Metaverse in Transition

I have not written anything in a couple of weeks because I have been busy working on the sequel.

Meanwhile…  There are many little things going on in metaverse land worth bringing up.

First, is the fast decline of Worlds of Warcraft. They are losing net subscribers at a rate of about 100,000 a month.  Currently they sit at 11.1 million and falling.  They are still the number one MMORPG out there by a long shot, but the declining numbers indicates a change in the market I figured would eventually come.

Let’s just say it: World of Warcraft is getting old.  It’s “look” is dated, and people are more attracted to the much better looking new releases like Rift and Aion.  Competition from the “free to play” games is getting tighter too.  At this point, adding new content will boost numbers some, but each “expansion” will be less and less effective.  Developing new content is expensive and time consuming, and at some point you just have to say,  “Time for a new game.”

Speaking of which, I’m getting excited for Guild Wars 2, which unfortunately still has a “sometime in 2011” release date.  November is packed for new game releases, and I hope it does not get lost in the mix.  GW2 and Skyrim are the two games I am most looking forward to.

And speaking of “dated”, There.com is now taking preregistration for their re-release.  Right now they are opening the ThereIM client “by invitation”, and you can reclaim your old account if you remember the login and password, you are over 18, and willing to pay $10 a month.  As nostalgic as I am about my There days, I am not feeling enough desire to go back in.  I wish them good luck in their re-release, but I think I’ll be watching from the outside.

Meanwhile in Second Life, the very long awaited release of mesh is getting close.  They released a “beta” viewer dubbed 3.0, which is the same as 2.0 but with mesh integrated in it.  Second Life has been growing a bit stale lately.  Many older great builds, stores, designer, etc. have been leaving.  I believe the “mesh” age will be a renaissance of sorts, and I am definitely looking forward to new builds and new stuff to see on the main grid when it finally goes live.  Be warned that only paying members will be allowed to upload mesh objects, and the prim cost of having mesh objects in world is higher than expected too, so those will be limiting factors.  I totally understand the first restriction as it is necessary to prevent a rash of copyrighted mesh objects from other games flooding Second Life.  The second restriction can change in the future.

Still, mesh has yet to reach the main grid.  Open Sim already has it, as long as you are using a mesh enabled viewer.  The sooner it gets to the main grid, the better.

Favorite There Moments

So I need to make one last There.com post just to say goodbye.  The pic above is the first screenshot I took in There.  Most of the people in the screenshot, especially Twiddler, Marykins, and Emilia are people I knew in The Sims Online, and they encouraged me to sign up for beta.

Our primary activity in The Sims Online was making gnome statues to the point we were getting pretty sick of it.  The first item I submitted (and got approved) was a shirt with a gnome on it.  (Don’t tell anyone, I stole the gnome image from the TSO load files)

I never became a big developer in There, I sold enough stuff to get by. I lucked out and got a funzone (Ebony Rock) and made enough money to pay the rent on the thing. I left the funzone open for anyone to schedule events, because I was mad that There sold them off and left it up to the owners to decide who gets to use the funzones.  There was much more fun when they were all open and anyone could schedule an event.  So I was able to buy one that I could save and leave open.  Eventually, I stopped playing There and was running short of therebucks needed to keep up the rent so I sold it via auction. The thing sold for T$300,000 (about $150 US), and never had to buy Therebux again.  I think I still had around T$220,000 left when There closed.  When all the gains and losses are added up, I basically played for free, so Makena can keep my left over Therebucks if they want.

A community as large as There is going to attract some troublemakers, and no one was as notorious as Jopy. He got into There in early beta and took to heart the beta mantra of testing everything.  In the early days before port-a-zones, we could drop stuff anywhere we wanted, Jopy purposely ruined every scenic location in There with gigantic signs and lots of other crap.  He was well hated, but after a while many of us just started laughing at his exploits. A ton of improvements were made thanks to Jopy.  Anyways, one day I found Jopy left his custom buggy out for me to steal, and I hid it in the last place he would ever look… the egyptian sarcophagus.  It was very Jopy of me.

My first day in there, I got a “try it” hoverboard and liked it so much, I bought a jet black advanced hoverboard and rode that thing everywhere.  From day 1 until my very last day in There, I was on that board wandering around the countryside.  Somehow I never achieved “Legendary” status on that thing, but came damn close. I never achieved legendary status in any activity, but ended up as “renowned” in most of them.  Hoverboarding was my favorite activity…

… with underwear parties coming in a close second. 🙂

One of the There newspapers had a contest for a There version of a famous painting and I submitted a There version of “Nighthawks” by Edward Hopper.  I came in second if I remember.

One of the bigger There independent developers Kittenkat came up with a way to change all the graphic files in There and turn There into a winter wonderland.  The idea of a wintery landscape eventually was added to the game in the form of “frosty” island.

Nudity was not allowed in There of course, but there were plenty of ways to fake it.  All you had to do was replace one of the shirt files with a skin tone file.

In the early days of There, I created a “nude patch” replacing the lame reward shirts with female bare chest shirts.  The reward shirt for hoverboarding “Ride” was the female bare chest for caramel skin, the most popular skin tone.  Eventually, they replaced the reward shirts with better prizes.  Months later hoverboarding “Ride” shirts became rare and were selling for ridiculously high prices.  The culprit was my nude patch which somehow became an underground sensation, especially at dance clubs.  If you had carmel skin, and wore a “ride” shirt, everyone with my nude patch would see you topless.

I preferred the Latte skin color which used the much less expensive “Host” shirt.

That is not all that I was famous for. I created the first ever “picture quest”.  Quests that tell stories were all the rage, but one of the things you could do with the quest kits was link to a web page.  So I took screen shots of me at 10 nearby locations, and in each quest clue I would give you a general direction to follow and a link to one of the screenshots.  The next clue would be located wherever I was standing in the shot.

I only did one, but the concept was popular enough that dozens of other picture quests appeared around There. The most popular variation on the theme, however, was the cross country buggy races. I loved those events, and won at least twice.

I mentioned before that the first ever official live concert in a virtual world by a signed band was held in There by British band Steadman.  You can listen to the concert here.  After the concert I was caught ass grabbing one of the band members 🙂

So many memories, but it is now over 😦  One last pic to post.

Wish I was too!

Memo to 3DVW Devs: "It’s the AVATARS Stupid!"

I’m following up my 3 part problems with 3D Virtual Worlds (3DVWs) with a series of at least three observations on what REALLY makes a good 3DVW. There is a surprising amount of myths in this regard. It seems most builders of 3DVWs do not understand their own potential audience.

Lets start with something that most all players understand, but as far as I can tell most game developers do not: “It’s the AVATARS Stupid!”

I have listed on my website something like 25 active 3D virtual worlds. Of these 25, how many have really great avatars?

The answer is zero.   I counted … twice.

I’ll tell you what a really great avatar is. Its an avatar that looks like PS3 Home’s avatars, behave like There.com’s avatars, and is as versatile and adaptable as Second Life’s avatars. Not one 3D Virtual world fits all 3 bills, especially Home, There, and SL.

People define who they are in virtual worlds by their avatar.  It is important for most players to have the means to create an avatar that is unique and at the same time beautiful.

Most 3DVW devs don’t get this. They are more focused on building a world to explore, or building the tools to let players build a world to explore. This is also important, no doubt, but no matter how nice your world is or how great the tools you develop, people will not stay very long if the avatars suck. I’ve seen it happen, heck I have done it myself.

Now I could spend the rest of this post trashing all the bad avatars, but that would not be helpful. Instead I am going to go over the almost good 3DVW avatars that are out there and tell you whats good about them and what needs to be in any future 3DVWs, if you want any chance to be successful.

Playstation 3 Home Avatars

I do not own a Playstation 3, so I am not an expert, but there are enough videos online to get the gist of the program. Basically the avatars in Home are realistic looking humans like any of the modern video games out there. They use morphing to make realistic looking joints and motion (failure of SL and There), high resolution textures and bump maps, clothing that actually has a thickness and folds and does not look painted on (another failure of others), lighting shading and highlights that looks more like real skin, real hair, real cloth, etc.

The primary negatives of the PS3 Home avatars is the quality and variety skin textures. Not just skin textures, everything. The lack of user customization means that everything about the avatars seems generic. They are also not very expressive, seems like a zombie world in PS3 Home.

Now I know what some of you are going to say. Why is realism so important? Many popular virtual worlds. both 2D and 3D have succeeded with unrealistic, almost cartoon looking avatars. I have even pointed out that there is such a thing as avatars that look too real. But, that’s not the case with any 3DVW I have seen. The truth is players prefer realism. In games that have custom texture markets (a subject for another memo post) the best sellers are almost always the most realistic ones. This is true in Second Life where realism is standard, and There and IMVU where avatars usually start with a cartoon look. Realism is an aesthetic people like in an avatar regardless of the environment.

There.com avatars

There has been around for six years now and is started to become dated. Despite this, there are aspects of There that are way ahead of their time. One is the behavior of the There avatars. First, the built in animations are first rate, better than Home even. They walk, run, sit, and stand very naturally. Their stances are constantly changing the way a real person standing for a long time would change.

Secondly, There avatars are great in the art of conversation. If you are using voice, the avatars look like they are lip syncing, and even gesture as they talk. If you are using text, it takes clues from the text to express mood. Use words like “happy”, “joy”, “fun”, etc, the avatar starts smiling. “sad”, “bad”, “bored”, and they start frowning. LOL or ROFL or ROFLMAO get increasingly expressive laughter. Thirdly, the There avatars seem aware of their environment. If someone is talking, or doing some kind of action, they turn and look at that person, and nod or maybe even smile with approval.  They act differently around dogs, and with most vehicles they act like they are really interacting with them. If they are standing alone, they start to look bored even annoyed after a while. Yes, I am aware that this type of reaction is typical in single player video games since the 80’s, but surprisingly still uncommon in multiplayer games.

No other game comes close to this type of world interaction. IMVU can mirror some of it, but that is because Will Harvey is behind both programs. He is one of the few that gets it. Another one would be the short lived Google Lively, also created by a former There programmer. Lively handled two person interactions (handshake, hi-five, hug, kiss, synchronized dance, etc) far better than even There or IMVU.

Scripting in Second Life can mirror some of this action and interaction, but controlling facial expression via scripts in SL is very difficult, and turning a head to look at a speaker is damn near impossible. These simple actions make an avatar feel much more alive.

Second Life Avatars

It has been a complaint of Second Life since it opened almost six years ago that the default avatars are, well ugly. They look funny, they walk funny, the hands and face are damn near impossible to control. Those of us who came from There to Second life had to adjust to the lack of AI in these avatars. Suffice it to say that the strengths of Home and There avatars are precisely the weakness of Second Life avatars.

The one area where SL avatars are strong, which almost makes up for their weaknesses, is their customization. A good skin texture and shape makes them look a lot better, a script triggering animations makes them behave better. The “Appearance” options in SL has over 100 slide bars for customization, clothing and hair options number in the millions. Top and bottom halves of the avatar have 3 levels of clothing textures each, not including the base skin texture. You can attach objects to every part of the body, meaning if you want to look like another creature or “furry” you can. Attached objects can be scripted as well, so you can use particle effects to turn yourself into a human torch if you want. Customization is great for “role play”, easily the most popular activity in any 3D virtual world or MMORPG.

If you can imagine it, it can be done with SL avatars. No other 3DVW can even come close to this level of avatar customization.

Which leads to…

The ideal avatar is a combination of all three of the above, with the addition of the two person interactions like Google Lively had. I know the average Virtual World developer would balk at all the work it would take to pull off this much detail in looks, behavior, and customization, but it would make your world unique.

We have enough environments and building tools already, and these things can be upgraded as you go anyways. Avatars cannot be easily upgraded, especially if you allow future customization. If for example, Second Life fixed their avatars the way they should be fixed, all current clothing and prim attachments would basically become useless. The ensuing “restart” might ultimately be a good thing, but the aggrivation it would cause would be rather intense. It ain’t gonna happen.

Fun With Virtual World Cartography

OK, where to start. Let me start with where the screenshot was taken. It was taken at Rumsey Maps, which includes a huge 3D map of Yosemite Valley, as well as a bunch of other cool examples of cartography.

Maybe I should now start at the beginning. I was researching for an upcoming blog article and came across a fact that Second Life has over 1800 square kilometers in land. (I originally thought it was around 1000, but I was looking at old statistics). There are however reports that the amount of land is dropping rapidly because of the change in open space policy.

Anyways, I got into yet another discussion about the difference between There.com and Second Life, and this land issue came up. There.com actually resides on a 3D planet sized sphere slightly smaller than planet earth. It is possibly the largest 3D object in virtual space navigable by virtual avatars. It has even been circumnavigated, taking weeks to complete. The question always comes up, how much actual land is there in There’s globe? Turns out the answer is 630 square kilometers, plus or minus 20, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The next question usually is, how does all this compare to the real world?

It was about then that I discovered this entertaining video called A Geophysical Survey of World of Warcraft

Now this video awoken the geek in me, and all this talk about the relative land mass in There.com and Second Life, and that got me started on a pretty cool project.

The end result being this map. A scale map of Second Life, There, World of Warcraft, and Oahu:

Click picture for full size version. Its about a megabyte big, so feel free to copy and distribute it elsewhere so as not to kill my bandwidth. The relative scale is 14 pixels = 1km.

According to Linden Labs figures, the total land in Second Life is just over 1,800 sq. km. Oahu is around 1,500 sq km. So when you measure all the Second Life regions,  they a little bit bigger than Oahu.

To figure out There.com land area, I took the scale map of There, selected all the water and made it black, then inverted the selection and made the land white. I went around the map making sure I did not have any stray odd pixels to mess up the calculation. I also remeasured known distances to make sure my scale was correct. I then used a histogram function to find out how many pixels were black and how many were white. Of the 14,256,222 pixels, 122,883 were white. Divide that by 196 (14×14) = 627 km sq. There is stuff in There missing from the map (Saja, Snowman Island, and Coke Island), plus possible errors to my methodology, hence the plus or minus 20 km sq. part.

In scaling all the maps, I used multiple methods as well. The second life client, used to tell you the total distance from where you are to your destination, it doesn’t anymore. But, I found a way around that by finding the “grid position” of the region I am on in the debug tools then going to a region on the far left and the far right and finding how many regions across it is and multiplying by 256 to get meters, and divide 1000 to get kilometers. The regions charted at slurl.com (which is the map I used) is 186km across and 110km top to bottom.

I did the scale work in There years ago on my web site. Two prominent dots on the map, the white mountain on Comet and the tiny island of Egypt are 225 km apart.

WoW was based on work done on this link, confirmed in the video above.

Then I needed a real world island to use as a comparison. Ireland was way too big when I scaled it, Manhattan was way too small (about the same size as WoW). The big island of Hawaii fit but covered most of the map, and then decided to use the most populated and more famous island of Oahu.

And there you have a method, as accurate as I can make it, of comparing the relative size of three prominent 3D worlds with the real world.

Virtual World Philosophy: The Uncanny Valley

Most popular online worlds

So lately I have been having fun with Windlight, and focusing on how real Second Life is looking lately, but have not bothered to ask, “Is this a good thing?”

Above is a montage of screenshots from some of the most popular online communities on the web. World of Warcraft = 10 million subscribers, IMVU = 20 million accounts, HabboHotel = 90 Million accounts, 8 million monthly active users, WeeWorld = 21 million accounts, Runescape = 5 million monthly active users, Club Penguin = 17 Million Accounts, 4 million monthly active users (sources GigaOM, KZero).

What do they all have in common? None are designed to look “real”. They all purposely have a cartoon look to them. According to a recent NWN blog, this is a significant fact:

There’s little evidence of mass demand for an intensely immersive 3D virtual world; instead, indications suggest the market shrinks in inverse proportion to increasing immersiveness.

There’s several worthwhile observations you can make. First, none of them feature next gen, top-of-the-line 3D graphics. (WoW is 3D, but developed with graphics that run fairly well on older computers; also, the visuals are not realistic.) Besides Warcraft, however, none of these top MMOs are 3D at all; rather, they’re 2.5D. And while one hopes that 2.5D-based MMOs will whet the market’s interest in a more immersive, graphically rich virtual world, the exact opposite seems to be the case. (The still-popular Habbo Hotel was launched in 2000, and the cartoonish graphics are basically the same.)

Only after you drop down several million users do you start to see MMOs and virtual worlds incorporating next gen graphics that require high-end 3D cards for optimal viewing– Lord of the Rings Online at about one million subscribers, Age of Conan at about 750,000 subscribers… and Second Life at some 550,000 monthly active users.

Why is this happening? Here we enter the realm of speculation, but it seems that most people experience sensory overload with too much immersion; instead of being drawn into the intensity of the simulation, they’re repelled by it.

Before going into some of my objections to this idea, let me point out some other evidence to support it. Take for example the world of 3D animated films which I have written about. The most realistic looking 3D animated films have been Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, The Polar Express, Advent Children, and Beowulf. Not one of these have managed any real success at the box office, at least compared to the more cartoonish fare such as The Incredibles, the Shrek films, or Ratatouille. The more realistic films have an unfortunate creepiness to them that makes them seem weird and turns people off.

There is a theory in robotics about this effect called “The Uncanny Valley“. From Wikipedia:

The uncanny valley is a hypothesis that when robots and other facsimiles of humans look and act almost, but not entirely, like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. The “valley” in question is a dip in a proposed graph of the positivity of human reaction as a function of a robot’s lifelikeness.

Mori’s hypothesis states that as a robot is made more humanlike in its appearance and motion, the emotional response from a human being to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong repulsion. However, as the appearance and motion continue to become less distinguishable from a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once more and approaches human-to-human empathy levels.

This area of repulsive response aroused by a robot with appearance and motion between a “barely-human” and “fully human” entity is called the uncanny valley. The name captures the idea that a robot which is “almost human” will seem overly “strange” to a human being and thus will fail to evoke the empathetic response required for productive human-robot interaction.

One then has to wonder if it is possible for there to be a natural detraction to video games whose graphics are too real looking, and is this why Second Life may never reach Habbo Hotel like numbers?

I believe it is possible for games to become too real, but I am definitely not convinced Second Life comes close to that mark. I am also not convinced it is the reason it is less popular than the above named games.

Maybe some Playstation 3 games are getting too real looking. Maybe that is why the Wii is more popular? No, lets face it the real reason Wii is more popular is the innovative controllers.

World of Warcraft is cartoonish compared to more realistic Guild Wars, but it is more popular due to better marketing, the Blizzard name, and WoW has more immersive gameplay. There is more cartoonish compared to Second Life, and yet Second Life is the bigger of the two, for similar reasons.

The most popular online games are not popular because they are less realistic, they are popular because they have been around longer, or are marketed to kids (a huge market for the 2D worlds), or they are free or very inexpensive to play.

Take a look at the best selling stuff in There, IMVU, and SL: the more realistic stuff consistently sells better, because it looks better. QED

The ultimate point is this: Realism is not an important goal in a sucessful virtual world, or any computer game for that matter. Players appreciate realism up to a point, but if the realism comes at the expense of some players with older or less powerful computers, its not worth it.

There vs Second Life: Exploring

As a follow up to my last post on There vs. Second Life, I want to briefly explain my own history and interests in these two games. Everybody’s tale is different, here is mine.

As you may be able to tell on my There Magic page, one of my primary activities in There was exploring. This interest started all the way back on my first day in There, June 24th 2003 (yes almost 5 years ago). One of the things I bought on my first day was a black hoverboard “The Fed”, and I started riding it everywhere. At the time the world consisted of five islands: Caldera, Ootay, Tyr, Saja and Egypt. All with lots of cool professionally designed spots by creative artists like Don Carson.

I spent nearly a year exploring There, and finding new creative stuff, even a year later I was finding stuff I had not seen before.

In April of 2004, I made my second attempt at Second Life. (I signed up once for a 7 day free trial, free accounts did not exist, in November 2003, and did not like how buggy and slow it was, and my video card would not render the graphics right.)

Second Life had no professionally designed content, and the vehicles sucked. True you could fly from place to place, but it just wasn’t as cool as hoverboarding in There. The content that was there was boxy looking and repetitive. I got bored fast.

It was the next month, May of 2004, I joined my first MMORPG, City of Heroes. I spent the better part of the next year playing that instead. Meanwhile, There started having financial trouble, threatening to shut down.

August of 2005, I finally became a “Premium” member of Second Life. By that time, the community had grown enough that I could return to my favorite virtual world activity of exploring.

I still jump into There occasionally to see new stuff, but as you can see from my postings over the last few months, exploring new and cool stuff in Second Life is a never ending activity. Multiple independent companies of artists are building cool 3D environments to explore, with new ones coming out daily.

It makes mathematical sense: There started out with tons of material at release, way above what SL had. The amount of new material getting into There’s grid though is limited by the approval process. Only so much new stuff can get in, hence growth is linear.

Second Life started with zero at release, but gave players the tools to make whatever they wanted, and add whatever textures they wanted, no approval necessary… just a 10L fee per file. Growth in SL has been exponential. It did not take long for SL to bypass There as far as content goes.

But the approval process in There has another advantage: New material introduced into the game is generally of higher quality. So even though Second Life had more content, the majority was crap.

Thats why it took so long for Second Life to become this explorer’s game of choice.

And just like I gave There explorers the There Magic page as an exploration resource, I also give you Second Life explorer’s the best resource with my Second Life Blogs page. Just skim through the entries, chances are you will find an article about a cool new build you have never been to. It’s what I do.

Happy Exploring!!

There vs. Second Life Revisited

There vs Second Life

Those of us into social virtual worlds have been debating this for 5 years: Which is better, There or Second Life?

For the longest time, the answer was, “It depends what you want to do.” Building was always better in Second Life, communication and “toys” (pets, cars, guns, hoverboards, etc) were better in There.

In the past year, the rules have changed. Second Life has voice now, just like There. Ingenious developers and more versatile port-a-zones, has improved building in There to the point that it is comparable to Second Life.

There still has a better sales system, but Second Life’s new search capabilities allow you to search for specific objects for sale and find where they are being sold.

The new Windlight graphics system and Havoc 4 physics system in Second Life has pretty muched wiped out any advantages There had in those departments.

Toys still work better in There, but There still has no scripting capabilities, or custom animations. There still needs to approve all submissions, resulting in higher costs and a few days of waiting for it to come in world. It is these differences that still separate the two, and which have led to the #1 difference: Demographics!

Today, There and Second Life are following two different paths. The average age of There players is getting younger and younger, while Second Life attracts a decidedly more mature demographic. Average age of There residents is 22, average in Second Life is 32. There’s minimum age is 12, Second Life is an 18 and over world. There’s corporate sponsors include teen oriented clients CosmoGirl and MTV. Second Life has much more diverse clients.

And so five years later, we have a new answer to the question. Which is better, There or Second Life?

The answer is, “It depends on how old you are.”

The demographic breakdown of all virtual worlds has been researched by the fine folks at K-Zero. It basically breaks down this way: Kids and tweens love the 2D virtual worlds like Neopetz, Club Penguin, Gaia Online, Habbo Hotel, and Whyville. Adults who are not playing MMORPG’s like World of Warcraft, have pretty muched all flocked to Second Life as their virtual world of choice.

There and its sister world Virtual MTV, are quickly becoming the virtual world of choice for the teenage set. It is quickly becoming the world of choice for those online players who have outgrown the 2D worlds, but want to hang out with people their own age.

Five years from now?…

But here’s an interesting thought, what will the answer be five years from now? I have reason to believe that both programs are going to seem dated by then. Some game enthusiasts say they look dated now. Graphics and physics technology is improving every year. Newer virtual worlds have an easier time adapting to new technologies.

My own guess is that neither There or Second Life are versatile enough to adapt quickly to new technologies, but between the two, Second Life has adapted better. In fact, I believe Second Life and Linden Labs has already gotten a foothold in the future 3D internet.

I believe the future 3D web will be built with a version of the Second Life client and a version of the OpenSim server. The people at RealXTend have the right idea:

  • Combine SL’s Prim system with a standard 3D mesh system (used in There as well as major 3D programs) from OBJ files.
  • More versatile Mesh/Skeleton/animation avatar system like the one used in Poser.
  • Standardized Python scripting or other standardized language.
  • Leave all 3D rendering to the client/computer side.

The result is a 3D system far more versatile/flexible/upgradable than Second Life currently is. It also opens the door to 3rd party server hosting providers.

Could Makena (operators of There) start their own competing service based on this technology? Sure, why not? Long term, There cannot compete with its current, already dated technology. Starting a new service with improved technology, and phasing There players and clients to the new service may be the way to go.

That is the future: A 3D Internet with standard client and server software.

But in the mean time, there is lots of room for diverse virtual worlds to find their audiences.