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Moriash Moreau: My Second Life
Thursday, May 25, 2006
New Lighting
And the new lighting effects are pretty slick, too. Good job, LL! I whipped up this police light hat while a few of us were playing with the v1.10 features. You know, jumping around in capes, waving green glowing tentacles in the air, making epilepsy-inducing strobe lights... The usual. The hat also includes a wailing police siren, mostly because I could. All told, it's really quite annoying. So, a successful evening, I guess.

Addendum, May 29, 2006:
I've made a commercial release of the Police Siren Hat, if anyone is interested. It's available for free at the Mo-Tech Industries shop (Louise 185,232).

Just a quick note:
Prim trees and plants made with bundles of flat pictures look awesome with the new flexible prims. I spent a few hours last night tweaking flexibility, drag, and wind reaction parameters on prim weeping willows, cat-tail plants, and even plastic flowers. The latter sway somewhat stiffly in the breeze, just like real fake flowers.

Yes, that's right. I have succeeded in enhancing the realism of simulated plastic flowers. I feel this is a small, but important, victory in virtual world immersion.
Wednesday, May 10, 2006

As those of you who've been to my little slice of SL know, I've had tornados for the last few weeks. Or, at least, my inadequate and stylized versions of tornados. Based on my minimal experience with the natural disaster in question, these are the sketchiest hints of the real thing. This is probably for the best. I expect that a giant funnel of destructive force sweeping across the sim and rending everything in its path wouldn't be as well received by the neighbors.

As it stands, they're an occasional harmless display for visitors to the Garden of Mo. But taming them proved to be an interesting task. The trick was designing natural and apparently random wandering movement into them, without allowing them to leave my property. (Even in SL, folks tend to get a bit uptight when rogue 18m tall whirlwinds bumble through their living rooms.) As a failsafe, that's relatively easy: just have the script check to see if it's on my property, and delete itself if it is not. But a tornado that makes a beeline across my land, only to disappear in seconds, isn't all that entertaining.

This is where I probably made things too complicated. The tornado's movement (in this case) is controlled by two factors: wind direction and distance from beacons. The latter are simple invisible prims scattered around the property. Every couple of seconds, the tornado checks the current SL wind vector, and determines the direction and distance to the nearest beacon. Then, the script creates a movement vector determined by these three values. If the tornado is near a beacon, then it will mostly follow the wind vector. But as it moves further from a beacon object, it applies more force towards pushing the tornado back to the beacon. So, as it moves, it meanders in the general direction of the wind, occasionally backtracking to the nearest beacon. And since there are multiple beacons (I needed 18 of them to cover the "J" shaped parcel while avoiding neighboring plots) scattered about the plot, and the SL wind is everchanging, the tornado's movement is nicely unpredictable.

Beyond that, tornado control is a mostly a matter of lag control. I was concerned about a free-roaming physical object and its impact on sim loads. Realistically, the impact is minimal. I've seen parcels that had dozens of physical leaves bouncing and blowing around in the wind (see the spectacular Valley of Autumn (Mocha, 64,222) for an example), with no perceptible lag issues. But, I might as well be frugal when I can. In this case, that means using sensors (with long cycle times) to check for an audience. If someone walks into sensor range, and said someone is actually standing on my land, then there is a chance that a tornado will be rezzed. This tornado will time out after 5 to 10 minutes, then another will be rezzed a few minutes afterward, if someone is still around to see it. Net result is the tornados won't be a drain on system resources unless another avatar is around to enjoy it. Seems like a reasonable enough precaution to me.

As natural disasters go, the GoM tornados have been good for my social life. I've met quite a few folks who stopped in to watch the whirlwinds whirl by. It seems to be something of an attraction. The DJs for Twister Radio saw them, too, and ended up commissioning a modified version for their events. Their version is designed to work from a single beacon, and optionally throws avatars into the air on collision. I've never been to an event where the Twister Twister was used (that would require me to be sociable, and thus be completely out of character), but I'm told it's gone over pretty well. It's nifty to be a small part of events like that, in any case.

I should mention that the initial alpha and beta stages were a cooperative project between Sophia Weary and myself. She had the original idea to make a tornado, and developed one version of the script. I ended up redoing it from the ground up, and bloating it significantly in the process, but used some of her ideas. Thanks, Soph!

Oh, if anyone is interested, there is an attachment version, the Human Tornado, available at Mo-Tech. I'm using it to terrorize Baffin sim in the picture above. It has a moderate push effect (launches avatars into the air, but not into orbit) on contact (optional, easy to turn on and off), authentic whooshing air noises, particle effects, and comes equipped to rez various barnyard animal cutouts for use as targets. It's surprisingly cathartic to dress up as a tornado and launch mooing cows, clucking chickens, and oinking pigs dozens of meters into the air.
Thursday, May 04, 2006
Monster Machine
To continue my long tradition of starting games and never finishing them, I've started on another game design in SL. This time, it's kind of a low-end horror/survival first person shooter. Or, as it seems to be shaping up, a somewhat slower moving, first-person version of Robotron: 2084.

This all spawned from one of several sessions with my Louise neighbor, Will Webb, blasting away at things with freebie machine guns. Okay, not the most intellectual of pursuits, but entertaining nonetheless. Our preferred targets are Daniel Luchador's Man v1.6 (a man in a top hat that explodes in a shower of blood and internal organs when hit a sufficient number of times- check your freebie boxes, you almost certainly have one) and Fenrir Reitveld's roaming Daleks (realistic mobile models of the infamous Dr. Who baddies, which also explode in a shower of parts- robotic, this time). But, as immensely cool as these targets are, they don't really interact with the user (aside from, you know, exploding when you shoot them). So, in the classic see-a-need-fill-a-need fashion, I set about to make targets that fight back. And, well, it's gotten a bit out of hand.

My ultimate goal is to create a multi-player game with HUD controls and a central tracking server to track players and adjust difficulty (mostly in terms of maximum numbers of simultaneous monsters) based on the number of people in game. Ultimately, I'd like to rig everything inside an arena at ~1500m (using the same altitude tricks used for the SkyLounge), perhaps with an observation deck a hundred or so meters above it (with seating equipped with various camera controls so the viewers can get right into the action). This has the dual advantages of keeping the framerate up (no pesky scenery in range to slow down the client) and hiding the arena from casual view (since it'll be both huge and not much to look at, initially). But, I'm a long way from that right now.

For now, I've been focusing on building the monsters. This is unfortunate, since I've found that I'm going to have to recode major portions to work with the game server. Moral: don't start with the fun part, I guess. But, still, the monsters are turning out pretty well. There are two general classes: flyers and walkers. So far, I've concentrated most of my efforts on the flying monsters.

The Rippers are the most sophisticated baddies so far. They're smallish (approximately 0.75m across) UFOs with spinning saw blades at their middles. Their flight paths are generally linear as they home in on the player, with adjustments for flight elevation selected at random in order to reduce aerial pile ups... Most of the time. However, there is still a fair bit of mid-air collisions. Short of creating a flocking algorithm (doable, but complex), there isn't much way around this. They all home in on the same target. So, instead, I've decided to turn this minor bug into a feature. When one Ripper bot runs into another, it inflicts a small amount of damage (about half what a bullet inflicts). So, if the player is clever and fast on his feet, he can force the Rippers to slice one another to ribbons without firing a shot. Kind of like the old Daleks computer game, but in 3-D.

These things taught me a fair bit about dealing with collisions. The flat discs of the blades caused all sorts of problems when they collided with players or with each other. During initial tests, I was launched across the sim (and through a wall!) about every 10th hit. I was seriously considering added a movelock to the game HUD. Finally, I realized that the problem was caused by the unpredictable narrow edge colliding with my av's bounding box. The Rippers are now encased in a transparent, flattened sphere. This has dramatically reduced (although not completely removed) the unpredictable physics effects. There is still the rare bad bounce (usually an odd combination of events involving three or four collisions, in rapid succession and close quarters) that sends a Ripper through the floor, but that's easy to fix: just kill it off. There's always more monsters!

The Rippers come with the expected buzzing flight effects, and emit random clanking noises and sparks when hit. They also make a disturbingly organic tearing sound on collision. I think, perhaps, I went a bit overboard with the blood spray effects.

The Jack o' Lanterns are pretty simple, behavior-wise. They home in on the target and explode. They're easy to kill, which is fortunate, since the explosion is extremely damaging. The Jack o' Lanterns forced me to come up with a some communications methods that proved to be useful later on. See, when they explode, they damage everything- player or monster- within a few meters. This required a damage system based on llSay, instead of collisions. (It senses nearby targets, and effectively tells them that they've been damaged. Kind of a Voodoo-esque approach, but it works.) Before long, I'd converted all of the monsters and damage tracking to use the llSay based damage system.

I'm kind of proud of the texture work here. I'm not all that p-shop savvy, but the shading in the striations turned out pretty well. The actual face cut-out is made of alpha shapes cut into the texture, allowing the viewer to see the particle flames inside. The flames stream upward, out of the hole in the top of the pumpkin. I think this looks better than a traditional Jack o' Lantern cap, and it incidentally saved me a prim or two making the cap and stem.

Here I am being attacked by Poltergeists. These are insubstantial, amorphous blobs of protoplasm that fly in circular paths intersecting the player. They've proven to be very difficult to track in mouselook. Perhaps too difficult, really. I'm already planning on slowing them down a fair bit and reducing their life totals, to make them easier to kill.

From a look-and-feel standpoint, these are kind of unusual. The model is simply a twisted torus (embedded inside a transparent sphere). Every 10 to 30 seconds, they change their twist revolutions at random, effectively changing their shape. The animation rate on the texture (which is simply the client "sizzle" texture) also changes, causing them to flicker at a different rate. Between that, the simple white particle effect, and the quiet looped ambient noises accompanying them, they have quite an eerie feel to them. I've already added a simplified version of the Poltergeists to the gravesite at the back of the Garden of Mo, with scripts to create one when someone walks over the grave.

(What? Oh, yeah. I have a grave on my land. It's called the "Grave of Hope," and has all sorts of mopey, moody descriptions built into the various parts (mound of earth, headstone, plastic flowers). I was having a really, really bad week when I built it. Kind of embarrassing, now, but I can't quite bring myself to delete it.)

I think that about does it with the airborne menaces, anyway. The rest of the roll call of horrors will be groundbound. Above is a zombie. Oooh, scary, huh? Okay, right now it's an ambulatory sheet of plywood. Eventually, the wood texture will be replaced with assorted cutout pictures, perhaps with simple two frame animations for walking. My intention is to build the monsters as avatars in game, then photograph them. This is the best way I can figure to get a good image of both the fronts and backs of each of the different types. Eventually, groundpounding fiends will include:

And any other horrible jokes I can come up with along the way. So far, though, I've built a couple different types of menacing lumber. Slow and steady, I guess.

I had originally planned to allow players to use their own weaponry to fight in the monster arena. But I soon found that the average production machine gun was far too fast to register properly with the health tracking scripts. (The game pretty much requires a machine gun, or some other method of landing large numbers of slugs quickly. If someone tried to use a revolver, they'd be quickly overrun.) I've put a fair bit of time into optimizing the code for speed, but even so it takes time for a flurry of bullets to register.

So, I've decided to come up with an approved custom weapon for the game. In the picture above, you can see one of the weapon settings in operation: the shotgun. It fires a burst of 10 pellets in an adjustable grouping. (I actually have 10 different scripts working in concert for this task.) The pellets rez in a circular pattern, with random placements for each pellet. (Imagine a wagon wheel with 10 spokes. A given pellet can appear anywhere along the length of each spoke.) This both gives a nice grouping (the choke can be easily adjusted in the script, for looser or tighter group) and isolates each bullet to its own zone, minimizing the number of mid-air collisions normally present in weapons that fire multiple rounds at once.

I have got to take the time to come up with the final gun model. I ended up slapping the scripts in a handy freebie gun I already had in my inventory. Unfortunately, it bears a striking resemblance to a black chromed marital aid. I think I'll move this to the top of my to-do list.

The other setting for the gun (so far) is a basic machine gun. This presented its own set of problems. As above, the machine gun uses the same 10 launcher scripts. But this time they're called one at a time, in sequence. Like many in-game machine guns, this one was initially plagued with mid-air bullet collisions. Often, this is solved by adding a random component to the initial rez locations for the bullets. That works reasonably well, but since I already had the shotgun scripts, I had a different approach. Basically, I just removed the spread and the random placement component from the shotgun rezzing routines. This results in each bullet being rezzed along the circumference of a circle, with the next one appearing evenly spaced along the same perimeter, and so on. As you can see in the picture above, this results in a spiral pattern as the bullets fly through the air. Kind of nifty, I think. And, barring physics glitches and lag effects, I get very few mid air collisions now. Note that I've increased the radius of the spiral for the pictures. It's normally only a few centimeters across.

With the collision problem solved, that just left the issue of speed. The distributed script scheme neatly gets around the 0.1 second script delay for rezzing objects (like bullets). In fact, it worked a little too well. In my initial tests, I used unscripted temporary-on-rez bullets. After a couple of test firings, I was informed that the simulator was full! I've since added timers to kill the bullets after 3 seconds, as well as code to kill them upon collision with other objects, but I still had to come up with a way to throttle the rate of fire to reasonable levels. For now, I've set the rate of fire back down to 10 rounds per second. So far, that appears sufficient. I'll have to see if I need more firepower when it comes time for live testing.

I'm still working on a way to deal with melee combat. The main problem with guns- and this seems to be universal- is that they don't seem to work within a meter or so. In order to avoid rezzing bullets inside the bounding box of the user, most guns rez their bullets about a meter in front of the user's face. (Remember, we're using mouselook, so most guns correct the rez point such that the bullets line up with the mouselook crosshairs. Otherwise, the bullets will end up something like a meter below the target.) So, if the monster elbows its way closer than this, the bullets will end up appearing behind it. Quite frustrating. Since I now have the llSay damage system, it would be a reasonably easy matter to use a short range sensor to detect the nearest monster on command, and tell it it has been damaged. This would be the bare bones of a punch, kick, bayonet, etc. Of course, this would also mean being close enough to the monster to be hit in return (so far, all monsters must run into or get very close to the player to damage him). I'm going to have to look closely at balance issues to see if this would ever be worthwhile.

There's still a long way to go. I've added three or four things to the to-be-solved list while writing this. Assuming I don't just end up shelving the project, I'll be sure and bore you with future updates.
Monday, May 01, 2006
Green Lantern
I ran across something kind of interesting in the SL news this morning. Take a look at this article about recent activities of the Green Lantern Corps in SL. The Green Lantern Core (sic) has been mobilized to protect Camp Darfur, an educational installation about the ongoing ethnic cleansing in Sudan.

From what I gather, the Green Lantern Corps group has several related subgroups, including mentors, helpers, fundraising groups, etc. The Green Lantern Core is apparently the ruling council, more or less, and now the pseudo-military vigilante arm as well. The Corps started as a fan roleplaying group for the DC Green Lantern comics, mostly as an excuse to trot around in green tights and blast people with green-tinged particle effects. (Nothing wrong with that! I sorely wanted to join when I first saw their HQ over a year ago. In the end, I decided I'd look awful silly in tights.) But they've grown into a self-appointed law enforcement arm, dedicated to stopping griefers, preventing in-game abuse, and watching for violations of local laws (in the form of the Community Standards and Terms of Service).

They're not the only ones. There are several security firms (mostly for hire to clubs, casinos, and various large events), and at least one private detective agency (that last link is from a real-life newspaper). The SLPD, one of the larger law enforcement and security groups, has recently come under fire for griefing practices of their own, general abuse of power (in the form of scripted objects and general bullying) and subsequent reports and disciplinary action against them. This has culminated in Linden Lab forcefully removing the "SL" from their group name (there is no rule or policy against putting "Second Life" or "SL" in a group name, under normal circumstances), possibly in a attempt to dissociate themselves from the Police Department. The status of such groups seems to be smack-dab in the middle of the grey area, as far as official LL policy is concerned.

In any case, we now have the Green Lantern Core/Corps patrolling Camp Darfur and running off griefers. This all started a few weeks ago, when a known griefer sidestepped his permanent ban (showing yet again the futility of banning as an enforcement tool- not that I've heard a better answer) and reportedly trashed the exhibit. (He did so by exploiting a hole in the scripted building methods used by the Darfur creators. This leads me to believe the Camp Darfur folks might have been less than wise in their building and cleanup practices, but that's beside the point.) Since then, two more attacks have been launched by other parties, and there's even been reports of attacks against their websites (which may or may not be linked, but the timing is suspicious). Now Camp Darfur is not even bothering to call LL to take care of the problem, but is instead just dropping an IM to the GLC. The Core has built scripted security devices to track visitors, and has taken to patrolling the camp and investigating "suspicious characters."

While I'm happy to see someone take an interest, especially when said someone is dressed up as an iconic superhero (the fanboy in me is turning cartwheels here), I'm waiting for the abuse reports against the Green Lanterns to come in. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes, and all that. They seem to be operating above board, and I have no doubt of their intentions. And they're getting results, at least for now. But, in the end, strong-arm tactics - even in the name of protecting the innocent, etc. - are going to run afoul of the CS and TOS one way or another. I'm just cringing and waiting for the excrement to hit the green-tinged energy-construct fan.