Evaluating Blue Mars — an open letter to Avatar Reality’s representatives

Jumping into Blue Mars earlier today — while my roomie was asleep and I could use her PC, the only machine at our place that is powerful enough (and has the correct operating system!) to log in to Blue Mars and get some 8 FPS out of it — was a bit like evaluating many other virtual world platforms out there: the only interesting people I met were the Second Life residents 🙂 which, at this stage, are possibly half of the Blue Mars population, estimated 1370, based on the number of people registered at their forums — when you register for the Beta, you get also added to the forums as well. As usual, they’re the only ones with an insight on what a virtual world is supposed to be for.

Anyone who is a gamer or a tech geek will love the Blue Mars beta. The graphics are the equivalent to Second Life at Ultra + Shadows settings (although in my experience, Blue Mars runs much slower, but fast enough to get a feeling of it; others report far better performance on Blue Mars). Some things happen “automatically” without need of extra scripting — thus, you get realistic splashing effects when jumping into the water; you leave footprints on the beach and raise some sand clouds when running; and avatars can use paired animations without scripting. Hair (two styles available for females) is meshed, so it looks and feels like the upcoming flexisculpties in Second Life (which haven’t been officially released yet, although some third-party viewers already implement them since March). Animations are irritating at this stage (and females only get, uh, rather too sexy anims), but they’re quite well done, at the level of the best mocap anims available in SL. Loading a new scene is really quite fast, unlike what happens SL (I believe everything is stored locally in your disk when you download the 1.2 GByte client anyway). Movement around is relatively fluid, once you figure out that you need to click with the right button mouse on your avatar to change the camera position. Wind, clothes, shadows are at the level of what SL can provide on the latest batch of viewers; water is nicely rendered at the beach shores (yes, you get real surf!), but the rest is not dramatically different.

The rest simply doesn’t exist yet. The interface is minimalist: no IMs, no groups, no chats, no notices, no voice, inventory is limited to a few items of clothing (there is nothing else available yet anyway), and no easy user-generated content. There are just five locations to go; each varies in size and scale but are the equivalent, in terms of quantity of content, to a sim in SL (in reality, they’re larger). Content designed by Avatar Reality, the company behind Blue Mars, is professionally done, but it’s not “out of this world” (pun intended): to keep polygon count low, they simply bake textures in buildings — a trick that SL builders have been doing since the dawn of time, and similar to what all closed-content games actually do. You can get far better content elsewhere, but of course it’s very hard on Avatar Reality to compare the handful of designers they’ve got with the uncountable millions of content producers for Second Life. It’s fun to see Phobos (or was it Deimos?) on the sky during the night, but it hardly compares with what you can do with the Windlight settings. Still, in terms of overall look, it’s definitely far better than what I’ve seen at Twinity, Kaneva, IMVU, or any of the other little-talked-about VW platforms (Moove, There.com and Metaplace are lagging so much behind that they’re not worth considering; VastPark, with their sudden move to release all the code as Open Source, might indicate that their business model failed; and I’ve never tried Multiverse, so I can’t say how it looks like from inside), so going with a proven state-of-the-art 3D rendering game engine, CryEngine2, and Poser avatars, was a good choice that allowed Avatar Reality to focus on the game design and not on the graphics — even though it runs only on a limited range of computers: the top-end gamer PCs (CryEngine2 is designed for gamers, so it doesn’t run on any other platform at all). Avatar Reality is not going to switch their rendering engine, and Crytek most certainly isn’t going to port it to any other sub-platform, so the popular request to get Blue Mars on the Mac or Linux will never happen.

Of course, as a manager of a content development company for Second Life, Beta Technologies, I’m naturally interested in evaluating other platforms as well. Since any company brave enough to launch a new social virtual world at this stage will inevitably launch their product as a “Second Life killer” (not Avatar Reality’s words, but definitely the words of their most feverous evangelists), it’s important for me to keep track of alternatives. After all, I have to daily contend with customers that hate Linden Lab’s policies of allowing griefers to roam the grid, affecting the whole grid even if the customer’s regions are not open to the public and run on separate servers; on the education side, the limitation to allow adults only (based on their birth date, not their maturity 😉 ); the lack of backups; the lack of a predictable environment (the grid can be up or down, fast or slow; Linden Lab will never sign a Service-Level Agreement with a customer); and the difficulty of getting proper invoices. In some cases, no matter how good your argument is, the customer simply doesn’t want to deal with Linden Lab any more. Some, surprisingly, prefer a less stable environment like OpenSimulator, since they have more control over it.

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