The Uniqueness of Second Life
So, well, what is so different about Second Life?
Pavig goes further to explain what’s behind the devious minds of the oldest Linden Lab employees — their founders and first architects. They found a few issues that are unique to Second Life and will not ever let go of them, even if that means their downfall.
The first one, of course, is user-created content, and I don’t need to repeat why it’s so special, or what the pitfalls of running a virtual world with user-created content are — these days, after Lessig made the case for user-created (and user-owned!) content, we all know about it, but we just don’t give so much importance to how it uniquely shapes Second Life and makes it totally different from anything else out there.
Granted, there are naturally many platforms allowing user-generated content (Multiverse comes to mind, but any toolset to create MMOGs/MMORPGs will allow that), but Second Life is quite different from those.
Pavig points out two things that are so often overlooked: persistence and contiguity.
Persistence is something so obvious that we totally forget about it. If I have permissions to drop a prim on a parcel, it stays there. For a long time. Measured in years. Now this is far less “obvious” than it seems: almost no other virtual world works like that. Croquet, for instance, does not have “persistence” built-in: content exists only as long as computers are on the same peer-to-peer network — unless, of course, that some of those computers are turned on permanently (effectively replicating LL’s client-server model and breaking true p2p cloud computing). Google Lively “rooms” naturally will keep content on a user’s own room for a long time, until, of course, the user cancels their account. Then their content is gone. This is obvious, after all — but Second Life doesn’t work that way. You can still get some cool 2002 objects — created by Philip Linden for instance — even if their owners have long departed SL or are not actively doing any new content, or owning land, or even logging in to SL. We can enjoy ancient buildings like the Governor’s Mansion, the Beanstalk, or the strange silver statue that is somewhere in the grid and which allegedly is the oldest item ever built. We can even have access to one of the very first slideshow presentations done in SL by Philip himself (some clever residents found their UUIDs and posted them on the forums), probably long after Philip forgot all about it. So, in a sense, content is independent of their creator’s continued (virtual) existence. That means that once a prim is dropped on a bit of land, it stays there forever (in practice, of course, the land beneath might change ownership; or the asset server might have a hiccup and delete the plywood cube; or someone might, by mistake, turn autoreturn on. But these are exceptional cases to the rule that “content is eternal”).
The other thing which was obvious in the past and that we tend to forget these days is land contiguity. Now, these days, there are many more private islands and mini-continents than mainland, but… at some point in time, that was not so. One of the key selling points of Second Life, very early on, was that it was a single world, growing endlessly, but all tied together — which was an alternative to the “sharded” approach of several MMOGs/MMORPGs (each set of users share a copy of all content, but they are not in the “same world”, even if they can, say, send IMs to players on other servers), or the “room” approach of more recent virtual worlds. IMVU, Lively, There.com, Kaneva, Sony Home, etc. don’t have the notion of a “single world”, but rather users have either individual rooms and jump/teleport between them, or the “world” has several interconnected areas that you can join jumping through “portals” or similar tricks. Active Worlds also works like that, and so does MOOVE and 3Dchat.org.
Second Life, however, is a single world where everybody is in the same, contiguous place. Granted, private islands and direct teleport have shattered the illusion of the contiguous world, but it’s still one grid, one world. The Open Grid Protocol will allow us (not earlier than 2010 though) to jump across grids, but… and here is the trick… if the developers can figure out a safe way to bring your inventory with you, this would ultimately mean that all these grids, put together, would be on a single, unified, distributed, but contiguous world. Already this means that the OpenSim grids interconnected to LL’s own grid have to arrange an area on a meta-grid so that individual sims will not overlap. The notion of many grids, one world is already starting to form in our minds.
Now Pavig claims that these three things together — user-created content, persistence of content, and contiguity of landscape — are so unique to Second Life that they cannot be “replicated”, or “copied”, or “imitated”. Forget inter-MMOG teleport — that will never happen to satisfaction. Ultimately what might happen is that some MMOG vendors, intrigued by the notion of “joining their worlds” into a metagrid, will adopt the Open Grid Protocol specifications to allow their “world” to be a spot in this metagrid. Effectively, though, this would mean that they’d be a part of Second Life as well. Or, if you wish, the “Second Life of The Future” will be a mix and match of several different technologies that just happen to allow contiguity on a single “virtual world”. But this is already happening, when we teleport between LL’s grid (which has their own server/sim technology) and OpenSim (which is an independently developed technology that has little resemblance to LL’s own servers, except that you can use the same SL client to connect to it). So this would mean that one day There.com users might have their There.com clients “speak” the SL and the Open Grid Protocols, and then you could jump between There.com and SL — with a lot of limitations, of course, but it might work.
You can see my skepticism about “other worlds” joining up on the Open (Meta) Grid. The problem is simply that none of them were designed for contiguity, except, of course, to provide an illusory contiguity (ie. a single map, although when you jump to other areas in the “same” map you’re actually connecting to something completely different which just happens to look the same). Second Life, however, with all the faults of its “tiled approach” (namely, the lack of scalabilty — but we have 3Di coming to the rescue with some nifty tricks), is the only one that was designed from scratch (even if badly!) to support contiguity.