The massive hype around virtual worlds died down over a year ago as the spotlight shifted over to Facebook and Twitter. According to Gartner's newly released 2009 Hype Cycle Report, virtual worlds are stuck in the deep valley of their trough of disillusionment (nice name for a blog that!) as is the supposed fate of all superhyped phenomena. They may have sunk below the media radar but there's plenty going on as a recent short article in the Guardian (Virtual worlds are getting a second life) shows.
According to the article, "membership of virtual worlds grew by 39% in the second quarter of 2009 to an estimated 579 million". This includes all types of virtual world with World of Warcraft, Second Life and Entropia being the most famous. Hardly the trough of disillusionment.
The main point of the article is that virtual worlds are actually earning money in stark contrast to Facebook and Twitter. This income comes from millions of micropayments since members are willing to part with real money to buy virtual fashion, weapons, special powers, real estate and so on. There's so much focus just now on the free aspect of the net that it's fascinating to find an area where everything costs, but not enough that you'd notice. Virtual clothes, bodies and weapons are indeed digital but in the virtual world they are scarce resources, difficult to reproduce and therefore they can be bought and sold. The inhabitants of SL and WoW seem to have bought into the concept of a commercial virtual world and I haven't heard many cries for it all to be free.
SL has suffered over the years for its infamous tendency to lag and crash often due to the fact that all the content is user-created and sometimes an area is too graphics intensive to support more than a handful of avatars at one time. Giving users the ability to freely build and create and then earn money from their creativity is the main strength of worlds like SL but the downside is that this freedom is at the expense of performance reliability. WoW on the other hand has excellent graphics and less lag due to the world being created by the owners and with very little user creativity.
The next stage is the long awaited ability to move from one world to another and resolving the graphics issues. Then maybe the technology will merit a place on Gartner's slope of enlightenment leading to the plateau of productivity.