Google’s Ultimate Mashup, The End of Web 2.0, and More Metaverse Wannabees

As they claim on their FAQ:

How is Blue Mars different from Second Life?

Blue Mars offers an experience unlike any other virtual world.  Our high end graphics, massive concurrent user support, system wide participation based rewards program, support for industry standard content creation tools, next generation NPC intelligence, simple LUA scripting support, and breathtakingly realistic Avatars are just a few of the compelling features that set us apart from the competition.

Ok, so they basically just compare special effects and address some of the technical limitations that Second Life residents are fond of complaining about. They totally miss Second Life’s interest as a social networking environment with a huge content-creation economy, and, as you’ll see, this will be apparent below.

Even Hamlet Au has written a bit about its stunning graphics some months ago, and classifies it as a “Second Life With Pro-Level Content”. But… is it really? As usual, the first thing I look at a (new) product from an unknown company, is at the way it’s funded (just US$ 2.4 million) and its business model:

We provide our Blue Mars SDK at no cost to qualified developers.  The SDK includes our sandbox editor, code and asset samples, and in-depth documentation. Once you’re ready to deploy your content online, we charge a setup fee for the server, monthly maintenance fees based on concurrent user load, and collect a small percentage of your online transactions to cover processing fees. Our prices scale with your needs and you only pay for what you use.

Aha! Keen readers will probably have read this before. Yes, it’s exactly the same business model as Multiverse. So Blue Mars is really competing with Multiverse using a similar content development and business model, but they are making it easier for developers and programmers. You programme less in Blue Mars to get things working — I’m assuming all programming is in Lua and all done in-world, unlike what happens with Multiverse. But the model is the same: create off-world content, upload it to Avatar Reality’s servers, and open it to the public. Once you’re ready to make money out of your content, Avatar Reality will be happy to get a share of it. So this model is pretty much like application hosting: instead of buying a license of CryEngine2, hire a team of game engine developers, buy half of a co-location facility to put your servers and have a team of system engineers to maintain your hardware and networking, you lease that all from Avatar Reality and focus only on two things: content creation and game development.

So it’s a rather cool way to step into virtual world creation, without having to pay a huge start-up cost which is hard to get a return on.

Also notice that the boasting of “5000 avatars in the same City” (Blue Mars uses “cities” as their geographical entity, and they’re larger than SL’s “regions”) is obviously just a marketing trick. No existing graphics card can render 5000 avatars in range with ultra-realistic detail — no matter how good the engine actually is. It’s simply not possible. Even admitting that Blue Mars is planning ahead, it will be a long time until that will work. Some friends of mine have reported that their top-of-the-line graphics cards barely manage to render 20-30 avatars in Blue Mars until the lag kicks in and brings your machine to its knees. It’s not surprising. LL’s 100-avatar-limit is not due to LL’s evilness or sadistic streak enjoying seeing us suffer, but because it’s a reasonable trade-off. You can set up an avatar limit of 5000 and have a million prims on OpenSimulator, and you’ll see what I mean — you’ll never get the SL client to render even a tiny part of it. And a superior rendering engine will have more detail, more lights, more shadows, more visual effects to deal with — even assuming that CryEngine2 is vastly better coded than LL’s own engine, and, since content is not dynamically created but “prepared” in a sandbox environment on your personal computer, it might have optimised, pre-rendered scenes (unlike SL’s rendering engine which has to deal with on-the-spot, real-time, dynamic content creation) — so there is no “magic” that will help you to increase performance. Granted, in 2015 or so, everybody will have powerful enough graphics cards to see 5000 avatars in the same space — but at that time, the same will also be true for Second Life, of course.

In conclusion, both approaches are obviously targeting different markets and have different goals. Surprisingly, although everybody who registered an avatar with Second Life will be making comparisons — how easy it is to run a Metaplace “room” and create simple content; how powerful and good-looking Blue Mars’ engine is — both newcomers to the virtual world arena are just childs of the gamer mentality. It’s easy to get 100,000 gamers excited by new, shiny things (or even by ugly, boring things). It’s also easy to get 100,000 programmers to get excited by cool new programming interfaces. But to bring millions of users you have to give them far more than shiny graphics and cool programming tools — since the vast majority will never create anything or write a line of code.

No, what they want is simply social networking — from dating and virtual sex, to go to live music events or attend conferences and meetings, to exchange tips and ideas with friends, to have a good time commenting on each other’s ideas (or discuss them in groups). While the notion of Metaplace being “embedded” in, say, Facebook or MySpace, is certainly appealing (even though there are already a few MMORPG Facebook applets around), Blue Mars simply has nothing of that — it’s up to the content creators and programmers (Avatar Reality’s customers) to think about the social networking. I couldn’t find any reference to dealing with the “outer world” (e.g. in-world browsers or two-way communications) in Blue Mars; Metaplace, being embedded on web pages, might have an edge here.

And why is this important? Because the Metaverse (or Web 3.0) will have to subsume earlier technologies and reinvent them with a new paradigm. If not, they’ll be quickly forgotten — just self-gratifying constructions that will allow their creators say “I did this, look how cool it is!” but will never make history. Google was taught this harsh lesson in the worst possible way with Lively.

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