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.

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.

Winter Solstice in the Metaverse

Twas the Day of Solstice and all through the net

Snow Colored Pixels on MMOGs they did set

Old Ascalon Covered in Wintry Delight

Inspired many to engage in a snowball fight

Then skating in SL at the Winterfest Inn

An axel, a flip, and even a spin

Then on to the ski lift, a ride to the top

For Heroes and Villains ski down the big drop

Lets do it again! Once is never enough!

But this time we’ll skinny ski in the buff

Laguna Beach winter looks more like Australia

But Christmas in There, hey what can I tell ya?

For Winter Solstice comes a visit from Santa

Who warms me up with a Flaming Banana

The daytime is short and so is this verse

Happy Holidays to all in the 3D Metaverse!