[Over at virtual worlds site WorldsInMotion.biz, we're continuning with the Worlds In Motion Online Atlas, penned by Mathew Kumar - looking at the rapidly advancing free-to-play online game biz. This time round, it's the much advertised-on Gaia Online, and worth noting that I think it's awesome how Mr. Kumar is cutting cleanly through the hype and pointing out what works - and what doesn't - in these environments.]

Here's an overview of Gaia Online, from Gaia Interactive. Gaia Online began as a linklist for anime fans, and has since expanded hugely to feature customizable avatars, an online world with user-owned homes, virtual currency and games. Its core is still based around a huge forum (which averages a million posts a day according to some commentators), but we're taking a look at its MMO aspects.

2008_06_02_gaia.jpgName: Gaia Online
Company: Gaia Interactive
Established: February 2003
How it Works: Gaia Online is experienced on the web through a combination of html, Flash, Java and Shockwave. It requires no installation. Navigation and gameplay are accomplished via mouse and keyboard input.

2008_06_02_gaia2.jpgOverview: Gaia Online's community originally solidified around its forums, and the majority of Gaia Online users still spend most of their time there. However, the site has a massive range of other community options, with customizable avatars and home pages, an online world with towns full of user-owned homes that are just as customizable as the avatars, and games to play (with or against other members of the community).

Payment Method: Gaia Online is free to play, and earns revenue through microtransactions (users can purchase limited-edition items each month, and Gaia Cash), advertising/corporate sponsorship and licensed clothes and accessories.

Key Features:

- Unique avatar with a huge variety of dress-up options
- Customizable home and car for your avatar
- Full social network with a massive forum community
- Games to play with and against other community members
- Items can be bought, sold and traded within the community

Gaia Online: In-Depth Tour

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In our last atlas entry I was astonished by what was on offer when it came to avatar customization with WeeWorld, and I have to say I'm almost as impressed with the options in Gaia Online. Choosing an anime influence rather than South Park, the characters are bright and attractive with a fair range of skin tones, hair, eyes and mouths. The starting outfit selection is far more limited than in WeeWorld, and there's good reason for that, as the majority of "play" in Gaia Online's world is related to earning new clothes for your avatar -- and in that respect there are certainly thousands of different pieces that could be worn in almost any combination.

Once you've created your character and logged in you're given a small amount of gold to start off with (Gaia's internal currency) and left to work out what to do on your own. Now, I'm a seasoned internet user who can even manage to navigate the worst excesses of MySpace, but Gaia is instantly bewildering with its huge range of options and a start page cluttered with information that, for a new player, is confusing at best. I decided to ignore the information overload and start trying to customize my character more to my liking, as I found him rather generic.

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You can alter your character's dress from your avatar page (and in fact have a MySpace like profile page which to show them off with) but to purchase new clothes you have to hit the shops. There are a wide range of stores which sell differing styles of clothing, housewares and other objects, including some sponsored stores like MTV's "Sunset Couture". After looking for a while I realized I had nowhere near enough money to purchase anything, so decided to get my house in running order.

Though the majority of the time on Gaia Online is going to be spent on the html website, whenever you do anything such as play a game or explore the world it loads a Javascript client in a separate window. After you choose your home's style and place it somewhere in the player towns, you can visit it or place objects in it. Placing objects or visiting the home happens in separate clients, however, which can get a little confusing. The player towns themselves are vast "suburbs" with few players milling about -- like many "instanced" player towns in MMORPGs homes are more for inviting friends to (or as personal trophies) rather than an active part of play.

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After setting up my house (it comes with a set of starter furniture) and purchasing some wallpaper and a new floor (disappointingly, I like neither) I decided to purchase a car, a segment of the world that was developed as a result of sponsorship from car manufacturer Scion. I decided to ignore the option to pick up a Scion xB and go for a Possum Coupe. Cars are free to begin with, but like everything else, cosmetic upgrades cost a lot of gold.

I decided to take my unmodified car and "meet up and rally". This launches a new window where, I guess similar to real street racer culture, you park your car in front of a convenience store along with a bunch of other racers and stand around waiting for something to happen – or at least that's what I did until I realized that you're supposed to challenge other racers. Racing is a simple sort of slot car race (hold down accelerate, but slow down when you see an obstacle).

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The other games are all similarly kind of simplistic, but can be quite interesting. There are the usual kind of games (jigsaws, slots) but also a fishing mini-game that kept me playing for quite a while (mostly because it's so difficult with the starting rod and bait) and a pinball game that's pretty passable.

The 'worlds' are arguably more interesting. As seen with rallying, the way Gaia works (or can be thought of) is as a MMO where the player spends most of their time on the web, but launches an instance each time they want to explore a more traditional MMO experience, with an avatar to navigate around, other active players milling about, etc.

As a result the world isn't particularly cohesive, but it allows them a vast ability to create some wildly disparate worlds. I found myself investigating Virtual Hollywood for a short period of time, but was (surprisingly) most enamoured with the Skittles Quest world, perhaps because it had some very obvious tasks to complete -- such as being asked to watch a Skittles advertisement in the cinema to gain an object.

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The cinema is kind of cute too. Think of it as YouTube with avatars -- you can enter a room and watch even full movies(!) with up to 30 other users, who seem to spend most of their time chatting and throwing objects at the screen. It's like an unbearable Saturday matinee if you think of watching videos as a personal experience, but it'd be a great way to watch videos with other friends on other computers concurrently. And hey, I managed to win some clothes by watching the "Don't Mess With the Zohan" trailer! (Though I don't know if it was worth it, really.)

I haven't talked too much about my feelings on Gaia Online yet as I want to save that for the conclusion, but in advance of that I will say that Gaia might be the most interesting world I've seen yet in terms of culture -- it's an almost completely bonkers mish-mash of anime and corporate sponsorship spread over a willfully strange mix of MMO and social network that has an absolutely huge community. I almost don't quite know what to make of it.

Gaia Online: Conclusion

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Let's get the most important complaints out up front -- if there's one main problem I've found with Gaia Online it's that it is incredibly flaky to get working. I can't place too much blame on my end (I'm running a PC only a few months old, with all my software up to date, and running an internet connection that's proven more than acceptable for all other tasks) but Gaia Online is slow, prone to timeouts, crashes and generally feels completely unstable.

I've tried to spend as much time playing Gaia Online as possible, and I think it may simply be the case that it's just too popular. There's an average of 80,000+ people online at any one time (well, when I've been playing it) and that seems a likely reason for it to slow to a crawl even when I'm just trying to load my profile. The crashes are worse, because they tend to come when loading or closing the javascript MMO sections, which doesn't make me think the technology is up to it.

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In addition -- and this is probably because Gaia Online has been built up over such a long period of time -- the interface is unbearably bad. Trying to buy new clothes for my avatar was such an uncomfortable challenge (go to a wide array of poorly arranged shops, look at tiny versions of clothes, have to click and fiddle with to preview, etc.) that I just didn't want to do it. Doing anything in the MMO areas opened new windows that I was never sure how to close without messing things up, and there are just so many options arranged in what feels like a near random manner doing absolutely anything in Gaia was, well, unpleasant.

In fact, it feels like these are all good reasons that the majority of Gaia Online players tend to only use the forums, with their avatar about as far as they go when it comes to the MMO options. Perhaps it's simply that at the ripe old age of 26 I'm no longer young or hip enough to put up with the kind of interfaces the generally younger audience of Gaia Online are, but it was not the kind of experience that made me want to continue.

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Neither did the community I found either. I'd like to restate that I spent almost no time on the forums, which seem fine (your usual sort of thing) but the community in the MMO worlds, while not as rabidly monosyllabic as those found in WeeWorld, were not particularly exciting. No obvious chatter, collaboration or even a particular air of fun was to be found anywhere I visited (other than possibly in the fishing game, for some reason) and as a result the whole thing left me flat.

From my conclusion, you'd be fair to say that I thought Gaia Online was absolutely terrible; you'd also be fair to question why it's so popular if it's as bad as I say it is – am I just missing the point? I don't think so. Gaia Online's popularity has grown from its forums, and that's where it mostly stays. The MMO aspects are good in theory at engaging the audience, but they're currently so badly implemented that it's no wonder that few players take them up on it.

However, I don't think that's particularly a problem for them from a business standpoint. Gaia Online is very successful, particularly in attracting sponsors, and their other monetization ideas, such as limited edition items for avatars, are very canny indeed. There are more than enough users willing to put up with the clunky interface and slow loading to watch adverts in the hope of getting swag for their avatar -- after all, I spent time learning about Don't Mess with the Zohan, Skittles and MTV while there – that I think it will remain very successful for them. It's just not worthy of it.

[UPDATE: We've been reliably informed by Gaia Online (and by our own tests) that the Gaia Towns, seen crashing in an image above, now loads far more often than it did before (around 99% of the time). So it's worth noting that they are trying to improve the system behind the scenes.]

Useful Links:
Gaiapedia
Gaia FAQ/Help
Gaia Forums