Dale Visits Blue Mars

Finally all trace of the NDA was scrubbed from the website registration and the installer, and I was able to get into the Blue Mars Beta! I wasn’t able to get there for very long, because RL has been amazingly busy suddenly with work stuff, and college starting, and computers needing upgrade and replacement, and driving children around, and so on, but I think I got enough for a weblog entry. :)

The first message is that you should not go to Blue Mars expecting to compare it, in its present form, to Second Life, or WoW, or anything else. It’s still very much in Beta, and the only reason to go there at this stage is to be a beta-tester, help them try out their software under load, push buttons and tell them if anything breaks, get an early view of a new virtual place, and like that. In terms of actual user experience and the state of the world, there’s nothing there yet that isn’t already done better in Second Life. Which isn’t to say that there won’t be eventually; just go in with the appropriate expectations.

One thing that isn’t there yet is avatar customization. Here’s the current Dale Innis:

Dale in Blue Mars

Bland boy in bland clothes.

Here I am talking to friend GoSpeed, who has been in the Beta quite a bit longer, and has posted at least one very nice posting on it.

Dale in Blue Mars, with GoSpeed

She is showing me around New Venice, which is a very nice build. (All of the current Blue Mars was built by professionals, and it’s quite well-done and pretty, although none of it is at the level of, say, Pteron in SL.)

Note the multi-colored chat balloons. I hate them. :) And so does everyone else in the beta, if the forums are any indication.

One funny quirky thing: as I said, AV customization is quite limited, and there are very few clothes available (it is a beta after all), but there is a tool that lets you draw colored smudges all over your face! Here I am putting a purple glow on my forehead.

Dale in Blue Mars; glowing face spot!

Drama-wise, I’ve noticed two Controversial Issues in Blue Mars already.

First, in a discussion of how non-humans AVs might work in BM, some troll posted a nasty anti-furry comment, and it’s still there. It’s not clear to what extent the BM folks are actually monitoring the forums at all. They hardly ever post there, and for that matter they don’t post to their own weblog much. Their main means of communication seems to be Twitter, which is very Web 2.0 and all :) but a little odd.

And second, there’ve been a few small things which, while harmless enough in themselves, are raising the worry that, where SL was inspired by Burning Man, Blue Mars might turn out to be inspired by, say, FMH. :)

The initial female animations are painfully quasi-sexy and simpering, and the initial male ones annoyingly strutty. BM announced the addition of skimpy bikinis to the female default clothing set as though it were an important new advance. And then we hear of the occasional appearance of swarms of NPC groupies around some male players, scantily clad and saying dumb things (see for instance this SLUniverse posting).

I do hope that this is just a coincidence of anomalies, and not an indication of the guiding spirit inside Blue Mars HQ.

So anyway! :) That’s the summary. In terms of actual beta feedback, here’s what I wrote on the Blue Mars forum. (I’m not linking to things on the forums, because many of you probably haven’t signed up there, and wouldn’t be able to follow the links.) Warning: it’s long!

Background: I’m a heavy SL user, moderate WoW user, don’t play any modern graphic-intensive FPS type games. Just got into Blue Mars tonight (because I’d been waiting until all trace of the NDA was scrubbed from the registration process!).

As far as content, there’s not much to do but wander around and help beta-test by letting the AR team watch things not crashing. :) But that’s expected since it’s the beta an’ all. I look forward to seeing what sorts of things start to appear once content creators start creating content. I might even sign up for that myself, once *that* NDA is lifted.

Feedback on game mechanics and stuff (none of which will be new, I suspect):

Really really slow, even with the highspec.cfg trick, setting the number down to 1. I’d estimate 3-5 FPS at best. This machine is probably slightly underpowered for Blue Mars: Vista with a mere 3GB of RAM, AMD Athlon 7450 Dual-Core running at 2.4GHz, NVIDIA GeForce 8200. I’ve got a more muscular machine (4GB of RAM, Intel® Core™2 Duo P9700 at 2.8GHz, NVIDIA 160M) coming next week; things will I hope be smoother there.

The chat bubbles are just annoying; get rid of them, or at the very least let me get rid of them as an option. I’m surprised that these survived the closed beta; I haven’t seen anyone say they like them. The scrolling text window should (therefore) definitely not be called “Bubble chat”. And it should scroll more reliably; mine tends to stop autoscrolling for no obvious reason, so I can’t tell what anyone’s said recently unless I manually scroll to the bottom (at which point it starts autoscrolling for awhile, until it randomly stops again). Even when it is autoscrolling, it sometimes randomly doesn’t show me the last line or two of text. And there should be at least the option to log all chat (and whispers, when we get whispers) to disk; those of us with awful memories rely heavily on that. :)

All the avatars look like very slight variations on the same person. Even the male and female avatars look like fraternal twins! Very much like Twinity (last time I tried Twinity) that way. The face sliders have a very limited range, and there seems to be only one face texture (with the different “races” being different shadings of that same texture?). I suspect that what’s happened here is that someone is very concerned that people not be able to make “weird looking” faces by having more extreme sliders, and that the result is that everyone looks like clones. That should of course be fixed. We need real control over faces, and even (ooh!) body shapes, and we need tons more default clothes and accessories. Don’t obsess about people making funny-looking AVs; that’s part of the fun!

On the other hand I’m *very* amused that we have a tool that lets us make multi-colored smudges all over our faces. What is up with that? I love it in that I can now have a glowing purple spot in the center of my forehead, but it seems like a rather weird thing to have in the beta, given how many other things that I’d consider more important are missing. But hey I like quirks. :)

The little chirp every time you start moving has GOT to go. Both for arrow-key walking and for click-to-move walking. It’s just maddening. I actually like the click-to-move model, but it could use some intelligent pathing. Right now the algorithm seems to be “walk directly toward the destination, and if you hit any kind of obstacle, give up”. I expect that can be improved.

The fact that the camera doesn’t move when the AV moves is weird; feels like The Sims. Having to move my AV, and then move my camera as a separate step, feels awkward and like alot of work (although click-to-move helps somewhat there). And stop the AVs from staring into the camera all the time! I’m gonna have nightmares tonight. And speaking of nightmares: the AVs should (1) actually blink, at a reasonably realistic rate (rather than staring constantly with the occasional creepy squint), and (2) stop twitching around constantly like they need a bio-break! (Oh, and although I’ve seen quite a few complaints about the default slutty female animations, the male walk is infinitely dorky also; please fix.)

Make more use of mouseovers. It’s very nice that mousing over a usable things causes it to glow (reminds me of Metaplace), but it would be nice if there was hovertext giving you some hint about what will happen when you click on it. In SL, I always have “tips on all objects” turned on, and it’s very useful.

Some of the builds are really beautiful, but I’m worried that the “download every city that you visit to your hard disk, in its entirety” model isn’t going to scale. In fact it can’t scale. So you’re going to have to do something else, and I’m wondering what that something else will be, and how it will change the experience.

All the social amenities are missing, and needed, as everyone else has said. I want to be able to tell who is who, I want whispers, I want profiles (with a page that I can write on, please, and give that page more data capacity than it has in SL!), I want a friends list that shows me which ones are currently online, etc, etc. This is all Known Art, and BM should just have it as a matter of course. No need to reinvent it, or do it differently than everyone else just for the sake of difference. And I recommend against leaving it to each city builder to do separately, because then they will be confusingly different, and won’t work well between cities.

Walking / jogging everywhere is slow and tedious. I’d like to be able to fly, but if that’s too SL-ish for you :) give us motorbikes or medium-distance teleportation or something. I found this thing in New Venice that showed me a map and let me mouse over things to see points of interest, but as far as I could figure out the only way to get to any of those points of interest would have been on foot, and would have required somehow not getting lost. And that wasn’t going to happen! (I never did find the water taxi; maybe tomorrow.) Click-to-teleport would have been very nice (maybe it was there and I just didn’t find it?).

Need maps, both world-size and mini (both SL and WoW have these, and that’s because they’re useful). Need to be able to see where other people are, ’cause people like to find people (or to avoid them!). Need to be able to talk while dancing, for heaven’s sake! :)

I’m still not sure what Blue Mars will turn out to be *for*, and I suspect even the devs don’t really know. But that’s okay; it’s a platform, and as long as it’s flexible enough, it will have a good chance of finding one or more purposes and one or more ecological niches.

It should be interesting!

13 Responses

  1. […] Innis Go Around the Outside And Dosie Doe Your Partner Perhaps the best review out there (so far bitch, don’t get […]

  2. All in all a pretty fair review Dale. Hopefully they’ll take the constructive criticisms to heart and correct what for many see as deficiencies.

  3. Thanks, Go! Yeah, my main criticism is that there ain’t actually any reason to go there yet :) but that’s expected at this stage of the beta. So we’ll see…

  4. I’m still not sure what Blue Mars will turn out to be *for*, and I suspect even the devs don’t really know. But that’s okay; it’s a platform, and as long as it’s flexible enough, it will have a good chance of finding one or more purposes and one or more ecological niches.

    lol- this paragraph outlines why 99 percent of these things fail.
    nothing new.

  5. Well, yeah. :) If it were to fail, that would be one of the likely causes. But I hope it doesn’t; I hope either the AR people hit upon a compelling story for it, or they open up creation enough that some set of content creators does. Or some combination of both. ’cause I am so nice!

  6. Hee! We just missed each other in Blue Mars a few minutes ago. I saw you talking, but by the time I figured out what was going on and gave a greet, I think you’d already left… I think… (hard to tell, as I couldn’t tell who was who in there).

    Also, I’ve either been spoiled by what other companies consider “beta”, this isn’t really “beta”, or BM is going to be a disappointment. It seems more like “alpha” to me. I’ve participated in betas that were much more complete and polished before, more than a year before launch. Either BM is far less ambitious that I’d been led to believe, or, looking at its current state, it’s not going to see release before 2011. But who knows…

  7. Sigh. I’d love to try it, but it’s Windows-only.

  8. @Galatea: yah, another nit I didn’t bother to pick is that when you switch worlds the chat scroll gets cleared. :) At least once yesterday, I saw a flash of what looked like someone talking to me just as I was changing worlds, but it was wiped out in the transition. Hi! :)

    @Melissa: I’ve heard that it runs acceptably on Boot Camp (and apparently not acceptably on Parallels or VMware). Haven’t tried it myself; all our Macs have wimpy graphics cards anyway…

  9. ohhh god. i use colored chat balloons in (almost) all of my comics. i didn’t realize they were so unpopular with other people. thanks for the heads up.

  10. p.s. you look cute being bland. not many people can pull that trick like you do.

  11. Haha, no, I don’t think anyone would hate them in comics, where you place them in reasonable places and make sure that the words all line up, and they aren’t hiding any key visual elements.

    So you’re good. :)

  12. gaa. just like my real life: my words don’t come out in reasonable places, they don’t line up and they hide key elements of what i was meaning to say.

  13. :) Another reason I don’t like voice.

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