IMVU is a much more stripped-down social experience than Second Life, but it still holds its own. I actually found myself enjoying the heck out of certain aspects probably because I like a game to actually work as promised. IMVU runs in a browser-like environment but still looks respectable most of the time.
I am as surprised as anyone that I had a darn good time.
Instant Messaging Virtual Universe? What?
I thought it would be something more on the scandalous side, not something that sounds like an explanation from a late 1980s futurism flick.
Anyway, I spent a good deal of time in IMVU customizing my character. Really, most of the gameplay is about customization in some form or another. Players make characters that look like they do and then spend countless hours perfecting that look. I got sucked in. There are so many designers and different styles in the IMVU cash shop that I literally got lost. I had no idea whether what I was looking at was for a boy or girl or both (some of the categories became mixed), and I began to become a little depressed that I could not make an avatar that resembled my 38 year-old self. In fact, I spent so much time wading through emo haircuts and androgynous looks that I finally had to search for "old" in order to find a decent looking skin for my character to wear. I grabbed some knock-off Chuck Taylors and threw on a black t-shirt and a pair of plain pants. I was also able to find plenty of cheap glasses to represent my real cheap glasses, making my avatar look like an Elf version of my real self.
I know that many of you will claim that a social MMO like IMVU is for tween girls only, but I want to take issue with that. First, there are a lot of people who truly find peace while roleplaying someone who is their polar opposite. I'm not talking about creepy old dudes pretending to be little girls, so just skip those jokes, please. I'm talking about disabled players, players who might have a bad case of shyness, or even people who just want to try out something they have never tried before. Being able to immerse yourself into a world of what amounts to dress-up can be quite fun.
Second, many players in IMVU would say that someone who spends all night killing orcs is even weirder than they are. After all, there is often no real socialization going on during those epic battles, so what's the point in playing a multiplayer game? I can see both sides.
For those who do lean more to the MMORPG side of things, exploration is pretty fun in IMVU as well. The worlds and rooms are really instanced chat rooms that allow only a certain number of people inside, so we can put IMVU into the "almost-an-MMO" category. As is often the case with Rise and Shiny, I wasn't up on all of the mechanics involved in my choice of game for the week, so I missed the fact that IMVU is not really a true MMO. There are still some great design decisions made in the game, though -- decisions that can be applied to MMOs.
Exploring those instanced chat rooms often leads to some pretty cool places. It can lead to some horrible, poorly designed places as well, but more often than not, I found myself in a masterpiece. Players have built entire jungles, fairy lakes, eerie swamps, and more Gothic sets than I could count. The distinct difference between IMVU and most other social MMOs is the fact that players do not actually walk across these areas; instead, they click on pre-selected areas on the landscape. I found myself clicking on a stairwell, and my character would flash to the spot and sit down. I'd click on a chair below, and my character would suddenly be in a thoughtful sitting position. Many of these pre-chosen positions come with some nice animations. I even found myself being attacked by a giant gorilla, eventually being picked up by the brute.
At first I hated how IMVU's "movement" worked. What is the point of forbidding players to move anywhere... especially in a social MMO? But soon, I started to enjoy how easy it was to explore a new chat room or to find a really cozy spot without having to navigate the scenery. I know it sounds strange and completely anti-MMO, but I can't explain it any other way but to say that we often roleplay in our games, and when we do, it's rarely a speedy activity. If I settle down with a buddy to discuss the in-game weather while in character, I'm likely going to do it while sitting down, maybe in front of a nice fire. IMVU's chat rooms aren't really large enough to require quick movement, either.
The developers of IMVU offer an 18-and-over club for those who are into... I don't know, sparkly roleplay? But I stayed away from that. No matter my opinion on virtual sex, I won't knock anyone who might enjoy it. Many of those players can find an outlet only in a virtual world, and that's fine with me as long as everyone involved is fine with it as well. IMVU was pretty obvious in the segregation of 18-and-overs and the rest of us. As far as I could tell, it was a cleanly run operation. Of course, I might have just had my back turned at the wrong time.
IMVU is a pretty good choice if you are looking for customization, socializing, and even making some real-life money from your designs. While my design days are far behind me, I love seeing games that allow players to make some money from their passion. In fact, our own MJ Guthrie wrote about the very topic recently.
Would I recommend IMVU to everyone? No, but then I wouldn't recommend Darkfall or EverQuest to everyone either. But if you enjoy stopping for a bit to actually chat with fellow players, check out IMVU. The free trial is limiting but can easily give you a good idea whether you'll like the game enough to pay monthly or to buy credits. Heck, you might find that you love to play dress up!
Next week starts several weeks of older MMO coverage from me. I'm going to be streaming, Rise and Shiny-ing, and writing all about pre-World of Warcraft MMOs. There are several anniversaries coming up, so let's start with Ultima Online. I'll play it next week, starting by livestreaming it on Monday, the 1st of October, at 5:00 p.m. EDT right here on our Twitch.tv channel! I'll be joined by some members of the Ultima Online developer team as well. Come chat with us!
Each week on Rise and Shiny, Beau chooses a different free-to-play, indie, or browser-based game and jumps in head-first. It might be amazing or it might be a dud, but either way, he'll deliver his new-player impressions to you. Drop him an email, comment, or tweet!