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Monday, May 31, 2004

"THERE HERE!"

"I've only been here a bit," Mentor Chromal Brodsky tells me, smiling, "but a lot of new folks, to be sure."

"It's been very busy," fellow Mentor Kex Godel agrees. "Been answering lots of questions."

It's last week Tuesday at the Welcome Area, where new subscribers arrive from the self-guided orientation area known as Prelude. Welcome is where they get their first glimpse of Second Life proper. And since they come into this world with the barest understanding of how to shape their appearance, let alone much of anything else, most of them arrive with blocky, half-formed avatars, dazed and squinting at the options now before them. And the volunteer veteran residents known as Mentors are already waiting for them like a phalanx of midwives.

Toy LaFollette turns to me. "Good grief Ham, I been calling this area Ellis Island for three days, now."

A steady stream of users from another non-genre online world with a few surface similarities to Second Life have been pouring into the Welcome Area. It's not the role of New World Notes to speculate on the status of other online worlds-- especially when other blogs are better suited to provide far better coverage. But for whatever reason, former citizens of There were now here, looking for a new world to call their own.

Standing beside me, newcomer Maggie Morgan is standing in the arms-and-legs-open posture that avatars automatically go into, when their user is changing their physical appearance.

"Someone tell me," she pleads, "where do I get rid of freckles?"

"Maggie," Kex answers, "it's in your Appearance settings... hmm, can't remember where exactly, though-- let me look."

Nearby, someone named Max Bismark is wondering why the vehicle they just bought doesn't show up in his inventory.

"Did you check in your Objects folder?" Jazz Lomax asks him.

Yes, he did.

"OK," Jazz continues, "it might be in your main folder."

Kex Godel hands me a note, the same note she's been passing out to newly-arrived veterans of There. It's an exhaustive list of all the ways Second Life is not like their former world. "I spent about ten hours in There a month or so ago," she explains, grinning, as I read it. "Mostly to become familiar with the differences; came in handy for writing that."

More emigres are arriving.

"I am from There.com," nemi McCoy informs me, when I ask, "and I am hoping to make my home here."

Behind us, Maggie Morgan is still altering her avatar. "Can I change my face to something completely different?" she asks no one in particular.

Meanwhile, someone named Ayn Burke has just teleported into Welcome.

"I heard about Second Life [before]," Burke tells me, "but I just was talking with friends that I made in There. We were discussing our new home, and we decided to come here."

This is actually just the latest example of a broader phenomenon, one that happens all the time on a smaller scale, even with the most successful MMORPGs. For just about every prominent new world to go online, there are thousands of people who will leave their current virtual residence, to visit and evaluate. With every significant policy change or fee increase, thousands more will depart their usual world, in search of a place that has a better deal to offer. If they like what they see in the no-risk trial, and decide its stewards (i.e. management and customer support) run their state fairly, these visitors may eventually get dual citizenship, and live in both worlds-- or make a permanent move to the new homestead, encouraging their friends from the old world, to join them. The academics at Terra Nova might describe this process as "the disembodied, Rawlsian search for the ideal social contract among a variety of hypothetical socities". Gamers may be more inclined to call it something like, "OMG this place has too many PKers-- let's go try FFXI or CoH, cuz this game is teh suxOrs." (Which is pretty much saying the same thing, come to think of it.)

But none of this is meant to suggest that former members of There have left in a disenchanted huff-- far from it. Much affection still abounds.

"I think [There] was a much more appealing world to the newcomer," Viola Bach tells me, "especially one with no technical or gaming background." Viola has been a member of both worlds, in recent months. "I think Second Life has improved enormously in this area [but] when I started it was absolutely terrible, and I came very close to quitting after my first couple of weeks... When I started, I had no interest in building or designing anything. It was only after being in SL for a while that I discovered with a bit of a shock both that I could do these things."

By contrast, says Viola, "There are lots of touches that made There an instantly appealing place (avatar breathing is great), but I also loved having a central area where everyone could congregate, and I enjoyed it. I think with all worlds, however sophisticated they are, what you miss really comes down to the people. I'll miss my friends if I don't stay in touch with them, and I've a feeling that online friendship is a lot more ephemeral than real friendships."

"[A]bout two days after the announcement of the 'major changes' at There," dual citizen Van Onizuka tells me, "Me and Twist Zaius were setting up for an event at the Bada Bing! adult entertainment club, when we got to jokin' 'bout There. Me and Twist are goofy guys, who normally just kid around with each other. Well, when we were talkin' 'bout There, he goes, 'You know what we could do, we could make an island sim and recreate Karuna and stuff from There, and call it Here."

Onizuka giggles. "We just took it as a joke [but] about five minutes later, I was still thinkin' 'bout it. And I just say, 'You know what, Twist, that was ACTUALLY a good idea, coming from you.' So the next day we got to brainstorming, and made the club." And so was born The Here Project, a group that boasts about a dozen Second Life residents, who now seek to rent an entire simulator, and bring-- hard to resist, so I'll just come right out and say it, one last time-- and bring There, here.

This wouldn't be the first recreation of an online world within Second Life, though. The intricately planned island of Telador, for example, is the home of a few dozen exiles from Uru Live, and on it, they've recreated aspects of that recently-killed multiplayer spinoff of the Myst series. Meanwhile, the Mysterious Journey game project is another tribute to Uru Live, built by a rival band of Uru diasporans.

Back to the prospective island of Here: "We were hoping to have There members who want to support it put together the money and buy the island," says Van, "and officers help manage it."

"How many folks you think you'll need to do that?" I ask him.

"I don't know yet. It really depends on what kind of financial amounts we are going to be looking at, and how generous and dedicated those we do have are."

Standing alongside him, one of the Here Project's officers pipes up.

"It's gonna be really nice for building," says Kyle Rubio, laughing, "since we can keep costs low, and no submission team will slow us down."

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Friday, May 28, 2004

HEADS UP! (GAMING THE SYSTEM, PART VII)

Deus Via, the strategy-puzzle entry from the team headed by Tiger Crossing, is designed to be a simple, "easy-to-learn-but-difficult-to-master" casual game, similar to those from PopCap, makers of Bejeweled. It features a board of giant, colored tiles, four chariots, and an ash-spewing crater, at the center. But what's probably most striking, when you start a game, is the heads-up display that suddenly appears on your screen, the moment you mount a chariot. The display tells you which colored tiles you can move your chariot to, and which power-up spells you've collected, so far. It seems to be a secondary display added onto the Second Life interface, but that's just a clever optical illusion.

"It's small and hard to see from the ground," Tiger tells me, pointing above my chariot, "but if you go up and look, you can see them up there."

And so they are. Invisible to the naked eye, but viewable if you select the Edit function on the chariot, you can see the heads-up display, translucent from the ground, and floating twenty feet above it. You can only see the HUD when you stand on the chariot, because your camera view is automatically fixed to the one angle where you can.

"There is a group of prims attached to the chariot hung up in the air," says Tiger, "right behind where I lock the camera. It is painted on the ends of long invisible prims, because small objects that far from the chariot couldn't be linked [together]. It's been a real pain to implement, but it WORKS. Arito Cotton and I spend several evenings in internet voice chat discussing ideas." What they came up with was this elegant sleight of hand, which seems to totally alter your Second Life display. ("Arito is the one who made the elementals, the basic chariot, and this kick-ass stadium," Tiger adds.)

The "elementals" are the giant creatures made of air, fire, earth, and water, which emerge onto the board to wreak havoc on the players.

"They come out of the pit in the center when you cast one of the four spells," says Tiger. They don't kill you, but "They WILL be able to knock you to a corner, taking away any spells you have, and some of your collected icons/score. But that's the one feature that's not ready yet."

Then again, lots of other features have been added and discarded, along the way.

"This game has been nothing if not a long sequence of change after change," Crossing says. "It looks very little like the original model I have." In the game as initially conceived, the object would be to "[C]ross your opponent's trail, collect orbs, and gain altitude by completing a path between any two towers. The green tubes were... Something. I have no clue now. It was too ambitious for the resources we were given, however."

I ask him about the AI scripting for the giant fire elemental clambering out of the pit, and the rain elemental that casts storms everywhere it passes.

"The originals had a whopper of an [AI] script that I'm really proud of," says Cotton. "They could head to any point on the field, avoiding obstacles in their way. (And there were more things on the field then.) The current elementals have been very cutback in what they know, to speed the game. The sim just can't handle that intense of a script load! I re-wrote their AI last night in an hour. Now they wander randomly, erasing the board as they go. They still avoid the well in the center and the edges. And they sense when an avatar on a chariot is nearby and pounce.

"We're still adding things here, you see... These [game competition] sims opened for us to begin development [on] the day before my daughter was born-- a month early. That's put a big kink in our schedule. Now it's just a matter of listening to players and adding the remaining features.

"I just want to make something very addictive," Tiger Crossing finishes, "Yet not something that requires a huge investment of time to learn or play."

As we talk, a number of furry avatars mill about on the Deus Via board, playing the game or idly watching.

"A lot of these have been my avid playtesters," Tiger Crossing notes. "I've gotten a lot of bug reports from them."

"QA Furries!" I exclaim.

Crossing smiles. "Animal testing at its best, I guess."

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Thursday, May 27, 2004

POCKET ROCKET VS. GHETTO GATLING, WITH BOOTH BABES! (GAMING THE SYSTEM, PART VI)

Military vehicles and highly-militarized funny cars square off in a warzone and on an urban street with 3D Tanks, the project led by Hiro Pendragon. Due to a computer malfunction on the other side of the world, the vehicles in this turn-based combat game weren't entirely ready, at the time of my demo, but that didn't stop Nova Linden (armed and dangerous in the "Pocket Rocket") and Hiro himself (popping caps in the "Ghetto Gatling") from firing off missiles at each other, on opposite sides of the asphalt, and bringing the pain accordingly.

"The bullets are programmable," Hiro tells me later, "so once [3D Tanks version] 2.0 features are in, we'll be working on having different bullets for each tank. For instance, the Humvee has missiles mounted on it, so it'll be able to fire them. The 'Kalista Conqueror' has a spinning blade in the front, so its missile will be that." And even though the game is turn-based, each player has a ticking shot clock, counting down the seconds each player has left to aim and fire.

Hiro's co-programmer Adam Zaius is a Computer Science student in Australia, and as the deadline for the game entries neared, his computer fried at an inopportune time. But Hiro was there today to explain some of the code behind the game-- while offering a bit of sexy self-promotion.

"There are over a dozen distinct scripts being used in this game," Hiro tells me. "So it's been a lot of coding for three people, especially since only two [of us] code." [Milo Bukowski created the cars and the playing field.]

I ask Hiro how they scripted the missiles, and programmed them to record hits and take damage, and a highly technical explanation is unleashed:

"Basically," he explains, "we used voice channels of a high number, so when the control senses you firing, for instance, it actually does an llSay in a high number channel. And then the firing cone is in a listen state, and then rezzes [i.e., creates] the bullets. And then the tank being hit has an on-collision state, that deducts damage designated by the name of the bullet.

"Too technical?" he finishes, smiling. "Basically, everything in this game tries to know as little about the other objects as possible."

"So why use the [Second Life] audio channels?" I ask him. "That seems like a strange solution."

"It's an engineering design technique called compartmentalization," Hiro answers. "Linden Scripting Language (LSL) has no variable passing. So, for instance, if a bullet has 50 damage to it, the only way to let the hit tank know that it has been damaged is via a built-in command-- in that case, collision... I would LOVE if Linden Lab enabled a command like, llPassVariableTo(key target, list data), but I gotta work around that, since there is none."

Hiro expects the vehicles of 3D Tanks to be up and running early next week, with features added, over time. "Since this is only a one month trial of the game," Hiro tells, "just having three weapons to cycle through is enough. Should we get the land to move this elsewhere, I'd definitely love to see more features, more boards, etc."

Before I end my session, Hiro hands me some screenshots to promote his game, of the militantly saucy, babes-on-tanks variety. Besides the tanks, the images have nothing whatsoever to do with the actual game, so my first instinct is not to run them. After all, booth babes have become a standard promotional gimmick at the E3 game expo, and in the past, I've been critical about how they're over-used by the industry.

But then it hits me later: This is only the first Second Life Game Developer's Competition, and we've already got booth babes!

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Wednesday, May 26, 2004

UNDER SIEGE! (GAMING THE SYSTEM, PART V)

Last night, the aptly-named Mistress Midnight was busy pushing a man in a wheelchair into the nearby creek, when the boulders began flying over her head. After a bit of jiggering and false starts (and a smoother subsequent demo, the next day), the debut of Dave Zeeman's Castle Siege was finally off and running. A first-person multiplayer combat game with resource-management RTS elements, Castle Siege pits two teams of castle dwellers against each other, armed with catapults which lob armoire-sized boulders across the field between them. When they hit their target, walls demolish and towers crumble in a most satisfying way. Fortunately for the players with a crumbling castle, walls can be repaired, and weapons upgraded, by spending the gold they've acquired from the small mine behind each castle. (That's the RTS bit.) Upgrades include the ability to launch fireballs, and an allied dragon who spits out even more destructive balls of flame.

And as soon soon as the boulders take to the air, so does Graham Chapman. "Run away! Run away!", you hear, as giant stones drop around you. Dave Zeeman imported the famed line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail into Castle Siege, to give the gameplay that extra edge of silliness.

"The catapults have a floating linked object hovering over the [catapult] seat," Zeeman says, explaining some of the technology behind the mayhem, "which shoots out the boulders in whatever direction the user has aimed the seat. The damage system is mostly the castle pieces using the [in-world] physics engine. Other than that, they have a resize script in them, to make them all a bit smaller in size, depending on the type of boulder hitting them. Of course, this is repairable through the Castle Siege interface." Which, again, costs gold-- so defeating the opposing castle requires a bit of strategic planning, beyond the tossing of giant rocks.

"The best strategy is to have multiple people mine at once," Zeeman explains. "Because each time the gold gets mined, it takes the number of people mining at that time, and multiplies the mined amount." So while the catapults keep firing, the gold has to keep flowing, to finance repairs, and keep the castle standing.

"There was this one match," Zeeman recounts, "where we were battling back and forth and it was taking a while to destroy each other's castles, because both teams were doing well to repair them. [Then] suddenly one team completely abandons their castle, and all run at the other one. You'd be amazed how easily a castle can be toppled by simply running into it with your avatar!" To prevent future games from being decided by headlong charges like that, Dave Zeeman has added a script that bans opponents from treading on their opponent's land.

Interviewing him about Castle Siege awakens the game journalist in me. Examples of the first-person, resource-management real-time strategy game sub-subgenre like this are few and far between, I point out. The only other example I can come up with is "Battlezone", from 1998-- ages ago, in game industry tems.

"Oh man, I loved 'Battlezone'," Zeeman enthuses. "'Natural Selection' is a great example too, referring to a popular 'Half-Life' mod. "I'd love to get into the mod scene, but it takes so much time to learn," he adds. Then again, Zeeman suspects the mod communities may come to him, so to speak, "Because people like me who think that making a mod is daunting will realize how simple it can be in Second Life."

"I haven't seen many modder types coming in yet," I point out.

"Well," says Zeeman, "I think that can change."

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Tuesday, May 25, 2004

FROM URU TO OUR VIEW (GAMING THE SYSTEM, PART IV)

In the game project known as The Mysterious Journey, the game really begins with the, well, journey you first have to take, to play it. Buried deep inside a mountain is a series of challenges that you and your team must conquer, to win. But to even reach those, you have to teleport yourself to the pleateau above you, and from there, ride an elevator down into the tranquil caverns that house the first game, a ring-moving challenge that demands furious eye-hand skills, and not a little spacial logic.

As it turns out, the richly-detailed world that you have to travel through to even play The Mysterious Journey has something to do with the development teams' unique background.

"Many of the people working on the project were refugees from Uru Live, an online game which folded shortly before I joined Second Life," team leader Caliandris Pendragon tells me. "We hoped to find a place to rediscover the community we enjoyed in Uru."

So while the Mysterious Journey team counted only three official members, other exiles from Uru Live stepped in, to contribute. "Strife [Onizuka] built the amazing mountain for less than two hundred [building block] prims," Pendragon begins, "Astary suprvised the garden design through several incarnations; Cierrah Blair and Namssor Daguerre built the meeting place together." The list continues: "Moleculor Satyr was responsible for the scripting of the game hub and marbles which are used as in-game rewards and in the final endgame... the lion's share of the [design] work was done by Ratt Foo, who worked tirelessly to get many of the games online. Kami Kim tested and provided uploads and the beautiful music playing in the garden is hers. Jim Wheeling provided endless support and worked on games and lifts. Homey Khan and Dave Ramos worked on the game rooms."

And if the journey to the games is just as important as the games themselves, so, too, is the cohesion that came with having a group project to work on. "Part of the purpose in producing a game was to provide a focus for the people who had arrived from Another Place," Pendragon says. So the Mysterious Journey team came together in this new world, to build a kind of tribute to the old world they left behind.

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Monday, May 24, 2004

PET SOUNDS (GAMING THE SYSTEM, PART III)

Sort of a bizarre conceptual cross between Stephen King and a Japanese videogame, Pet Trap begins with a morbidly poetic shrine, and continues in the sterile but foreboding interior of an animal clinic. The place has been cleared out, but an unholy tunnel system is growing out of the back offices. That's where you must take your lantern, and braving deadly traps and ominous sounds, collect the bones of deceased pets. Collect enough of them, and you restore their souls. Collect still more, the instructions promise, and you win your own ghost pet companion.

The lantern is actually the key component to the game-- once attached, it keeps tracks of the bones you've collected, and the hitpoints you have left, after you've been buffeted and battered about by the various traps that await you in the maze below. "While providing little real light," Pet Trap team member Bopete Yossarian explains, "the lantern actually serves as a 'tracking device' for each player, keeping count of checkpoints passed, bones collected, damage taken, and [health restoring] vitamins 'consumed'. Objects all over the island communicate with these lanterns, which is why the player is cautioned not to drop or detach it, lest he or she not be credited with pet salvation at the end... If too much damage is taken, and the player's Health Points drop to 0, the lantern is triggered to rez the Grim Flamingo, which offers the player salvation. When the player is hurled across the island to the Blessed Birdbath, the lantern is reset so the player can try to make his or her way through the maze again.

"So while the player may only hear the whooshing sounds of bones vanishing, obstacles clobbering some hapless player, or checkpoints being triggered," Bopete concludes, "there is actually a great deal of silent words being spoken. I think this is quite fitting for a game filled with ghosts."

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Friday, May 21, 2004

MAHJONG MASTER! (GAMING THE SYSTEM, PART II)

The object in classic mahjong is to remove all the tiles on the playing board-- only two at a time, with pairs of tiles that have the same pattern. Only each of these tiles must have a free space to its left or right, or you can't remove them. To make things even more complicated, the tiles are arranged in a multi-level ziggurat, so it's not always clear which tiles are free on the left or right side, when you're looking at the playing board straight on.

Fortunately, the tiles in the central mahjong board of the Game Parlour-- the competition entry created by Xylor Bayscleft and his team-- stack up about four feet high, and there's plenty of room to move your camera view around the board, to get a look at every possible angle. But perhaps the most striking thing about the game comes right at the beginning: with the click of a button, the giant tiles shuffle and assemble themselves, right before your eyes.

"Just some scripting is all," Xylor says, chuckling modestly. "Little steps. We have chess as well. And spades, but [we're] re-doing it [to adjust] for sim resources."

After team member Hiro Protagonist painstakingly explains (and explains, and explains) the rules of mahjong to me, I'm finally able to play a match without looking too foolish. While Xylor watches me from the sidelines, I ask him to explain how he created the self-assembling program.

"The board/table creates a bunch of tiles," he says, "and tells them where to go. It gets each pattern from a notecard, and just basically tells the tiles to sit there and wait..."

"I'm already getting a headache," I groan. Not from his explanation-- I'm just having trouble finding a new match, and I don't want to click the nearby Help button, which all-too-helpfully points out matching pairs by making them glow purple.

"Once the tiles get there," Xylor continues, "they 'look around' around quick, and see who their neighbors are. Then they can tell if they can be selected or not..."

"I AM THE MAHJONG MASTER, YO!" I enthuse. I've got a momentum now, and I'm gradually beginning to clear the board.

"... Then when you select tiles," Xylor Baysclef concludes, "[the tiles] asks the board if they are a match, and if they are, they go away. Pretty simple. (Over simplifying, but that’s the idea.)"

Finishing the game isn't simple, however, because now I'm stuck once again.

"I'm gonna start screaming like Howard Dean in a minute here!" I warn. And then a screaming comes across the sim: "YEEEEEAARRRGGGH!"

"Xylor," I say more calmy, now that I've given up, "how do you create patterns that are always solvable? Or are they?"

"It is random," he says. "Not always solvable. Same as if you build the pattern yourself in real life."

I look at him with genuine surprise. "People do this in real life?!"

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Thursday, May 20, 2004

DEATH RACE 2004! (GAMING THE SYSTEM, PART I)

Humvees, GTOs, Cooper Minis, and what looks sort of like the Flinstone's family car are rumbling back and forth in the closed raceway, and it seems appropriate at this point to put on my Hunter S. Thompson avatar, with the cigarette holder and the bottle of whiskey, while I watch a round of Route 66 Demolition Derby. The match I watch features a mouse and a giant green man and other competitors, and they proceed to biff each other like crazy, skittering around in the underground track, and then up the ramp into the open air course. Wheels, doors, whole chassis fly through the air, with each successful hit, and careen along the ground, sometimes in slow motion. Right now, most of the mayhem goes on in silence, and the crashes register with the default sound effect of generic objects banging together.

"Sound kills the sim," explains Bonecrusher Slate, Route 66's development team leader.

"Physics do, too," adds Ryen Jade, as he struggles out from under the smoking wreck of what seems to be a tribute to the "Dukes of Hazzard" muscle car.

"When you abuse the physics system like us," Slate continues, "sounds have to be cut for bandwith reasons."

"Sounds like a bag of coconuts!" I observe.

"Mmmmm," says Ryen, homerishly, "coconuts."

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GAMING THE SYSTEM...

By happy coincidence, I just got back from the largest game expo in the world to find Second Life's own gaming expo already in full swing, in-world. The nominees in Second Life Game Developer's Competition opened their projects to the public on May 9th, and for the next several weeks, each will be vying to win a bevy of in-world and real world prizes, from Linden Lab. (Details on the competition here.) Over the following two weeks, I'll be stopping by each entry and giving them a try-- and in doing so, hopefully give NWN readers a glimpse of the state of in-world game development.

(And to maintain a modicum of journalistic impartiality, I'll state right up front that none of
my entries on the competition should be construed as an endorsement or a criticism of any
particular game. Those, good readers, are for the residents themselves to make-- and for
me to only report on.)

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Tuesday, May 18, 2004

REVIVING THE ARCHIVE!

A commando in Iraq and a wedding that begins in a cave; a walk across the world and brain surgery's aftermath; Martin Luther King Jr. and the politics of sitting; pedagogy in 3D and a Catholic mass online; loved ones lost and speeches given. I just added permalinks to these notable stories of the last five months, in the Archive section at the bottom left column. (From "Living Memorial" to "Flowers for Father Fairchild".)

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