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.
Blue Mars might be seen as an alternative for them. However, two major issues seem to be obstacles for that to happen. First, there is no collaborative, real-time content creation. While technically anyone can become a small-scale developer (for clothes and some items) by signing a different agreement with Avatar Reality that will get them access to some content creating “tools” (which should actually be seen more as “converters”: actual content creation is developed using professional tools like Maya, 3DS, Blender, or, well, SketchUp. Avatar Reality’s tools are just a way to bring models created by those 3D modelling tools into Blue Mars), right now, you can’t really place that content on the open beta, but just on a sandbox. Or… perhaps not. I don’t know. If you think that LL’s documentation is lacking, wait until you see what the lack of documentation in Blue Mars is 🙂
Content will also be censored (although Avatar Reality’s reps cringe when they hear that word). They wish Blue Mars to be Disneyland: no mature content (apparently, you can’t even detach your underwear, just like on Linden Lab’s Teen Grid or in World of Warcraft; however, in theory at least, you can have very kinky underwear!). Well, depending on what you wish to do in a virtual world, this might be a bane or a blessing 🙂 Nevertheless, I understand Avatar Reality: they have a rather well-written ToS, they have seen the problems that Linden Lab faces every day, and they wish to keep away from them. In my (dirty!) mind, however, I believe that risking mature content — thus appealing to a far wider range of users; some claimed that Second Life’s virtual economy success is mostly due to adult content, and I’m not going to contest that 🙂 — is a more interesting approach. In any case, the notion that content will be filtered at some stage is going to worry a lot of people.
Oh, and of course, if you wish to have access to the development tools (which are free), you’ll have to give Avatar Reality your real name, address, and phone number. Again, this is a mixed blessing. It means that any conflicts will be quickly settled, since there will be information about your real self stored somewhere; but it also means that people like Scope Cleaver, arguably Second Life’s best architect, will never go for it.
To do some real development for Blue Mars, you need to sign a special NDA just to know the prices. This will give you access to purchase your own “city” — in essence, a region running on your private server (which will have the equivalent of several sims, in terms of SL area), which will be featured as a location to visit from the “landing hub”. So I can only imagine how much that will cost: probably hundreds of thousands or millions of US dollars per year (if they were competing with LL in prices, they would have no qualms to release the actual prices in public 🙂 ). Uh-oh. So we have figured out Avatar Reality’s business model: get half a dozen people to pay them a few millions per year, and support all the rest for free. It might work — after all, this is how Multiverse supports their infrastructure, and There.com, in spite of their outdated virtual world, is still around for the same reason: a few multimillionnaire contracts are enough to keep the company afloat, while giving away everything else for free.
Why would you need a city? Well, engaging in estate development requires having access to this special “development type”. It’s the only way you can create a new section of the world, terraform it, and hand out “blocks” (the equivalent of sims) for others to lease. Block leasers can, in turn, lease shops in their area of the city. Developers can sell their content in shops. Regular users (the name is still under discussion; “colonist” might be the winning description, after a poll on their blog, closed on Sep 1) can rent apartments from block owners, which in turn get these from city owners. So there is a strict hierarchy, from the wealthy capitalist at the top, trickling down to the regular resident which will have no way to access to the upper levels — because becoming a city owner is not just a matter of ordering a few sims, like in SL: you have to make a special application which is going to be reviewed by Avatar Reality, and might not be granted.
So this is not “utopia” or “paradise” or a right-wing libertarian society like SL (more on that on my next post). It’s a paranoid society with Puritan beliefs created on top of a well-structured social hierarchy without social mobility, governance, democracy, or appeal to justice. Hmm. In a sense, no matter how strange that might sound, that’s pretty much how I imagine that we humans would colonise Mars 🙂
Besides the political aspects, the second major obstacle right now on the beta version is the total lack of any social tools. Claimed to be a social virtual world, something seems to have gone seriously wrong with the design of Blue Mars. Kaneva, for instance, launched their social networking website months ahead of their own beta opening: their idea is that a social virtual world needs to create social bonds first, and the rest should come later. This might have been an extreme case of “pushing” people into the social networking bandwagon — at some stage, in Kaneva, before you finally got your access code to the open beta, you had to create lots of links and bonds with friends on the social networking site first, post images, blog entries, and so forth — but Blue Mars is the exact opposite. You don’t have people’s tags hovering over them, so the only way to know whom you’re talking to is to open the chat history (Blue Mars uses “chat bubbles” too, but bubbles don’t have the avatar name; they only appear on chat history really). You can’t search for friends. There are no profiles. As said, there are no groups, no group tools, no announcements, no event calendar, no notices, no classifieds, nothing at all. You can’t even do private messages, or chat to people on other cities (think of each city as a separate, self-contained environment; I understand that this will help concurrency, since “colonists” are really just logged in to a specific city and not to a contiguous world, like on most virtual worlds with the notable exception of SL; and in theory at least you could shard cities if the concurrency is hitting certain limits). None of these functions are available on Blue Mars, and there is no indication on when they are going to be introduced (if at all); even though this is just a beta version, and they could pretty much do everything with a HUD displaying HTML (it should be easy enough!), the truth is, this is not working yet. It doesn’t seem to be a “priority”.
I also have no clue how ownership of assets will work. Right now, the inventory is too simplistic, if Blue Mars wishes to have, say, billions of items for sale/exchange. We all know how bad the SL inventory actually is, but at least we have the ability to organise it with folders and search for items with keywords. Blue Mars assumes that the only items you will ever own are pieces of clothing, accessories (hair is an accessory!), and (possibly) furniture (not implemented yet), and, anyway, there are just a certain amount of possible types of clothing. So you can’t create outfits — you’ll have to fish around the inventory to look for individual pieces to wear (and no, there isn’t a search option). This will work if you have a few hundreds of items. If you own 20,000+ items like everybody does in SL (mmmh right!), this approach won’t work 🙂 I couldn’t figure out how to give someone else a piece of clothing, or even how to sell it; for that apparently I need access to the developer’s wiki, which explains how shops work. Apparently you can only buy from shops. Thus, at the bottom of the social pyramid, there are just consumers who are able to buy things and go to events (once you figure out where they are, of course), and just spend money to make the content creators happy. Which will, in turn, pay rent to make the shop owners happy. Which will pay their lease to the block owners. Who in turn will pay their lease to the city owners. See how it works?
Of course, my gamer friends couldn’t care little about all this and are just goggle-eyed with the gorgeous sexy animations of the female avatars and the coolness of the “million-polygon waterfall” that was created by Avatar Reality as a demo of what the rendering engine allows. Well, as a demo of what CryEngine2 can do, it’s naturally impressive — even though there are far nicer games to play that use CryEngine2. As a social virtual world with an in-world economy, it’s got too many artificial rules. Real worlds — and Second Life is definitely a speculum mundi — don’t work that way. For the people just seeking pure entertainment and willing to pay for it, I guess this might be enough. For the common resident in SL, who knows from the very first day that they can enter this virtual world with nothing but the willingness to create, and slowly work themselves up to become a massive land baron(ess) like Anshe Chung, Blue Mars is not the right kind of virtual world to be.
So, knowing very well that a beta version is just a beta version, and not a finished commercial product, all I had left to do was to write an open letter to the Blue Mars representatives. As a serious developer for virtual worlds, I have a lot of questions on how to push Blue Mars as an alternative platform for development. What are the good arguments for doing so?
(Open letter after the break)