Dale visits Metaplace, becomes teeny!

Dale visits Metaplace

Here’s Dale exploring Yet Another Virtual World; this time it’s Metaplace, a Flash-based in-browser isometric-projection sort of world, or collection of worlds really, about which I will now say some things based on just a couple of hours of hanging around. Metaplace fans annoyed by the superficial and clueless presentation are urged to give us the Real Story in the comments. :)

Metaplace: Being teeny

So the first thing that struck me, coming into Metaplace from SL, is that I was really teensy. That picture above, of me lounging on a chair in Metaplace Central, is actual size, and (at least in that particular world) there is no way to zoom in.

I say “at least in that particular world” because another feature of Metaplace is that it’s actually a whole bunch of (quite small) separate worlds, connected by teleport gates and web pages, each of which can have quite different rules. Some worlds are isometric, some are overhead views. Some (most?) worlds let you chat with other people who are there, others don’t. If you can chat, the distance away that people can hear you can vary at the world creator’s whim (which is imho more confusing than useful). Some worlds ignore your set avatar and show you as whatever they think you should look like.

For instance in one popular world, called something like “Plain Old Chat”, there are no avatars or objects at all, just a pretty background image and a text chat box that everyone currently “in” the world can type into and see. And here I am in a world which is a “High Seas” game, being a teeny little ship of some kind:

Metaplace: I'm a ship!

Which brings up another interesting aspect of Metaplace: the underlying infrastructure and narrative is very much about building worlds which are games. When you look at a world, one of the fields of the description is “How to Play”; if the world isn’t actually a game, people just stick more descriptive text, or “Be Nice” or whatever, in there.

Also game-related is the fact that users have “levels” (note the little “8″ by my name in the pictures there; experienced users seem to have levels up above 50 or so). As in vside (VSide? V-Side?) as you do various things in the world(s), like exploring, leaving comments on people’s worlds, building, and so on, you get points, and go up levels. You also get coins (I’m not clear on the relationship between levels and coins) that you can spend on things like putting your name on a Metaplace Central street sign for a day (“DaleInnis Street”!), buying non-free objects, and so on. (I don’t know if you can give coins to other players, or convert between coins and RL money, or like that.)

Having levels is a nice way to give a new user little jolts of validation now and then and keep up the visceral interest. I’m not sure what impact, if any, it has on longer-term use; that would be an interesting study.

I tried a few of the “Featured” or “Most Popular” games, and they were (and I apologize for the cruelty) pretty lame. The “High Seas” game above is Featured, in that there is a portal to it directly from Metaplace Central; I found it completely unplayable, in that the ship moved so slowly and responded to commands so slowly that my patience ran out long before I figured out what I was actually supposed to be doing.

This may be a point-in-time statement, as they say: Metaplace is pretty young, and still in Beta (well, aren’t we all?), and most likely the user-created games will improve as there are more of them and more work is put into them.

And this brings up another point: not only are the avatars teeny, but so is the user population, and the company running the thing. I logged in this morning, went to the main hangout, Metaplace Central, and there was one other person there (and he was AFK). I ran around a little, taking pictures and gathering medallions for the Medallion Game (which is utterly simple but really kind of fun, and encourages running around), and the population of the place varied between two and five. There’s a list at the bottom of the screen of the current highest-population worlds, and a population of 10 is clearly a rare and impressive event.

There also seem to be a smallish handful of Metaplace people running the joint, and already they sound tired. :) I actually laughed out loud when one of the Metaplace people said in global chat in response to a question about whether some issue was being worked on “there are so many of you and so few of us”. Just wait until you’ve got 70,000 concurrent users, rather than 70!

The tininess of the world is also clear from the “Metaplace” global chat tab. This is a text-chat channel that, as far as I can tell, everyone in any Metaplace world can type in, and everyone in every Metaplace world will see. I used it to ask some questions, and got some pretty good and helpful answers. But obviously this doesn’t scale At All; try to imagine a single universal chat channel in SL or WoW! The WoW trade channel is bad enough, and that’s just everyone in any capital city in your current shard. It’ll be interesting to see, if and as Metaplace grows, what they do with the global chat channel.

Having one’s default (or only) client run in the browser is probably a big advantage in terms of getting people to take a look; it’s trivially easy to try out Metaplace. (At least one person I talked to a bit in Metaplace Central said “I don’t want to dl a special program”.)

On the other hand you can do only so much with Flash if you want to run at acceptable speeds (pending exciting Flash 3D stuff that I gather is Coming). While most worlds seem to run at the same zoom level as Metaplace Central pictured above, the creator of a world can specify a different zoom level, or even let the user control their own zoom level (ooh!) with the mousewheel (not sure what corresponds to the mousewheel on this laptop here).

The reason most people leave the zoom level at “1″ becomes clear if we zoom up to level “2″:

Metaplace: why you don't want to zoom in

Heh heh, yeah.

The low-rez grey blob next to the low-rez me is a Puppy that I found in the object library and installed in my world while doing the tutorial. Yes, I have my own Metaplace world! Everyone does; you get one for free when you sign up, and it’s automatically your home location. It’s small, and you can’t make it larger unless you become a “VIP” member and pay money.

But even as a non-paying member you can terraform and texture your world, and create objects and stuff. There’s also a scripting language called Metascript, which I haven’t really looked at at all, but is lua-based (probably a better idea than LSL’s “dreamed up out of whole cloth on too little sleep” heritage), and given that it’s designed to enable complex games probably enables all sorts of interesting stuff. I’m not sure if non-paying members can create Metascript-dirven objects of their own, but nothing that I saw suggests that they can’t.

Having small worlds, Flash clients, and a comparatively tiny concurrency does not mean that Metaplace is rock-solid. My first night I went to my (still pretty much empty) Home World to find that I didn’t exist there; my avatar didn’t appear, and there was no chatbox. I went to Metaplace Central and asked the people gathered at the cafe there if this was a Common Problem. Apparently it wasn’t, and someone suggested I ask in global chat; so I did that, and one of the Metaplace people said she would “restart” my world (I’m not sure exactly what that means) and see if that helped. I went to my world after she did that, and it was all working again, and she was there, and we said “yay”, and she went away.

A little while later in the global chat she or another of the Metaplace people said that a bunch of the developers had just dashed down the hall, and it looked like there was an “issue”. Shortly after that, a message went out that all of Metaplace would be restarting in a minute, and everyone should save their work.

So it’s not just SL. :)

(For that matter I’ve been having more lag and crashing problems in WoW than I have in SL lately. I’m reluctant to go anywhere near Dalaran, even though I can do the Fishing Dailies now. It’s a pain!)

Anyway so okay, what else did I want to say about Metaplace? I customized my own world a bit, adding some plants and putting a wall and concrete path around the teleporter that leads to Metaplace Central. I also added the puppy (during the tutorial) and a bird emitter, so now I have birds. Then I put a lamp-post in the middle that you can turn on and off (a free item from the Marketplace), and edited it so that it glows when you put the cursor over it (making it more obvious that you can interact with it).

Haven’t done any serious building or looked into the scripting language, and I’m not sure that I’m going to. Metaplace is kind of cute, but it’s hard to imagine really immersing in it the way I do so easily in Second Life. Being teensy, having very limited avatar customization options, and having such a small number of people to interact with, are all big disadvantages compared to SL, and the only advantage seems to be the in-browser client. That’s nice, but I doubt that it’s enough to really keep me coming back. And if I want cute little flash games, there are already Zillions of those all over the web.

So I dunno. Time will tell. :)

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