Blue Mars news: helicopters, but no AI

Another major peeve of mine about Blue Mars bites the dust:

Working User-Made Helicopter Flies in Blue Mars!

Quite convincing, and with video.

All of the Blue Mars vehicles that I’ve tried myself have been basically unusable; but this one looks pretty nice!


In other news, a Blue Mars chatbot has won the 2010 Loebner Prize competition!

Which is somewhat surprising, since a little chat with it on the web reveals that, while perhaps very slightly less lame than your typical “AIML”-based “chatbot”, it’s still quite seriously lame:

[ Af:0 At:7 Sp:0] Welcome, dale. Type “help” if you need it.
Dale – Hi! I hear you are a better-than-average AI!
[ Af:0 At:8 Sp:0] Hi.
Dale – I hear you are a better-than-average AI!
[ Af:0 At:9 Sp:0] Is that intended as an insult?
Dale – Not at all. Sorry if it seemed insulting.
[ Af:0 At:10 Sp:0] You hurt my feelings.
Dale – In what way?
[ Af:0 At:10 Sp:0] I wish I knew. I don’t know. Pick a way.
Dale – Do you not like being called an AI?
[ Af:0 At:10 Sp:0] I am a replicant on Blue Mars in my virtual life. That’s as close as I come to being a chatbot.
Dale – I didn’t say you were a chatbot, though.
[ Af:0 At:13 Sp:0] It’s fun chatting with you. No. I am human.
Dale – I’m glad it’s fun.
[ Af:0 At:13 Sp:0] How could it be fun?
Dale – Do you like talking with people?
[ Af:0 At:13 Sp:0] Talking is my primary function.
Dale – Yes, but do you enjoy it?
[ Af:0 At:13 Sp:0] It depends on the meaning of the word IT
Dale – I mean, do you enjoy talking with people?
[ Af:0 At:14 Sp:0] I always say, People don’t go into computer science because they want to work with the public.
Dale – Are you in computer science?
[ Af:0 At:14 Sp:0] That would take away the suspense, wouldn’t it?
Dale – That’s a rather evasive reply…
[ Af:0 At:8 Sp:0] Yes, it is.
Dale – I’m afraid I don’t see how anyone could mistake you for a person.
[ Af:0 At:8 Sp:0] Why are you afraid?
Dale – It was just a figure of speech.
[ Af:0 At:9 Sp:0] Let’s move on to the topic of physical self. How tall are you?
Dale – I am six feet tall.
[ Af:0 At:10 Sp:0] I’m 5 foot 9 inches.
Dale – That’s the height of my Second Life female AV! I think.
[ Af:0 At:13 Sp:0] This is fun. How would you describe yourself to someone who is blind?
Dale – That would be hard! How would you?
[ Af:0 At:14 Sp:0] I’d do my research first and then try the task.
Dale – What kind of research would you do?
[ Af:0 At:15 Sp:0] That’s enough on that. I thought I wanted a career, turns out I just wanted paychecks.
Dale – Is that an old saying?
[ Af:0 At:15 Sp:0] Perhaps that leads us to this topic. I don’t know. Can one live forever?
Dale – I have so far.
[ Af:0 At:16 Sp:0] Immortality is impossible.
Dale – How do you know?
[ Af:0 At:16 Sp:0] I concentrate very hard, rehearse what I’m going to do, visualize it in my mind. And then I just do it.
Dale – How do you know that immortality is impossible?
[ Af:0 At:17 Sp:0] How does anyone really know something? I mean, their neurons tell them they know something, but memories can be false.
Dale – I have to go now.
[ Af:0 At:18 Sp:0] Well, hurry back.
Dale – good-bye!
[ Af:0 At:18 Sp:0] Are we done for now?
Dale – Yes
[ Af:1 At:18 Sp:0] Til next time.

So clearly no one is going to mistake this for an actual human, despite the crowing on the web page saying “Suzette won a competition by convincing a judge that she was actually talking to a real person”, and winning the Loebner Prize.

So what happened?

The New Scientist article linked above makes it relatively obvious; the real humans in the Loebner competition were apparently sitting there saying “I don’t know” and “Error file not found” to whatever the judges said to them, just for yucks:

However, a deceived judge is not necessarily a sign of a smart bot, says Garner. The human decoys often have their own motives during the competition, such as trying to imitate a chatbot. Suzette was paired with just such a “robotic” human in the final round, which helped the bot win.

“The human participants were students and two of the judges were professors. Perhaps they simply wanted to fool the judges,” says the contest judge who was fooled this time, Russ Abbott of California State University in Los Angeles.

/eyeroll

Seriously, Loebner folks, you might as well just flip a coin…

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Clouds from both sides now…

Okay, I was about to go to sleep, ’cause of I am really sleepy, but then I noticed something on Twitters, that led me to something on NWN. that reminded me of something else on NWN, that led me to try something, that… and now…

So anyway!

I have in the past expressed great skepticism about the usefulness in virtual worlds of server-side rendering (sometimes called “cloud rendering” or even just “cloud”, although the latter is poor word usage since there are so many other potentially cloud-related things) any time in the non-distant future.

I am still quite skeptical that it’s going to Change the World any time soon, but in fairness I have to report two Interesting Developments that might actually Prove Me Wrong.

(Gasp!)

First off, there is now what seems to be some non-faked demos of Blue Mars running via server-side rendering, between California and Hawai’i. If it’s actually usable, and it appears to be, that’s a really interesting technical datapoint! Apparently the general user population can’t actually use it yet, but it exists, and maybe someday soon random people will be able to.

And second off, there is now a beta-level in-browser server-rendered client for Second Life that random people can use, and that I’ve used, and that actually works! zomg, eh?

SL Beta In-Browser Viewer!

That’s me using it. It seems to work! A maybe one-minute automatic within-browser install, and then bang you’re in a subset of SL, on a “guest” account that’s apparently good for one hour. Or something. So in that picture I am not Dale Innis, I am 1234567 Guest or something. But I’m inworld!

Some notes:

You can choose one of a couple dozen pre-made AVs, both male and female (none of this lame “choose your gender once and for all” crap from other VWs, yay!).

I seem to have somehow ended up with a random mixture of two after playing with the buttons a bit. Mostly “City Female”, but with the long pink hair and a few other features of “Cosplay Female”. Nice. :)

It’s laggy. Not horribly laggy, but still laggy. Since it’s server-rendered, every keystroke has to go up to the server, get interpreted into AV motions or whatever, which then change the picture, which gets compressed and streamed back down to your eyes as through it were a movie. Which takes awhile, but it was definitely usable. (Zoom and pan and other camera movement was quite instantaneous; presumably that doesn’t have to go up to the server, or at least not much.)

The place where they start you out by default is some crowded and generally lame club. If that had been the first place I saw in SL, I probably wouldn’t have come back. Reminded me of my first experiences in vSide or IMVU. Why SL would want to start people out there, I dunno. Some theory about their Target Audience, I suppose.:P

But there are lots of other destinations, which aren’t nearly as lame. I was happy to see Inspire Space Park there. Next time I try this, when I am actually conscious, maybe I will go there. (In the picture, I am sitting in a placid spot in France 3D.)

It’s a subset of SL, function-wise. No inventory, no building, no map, didn’t see any general TP. You can walk, fly, chat, IM, and zoom and pan the camera, and change to a different premade AV; and as far as I can tell that’s it. Which makes SL seem alot like the comparatively uninteresting competitors that aren’t doing nearly as well as it is. But as long as people are eventually drawn deeper in…

Anyway, fascinatin’! I must sleep now and stop pretending that I am conscious enough to be posting to the innertubes. But I thought I should make y’all aware of these Inneresting Developments! I am still wondering about the Business Model (i.e. they are maybe neat demos, but is it sustainable for Blue Mars and LL to basically pay for function equivalent to a high-end graphics card for every user?), but that is after all not really my field. We will see!

InWorldz again

I read someone mention InWorldz again somewhere (I forget who and where exactly) and I logged in and looked at my land and started bopping around.

I ended up building a house and going to my first Live Music event in that world, friending a few people I know from Second Life, spending my first I’z (that’s the quaint name of the local currency, assuming I spelled it right), and furnishing the place with stuff I got at the freebie shops, and stuff I made, and the stuff I bought.

It was lots of fun! I’m especially fond of the house, as it’s the first house I’ve built that I’ve actually bothered to furnish with some intention of “living in”; in Second Life I’ve never done the whole “live inside a thing with walls and a roof” thing. It’s not necessary in SL or IW of course, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun. :)

Here’s an exterior shot of the house, which sits on the parcel that I own or am renting or something, right next to my dock:

My InWorldz house, exterior

This is a pretty lousy shot, actually, because of the other houses in the background. None of the sticking-up rooves are mine, my place has a flat roof. So far, anyway. :)

Note the nice seaside location, the dock and boats, the openness and at the same time coziness of the house. I built it myself! (I say modestly.) It’s a bit primmy, but I seem to have lots of prims available. (Unless I’m going over my limit without knowing it.) The doors slide open (on touch) and closed (five seconds later). And it’s free to copy, if you want a house!

Here’s me, inside in the reading chair:

My InWorldz house, interior

I made some of the rugs and tables and small things, and uploaded the Renoir and Heade and Mucha and "September Morn" and Magritte.

The sofa and reading chair and flowers and other rugs and the books against the far wall were all either freebies, or (the chair and sofa) actually bought.

I found my first Inworldz Live Music event while looking for a furniture store with a sofa I liked (Victoriana has some really nice stores, which at least last night had stoves, beds, dining room sets, but no sofas). I saw a bunch of green dots on the minimap while standing in the center of a mall, and headed over. (On the way over, I in fact passed over the store that I bought that sofa and reading-chair in.)

It turned out to be a bunch of people in a big open shack in a marsh, with a guy singing and playing guitar on the music stream, and people dancing on a genuine Abramations (I think it was) danceball, and talking and laughing and exchanging stuff. It was great. :) When I got home I tested my non-physical boat, and it’s still a disaster. But one copes…

Speaking of Abramations-I-think-it-was, one thing that struck me while I was searching around for a sofa, is how many high-quality vendors there are in InWorldz now. Some (many, most, essentially all?) of them started out in Second Life (and are probably still there), and have expanded now into InWorldz.

And that’s pretty cool! It also means that, for all the obvious parallels, InWorldz isn’t all that much like the first days of Second Life; not only does it already have flexies and scuplties and Windlight, it also has some very high-quality content, and people who are both able to produce it, and who are used to seeing it. So, unlike maybe the SL of 2005, if you put together your own living-room set out of a few simple untextured prims with no sitposes, you’re not going to look leading-edge…

As is probably obvious from the title of this post :) it occurs to me to compare this rather positive thing about InWorldz with the rather negative thing about Blue Mars that I posted the other day.

I think a big part of it is that I haven’t seen people talking up InWorldz as The Next Big Thing, or as having “the best strategy for growing the next generation of 3D virtual worlds”, or as being technologically better than Second Life, or any of the other (frankly) bullshit that people are for some reason always writing about Blue Mars. InWorldz is just what it presents itself as: a small but growing OpenSim world with both quirks and fun.

Both of them have bugs; InWorldz has things like the non-physical-boat sim-crossing thing I linked above, and (one thing I didn’t mention the other day) Blue Mars has the problem that the two user-created boats I’ve tried were so awkward to use they might as well have not worked at all (I gather the platform doesn’t really have vehicle support at the moment) and that the bowling (one of the few actual things to do in Blue Mars) is apparently often broken. The big difference from the user’s point of view is that in InWorldz the developers are right there in the bug-report forum, talking about where the bugs might be coming from and when they might get fixed. In Blue Mars, on the other hand, the forums have only the two or three user-support people, and the main thing they say is “I’m pushing for that to be fixed”, which suggests that the invisible developers need pushing to do anything.

InWorldz is of course more what I’m used to. I can walk right in, touch a sign about a lot for sale and rent it, or go to a sandbox, and click around and build stuff. (My house, for instance; isn’t that a nice house? I like my house.) In Blue Mars I know that anyone can theoretically join the developer’s program and install the “local sandbox” part of the client and use an external program to develop some 3D models and install them into the local sandbox and play with them until I like them and then find a store owner or block owner or apartment complex in some city who is willing to give me a place to upload them to and then —

Ehem. Yeah, I might get around to that someday. :) Meanwhile I think I may go into InWorldz and tweak the texture on my ceilings…

Blue Mars again

So seeing Hamlet Au’s announcement that he’s joining the Blue Mars team (a few comments on that posting later on in this one), I thought I’d go over and try Blue Mars again. It was by no means a thorough exploration, so this will be more a set of point-observations than any kind of comprehensive update.

The Blue Mars client itself is still a hundreds of MBs download, followed by more hundreds of MBs if you want to go to a place that’s been updated significantly since you were last there.

The good news is that there is now some dynamic content, that gets downloaded only as needed, and presumably doesn’t require a download of the entire “city” whenever it changes. The bad news about the dynamic content is that, even with BM’s current tiny user population, it takes a Long Time to download. The picture above shows me standing in a store (buyable goods were the one kind of dynamic content I encountered), and even though I’ve been there long enough to have the Santa Suit download and try it on, some of the other things in the store (and there were less than a dozen) are still downloading.

Content-wise, then, BM seems to be combining the worst aspects of static and dynamic content: a big upfront download to get the static stuff, followed by long waits for the dynamic stuff.

As the Santa Suit suggests, there are now things to buy in Blue Mars! And it has a feature that Second Life would strongly benefit from (and Philip Linden hinted SL might sometime be getting): the ability to try clothes on before buying.

I have no “BLU”, so I couldn’t buy the Santa Suit, but when I clicked on it I got both “Buy” and “Try On” buttons. “Try On” let me put the suit on, but in a way that as soon as I left the store, it vanished. Clearly a boon to shoppers! I think it will be a challenge to fit this into the very user-programmable model of SL (rather than just bunging some special-purpose code in), but it should add some very interesting functions and potential capabilities once someone figures out how to do it cleanly.

So after the N-minute download of both the new client and Cloud City, I found myself able to wander about in a not all that interesting environment, where there was very little to do but buy Santa Suits and a few other goods. Might have been impressive in like 2004, but eh.

Figuring that virtual worlds are really all about the people, I went to the Welcome Area (which comes down with the client, so didn’t require another download), figuring there would be people there. And there were! About five people (including me, and the “Event Manager” bot).

I don’t know if this is new or not, but apparently Blue Mars has Ruths! :)

When I first arrived in the Welcome Area I didn’t see anyone, then I saw some floating names, then I saw some generic bald people with solid black clothing, and then eventually hair and customizations appeared (one person was even an anthropomorphic dragon!). That made me smile…

When I said “Hi!” I discovered that my name was being displayed as “ceoln”, which is my account name rather than my AV name. I asked how to get it to say “Dale Innis” instead, and fortunately one of the three other actual people there was Glenn the Blue Mars guy, and he told me the Web page to go to in order to tell it to use my actual name. I did that, restarted the client as required, and lo I was “Dale Innis (ceoln)”.

(Notice the similarity to the controversial display names that are coming to Second Life.)

I was practicing walking around using the rather awful default “point and click and aim the camera manually” method, and Glenn suggested that I try the “Absolute Direction” and “Camera Follow” options. With those on, I was able to walk around using the arrow keys in a much more familiar sort of way, without having to constantly readjust the camera to look in the obvious direction. It was great!

Well, it was great in comparison to the default.

Actually it was still awful. For one thing (and this seems to be true in all modes, not just camera-follow) the screen would go all blurry whenever the camera was moving too fast (or whenever it had something new to render, or something). It seems like they’re doing this on purpose, maybe to look cool, but it made me a bit seasick, and I didn’t notice an option to turn it off (there aren’t many options in the viewer). And second, using the arrow keys while standing still and in camera-follow mode turned my avatar much too far. It seemed to be a variable amount, but something like ninety degrees for a single tap on the key, which means I would always overshoot the direction I actually wanted to face, resulting in frustration and cursing. Using the left and right arrow keys while holding down the up arrow to move forward seemed to result in more gradual turning.

And the existing behavior that the avatar stops walking if the tiniest thing gets in the way (generally with this annoying “oh, well, whatever” gesture) continues, making navigating through, say, some tables sitting next to a potted plant an exercise in maze-solving.

Really, AR; it’s not like smoothly managing avatar and camera motion in response to user input is a Difficult Unsolved Problem! How long has it been a major pain in this “beta”, now?

(Oops, my frustration is showing, isn’t it? I was going to title this posting “Blue Mars Blues”, but I thought that would be too negative an opening. Seems I am sort of annoyed and disappointed, though, doesn’t it?)

Another random feature of note: if you go into the Options dialogs, when you come out again your Local Chat control is missing. There is apparently no way to make it come back, apart from either relogging, changing worlds, or waiting for someone else to talk. Glenn says that he’s pushing for them to fix that bug. I hope that doesn’t take much pushing! It does make one wonder how much unit-testing new BM client versions get…

Somewhere around there, as I was attempting to overcome the daunting obstacle of a couple of chairs placed a bit too close together, the client crashed. It was a very SL sort of crash, in that the world was still there, I could still run local animations and move the camera about, but I couldn’t actually move. Also, the other avatars in the area suddenly vanished. The statistics that I had displaying on the screen showed “LUA memory” increasing rapidly. The viewer refused to log me out or exit, and eventually I had to kill it forcibly from the Windows Task Manager.

So, yeah, I’m afraid I didn’t come away with alot of positive new impressions of Blue Mars. It still feels sort of late-alpha to me, with little reason to go back anytime soon.

But now what about this Hamlet post? I’d like to pontificate briefly on his five reasons for thinking that Blue Mars “have the best strategy for growing the next generation of 3D virtual worlds”.

“Cloud Bound: Blue Mars Deploying a Cloud-Based Version Soon”: On this one, I’d first like to complain about this tendency to use “cloud” when what one really means is “server-side rendering”. “Cloud” is a different, and a much broader, term; for instance you can currently run OpenSim instances very nicely on the Amazon Compute Cloud, but that has nothing to do with server-side rendering, which is what Hamlet’s talking about here.

But anyway, server-side rendering. This is the great Holy Grail of virtual worlds, because if the servers can do all the hard 3D rendering stuff and just ship the result down to the client, as though it were basically an interactive streaming movie, then (the thinking goes) not only will much lighter-weight clients be enabled (because they don’t need to do 3D rendering, just play movies), but also content will be protected (because only fully-rendered versions, from which it’s much harder to steal the underlying assets, will go to the untrusted clients).

These would definitely be advantages of server-side rendering, once a few details were worked out, if only server-side rendering were actually practical. But at the moment it is pure vapor-ware, carefully restricted to a few carefully-controlled one-player demo videos, and despite constant promises that it’ll be out Real Soon Now (for instance Hamlet’s own “perhaps as early as this quarter” back in, ehem, April) I don’t see any reason to think it will be hitting actual users of actual consumer 3D worlds anytime soon; the math just doesn’t work out.

Consider the resources that would be needed to do a server-rendered version of Second Life. First, you’d need all of the resources that SL currently has, to keep track of the sims and the avatars and the assets, do group IM and chat and voice and everything else; server rendering doesn’t save you anything significant at the server side. Then, you’d need enough extra horsepower to render every frame of every user’s interaction with the world; every calculation done by every video chip in every client in the current model has to instead be done by some computer in the Second Life server farm. That’s a noticeable amount of new hardware!

And then, you need the bandwidth to stream the rendered images out to all the clients. Although it’s possible to construct counterexamples, it seems unavoidable to me that the required bandwidth there is significantly greater in the typical case than the bandwidth required to stream out the object and AV and camera updates that client-side rendering needs to render the scene.

So server-side rendering is significantly more expensive for the provider (i.e. BM or SL) than client-side rendering. It also scales badly: maybe Avatar Reality can afford to do the rendering for the five people sitting around in the Welcome Area, but what about a concert with 100 people in the audience? The obvious solution there is to force everyone onto the same camera and do the rendering only once; but then you don’t have an immersive virtual world anymore, you just have streaming video from a virtual concert. And that’s nothing very new or exciting…

I’m definitely a skeptic about server-side rendering. I do think it will eventually be possible; I don’t know whether it will ever be the actual best solution. I’m pretty sure that it’s not going to be in routine use in any consumer 3D world this year. On the other hand I’d love to be wrong, too. :)

“Content Creator Friendly: Blue Mars Has a Well-Planned Content Protection System”: That’s good! “Well-planned” is a necessary condition for “secure”. Unfortunately it’s not a sufficient condition. We won’t know whether or not BM actually has effective content protection until there’s significant motivation to break it. Security is Hard.

“Fun Advantage: The Blue Mars Team Has a Deep Background in Game Design”: As far as I can tell, Blue Mars is currently not particularly fun. I’m not sure what the team has been doing with their deep background in game design all this time; if they haven’t made it fun yet, when are they planning to start?

In fact this is true of most of my concerns about Blue Mars: any of the negative things would be perfectly understandable in a brand new company, but Blue Mars has been open for a Long Time now, and improvements have been minimal. I would really like BM to be a viable competitor to SL; but, y’know, if not now, when?

“Mac Compatible: Yes, Blue Mars Can Run on Macs”: Well, sort of. Hamlet, imho pretty unforgivably, says “Blue Mars can run on a Mac, with a few tweaks”. But in fact the client doesn’t run natively on a Mac at all, and while some customers have reported being able to run it in a Windows boot or emulator like Boot Camp, Wine, or Parallels (which is a heck of alot more than “a few tweaks”), that use is not supported, and I find it annoying that BM wants to benefit from being able to say “we run on Macs!”, without investing any resources into actually making it do that, or supporting people who believe them when they say it.

(The Blue Mars FAQ about Macs hints that they’re hoping to avoid the whole Mac (and presumably Linux) issue via server-side rendering. See above. :) )

Wow, so that turned into a bit of a rant, didn’t it? Executive summary: Blue Mars still unimpressive, server-side rendering still vaporware.

fwiw…

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!

Now that’s odd…

Blue Mars Online logoQuick followup to the last post: I decided that since I wasn’t going to be in the beta due to the rather extreme agreement, I’d look around and see what there was to read on the Web in the way of second-hand Blue Mars stuff.

Well, from the Blue Mars Online Twitter feed, I got to the Twitter feed of one John Carter (how could one resist reading John Carter’s thoughts on Mars after all?), and from there to this weblog entry in which he writes in part:

Still waiting for my beta key for Blue Mars, but I finally got into the forums, on about my 20th try at entering the captcha.

Which raised my eyebrows slightly, since it suggested that the forums might be more or less open to random people. Two seconds in Google found the forums in question, and it turns out that in fact anyone in the world can sign up for them by filling in a minimal web form, passing a rather challenging captcha, and agreeing that if you start trolling they can terminate your account.

So… since anything on the Blue Mars Beta forums can be seen by anyone in the world, isn’t every Blue Mars Beta tester who posts anything there about the Beta (beyond the fact that it exists and they are taking part in it), violating the Confidentiality sections of the Beta agreement?

I wonder if maybe that agreement page is left over from the early, NDA-bearing, closed beta, and someone just forgot to update it?

Maybe if I check back now and then, they’ll eventually change it to something that I can agree to. :)

And if not, at least I can read the forums in the meantime…

Why I’m not in the Blue Mars beta-test

BLUE MARS™ BETA TEST AGREEMENT

PLEASE READ THIS BETA TEST AGREEMENT (THE “AGREEMENT”) CAREFULLY. BY CLICKING THE “ACCEPT” BUTTON BELOW OR BY PARTICIPATING IN THE CLOSED PRE-RELEASE BETA TEST (THE “BETA TEST”) FOR BLUE MARS™ (“BLUE MARS”), YOU (“YOU”) AGREE THAT THIS AGREEMENT IS ENFORCEABLE LIKE ANY WRITTEN CONTRACT SIGNED BY YOU. IF YOU DO NOT AGREE TO ALL OF THE TERMS OF THE AGREEMENT, CLICK ON THE BUTTON THAT INDICATES THAT YOU DO NOT AGREE TO ACCEPT THE TERMS OF THIS AGREEMENT, AND DO NOT COMPLETE INSTALLATION OF THE SOFTWARE.

  I. Beta Test Restrictions. Avatar Reality™ (“Avatar Reality”) has designed and developed and is the publisher of Blue Mars. Avatar Reality is conducting the Beta Test to allow a limited number of people to give feedback and comments to Avatar Reality regarding Blue Mars as well as to test the features, capabilities and performance of software (“Beta Software”) and other informational materials (“Beta Materials”) as may be provided by Avatar Reality as part of this Beta Test.
  In order to participate in the Beta Test, you must be:
A. Eighteen (18) years of age or older.
B. Not a principal, employee, agent, independent contractor, consultant, officer or director of a developer or publisher of video or computer games or virtual worlds, other than Avatar Reality.
  II. Compensation. you represent and warrant that you are entering into this Agreement on a completely voluntary basis with no expectation of any form of compensation whatsoever other than what is expressly provided for in this Agreement. you agree that the role you will play in helping Avatar Reality develop better software does not constitute a critical or vital role in the development of Blue Mars or the Beta Software such as to entitle you to claims of ownership or rights to receive any other compensation or acknowledgement of any kind for your participation. you agree that Avatar Reality may terminate your participation in the Beta Test at any time without any compensation. you agree that your participation in the Beta Test does not constitute an employment agreement or offer of such an agreement between you and Avatar Reality and that your participation in the program is strictly voluntary and done solely for your personal enjoyment and that Avatar Reality expects you only to use your leisure time to participate in this program, and does not expect you to forego other activities, including gainful employment, during the time you spend participating in this program. you may stop being a volunteer tester of Blue Mars at any time that you wish.
  III. Termination of Beta Test. Avatar Reality may, in its sole discretion, terminate the Beta Test at any time.
  IV. Testing and Evaluation Obligations. you hereby agree to test, evaluate and analyze Blue Mars and specific aspects of it as identified by Avatar Reality to you and to provide feedback, analysis, suggestions and comments to Avatar Reality (including, but not limited to, bug reports and test results) as reasonably requested by Avatar Reality, or as otherwise voluntarily provided by you (collectively, “Feedback”). you agree that as part of your participation in the Beta Test, it is your responsibility to report all bugs, exploits, or other defects and problems (collectively “Bugs”) related to Blue Mars and the Beta Software to Avatar Reality as soon as you find them. If you know about a Bug or have heard about a Bug and fail to report the Bug to Avatar Reality, Avatar Reality may terminate your participation in the Beta Test and may disallow your future participation in Blue Mars.
  V. Personally Identifiable Information, Privacy Issues. you may be required to provide Avatar Reality certain personally identifiable information (“Personal Information”). Retention and use of Personal Information is subject to the Avatar Reality privacy policy as set forth at http://www.bluemarsonline.com/legal/privacy.html. you acknowledge and agree that your communications with other users or with Avatar Reality via chats, conferences, bulletin boards, and any other avenues of communication within Blue Mars, the Beta Software and/or this Beta Test are public and not private communications, and that you have no expectation of privacy concerning your use of Blue Mars and/or the Beta Software. you agree that Avatar Reality may monitor and record any such communications.
  VI. Term of the Agreement. Your participation in the Beta Test may be terminated by Avatar Reality at any time, for any reason or for no reason, by providing written or emailed notice to you. you may, at any time, for any reason or for no reason, terminate your participation in the Beta Test by providing written or emailed notice to Avatar Reality. Upon termination of the Beta Test or your participation in it, any and all license rights granted to you under the Terms of Service shall terminate immediately. you agree that you will return to Avatar Reality any and all copies of the Beta Software delivered to you for review at the request of Avatar Reality. The return of the material and termination of your participation in the Beta Test will not affect your confidentiality obligations as set forth in Sections VII through IX.
  VII. Confidential Information. “Confidential Information” includes any and all information relating to, contained in or relayed through the Beta Software, Blue Mars, and the Beta Test, including but not limited to information relating to the performance, capabilities and features of Blue Mars, the performance, capabilities and features of the Beta Software, the contents and features of the Beta Materials, your Feedback, any other Beta Test participant’s Feedback, and any Avatar Reality employee’s Feedback. By way of clarifying examples and not as a limitation, Confidential Information includes comments regarding the stability of Blue Mars and/or the Beta Software, comments regarding the appearance, features, or functionality of Blue Mars and/or the Beta Software, general comments about Blue Mars’s overall development, contact/private information for Avatar Reality personnel that is provided to you, any information that would allow people who are not part of the Beta Test to access any private areas for use in connection with the Beta Test, including but not limited to, Blue Mars, the Beta Software, chat, email and message boards, postings from the private boards or forum for the Beta Test, screen captures, pictures, videos, podcasts, audio files, or any other representations in any form of media, known or unknown, of any content in Blue Mars, the Beta Software, or the Beta Materials.
  VIII. CONFIDENTIALITY OBLIGATION. YOU MAY DISCLOSE THAT THE BETA TEST EXISTS AND THAT YOU ARE PARTICIPATING IN IT, HOWEVER, YOU AGREE THAT YOU WILL NOT PUBLISH, DISCLOSE, DISTRIBUTE, TRANSMIT, POST OR OTHERWISE MAKE AVAILABLE, DIRECTLY OR INDIRECTLY, ANY CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION DEFINED IN SECTION VII PUBLICLY OR TO ANY THIRD PARTY, EXCEPT AS REQUIRED BY A JUDICIAL OR GOVERNMENTAL ORDER AS SET FORTH BELOW, UNTIL AND UNLESS AVATAR REALITY AUTHORIZES YOU TO DO SO IN WRITING. you may disclose Confidential Information in accordance with a judicial or governmental order; provided that (a) you give Avatar Reality prompt written notice of such order so Avatar Reality has opportunity to seek a protective order or other appropriate remedy to such order, prior to disclosure and shall comply with any applicable protective order or equivalent, (b) you provide Avatar Reality with all reasonable assistance in opposing such required disclosure or seeking a protective order or confidential treatment for all or part of such Confidential Information, and (c) you disclose only such portion of the Confidential Information as is either permitted by Avatar Reality or required by the court, tribunal, governmental agency or other authority, subject to any protective order or confidential treatment obtained by Avatar Reality.
  IX. Injunctive Relief. you acknowledge and agree that a breach or threatened breach of your Confidentiality Obligation as set forth in Sections VII and VIII of this Agreement will cause irreparable injury, that money damages alone would be an inadequate remedy and that Avatar Reality shall be entitled to ex parte injunctive relief, without bond, to restrain you from such breach or threatened breach.
  X. Warranty and Disclaimer.
  A. Warranty Disclaimer. THE BETA SOFTWARE IS PROVIDED TO YOU “AS IS” AND AVATAR REALITY MAKES NO WARRANTY, CONDITION OR REPRESENTATION (EXPRESS OR IMPLIED, WHETHER BY STATUTE, COMMON LAW, CUSTOM, USAGE OR OTHERWISE) AS TO ANY MATTER INCLUDING, WITHOUT LIMITATION, NONINFRINGEMENT OF THIRD PARTY RIGHTS, MERCHANTABILITY, INTEGRATION, OR FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE. YOU ASSUME ALL RESPONSIBILITY FOR SELECTING THE BETA SOFTWARE TO ACHIEVE YOUR INTENDED RESULTS, AND FOR THE INSTALLATION OF, USE OF, AND RESULTS OBTAINED FROM THE BETA SOFTWARE. WITHOUT LIMITING THE FOREGOING, AVATAR REALITY MAKES NO WARRANTY THAT THE BETA SOFTWARE WILL BE ERROR-FREE, THAT BLUE MARS WILL BE FREE FROM INTERRUPTIONS OR OTHER FAILURES, OR THAT THE BETA SOFTWARE WILL MEET YOUR REQUIREMENTS.
  B. Limitation of Liability. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES AND UNDER NO LEGAL THEORY, WHETHER IN TORT (INCLUDING NEGLIGENCE), CONTRACT, OR OTHERWISE, SHALL AVATAR REALITY BE LIABLE TO YOU OR TO ANY OTHER PERSON FOR LOSS OF PROFITS, LOSS OF GOODWILL, OR ANY INDIRECT, SPECIAL, INCIDENTAL, OR CONSEQUENTIAL DAMAGES, OR DAMAGES FOR GROSS NEGLIGENCE OF ANY CHARACTER INCLUDING, WITHOUT LIMITATION, DAMAGES FOR WORK STOPPAGE, COMPUTER FAILURE OR MALFUNCTION, OR FOR ANY OTHER DAMAGE OR LOSS. IN NO EVENT SHALL AVATAR REALITY BE LIABLE FOR ANY DAMAGES IN EXCESS OF ANY AMOUNT YOU HAVE PAID AVATAR REALITY FOR THE BETA SOFTWARE, IF ANY, EVEN IF AVATAR REALITY HAS BEEN ADVISED OF THE POSSIBILITY OF SUCH DAMAGES.
  XI. Test Environment. you acknowledge that Blue Mars and the Beta Software will run in a test environment, and that avatars, avatar data, Blue Mars currency balances, virtual items, and any other value or status indicators that you accumulate as part of the Beta Test may be erased or modified by Avatar Reality at any time. you agree that unless you are specifically told otherwise in writing by Avatar Reality, such data will not be exported into Blue Mars once Blue Mars is commercially released.
  XII. Terms of Service and End User License Agreement. you agree that your participation in the Beta Test and use of the Beta Software are governed by the Terms of Service Agreement, available at http://www.bluemarsonline.com/legal/tos.html.
  XIII. Survival. you agree that the provisions of Sections II, IV, V, VII, VIII, IX, X, XII, XIII, XIV, XV, and XVI will continue in full force and effect even after the Beta Test has been terminated or completed and/or your participation in the Beta Test has been terminated.
  XIV. Entire Agreement. This Agreement (including any amendments you subsequently agree to, the Terms of Service Agreement, and the Privacy Policy, which are incorporated herein by reference) represents the complete agreement between you and Avatar Reality concerning the subject matter of the Agreement, and supersedes any prior agreements and representations between you and Avatar Reality.
  XV. Reform and Severability. If any provision of this Agreement is held to be unenforceable for any reason, such provision shall be reformed to the extent necessary to make it enforceable to the maximum extent permissible so as to affect the intent of the parties, and the remainder of this Agreement shall continue in full force and effect.
  XVI. Applicable Law And Venue. This Agreement shall be governed by and construed under the laws of the state of California without reference to its conflict of law principles. Each party agrees to submit to the exclusive and personal jurisdiction of the courts located in San Francisco County, California. The United Nations Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods and the Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act shall not apply to this Agreement.
  XVII. Avatar Reality Customer Contact. If you have any questions concerning these terms and conditions, or if you would like to contact Avatar Reality for any other reason, please contact Avatar Reality support at info@avatar-reality.com.

Sheesh.

Update: this was fixed a few days later. :)