OpenSimulator: The Choice for 2010

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With Google Lively out of the picture, and an uncertain future for “new” virtual worlds to be launched in a world gone insane with the perceived financial crisis, it’s natural to ask over and over again, if there is an alternative to the Second Life® virtual world platform, what it will be.

Since early 2008 I have been very skeptic about “alternatives” to Second Life. In my mind, and specially after talking to several gurus and enlightened residents like Pavig Lok, any “competitor” to Second Life will require those mandatory features to succeed:

  • Collaboration and user-generated content. This mostly means being in a shared environment being able to work together. It goes way beyond simply being in the same place and chat together (either in voice or text), but being able to do things together, be it simply playing the same game, driving the same vehicle, using the same object, or, well, building the same building. And there can’t be a restriction on how you work together: it has to be both synchronously in real time (everybody seeing the changes being reflected immediately in the environment) or asynchronously (you might work on something, log off, and your friend comes in and finds things exactly as you left them and can continue working on it). Finally, user-generated content is not simply having an off-world Web site where you can buy clothes and furniture (like on IMVU or Moove): it means dealing with intellectual property rights; it means permissions; it means group ownership; it means an economy based on buying and selling digital content.
  • Persistence. This is a much more subtle feature: the notion that you can rez a prim, and it will be still around after five years. You might take this for granted, since in SL this is the way things happen. Many platforms might have user-generated content but rely on peer-to-peer networks to show that content to other users: OpenCroquet is the best example of that model. Under those models, either you save your work “somewhere” or it is lost once computers get disconnected from the P2P network (sure, you can upload them again once you connect).
  • Contiguity. Most virtual-worlds out there have a model where worlds are  sharded (the same copy of the content is replicated among several servers; a set of users connects to one local copy of the content, and although they can talk to users on other shards, they’re not in the “same” virtual world at the same time. World of Warcraft is a typical example) or roomed. Under this model, each server just holds a part of the world — from a single room, to a single region, to a “game level”. When moving to another room/region/level, you are actually changing your environment and point of view, by connecting to a different virtual world. Granted, tricks like “portals” and the ability to chat across rooms/regions/levels will provide you with the illusion of contiguity. Second Life uses a single world with the “tiled” paradigm (the world is divided into many regions, all side-by-side, but it’s a single world — at least on the mainland you can walk from one point to the other without going through “portals” or “teleports”).

And of course they require a valid business model to be still around after a few decades. Some virtual worlds have all the above requirements, but they are simply venture capital burners until Google/AOL/Yahoo/Microsoft buys them. 3D content hosting works for Linden Lab, and one might imagine that there are other possible models (e.g. advertising or sponsorship), but we have seen few of that happening. Subscription payments to get access to user-created virtual worlds seems, however, to be a dead end — probably the reasoning behind it is that if users create the content anyway, why should they pay a third party to see it?

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