Big news this week in the Metaverse, in regards to the restructuring of Avatar Reality and subsequent change in direction of their Virtual World platform, Blue Mars, toward mobile devices like the iPad/iPhone. Many are calling this move the nail in the coffin for yet another virtual world, and it’s hard not to see that the end is near for the company that discontinues developing its heavy PC client and turns instead toward static avatars for your mobile phone.
Depending upon whom you ask, opinions will vary, but Second Life still seems like the king, and many will point to Blue Mars’ failure as just another example of how the masses will never accept virtual worlds. If your virtual world cannot connect to Facebook or be accessed by your iPhone, it will never be widely used. That is the mantra coming from the blogosphere and seems to be what strange angel investor board members feel as well, as with Blue Mars’ last ditch effort to save itself. I am a Virtual World user, as well as a mobile phone user, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my virtual world on a phone. I can live with the fact that if I am driving, or in the subway, or at the movies, I may have to step away from the virtual world. That is a good thing. If Blue Mars wanted to see which direction they should go in, all they had to do was look across the Metaversal Pond at this peppy little indie game called Minecraft, developed by Markus Persson, known around these waters as “Notch.”
What is Minecraft?
If you are familiar with Minecraft, skip to the next section. Now, for those of you who are not familiar with Minecraft, or have only heard of it, let me attempt to explain what it is, because I, like you, at one point would see screen caps of blocks and iffy graphics and ask why on earth people were making a big deal about it.
Minecraft is an open world sandbox-type game, with no plot arc, no real starting point, and no real ending point, which means that the user can explore the entire world. There are 2 modes — single player and multiplayer. In both modes you are essentially a boxy looking avatar that starts off from scratch with just your bare hands (or blocks in this case). You chop down trees to get wood, which you then use as raw materials to “craft” various objects. You craft a wooden axe that enables you to dig into the ground and mine stone, which can then be used to build a furnace, thus enabling you to create additional useful objects. Essentially, like humans in real life, you mine and modify your environment for the raw materials you need to construct tools and other objects.
All of the materials that you mine in the game accumulate in your inventory, and you can use them as building blocks to construct your own creations The plot of the game, however, is that when day turns to night, all of the dangers in Minecraft come out to play. You need to fortify yourself, construct weapons to fight the various creatures that come out in the night, and somehow manage to survive until light breaks, when they all go away. If you die in Minecraft, your inventory is left where you died, and it’s not always easy returning to your location, particularly if it’s surrounded by monsters. So, your avatar’s death does have an impact upon game play, unless you are eager to start from scratch.
What can we learn from Minecraft?
Now what could Blue Mars, a virtual world running on the beautiful CryEngine, learn from a dinky game like Minecraft, which looks like it could belong on the Nintendo 64? (Personally, I believe that there’s an aesthetic beauty to Minecraft IMO, but I digress). Minecraft has surpassed $1 million in sales for it’s software, that recently only just moved from the alpha to beta stage, while Blue Mars, according to recent estimates that I’ve read, had approximately 3,500 recurring users. Blue Mars needed millions in investment dollars, and Minecraft was created by one guy who is now worth millions. Blue Mars is stunningly beautiful graphically. Minecraft is graphically just blocks of textured cubes.
I explored Minecraft to see what all the craziness was about, and to determine why this place was surging, compared to virtual worlds, like Blue Mars, that are dying. Why were the Minecraft forums overloaded with interest and communities forming? And why were the Second Life forums seemingly barren, and the blogosphere uninterested? I came away with the following key points.
1) User Generated Content – The big battle that was supposed to go down between Blue Mars and Second Life seemed to be over the fundamental philosophy about whether or not to allow the everyday user to modify the environment. There is a tradeoff between performance and creativity. In Blue Mars you were required to download an area before you entered it. In Second Life everything is loaded on the fly, and people can create things while everyone around them watches. In Minecraft, while you are limited to the blocks provided by the game, there’s still enough variation for users to create stunning structures. Minecraft players can go in and dig a cave, and that cave will still be there for other users until someone else goes in and modifies it, or seals it up, or what have you. There is a video out there of Minecraft users constructing huge TNT bombs and blowing atomic bomb sized craters into the Minecraft landscape. How cool is that? You know what I could do in Blue Mars? Chat and maybe dress up my awkward moving avatar, which brings me to my next point.
2) Movement and UI - While Blue Mars was stunning from a graphic standpoint, moving an avatar around was a challenge. Even with running mode enabled, you seemed to be moving in slow motion. Blue Mars put absolutely no thought into the avatar controls, overlooked the connection that people feel toward their avatars, and failed to comprehend how ease of movement is vital to enjoying the virtual world experience. Minecraft is first person shooter based movement, so it’s directed towards gamers and people who are familiar with that kind of environment. Second Life offers many different camera options, so moving a Second Life avatar around is 100 times easier and quicker than operating a Blue Mars avatar. And while many people complain about the Second Life User Interface, Blue Mars was the absolute pits. Never make your user interface icons, especially in a new environment where they do not know what those icons represent. I know there’s debate about whether avatars need to be “click to” movement for the masses to control them, but from my experience in Blue Mars, absolutely not. In Virtual Worlds you need to click on things to get information. If clicking moves your avatar, your avatar will proceed to run back and forth to every object you click on, which of course was another train wreck for Blue Mars. Arrow key and joystick compatible movement in future Virtual Worlds is a must. Additionally, avatar agility should not be overlooked.
3) Gaming is important for mass adoption, not ease of use – This is the main thing that I came away with from Minecraft. I asked myself why Minecraft was so successful right now, when Second Life offers the same freedom and with better graphics. Just like Second Life, there really is no introduction to Minecraft. You are thrown into the world and you have to figure out how to play on your own, by asking other players, or by going online and reading up on it. So, Minecraft’s success cannot be attributed solely to the fact that it allows user generated content or that is overly easy to figure out. Minecraft is essentially a game engine that allows enough freedom to legitimately be considered part of the Metaverse. Users can host their own Minecraft worlds, and if they chose not to, they can have the gaming portion turned off, so their entire world allows only creative works, just like in Second Life. However, there is something very appealing about the community creative aspect in the game of Minecraft. You work together with friends, develop strategies, build structures to keep out the bad guys, fight enemies, and the list goes on and on. As simplistic as the graphics may seem, I still jump out of my chair when a Minecraft monster lunges out of the darkness, just as I would with a realistic ghoul in a horror flick.
Sheep flock together
What I am trying to communicate here is that the majority of people flock to something because of its entertainment value. Things that take off in popularity, that are new and game changing, usually start with children and younger generations, and then the rest follow. Myspace and Facebook didn’t start out with random newbie internet users. They started with the younger college internet generation — people who already knew how to navigate the web. World of Warcraft didn’t achieve its popularity because Grandma could play it, or because it was in a web browser. since Grandma couldn’t install a program. These ventures started and took off because they provided solid entertainment value. Myspace and Facebook provide social entertainment; World of Warcraft provids gaming entertainment. XBox, Wii, Playstation 3, they all provide gaming entertainment, and console gaming does not appear to be moving mobile either. The masses want to be entertained first, and then if there are applicable uses for business and education, those options will be explored after the masses have adopted the primary application.
Second Life IS NOT a game. And maybe that is the problem.
I know I will have a lot of Second Life users on me for saying that, because many in Second Life say it is not a game and have various uses for it that extend far beyond some cheap five minutes of entertainment. I agree that Second Life is amazing for all of its uses. The problem though, in my opinion, is the wall blocking mass adoption — it’s not web browser access, not Facebook connectivity, not the fact that Grandma can’t figure out the user interface. It’s the lack of gaming entertainment in Second Life.
Minecraft appeals to the younger generation, the teens, the college kids, and even further out toward people in their twenties and thirties, the internet/gaming generation. These are the first people on the scene, these are the people that will play for hours and cause the viral stampede toward the next popular thing. Right now they are not interested in Second Life because there’s nothing for them to do. There is no underlying game in Second Life and the scripting and physics that do allow for very crude gaming are unappealing to the masses. It was adequate for card games and casino type games, and these were huge draws for Second Life until they outlawed gambling. The people already in Virtual Worlds who see the potential for the future, despite its technological holes at the moment, aren’t the people who need to be convinced. It’s the gamers, the pop culture, if you will.
The future Metaverse will learn from Minecraft, Second Life, Blue Mars, and their virtual world predecessors. Currently, Minecraft shows us many things. It’s not hosted on a central world where everyone logs into it. Instead, its users host the servers on their own dime, which immediately eliminates the massive costs we associate with companies like Linden Lab and Avatar Reality. Your avatar is stored in the main Minecraft database, so when you go from Minecraft server to Minecraft server you do not have register with each entity. Minecraft enables you to install user created modifications to the world to change your experience. Minecraft worlds can be hundreds of square miles.
Since Blue Mars has already made its exit clear, it’s up to Second Life to look around and learn what’s transpiring in the virtual world realm. There’s no way its future can include hosting all of the land servers, if they truly wish to be the future of the Metaverse. It’s imperative that Second Life learns from the Blue Mars failure and from Minecraft’s success.
1) Fix gaming. Whether having special simulators, or whatever the case may be, or adding more complex scripting or better physics to enable better gaming. In a world where the users push the envelope daily, I can only imagine the amazing games that would explode onto the scene. Imagine playing sports games in Second Life with audiences that worked, or imagine teleporting to a Zombie role play town and having modern gaming physics as you fight for survival. The possibilities are endless.
2) Open the Second Life grid to allow individuals to host their own servers (assimilating with Open Sim), while also allowing these server hosts to have their own sign up portals, bypassing the Second Life web site. Linden Lab would still have their Second Life grid as one of many destinations in this new wider Metaverse. They could still capitalize monetarily by either charging you for your avatars, or acting as a domain registration much like ICANN, where you pay yearly for your web address, as well as portions of sales, since the Linden dollar payment system will become the Paypal of the Virtual World.
3) Open the Second Life Viewer to operate with a third party app store. Restructuring a new viewer to make this possible is the future. People use the virtual world for many different reasons and people want and require various features. The Lab has been stubborn about this, but if they opened the viewer to allow users to customize the UI and sell them in some sort of app store, it would allow people to get their customizable experience. Much like Winamp has thousands of skins you can choose from, the Second Life browser should be no different. If someone creates the greatest newbie user interface or other unique interface, that’s one less thing the Lab would have to be concerned about. They should allow companies to sell apps. Imagine if Studio max or one of the 3D programs was able to create an app and sell it in the SL Viewer App store. Perhaps the product would create mesh tools inside your browser, or a Yousendit App that would allow you to send a file to another avatar, or a Skype app that would enable you to bypass that dreadful SL voice.
The real goal is becoming the future of the Metaverse. This alternate reality, that as technology gets better, may eventually be as lifelike as the real world. A place where anything is possible, humans are not confined, and our true potential can be realized. With Blue Mars departing for cutesy mobile apps, and Second Life seemingly unwilling to open up their walled garden, it appears that the powers-that-be, behind these ambitious platforms, are not looking at the big picture, they are just looking for returns on their investment. Second Life can still become that future, if their new CEO, Rod Humble, has the vision and leeway from the board members to make some bold decisions. If the focus is only how to scrape more money out of Second Life before it goes the way of Blue Mars, then they might as well be presumed dead already.