Memo’s from the Metaverse

My new place in Zindra

Today marks the 10th anniversary of joining Second Life.  I thought about trying to update my avatar, in game, maybe with one of the new mesh avatars, but didn’t. My avatar in Second Life hasn’t changed in 3 years, mostly because I haven’t played much in 3 years.  I basically log in at least once a year, sell $72 worth of linden dollars to pay for my premium account for another year, and that’s about it.

When I logged in three days ago, my beautiful river view was trashed with someones scripted garbage.  I submitted a ticket and when I logged in today, the garbage is still there. The last time something like this happened, it took months to resolve.  Yes, I have been in SL long enough to have experienced every kind of griefing there is.

stripchair1

Date Ariane Update Update

Another reason my Second Life avatar has not changed is because I spend a lot more time playing with my Poser avatar.  It’s a bit more expensive hobby than Second Life, but the resulting screenshots are much more interesting.

I just finished updating the “Live Cabaret” pictures in the update.  If you want to follow the updating process, I am posting stuff at arianeb.tumblr.com.

gw162

Big Guild Wars 2 Update

For me Second Life got replaced by Guild Wars 2.  For years my moods have drifted between, being creative and having fun.  Second Life was sort of the bridge between the two as I could do both, and be social with other players.  Between being creative in Poser and having fun in Guild Wars 2, and the social side of GW2, Second Life got squeezed out of the cycle.

I bring up Guild Wars 2 because the recent upgrade has drastically improved the game for me and most other players. The most talked about changes was the way outfits work, which among other things allows me to wear sunglasses in combat.

But the biggest game changing update was something they call “Megaservers”.

You know how when most MMORPGs start to decline they start combining smaller servers together causing a lot of grief?   GW2 has reengineered the process which results in a lot more players in any given zone at any given time.  Having lots of players in a zone is a lot more fun than having just a few (I often found myself the sole player in certain zones).

Every zone has group events that require multiple players to do. If you are by yourself, they don’t get done. Now Megaservers dramatically improve traffic enough that these events can be done again.

Speaking of group events, they actually made a schedule of major boss fight events in the game.  Every 15 minutes there’s a new Boss fight, and if you want to follow the schedule, you can go from boss fight to boss fight, for a chance at a big reward at the end of each event.

Between “Megaservers” and World Boss schedules, Guild Wars 2 is once again a social game, and still one of the best MMORPGs out there.

More Virtual Worlds

I recently made some sojourns into other virtual worlds like Nuvera Online and There.com.  Didn’t stay long enough for a full scouting report, but I may go visit these and other small yet persevering worlds soon and file a report.

Is the Virtual World Dream Dying?

cparty1

One of the things I have on my website is a list of 3D Virtual Worlds that I try to maintain.  Although I don’t play them much anymore, I have a few reliable sources I go to keep me up to date.

It has been about two years since I added a new program, and that program was Cloud Party.  This week I removed it, as well as Free Realms, and MooveCloud Party got bought out by Yahoo!, and Yahoo! has decided not to keep it open.  Free Realms, a MMORPG designed for kids that also included virtual world elements like personal houses, is closing its doors too due to lack of growth.  I’m dropping Moove because no one seems to be using it anymore, and no one is supporting it. The web site hasn’t changed in 2 years.

A fair number of others are on their way out.  Information on Kaneva is sketchy, no twitter updates in months.  The virtual world side of Blue Mars seems to be already dead population wise, though the app side is alive and kicking. Playstation 3 Home is declining since the “Home”less Playstation 4 was released.

Some of the major ones are still doing well.  Second Life is still popular.   There.com still has an active community and still making a profit. IMVU is not advertising like they used to but still pulling in big numbers of users (just pulled up my client to check, 115,000 users online). My contacts inside Nuvera Online say its doing well, too. I am also still seeing continuing interest in Twinity.

In business, this is called a consolidation phase. The 3D Virtual World industry as a whole is declining, but the ones that are well established are growing as the less well established ones close their doors.

Why the decline?  Two reasons: 1.  Almost all 3D Virtual Worlds are designed for keyboard and mouse play on PCs. With the rise of tablets and phone computing, interest in Virtual Worlds is declining, as these worlds are not designed for those devices.  3D Virtual World Apps do exist, but they are not doing enough business to stop the decline.

2. The rise of Free MMORPGs, which I have talked about before.  MMORPGs have basically adopted every aspect of 3D Virtual World play except user created content.  Maybe that is why Second Life, There, IMVU, Nuvera, and Twinity are the survivors — they are the ones with user created content.  If that is not important to you,  if all you want to do is meet and play and chat with other people online, the MMORPG’s now cater to those interests.

I used to think that 3D Virtual Worlds would eventually lead to a 3D internet.  I still think a 3D internet is possible in the future, but I don’t see it happening any time soon.  I expect more closures in the short term.

Meanwhile, there is hope of new things around the corner.  High Fidelity is going into alpha mode.  A Yahoo! based virtual world could be coming using the Cloud Party tech they just acquired.  Also a wild card in this is VR hardware like Oculus Rift, which will no doubt renew interest in all things 3D.

Guild Wars 2 Revisited

In the past 6 weeks or so I have got two characters all the way up to 80, and the weird thing is that I almost never duplicated content doing it. One character is human and priory, and stuck to Human and Sylvari zones.  The other is Norn and Order of Whispers, and stuck to Norn and Charr zones.  Except for 4 or 5 personal story missions every character does, I have not repeated content — and I still have 5 zones of content I have yet to explore on either character.
That is an amazing amount of content for a newly released MMORPG, and why I have been playing for 6 weeks straight without getting tired of the game.  I remember I was playing DC Universe Online for 3 weeks and got a hero and a villains both up to max level in only about 3 weeks and pretty much exhausted all the content there was to play.

Early Concerns

When I first started playing the real game and not the pretend beta game, I had two major concerns that were quite annoying: Personal stories and crafting.

GW2 has personal instance missions which can be done as a team but they are designed to be solo missions.  A lot of them were either too hard to play for the level they were supposed to be at, or were bugged where you could not finish and had to get out and start over.  The good news is that Anet is responding to complaints about these missions and fixing them. Many were fixed in the 9/25 update, and many more in the 10/1 update. Unfortunately, many bugs remain.  The most notorious is in a mission called “Forging the Pact” which is one of those 5 missions that everybody has to do.  Despite ANet saying it is “fixed” in the last two updates, it still isn’t.

The second concern is in crafting.  Just before launch, ANet increased the requirements to crafting green “Masterwork” weapons and armor, but did not increase the drops of the materials to craft them.  As a result it is basically impossible to specialize in two weapon/Armor crafting professions, because you will never get enough drops to do both, unless you “farm” for drops, and even then ANet has anti-farming programming in place.  My plan was to have my Ranger craft Huntsman and Leatherworks so that she always had the latest gear, but was very disappointed to learn that was not possible.

The In Game Economy: Heavy Deflation

However, things changed as the economy started to flatten to a market clearing prices on items.  In the trading menu, you can buy pretty much anything cheap, and getting cheaper.  This is very bad for people trying to make money, but for people that want stuff, it is good.  You no longer have to “farm” for stuff, you can just buy it cheap in the trade center.  And you don’t even have to craft to get the latest armor and weapons, in fact pre-crafted armor and weapons are always priced below their materials price, except for rare and exotic stuff.  Thanks to the in-game economy, the only reason to craft at all is free experience points to level up.

Anet, to their credit, set up a true laisse fare economy, where supply and demand rule the day.  World of Warcraft trading was limited to each server so it was possible to “corner a market” and raise prices. The Trade Center combines stuff from 50 different servers, so market cornering is impossible.  Of course, as you play you  gather materials and get weapon\armor drops.   You can sell or salvage drops to get rare materials that might be worth more, or if the drops aren’t worth it, you just sell to a merchant.  Only the latter choice (sell to a merchant) stops supply from rising.  Everything else results in increased supply and lower prices across the board.

The only thing that is increasing in value are gems.  Gems are purchasable with real money, and can be traded for in game gold, so if you are willing to put up the bucks, you can buy whatever can be purchased.  In the first few weeks, people needed gold to get lots of stuff to have the best characters.  Then people started getting rich and bought gems, increasing their value vs. gold.  With all items deflating in price, the only way to make money is invest in gems.

New Concerns

One of the cool features of GW2 is the “level down” mechanism that allows you to do lower level content at the appropriate difficulty.  No taking your level 80 character to level 5 zones and slaughtering everything in sight.  If you go to a level 5 zone, you will play as a level 5-7 character, and can be attacked and killed by these low level creatures.  This makes all content playable and challenging, and worth doing.  The original plan is that when you play low level areas, you would still get drops relevant to your level (and sometimes you do), but most of the drops are appropriate to the level of the zone you are in.  If  you are trying to gather crafting materials for low level weapons or armor, this is a good thing.  If you are trying to collect high level rare or exotic items, or get lots of XP from events, then you pretty much have to stick with appropriately level zones.

The bad side of this is as time goes by, most players will be either playing in low level zones, or high level zones, just like every other MMORPG out there.  Now ANet has thought of this issue and if you are in one of those neglected middle zones where no one else is playing in, you will get bonus XP for kills and events, and sometimes the bonuses exceed the normal XP if you are in a particularly barren land, but I am not sure how big of an incentive that will be.

Final Note: Whiny Players

There was a post on Reddit’s GW2 board that got a lot of attention:

God save me from some aspects of the MMO community. You people are impossible. You have ruined a ton of AAA games in the last few years – you DEMAND treadmill gated endgame, beat it in a month, and then whine and abandon a game for not having enough content (you all know exactly the games I am talking about). Now a game has to literally FORCE you to stop doing the same mindless activity over and over and actually do different things to enjoy endgame, and you all bitch and whine because you can’t grind yourself to boredom in a month like you have done with every other MMO.

You are destroying the viability of MMOs by being entitled impatient kids who can’t make fun for yourself, you have to have a game hand it all to you on a silver platter and whine and bitch if you don’t get it fast enough, or complain because you have to work hard to get something you want because they won’t let you run the easiest dungeon over and over or run the same dynamic event over and over. […]

Maybe the problem isn’t the MMO, maybe the problem is you. Maybe you need to examine the way you approach an MMO – many of you will spend hours playing a FPS with no progression because it is fun – and then you whine because spvp has no progression and say so “what incentive do I have to do spvp if I don’t get better gear?” (Actual statement I have heard).

Guild Wars 2 is a reinvention of the MMO, and I read with disbelief people complaining about some of the best features.

I was visiting GW2guru which is one of the largest GW2 forums but not official. Some clueless player posted a thread about “What would you change about GW2” and he had “No down leveling, bring back the Trinity (healer-tank-wizard), and bring back Henchmen” as his 3 changes. I had to post that those are precisely the three things that makes GW2 GREAT!, and that he should go back to WOW if he doesn’t like it. There were an amazing number of people on his side. (sigh)

There is an awful lot of content in GW2, and it is likely going to be late October/November before I will see it all. Being an altaholic I have no problem re-rolling, but those who don’t can find dynamic events, WvWvW, or dungeons to do forever.

GW2 is not perfect, and there are legitimate gripes to be made. But I hate when complaints about the game are along the lines of it not being like all the other MMOs, because that is precisely the point.

3D Virtual Worlds vs. MMORPGs

I have spent 9 years exploring 3D Virtual Worlds, and 8 years playing MMORPGs.  For the longest time they felt like two different experiences.  3D Virtual Worlds are a creative outlet, while MMORPGs are a mostly cooperative gaming experience.  It seems that recently they have been merging.

I have not been adding many new virtual worlds to my master list lately.  While I am probably missing some, the main reason I have not been adding new ones is because there haven’t been any.  This is probably due to good old capitalism.  The potential market just isn’t as big as people thought, and the market that is there is covered really well by Second Life, IMVU, and OpenSim.

In the last couple of years, the growth in 3D gaming has been in free to play MMORPGs.  Not only do they attract a crowd with new gaming experiences, they have co-opted the social model of the 3D Virtual Worlds, creating central meeting places, and free “bases” you can decorate and host private gatherings.  They also have special interest groups you can join in game to meet like minded people.

Basically, everything that makes 3D Virtual Worlds popular, can now be found in MMORPGs too, except user created content.

This is why I now believe that if a complex “Metaverse” like OASIS in Ready Player One is  ever built, it is more likely to be in the form of an MMORPG rather than a 3D Virtual World.

We then must ask the question: How important is “user created content”?  Well, I learned early on during my 9 years of exploring that “content” is vitally important, in fact it is THE most important factor in the success of a 3D Virtual World, and in truth it is also one of the most important factor in MMORPGs, too (“playability” slightly trumps it however).  Allowing user created content is the fastest way to get content, but it is a two edged sword, because the vast majority of user created content is junk.  That user created content has to be loaded on the fly via asset servers which slows down and weakens the user experience.  So if a 3DVW or MMORPG can provide enough “content” without resorting to the user created variety, it is a better experience for the player.

On the other hand, creating the “user created content” is in and of itself the thing that attracts many to 3D Virtual Worlds in the first place.  It is one of the things I have enjoyed most about Second Life and There.com.

The truth is that content creators are seriously outnumbered by both socializers (especially since most content creators are also socializers), and gamers.  Now that MMORPGs are working to appeal to both of the latter groups, it is only the content creators who feel that 3DVWs are the better way to go.  For everyone else, there is simply more things to do in an MMORPG.

As far as “content” goes, competition between MMORPGs is fierce enough that the newest ones are constantly raising the bar on the amount (and quality) of the content they offer.  The thing that triggered this post is my exploration of “Lions Arch” in Guild Wars 2.  I have posted a lot of reviews of 3D builds, but I would say without question that the new “Lions Arch” is the most beautiful 3D build I have ever seen in any game I have ever played, regardless of genre.  It is a true masterpiece of the art form.

As I stated in a previous post, 3D Virtual Worlds are in a slow decline.  It is the competition with free to play MMORPGs that is doing it.  The MMOs are incorporating the stuff that makes 3DVWs popular.  If they are to survive, the 3DVWs need to start incorporating what makes MMOs popular.  They are just starting to do that.  The merging of the two genres seems inevitable.  I for one am looking forward to that, because it is only going to get more awesome.

Book Review: “Ready Player One”

So far I have only done one book review on this blog.  I read more than that of course, I just stick to talking about books that echo the themes of this blog.  The novel Ready Player One by Ernest Cline does just that.

Ready Player One is one of the latest young adult dystopian books, though not as sick and twisted as the highly overrated Hunger Games.  It is set in the 2040’s when gas is so scarce that everyone abandons the suburbs for the big cities, but the cities don’t have room.  Oklahoma City comes up with the idea to build highrise trailer parks.  The books protagonist 17 year old Wade lives in the laundry room of a double wide, occupied by his aunt, her latest boyfriend, and two other families.

But Wade spends most of his time hiding in an abandoned van in a junk yard which he powers with a bicycle powered generator.  He jacks into a 3D Virtual World called OASIS, which thanks to technology allowing thousands of players to play in an area lag free, OASIS has become the 3D internet.  Wade attends a virtual high school, getting a better education than he would in an overcrowded school he lives in.

You can probably understand why I like this book so much.  The world is very similar to Snow Crash in that there are two worlds, a dystopian stink hole called the real world, and a utopian paradise everyone prefers to live in.  Ready Player One has a distinct advantage over Snow Crash, however, 20 years of hindsight.  Many of the conceptual ideas of the “Metaverse” in Snow Crash seem rather dumb with today’s technology.  OASIS, on the other hand, seems plausible if you take today’s technology and project it forward three decades.

A major theme of the book is the difference between the online world and the real world.  Our avatar personification vs. who we really are; Living in a fantasy world vs. dealing with the real world.  I have delved deeper than the novel has on these topics, but the novel does a good job dealing with them.

The central plot involves the creator of OASIS, a game designer turned multibillionaire  who upon his death wills nearly the entirety of his estate, including control of OASIS to whoever can solve the hidden puzzle he left behind hidden somewhere in the OASIS world.

With such a huge prize everyone goes out looking for it, but the puzzle is so well hidden, that 5 years go by before anyone manages to discover the beginning of the puzzle (which has 6 parts, 3 keys and 3 gates).  The person who discovers it is Wade.

I have mentioned a couple of times how different the world will get once energy starts to get scarce, and how gaming will become a welcome escape from that reality.  Here is a book that echoes that theme in a very entertaining way.

There is another interesting part I have yet to mention.  It seems that the mad gaming designer grew up during the 1980’s, and is obsessed with the books, games, comics, music and movies of that decade.  Solving the central puzzle requires expert knowledge of this material, and the players dedicated to solving the puzzle have to become experts on the 1980’s pop culture.  Lots of this novel is filled with references to  the ’80s.  Being someone who grew up in the 80’s as well, I got all the references and knew all the songs referenced in the novel.

This unfortunately may be the biggest negative of the book, there is too much 80’s references which are likely to get lost on kids who grew up in later decades.  Since this is a “young adult” novel aimed at teen audiences, I’m not sure how well it will go over with the target audience.  But it did go over well with me.  Ernest Cline created an “official soundtrack” here if you want to hear many of the songs referenced in the novel.  You might also want to familiarize yourself with the movies WarGames, Ladyhawke, Blade Runner, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail if you don’t already know them (If you don’t then shame on you, they are classics).  There are major references to the games Pac Man, Tempest, Joust, Adventure, Black Tiger, Dungeons of Daggorath and Zork, too.

Since this book seems like it was written specifically for me, I ran through it in a few days time.  General audiences may not be as well versed in these subjects as I am, though the author does spend a lot of time explaining things for the general reader’s benefit (mostly unnecessary in my case).

The book is currently available hard copy and e-book via links at the Official Site, paperback and cheaper e-books coming in June.

3D Virtual Worlds Are In Decline

Catching up with the news on 3D Virtual Worlds, has been getting a little depressing lately.  Bottom line: they are all down in traffic.

Lets start with some news on the LL/SL front:  Linden Lab announced two weeks ago that they bought an interactive fiction company called LittleTextPeople. The small company develops 2D interactive fiction for play on mobile phones from what I can tell.  The group will develop new products under the Linden Lab roof, but they will not be associated with Second Life.  In other words, Linden Lab is finally diversifying its gaming line up.  This is what happens when you hire a game developer as your CEO, you start to develop new games.  Not reported anywhere is that one of the 3 developers at LittleTextPeople is Richard Evans, lead AI programmer for The Sims 3 who no doubt worked with LL CEO Rod Humble when he was in charge at EA/Maxis.  The other two are Emily Short, writer/programmer of text adventure Galatea, and Andrew Stern co-creator of a really cool experimental 3D interactive game called Façade.  Both are available for free.

So from the sounds of it, Linden Lab is looking to get into the mobile app market with interactive fiction.  Based on my minimal level of research, the project(s) that LittleTextPeople are working on are pseudo menu driven graphic interactive fiction. (since typing things on a phone/tablet is an annoyance to begin with).  Looking forward to seeing what they come up with.

But that is not all from the Linden Lab front. It seems LL has stopped publication of statistics for Second Life. The unanimous consensus is that the reason for no publication is that the numbers are way down.

Lets put these two items into perspective.  Linden Lab is diversifying their product line towards mobile apps, while Second Life is dropping in traffic, land sales, etc.  Linden Lab is looking to a future without its signature product.  I said before that I believe SL will close its doors when it stops being profitable, and we seem to be close to that point it sounds like.

I decided to take a look at other 3DVWs and see how they are doing.  IMVU is seeing lower numbers these days too.  There Inc is not seeing the huge influx of returning customers it was hoping for when it reopened its doors. It seems that maybe the age of the 3DVW is about up.

Some of the smaller ones are doing OK: NuVera is finally out of beta, and it seems a lot more stable. Avination says they fixed the sim crossing problem for vehicles in OpenSim.  InWorldz is now big enough to start holding a conference in Las Vegas. Onverse is still expanding with new lands and content. Despite some small time success, I am not hearing about any new ones lately, not even new OS grids.

What’s driving people away from the big 3D Virtual Worlds? Probably boredom, social networking, and the influx of “free to play” MMORPGs which are learning to incorporate the social aspects that used to be exclusive to 3DVWs.

I’m not expecting a lot of closures though, just the usual 3 or 4 a year. These things have long tails, and can get by for quite a while with loyal fan bases.  But the “golden age” is behind us.

 

Metaverse in Transition

I have not written anything in a couple of weeks because I have been busy working on the sequel.

Meanwhile…  There are many little things going on in metaverse land worth bringing up.

First, is the fast decline of Worlds of Warcraft. They are losing net subscribers at a rate of about 100,000 a month.  Currently they sit at 11.1 million and falling.  They are still the number one MMORPG out there by a long shot, but the declining numbers indicates a change in the market I figured would eventually come.

Let’s just say it: World of Warcraft is getting old.  It’s “look” is dated, and people are more attracted to the much better looking new releases like Rift and Aion.  Competition from the “free to play” games is getting tighter too.  At this point, adding new content will boost numbers some, but each “expansion” will be less and less effective.  Developing new content is expensive and time consuming, and at some point you just have to say,  “Time for a new game.”

Speaking of which, I’m getting excited for Guild Wars 2, which unfortunately still has a “sometime in 2011” release date.  November is packed for new game releases, and I hope it does not get lost in the mix.  GW2 and Skyrim are the two games I am most looking forward to.

And speaking of “dated”, There.com is now taking preregistration for their re-release.  Right now they are opening the ThereIM client “by invitation”, and you can reclaim your old account if you remember the login and password, you are over 18, and willing to pay $10 a month.  As nostalgic as I am about my There days, I am not feeling enough desire to go back in.  I wish them good luck in their re-release, but I think I’ll be watching from the outside.

Meanwhile in Second Life, the very long awaited release of mesh is getting close.  They released a “beta” viewer dubbed 3.0, which is the same as 2.0 but with mesh integrated in it.  Second Life has been growing a bit stale lately.  Many older great builds, stores, designer, etc. have been leaving.  I believe the “mesh” age will be a renaissance of sorts, and I am definitely looking forward to new builds and new stuff to see on the main grid when it finally goes live.  Be warned that only paying members will be allowed to upload mesh objects, and the prim cost of having mesh objects in world is higher than expected too, so those will be limiting factors.  I totally understand the first restriction as it is necessary to prevent a rash of copyrighted mesh objects from other games flooding Second Life.  The second restriction can change in the future.

Still, mesh has yet to reach the main grid.  Open Sim already has it, as long as you are using a mesh enabled viewer.  The sooner it gets to the main grid, the better.