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Moriash Moreau: My Second Life
Sunday, January 02, 2005
Second Life

So I'm doing the seven day free trial for Second Life right now. It's not a MMORPG, per se. I suppose that, if games like Everquest are the successors to the old text MUDs, then Second Life is more like a MOO. There's no real goal (except perhaps to make money, see below), but there is substantial social interaction (not that I've done much of that yet) and a powerful object creation system. The latter is the main reason to play the game, in my opinion. You can create just about anything in-game, including homes (if you want to buy land), vehicles, weapons (for the few game areas that allow that kind of thing), clothing, and so on. And you can script it to behave as realistically (or as unrealistically, as the case may be) as you like.

So, for example, my avatar above (at least until I change it- avatars are highly mutable) is equipped with blue jeans, tennis shoes, a turquoise belt buckle, a leather jacket, and a rumpled button-down shirt. These are all from a freebie box I found in the corner of an obscure bazaar. Many items created by other players cost in-game dollars. These include fancy cars, designer clothes, original artwork (images can be uploaded from out-of-game, for $10 in-game bucks a pop) to hang on your virtual walls, and so on. But someone in-game compiled a huge box of free items and set it up for anyone to take a copy. So I lucked out there.

The wings also came in the freebie box, along with several other script-laden items that aren't visible. The clothes have nothing special intrinsic to them. The wings, however, come with a built-in script that grants increased flight speed when you are above a certain socially acceptable altitude (it can even make sonic booms if you tweak a couple of script toggles appropriately). Everyone can fly, as well as make use of the in-game teleportation system. Travel is not really a major issue. The wings are a simple luxury item, though, should you want to make short jaunts more quickly. I've tweaked them a bit so that they are a bit hazy and give off a faint glow, as well. Same with the halo, which is the first item I've made from scratch. (I ultimately want to make it spark a bit, and possibly pitch and yaw off axis a bit, when I learn scripting.) And you wouldn't believe how long that took. The object editor is idiosyncratic at best. It's going to take some getting used to. I'm hoping for an off-line editor somewhere with better tools.

There are many downsides, though. First is the lag issue. Unlike Everquest, where all of the items are pre-made and can be stored on your local hard drive, all of the object information must be streamed to your computer as you go. So broadband is a must. And even then, often you find yourself entering an area and bumping into invisible walls until the object data catches up with you. Pictures are sometimes maddening, especially when they contain useful information, because they stream in iterative stages of detail. First, just colored blobs. Then then slowly resolve themselves over a matter of tens of seconds into the actual images. In short, no movements can be done in a hurry. Not if you want to actually see the scenery, anyway.

But this is endurable, if you have a reasonably good pipeline. The other issue that concerns me is in-game money. Permanent object creation costs. Basically, if it costs the server extra processing time, it costs in-game moolah. You're given a modest weekly allowance ($500 in-game), but decent objects all seem to cost something in that order of magnitude as well (which, of course, is no coincidence). So if you want to have any real purchasing power, you have to make original items to sell, and get people to buy copies. Most of this is done by automatic scripted vending machines, parked either on your own property or in rental stalls in popular areas. So many of the heavily used areas feel like being trapped in a shopping mall. You can also flip money back and forth between real and in-game dollars, or so I understand, but I haven't really looked into that in any detail.

And, of course, there's the in-game property. I think I've argued in favor of purchasing in-game items with real money before, in Everquest. It's akin to purchasing software upgrade, or clip-art packages, or iTunes, or CDs, any number of useful software artifacts that make your time more productive or enjoyable. In this case, though, my belief in that analogy is stretched. Here, if you want to buy land, you have to pay rent. A small plot (512 square meters) costs an extra $5 a month (on top of the $9.95 a month for access- initial software is free). The largest plots (65,526 square meters) go for $980 for 16 acres, with monthly land fees of $195. I'm still deciding how I feel about all this. The basic subscription plan comes with a 512 meter plot. Maybe I'll feel different when I start building my own architectural creations, but for now paying property tax on virtual real estate feels kind of hinky. It's undeniably appealing to leave your mark on the world, even if it is a virtual one. Perhaps that would be worth the cost. For a while, anyway.
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