The Austin Game Developers Conference featured one of the first official public dissections of the Lively by Google virtual world (or virtual room), and I got a chance to sit down with the project’s creative director, Kevin Hanna in advance of that talk.

One of the news tidbits: Lively could be expanded into the casual game space as Google plans to release guidelines for more interactive components, meaning games, inside Lively spaces.

“We’re about to open up the API for interactive gadgets – meaning games,” he said.

He gives the example of walking into a room with classic arcade machines, and being able to play those games. The timeline for that is long term, but Hanna said that could eventually include larger scale games, “allowing users and developers to build games on top of the architecture.”

He said Google took a different approach to the project by creating a spin-off company in Seattle called X-Ray Kid.  They spent two years developing the content, and will continue to work closely with Google on Lively’s future.

The project was shrouded in secrecy from the start, and Hanna was previously at Disney and said that Google didn’t tell him what it was up to when he was interviewing for the job.
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“But I knew the type of people they were hiring,” he said.

Those early rumors – having something to do with Google Earth and Flight Simulators, said Hanna, were mostly inaccurate.  He describes Lively as a 3-D space to personify oneself through a cartoon-like avatar, or virtual character. In that respect, it’s a lot more like the 3-D avatar chat rooms of IMVU and the 2-D avatar chat rooms of Gaia Online and Habbo. The strategy resembles Sony’s Home virtual world for the PlayStation Network, available to PlayStation 3 users. Except Home, of course, is tied to the PS 3 only.

It’s different experience, he stresses throughout our talk.  It isn’t a replacement for MySpace or Facebook.  “Ours is designed to augment these existing ones.”  Nor is it supposed to be immersive like Second Life and it instead offers a more casual experience.

“We’re looking at a little more asynchronous things to do,” Hanna said, meaning that users can communicate without being logged into the room all the time, akin to exchanging text messages on a cell phone.

He said that as a way to answer critics who point out Google’s virtual world is deserted.  His example is a Facebook embed that let’s friends know about changes to a user’s Lively room.  “People who know each other are able to connect easily,” he added.

“This isn’t a fake beta – this is a very real beta,” Hanna continued, taking note of Google’s habit of starting things that don’t always get finished. “The Google model is ‘it’s finished when it’s done.’”  He referred to the Gmail beta, which simply went live one day.  The same will be true for Lively, he predicted.  “I think no one will even notice when it does.”

Internally, the company sees Lively as a rousing success, he said.  “Our user-base exceeded every number that we had put down,”says Hanna. “So, in that sense, our beta is more successful than most launched products.”

Hanna didn’t have current figures with him, and points out that there are many ways to parse the data, but he talks about how Google had data from similar and competing services, and what those retention rates were. The traffic pattern on Compete.com suggests that interest is starting to trail off already.

But Hanna said, “Our retention base is higher than what any reasonable expectations were.”

And going forward, this is all free, Hanna tells me, stating: “Google has no interest in virtual dollars.” That runs against the current business models of other players in the market, such as IMVU.

“It’s never been our intent to make money that way…we don’t want virtual dollars.” That doesn’t mean that the system is restricted.  “There is the architecture for user-to-user, peer-to-peer monetization.  There can be forms of peer-to-peer currency the users can develop themselves.”

But officially, the company has no plans or mechanisms for monetizing Lively.  Nor is Hanna able to speak about AdScape, the in-game advertising company that Google purchased in February of last year.


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