comments of this site and am excited at the changes that have already taken place:

  • They have transferred the Rails application and most of the avatar serving to their WordPress.com infrastructure and servers.
  • Avatar serving is now more than three times as fast, and works every time.
  • They have moved the Gravatar blog from Mephisto to WordPress. :D

Additionally, I look forward to the features that Automattic is planning for Gravatar’s future:

  • They’re going to make all of the Premium features free, and refund anyone who bought them in the last 60 days.
  • Move the gravatar serving to a Content Delivery Network so not only will they be fast, it’ll be low latency and not slow down a page load.
  • Take the million or so avatars that exist on WordPress.com and make them available through the Gravatar API, to compliment the 115k already hosted at Gravatar.
  • From Gravatar, integrate them into all WordPress.com templates and bring features like multiple avatars over.
  • From WordPress.com, bring the bigger sizes (128px) over and make that available for any Gravatar. Currently Gravatars are only available up to 80px.
  • Allow Gravatar profile pages with Microformat support for things like XFN rel="me" and hCard.
  • Develop a new API that has cleaner URLs and allows Gravatars to be addressed by things like URL in addition to (or instead of) email addresses.
  • Rewrite the application itself (site.gravatar.com) to fit directly into our WordPress.com grid, for internet-scale performance and reliability.

All in all, this made me pee my pants a little.

WordPress Plugin: Sexy Comments

Unhappy with my theme’s comment display, I recently re-coded a sexier comment display as a plugin so others can sexify their comments as well.

Download the plugin.

Features

  • Forum-thread-like comment layout: User information to the left, comment to the right.
  • Author post highlighting
  • Altered Trackback/Pingback Display Formating
  • Avatars
    • Either display/hide avatars
    • Select your avatar service of choice (Gravatar is the only option until I find more avatar services)
    • Specify maximum avatar dimension
    • Customize default/trackback avatars
  • “Number of Comments” Message Customization
  • CSS Overriding

Installation

  1. Download and unzip the sexycomments.zip
  2. Place sexycomments folder in your wp-content/plugins directory
  3. Log in to your WordPress admin panel and activate the plugin, then visit the SexyComments submenu of the plugins tab.
  4. Customize the settings until you have something that works for you.
  5. Locate the template file(s) in your theme that loops over and displays comments. Remove that comment output loop and replace with:
    < ?php sexycomments_print($comments); ?>  
    

    NOTE: Be sure not to touch the section that generates the form for adding comments! This plugin does not re-create the comment creation form.

  6. Lastly, consider disabling the plugin CSS and taking the example CSS provided and customize it to suit your theme’s color scheme.
  7. You should be all set, now! w00t w00t! Go make a Gravatar account if you don’t already have one and upload an avatar.

World of Warcrack and the future of MMOGs

[[innerindex]]WoW Dude I began gaming in the early 90′s. Looking back at what gaming was then compared to what it is today causes me to do a double take. Things have changed so much so fast. Of particular note is the Online Gaming industry. What started out as geek-only text-based fantasy games has morphed into a globe encompassing communication/entertainment mega-games….Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs). Before I explain my awe when it comes to these games, I’ll start out with a short definition and a little history.

What are MMOGs?

Massively Multiplayer Online Games (a.k.a. MMOG, MMO, MMORPG) are pay-to-play games where a player interacts with an evolving game-world and hundreds (to thousands) of other players at the same time. Within these games, players typically wander around killing monsters, collecting/crafting items, creating organizations, and often times Player Killing (hunting down other players and killing them for experience, loot, or simply just for fun). In addition to the above…MMOGs tend to be highly addictive! I, myself, have been prone to spurts of MMOG addiction :)

A Brief History

I suppose the best way to fully understand these MMOGs is to see where they come from. Back in the ancient days of 1977, the first MUD (Multi-User Dungeon) was born. These geek-only games of sweetness gained popularity due to their ability to connect like-minded fantasy buffs to interact with eachother in a text-based reality, however, the popularity remain primarily in the geek community due primarily to the fact that most MUDs contained no graphics beyond ASCII art. While cool to some, many people found them fairly boring…I mean sheesh. read?!. (I was one of those geeks that played MUDs… EotL to be exact)

It wasn’t until 1997 when Ultima Online launched that MMOGs began to really take off. Ultima Online reached 100,000 users fairly quickly which spurred a whole industry of MMOGs with a variety of gaming engines, rules, and monthly price ranges. Some of the most popular: Asheron’s Call (AC), Dark Age of Camelot (DAoC), EverQuest (EQ), Ultima Online (UO), and the fairly new World of Warcraft (WoW).

Why Are MMOGs So Popular?

Oooo Doggy. Good question. MMOGs aren’t just games for geeks anymore. As the games become more advanced and appealing to the eye, more and more people are buying the games and paying the monthly fees. All types of people! Geeks, teachers, athletes, construction workers, housewives, etc!

  • Its a Role-Playing Game.

    MMOGs allow us to be an object of our own fantasy and participate in a world with very loose rules that allow us expose us to experiences when we want to experience them. In WoW I have the freedom to create a character that walks around being a bastard to people: swearing at them; stealing their items; player killing defenseless characters (griefing). While at the same time I could make a second character that is the perfect angel. Always willing to help those in need; an active contributing member of a guild; a good party member. I could make a third character with a whole different personality. Thats the beauty of it, you can play how you want with minimal fear of Real Life retaliation. You are simply a character on a screen, nothing more. When you get tired, you simply log off the game and you are back to your real life. A co-worker of mine directed me to this essay that explains this mode of thought:

    If you don’t understand the gravitational pull of an MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game), I’m going to enlighten you with just a dozen words: you get to pick what you look like and what your talents are.

    That’s the real beauty of it. The first thing you do in the MMORPG World of Warcraft is design your own body and decide what your strengths will be. You pick your race. What could be more seductive than that, the ability to turn in all of the cards you were dealt at birth and draw new ones from a face-up deck? If you have friends who’ve gotten sucked into the WoW black hole and you don’t understand why they never talk to you any more, this is it. I remember being a chubby teenager with bad skin and astigmatism and pants that didn’t fit quite right. What would I have given to be reborn as a strapping warrior with rippling pecs and armor of hammered silver?

    On that kid’s screen now is a dozen noble warriors of exotic races, brandishing elaborate weapons and charging a gigantic demon across a fire-scarred mountaintop. The dwarf next to him is controlled by an accountant planted at his own computer in Cleveland, two babies sleeping in the next room and his pregnant wife on the sofa. The robed priest in the back casting healing spells is actually a 250-lb. ex-gangster, playing from the computer lab of a maximum security prison in Pennsylvania. The elf on his left, sprinting and drawing his mighty magical bow, is the digital body of a wheelchair-bound 12 year-old girl in Miami.

  • For some its the social aspect of the game. For example:

    I get my kicks from MMOGs for this very reason. Most MMOGs have some ability to create in-game organizations (in WoW they are called Guilds) and from these organizations grows in-game politics. Bylaws are often created; characters vie for rank; hierarchies are established; there are inter-guild events and disputes. It may seem silly at first glance because its “all a game,” but more often than not these organizations are taken very seriously by their members – despite the fact that they may have a guild name like “Vicious Chickens of Bristol” – and many Real Life friendships can be won and lost. So whats the draw? The ability to socialize with people from around the world and organize under one purpose. People are simply drawn to structure and conflict. I am. I love it :)

  • Yet another reason for MMOG popularity is the story.

    MMOGs typically have a wonderfully rich background story that explains the hows and whys of the virtual world. World of Warcraft (yes, I’m using WoW as the example again because I love it so :) ) has a very wonderful story line that allows its characters to participate in quests that unfold the WoW story to that user. The quests can be anything from a short delivery quest where you take one item from point A to point B, or it can be a whole chain of quests that build up an epic plot, OR it can be a comedic side story that gives an amusing reward. In WoW there are hundreds of quests and every few months many more are added/tweaked. The world is constantly evolving giving those that thrive on storylines plenty of story to keep them active for months and months on end!

What MMOGs Have Become

MMOGs have become an addiction and a communication powerhouse.
I’m a World of Warcraft addict. I play a Human Priest (named Heuric) and help run a guild called the Crimson Eagles. The scary thing is, is the fact that I get so excited even talking about the game (whether verbally or typing). It has become a very real part of my social life. And before you can ask the question, I’ll answer it: No, it is not my only social life…I spend maybe 5-15 hours a week in the game. Seem like a lot to you? Well, I’m considered an almost non-active member in my guild. There are people I know that spend almost all their time at home playing these games…sometimes more than 40 hours a week!

You see…weekends allow for game play times of 10+ hours straight! I have been known to do this and have also been known to forget to eat because of it. Yeah. I often suffer from the “five more minutes….I just need to kill 3 more” syndrome. Well sometimes I don’t miss just one meal…I sometimes may miss 2 and on a couple of rare occasions I have missed 3. Remember when I said that I am considered pretty inactive? Scary huh? Thank god I have a wife that keeps me in line :) (I only miss meals when I’m home alone)

Its an MMOG addiction. And I’m not alone. There are over 3 Million people in the world that own and play World of Warcraft…and thats just one game!

Ten years ago when I wanted to talk to one of my friends, I’d call them up on the phone. 7 years ago I’d e-mail them. 4 years ago I’d instant message them. Now…I log in to WoW. There they all are, running around PKing in Alterac Valley; questing in Searing Gorge; trading in Iron Forge; raiding in UBRS; or grinding in the Western Plaguelands. (all locations in WoW). Despite the fact that they are all doing their own thing, I can type or pop on a headset microphone and and talk to them. We plan get togethers, discuss work, news, politics, religion, etc…right there in game.

MMOGs have become a source of income (and I’m not talking companies)
WTF!?!?! Yeah. People can play for money. While generally frowned upon by both the companies that produce the games and by the average player, the buying and selling of accounts, items, and in-game currency has become a very profitable business. Here’s an article at TechAngel that talks of a man that makes ~$1,800 a month! In this article at 1up.com they explain how game profiteers are establishing Gaming Sweatshops in China, India, Mexico, etc where people are forced to play outrageous hours farming in-game currency for measely wages ($0.59/hour).

This is bad on multiple levels…first and foremost, the workers work long hours for very little money and are placed in situations where if the quit their jobs they’d lose their homes too. Its also bad for in-game economy. (yes, these virtual worlds have their own economy) These gold farmers jack up the prices of items causing many under-handed players to resort to purchasing money on E-bay and various game currency reseller sites…just to purchase a rare item in game! Its amazing to what lengths someone will go simply for the satisfaction of attaining certain items and a certain in-game status.

Where are MMOGs going?

They aren’t leaving any times soon, thats for darn sure. I can speculate that they will continue to grow in popularity and be taken more seriously. Even now we are seeing how serious some are taking these ‘games.’ MSNBC has an article where one man killed another because an in-game sword was stolen…Its a sad story that shows just how real some people believe these to be:

Qui went to the police to report the “theft” but was told the weapon was not real property protected by law.

“Zhu promised to hand over the cash but an angry Qui lost patience and attacked Zhu at his home, stabbing him in the left chest with great force and killing him,” the court was told.

More and more online gamers were seeking justice through the courts over stolen weapons and credits, the newspaper said at the time the case went to trial.

“The armor and swords in games should be deemed as private property as players have to spend money and time for them,” Wang Zongyu, an associate law professor at Beijing’s Renmin University of China, was quoted as saying.

As these incidents occur (and mark my words…more will come) what laws will be birthed because of them? Southeast Asia tends to be on the bleeding edge of gaming/tech culture and obsession. It is here that many of the ‘firsts’ occur (such as the murder mentioned above). Because of these incidents they are attempting to prevent them with some interesting laws:

What laws will carry over world wide? Will there be Real Life implications for what we do in game? Only time will tell…and I will be watching the clock with curiosity and a wary mind.

UPDATE (9/7/2005):
It seems that Slashdot has a post going on how WoW is now the 800-pound gorilla in the room…the big question from the New York Times:

WoW is now the 800-pound gorilla in the room. I think it also applies to the single-player games. If some kid is paying $15 a month on top of the initial $50 investment and is devoting so many hours a week to it, are they really going to go out and buy the next Need for Speed or whatever? There is a real fear that this game, with its incredible time investment, will really cut into game-buying across the industry.’ What is the Slashdot opinion on World of Warcraft’s impact on the gaming industry?