There is no pattern here

I haven’t written in a while, not because there is nothing to say, but because I have been busy with other stuff. So here is a post of random thoughts.

Gaming thoughts

So last month L.A. Noire, advertised as the most expensive game ever, was released for XBOX360 and PS3, but not for PC. People keep talking about a “next generation” in consoles, but that next gen already exists among us PC enthusiasts. Now I do not want to start a war between consoles and PCs, but this is something I have learned and have numerous examples to its veracity: Complex games are far better on PCs than they are on consoles. Console controllers are fine for simple games like arcade ports, 2D scrollers, racing games, simple sports sims, etc., but for FPS, or third person 3D, or RTS games, PC controls are far superior. Keyboard in one hand and mouse in the other just feels more natural than two thumb controls and a dozen awkwardly placed buttons on controllers designed for 12 year old hands.

So why do gaming companies not support PC gaming anymore? Most likely it is sales, and also copy protection, and not having to try and support 3 dozen different graphics cards, all good reasons. But games are hitting an upper limit in how complex they can be by pandering to consoles. A complex game like L.A. Noire could be a lot better on a PC, but there are no plans to port it.  Even though I own both an XBOX360 and a PS3, I will not be getting it anytime soon.  I already got Red Dead Redemption collecting dust, having never gotten past the tutorial because I hated the controls so much.  (I don’t really play game with controllers, I use my PS3 for watching videos, and my XBOX360 for playing Kinect Sports and occasionally Windows Media Center).

I tried the demo for Dragon Age 2 on my PS3, the PC version is better.  I tried console and PC versions of DC Universe Online, and the PC version is better.  They ran into a problem on DCUO in that there is a power combo that is uber powerful when played on the PC version (specifically the Transmutation power in the Sorcery line and Shuriken Storm on the Martial Arts line would, when executed in sync, do massive amounts of AoE damage).  This combo was easy to execute on the keyboard/mouse, but damn near impossible to do on the console controls for the PS3 version.  The problem was that there was no fix for the PC version that did not create a massive nerf of the PS3 version.  I do not know if they ever fixed it, I stopped playing DCUO back in February, and haven’t gone back.

WTF is going on here?

Another blogger name Cyber Trekker over at http://thegreatslexpedition.blogspot.com/ has been posting a lot that Cyberspace (aka the Metaverse, aka the 3D web) is already dead, thanks to mobile communications which are moving people back to “reality”.  (He’s not the only one, I have been seeing a lot of 3D web is dying articles lately, this was just one).  Simultaneously I see this video demonstrating Windows 8’s new interface model, which looks like Microsoft has plans to turn the PC into a big Windows phone.  Simultaneously EA announces that SimCity 5 will be a Facebook App. Meanwhile, famous game designer Richard Garriott wants to create a new “semi-3D” Virtual world portal that will tie social networks like Facebook, with mobile apps, with new virtual worlds into one big happy family.

I’m sorry but, this is insane.

Let me be clear: There is enough room on the Internet for everything and everybody.  Some may get the impression that the 3D virtual worlds are dying because their “share” of the internet is getting smaller.  In fact, the 3D Web continues to grow and it is only a matter of time before it too expands into the realm of mobile computing.  Its already making minor dents. But I have always said that the 3D web will never take over the 2D web, instead they will enhance each other.

Second: Memo to Microsoft: If I wanted to have my PC work like a tablet, I would just get a freaking tablet.  The Windows 7 interface is the greatest PC interface ever, and I already have gadgets on my desktop that show me news and weather and other stuff, and it is a lot prettier than the ugly orange-green-blue-purple mobile phone interface you are pushing for Windows 8.  Why not multiple interface models? One for traditional keyboard and mouse, one for “touch screen”, and one for Kinect?  You did not think of Kinect did you?  The bottom line is this: If you focus on merging the PC experience with the mobile experience, you are going to lose on both fronts.  Android, based off Linux, is already available for PCs that want to behave like mobile phones. There is no need to have common interfaces between devices.

Thirdly, Facebook sucks for gaming!  I know how the 300 million facebook users seems like a huge audience for gaming, especially social gaming, but every game on Facebook is a novelty at best.  SimCity might do well, as long as it is simplified to the casual user (wasn’t that what the godawful SimCity Societies try to be?)  As far as trying to interface a virtual world with Facebook, its been tried multiple times, always ending up in failure.  Facebook is a place designed for real people and real identities, virtual worlds are place for fantasy and role play make believe.  Are you really interested in letting your family, friends, and workplace know about your cosplay activities? Virtual Worlds and real life Social Networks do not belong together, ever!

Is there a pattern here? We have console game designers trying to turn console gaming into something it is not. We have advocates of mobile computing saying that mobile computing will take over everything, which is clearly not true. We have game designers tinkering with gaming on social networks, something it is clearly not designed for.  We continue to have people wanting to merge social networking and virtual worlding, which are incompatible.

The only pattern I can see is that there seems to be an ongoing battle between those that want to merge everything together, and those like me that think we are better off using the right tools for the right uses.  But this battle has been going on for a couple of decades.  In the 90’s “portal” websites like AOL and Yahoo wanted to be everything for everybody.  They wanted to make their websites so complete, there would never be any reason to go anywhere else.  They failed of course, but a lot of good came out of those attempts.  Now Facebook wants to play the “portal” role, and mobile phones and gaming consoles want to eliminate the need for PCs, and none of these objectives will succeed, but maybe some good will come out of the attempts.

Or, maybe there is no pattern here.

Second Life Given Back to the Role Players

The Tesla Room in the soon to close France3D futuna sim

So I spent a  fair amount of posts devoted to what seems to be a battle of “visions” going on in Second Life.  A string of posts starting with this one I wrote a year ago.  I have written so many I just decided to create a new sl visions tag. Click to see all the related posts.

So here is the story in a paragraph.  There have been three competing “visions” of what SL should be: The role-player vision, the merchant vision, and the 3D Facebook vision.  Since the resignation of the last CEO Mark Kingdon, the temporary CEO Philip Rosedale has systematically disassembled the 3D Facebook vision, largely because it is unworkable (as I predicted).  Because of the resources spent, changes requested by the merchants have not only not happened, but actually they are worse now.  Merchants continue to quit with profits way down.  That leaves us role players basically in charge, and if you have seen the latest re-design of the main Second Life page, you will see, that SL has recognized it as well.  We are back to “Your World, Your Imagination” again (though not in those exact words).

Now a lot has happened under the brief Rosedale administration:

  • Second Life Enterprise Grid – Gone
  • Basic account support – Gone
  • Premium support – once 24 hours, now limited hours
  • Non-Profit/Educational Sim discounts – Gone (or soon will be)
  • Avatars United – Gone
  • X-Street, soon to be integrated into game, currency exchange Gone
  • Teen Grid – Gone (or soon will be)
  • Community Gateways – Gone

Now many of these I am sad to see are disappearing, while others I say good riddance.  What they are doing is simplifying the whole thing.  Simplifying, always a good thing.  The general philosophy is now a “hands off” policy, meaning they are giving us players more autonomy.

Meanwhile, check out where their current development efforts are focused:

  • Mesh
  • Display Names
  • Voice Morphing
  • Wearable Avatar Physics
  • Havok 7 support

Here is what they all have in common:  They are all good for us role players.  If you are in SL because you enjoy pretending you are someone else, whether that is a formal role player in a community, or an informal role player pretending to be someone you are not, then SL seems to be catering to you again, after a couple of years where they weren’t.

Here’s the cloud to go along with that silver lining.  Philip Rosedale has stepped down, and Linden Lab is once again looking for a new CEO.  Furthermore, there is good evidence that the remaining employees don’t really seem to “get” the whole RP vision thing.  Here is hoping they hire someone who does.  Unfortunately, I am not that hopeful.

Wither the Merchant Vision

So there are now two different visions left about what Second Life is, or should be. What vision you are apart of is largely based on what motivates you to play. I call these visions “role play” and “merchant” as a short hand way of understanding them.

There are builders who build for fun, they are part of the role play vision. There are builders who build for profit, they are part of the merchant vision. There is a lot of mixing and gray area obviously.

We can all see that SL has plateaued, and will likely decline soon. This is very bad for the Merchants. It is possible that Mesh could revitalize the market, but I am leaning to the idea that it will radically change the market so much that it is unlikely to help the current merchants.

Most of us Role Players have accounts in other places, especially many open sim grids. When SL closes, we’ll probably spend a little time mourning, then we’ll be elsewhere.  Us non-merchant types will likely move on to Open Sim and start building there. Heck, a lot of them already are. Similarly the various role play communities would move and rebuild as well.

The Merchants don’t have many other places to go.  With no currency, no theft protection, no one to file a DMCA complaint to, the merchants have no desire to move to Open Sim, even if there were no SL.  The market place in SL is one of a kind, the closest is IMVU, and it is about a tenth of the size of SL.

The RPers may have built SL, but it is the merchants that made SL popular, they provide most of the content we RPers enjoy.  We non-merchant RPers are better off with the merchants around, which means we are better off with SL around.

I believe that when SL eventually closes, there will be a new virtual goods market somewhere, innovation abhors a vacuum.  Maybe not of the same nature as SL, but I see other virtual good markets, like Renderosity and various app markets, succeeding in other similar venues, so it is only a matter of time before there is another virtual goods market where creative people can make a few bucks.  This is another topic I have already written about.

The Mainstreaming of SL (or why I will reduce my coverage of Second Life)

On a web page I wrote about the history of computer animation, I charted how the industry went from cutting edge to mainstream in about a decade, wearing off the novelty, but still producing quality from time to time.  I believe that is the present state of SL today.

Second Life is becoming “mainstream”.

I have said on a few occasions that SL is like a 3D AOL before the world wide web exploded. In the early days of the web it was fun exploring new web sites to see what people were posting. As the web progressed, the number of web sites exploded, and the overall quality improved.

At that time I was a reader of PC Magazine and they were doing an annual “Best of the Web” list each year. They had to stop when the web reached a saturation point.  I feel like we have reached that point in Second Life.

We used to go to really original places like Svarga, Straylight, and Insilico and be amazed. Now dozens of new servers pop up monthly with similar looks to these places.  It is getting harder and harder for builders to trump the latest, and even if they do get something amazing built, it gets lost in the noise.

The overall quality of SL region builds is going up, which is a good thing for us players that love to explore, but it is getting harder and harder to find places unique and original and wonderful enough to blog about. My next post is going to be the my second annual best of SL, and it will probably be my last best of list.

At the same time SL is changing its business model. Recent xstreet changes have been made which have upset casual merchants, but at the same time should help keep the copybot pirates from making a quick buck. SL is also limiting scripts people can run simultaneously, and making other changes that hurts the “freedom” in SL, but should make the platform more attractive for casual “mainstream” users.

All of this is following the same trend we saw in computer animation and the world wide web.  We are reaching a saturation point. Second Life is no longer cutting edge, instead it has dulled a bit.

The cutting edge is in the Open Sim community, which still is working on improving the platform to match SL, and hopefully surpassing it soon.

The potential cutting edge can also be seen in Blue Mars, which recently added the Caledon “steam punk” community from Second Life to Blue Mars and is opening stores.

My current plan is to keep this blog going, but instead of pushing myself to post every week, I may post only when I find something to post about.  Hopefully there will be enough to keep me busy.

Why BUILDERBOT is an Awesome Idea!

The Second Life world seems to have its panties in a bunch over a new 3rd party utility by Rezzable dubbed Builderbot.

Basically, Builderbot can copy every object in an Second Life sim and put it into an OAR file that can be loaded onto any OpenSim server, thus making a near exact copy (scripts as usual are a problem).  They also are creating an OAR editor, and (even more impressively) a way to port OAR files into Second Life, thus making transfers from OpenSim to Second Life possible.

There are two things that are upsetting to the Second Life community: 1. Builderbot does not look at copy permissions or ownership, it just copies everything on the sim. 2. Rezzable was planning to release the SL to OAR part of the Builderbot for free.  These things had the whole community grabbing torches and pitchforks ready to boycot Rezzable. Rezzable finally gave into demand and will not be releasing the SL to OAR part free.

Hate to be the person that disagrees with pretty much everybody on this issue, but maybe I’m the only one who sees the big picture. Builderbot is an awesome idea and a key component to expansion of the 3D web. It is probably the most important 3rd party SL utility ever, and if Rezzable doesn’t release theirs, someone out there should release something similar, including the ignoring copy permissions and ownership part.

Mobile Building

Lets start with the obvious need for Builderbot. Currently, putting a build in Second Life requires that you actually be in Second Life and spend sometimes weeks building there, paying monthly tier as you build. If you want to take your time and do it right it will cost you. Then there is the occasional system hiccup that could cost you hours of work.

Builderbot does two things, it moves the building part of the project off the SL grid. You can now build your server build on your own computer, no system outages to worry about. You can save and backup your work to OAR files as often as you like. If you make a mistake, just load the latest backup. When you are done building and ready to move your build to SL, it can be moved into SL in a matter of minutes, or at most hours. This is the primary design of this program.

Fixing SL’s Design Flaws

Second Life as it was initially concieved is a flawed system. Whoever thought it was a good idea to equate Real Estate with computing power, I hope they have learned a valuable lesson. I have written about this major flaw before. Bottom line, SL runs on thousands of computers, and as many as 80% are not doing anything at any given time.

The obvious fix is to store unused regions in memory and load them up to an available server as needed. Linden Labs could cut their server need by 50-75% with such a system.

They could also bring up mirrored instances of extra busy servers. Want to give a concert that 1,000 people can attand? Just copy the build on 10 different servers that can service 100 people each. If more people want to show up, add more instances.

None of this is possible without a reliable backup system. OpenSim has OAR files, SL has got copybot (basically nothing). What Rezzable is doing is creating a tool to save SL regions as OAR files that can be stored when not in use, quickly loaded when needed, quickly mirrored on multiple servers. Obviously there is some extra programming involved to do all this, but considering the cost savings it is definitely something worth doing.

Why it is necessary to ignore permissions

The biggest concern from most of the Second Life players, is that Builderbot ignores permission. Copy a region, move to OpenSim, and everything in that region has no permissions at all. Anything in Second Life could be quickly copied, permissions be damned.

Rezzable argues that there is nothing in SL that cant be copied already. Players argue “True, but you shouldn’t make it so easy.”

Building a region is like building a website. I build websites myself and anyone can steal my code by right clicking and click “view source”, and there is nothing I can do to stop it. It is super easy.

What most Second Life players  are asking for is DRM management for SL content!

DRM has been a failure everywhere it is tried. Music, video, ebooks, the case against DRM is pretty clear. Read boingboing.net to find out why. How many of you asking for DRM for SL have stripped DRM off a music or video file so you can play it in the format you want?

A Future Marketplace

I come from the 3D Artist community where people build and sell detailed models for use in other people’s projects. All of these models are distributed DRM free and fully copyable and sharable. Yes, there is piracy in 3D models, but it is part of the cost of doing business. But since I do artwork I may want to sell, I pay for all my models and commercial licenses.  This business model is where the 3D web (SL and Opensim) will eventually go.

Most SL players are thinking in L$ economic terms without seeing the big picture. Eventually there will be an xstreet for all grids, and the ability to buy a pre built full region builds (OAR files) to load on to your personal server or hosted server is likely to be a new popular alternative method to static build exploring.

There is much money to be made in building custom regions.  Especially commercial clients who would not dare copy other people’s work. Individual objects and props have their place in the new marketplace as well, especially if they include commercial licenses that will allow the objects to be put into other builds.

I believe this could be a huge market. If I could explore lag free by loading OAR downloads to my computer based open sim server, I would love it! If I could edit them and share with others to show my edits, that would be really awesome as well. I’m quite certain I am not the only one.

The possibilities for Second Life are numerous as well. Can you imagine the fun of going to an SL club that has a different build for every event? Random combat locales? Roleplay setting that can be brought up as needed?

Like it or not this is the future! Second Life is just the early primitive beginning. In a few years we will probably wonder what all the fuss was about.