The Elephant in the Room

Since I haven’t been able to do any actual work on my Clockwork Aphid project as of late, I suppose I may as well talk about the background behind it a little more. Those who talk about it the most are the ones doing it the least, and all that. I’ve spoken a little about virtual worlds before and focussed almost entirely on World of Warcraft, because it’s a the big one. It’s not the only MMORPG, and it definitely wasn’t the first. It is the one that I have most experience with, and statistically the one most other people are likely to have experience with, as well.

There are several other virtual worlds I really should talk about, but the elephant in the room is another extremely large, and very notable, virtual world. One which has double relevance, because I’ve made an oblique reference to it already in another post.

This is a virtual world whose currency has an exchange rate with the real world, and sale of virtual goods within this world has turned people into real life millionaires. There exist architectural practices whose entire portfolio exists “in world.” Sweden, among several other countries, has an embassy in this virtual world, and presumably pays staff to work there. Several musicians have given live concerts there (don’t ask me how that works). This virtual world is not itself a game (as you may have gathered), but it has the infrastructure which has allowed people to build games inside it. Despite all this, though, it has a reputation of, for want of a better word, lameness.

This is, in and of itself, slightly frustrating, because I can’t help feeling that it could be awesome. It should be awesome. It bears more than a passing resemblance to the “Metaverse” from Neal Stephenson’s fantastic Snow Crash, you see. I presume you’ve read Snow Crash? No? Well go and read it. Now. It’s okay, I’ll wait until you’ve finished.

Done? Okay, good. Those are some big ideas, right? Yes, I thought she was a little young, too. Anyway. In case you just went right ahead and skipped over my suggestion there, the metaverse can be summarised, thus:

The Metaverse is our collective online shared space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality and physically persistent virtual space, including the sum of all virtual worldsaugmented reality, and the internet.

I’m talking, of course, about Second Life. If you’re not familiar with it, it looks a bit like this:

 

One thing you might notice right away is that the graphics have a bit of a low-fi look about them, and there’s a reasonably good reason for this*. In our old friend World of Warcraft, the graphics aren’t exactly stellar either, but they’re much sharper than this. In WoW, by and large, the landscape doesn’t really change, unless (topically) a large new expansion is being released with results in sweeping changes to the world. In WoW, when this does happen, the game forces you to download the changes before it lets you start playing. This might be a lot of data (in the order of gigabytes) but it doesn’t happen often. As previously noted, the World of Warcraft is essentially static. Not so Second Life, though, as its landscape is built by its users. Just because a location contained an island with the Empire State Building rising out of it yesterday doesn’t mean that you won’t find a scale replica of the star ship Enterprise there tomorrow. Thus, the content of the game is streamed to the user as they “play,” and thus the polygon counts need to be kept reasonably low so that this can happen in a timely fashion. Even so, you might teleport to a new location, only to find that the walls appear ten seconds after the floor, and then suddenly you’re standing in the middle of a sofa which wasn’t there a second ago.

The issue with second life, for me at least, is that it’s not as immersive as I want it to be. I don’t feel as though I’m connected to it. I feel restricted by it. There’s something cold and dead about it, much like the eyes of the characters in the Polar Express. Something is missing, and I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. Also, sometimes the walls appear ten seconds after the floor. That said, it is a fully formed virtual world with a large population and a proven record for acting as a canvas for people’s ideas. Given that the point of Clockwork Aphid is to tell stories in a virtual world (I mentioned that, right?), why not tell those stories in Second Life?

This is an idea I’m still exploring, and I keep going backwards and forwards about it, because I’m still not sure if the juice is worth the squeeze. I’d get an awful lot of ready built scope and a huge canvas to play with, but I’m note sure if it’s the right type of canvas. This is a canvas which comes with no small number of restrictions, and I would basically be attaching my wagon to a horse which was entirely outside of my control. Mixed metaphors could be the least of my worries. That said, did I mention that people have become millionaires trading inside Second Life? Then again, Second Life doesn’t exactly represent a living breathing virtual world, so much as the occasionally grotesque spawn of its users’ collective unconsciouses. Sometimes it’s not pretty, other times quite impressive results emerge.

Your thoughts are, as always, both welcome and encouraged, below.

* To be fair, the graphics in Second Life are actually a lot better than they used to be.

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  1. #1 by Dougal Stanton on December 8, 2010 - 1:28 pm

    You need to get your act together sonny. I want results! I’m getting leaned on by the mayor’s office so now I’m gonna lean on you. You know I don’t like you or your methods but they get results. You’ve got until Monday to haul this code in or it’ll be your badge and your piece.

    The intro to Snow Crash is a thing of beauty but I don’t remember enjoying the rest of the book as much. But saying that I can’t actually remember what happens in the rest of the book.

  2. #2 by harveynick on December 8, 2010 - 11:28 pm

    I don’t live by your rules, chief. I’m a loose cannon, God damn it, but I get the job done! Now get out of my way, you pencil pushing paper neck, and let me do my job.

    It does get a bit weird, and has one of the odd endings that Stephenson seems to like, but I did still find it to be brilliant. Not Cryptonomicon brilliant, but brilliant nevertheless.

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