Gamificationing

Little people with letters on themI think I’ve figured out why I so often disagree with Hamlet Au‘s opinions about how Second Life should change. As I speculate here, I think Hamlet is talking as an investor or a business consultant, saying what he thinks will improve new-user signups, or retention, or profitability in general; whereas I’m talking as a resident, saying what I think would make the world a better place to be a resident in, for people who are at least to some extent like me. Of course the world has to continue to exist :) in order to be a good place to reside, so I am somewhat concerned with profitability, but it’s not primary.

So for instance when Blue Mars decided to give up development of the actual virtual world, in favor of an “is my AV hot or not?” app for cellphones, that may have been a great decision in terms of bottom line, but presumably was not great news for those who enjoyed the actual virtual world.

And when Hamlet praises the new “Rank” system on the Second Life official forums, and hopes that it will soon have an equivalent inworld, I think he means that he believes (based on his knowledge of similar systems in places like the 2.5D Habbo Hotel (“Habbos Like: army cool diceplaya elite police force financier football friends fun funny habbo habbo government job justin bieber lol love music nypd pays police white house”)), that this would increase new-user retention, concurrency, profits, etc; but when I say I think it would be an awful idea, it’s because I have a really hard time imagining how such a thing would actually improve my experience of the world, aside from any profitability impacts it might have.

I remember when I briefly tried “vSide” awhile back, there was some system of “Creds” or something, based on something like a ranking system or achievements or friends or money spent or something, and various items that I might have wanted to buy were only available if you had enough “Creds”, and I didn’t. And this turned me off, and was one of the reasons I stopped going there; one thing I don’t want a virtual world telling me is that I Am Not Good Enough!

On the other hand I do appreciate the value of a constant little stream of validation in any activity. So maybe it would be possible to imagine some sort of “Gamification” of SL that would, rather than telling you that you are currently Not Good Enough to get some particular item or upload some particular kind of content, instead give you little attaboys, little blips of praise or accomplishment. Might be worth thinking about.

World of Warcraft has (at least) two almost entirely separate reward and rank systems, one of which I think is completely inappropriate for SL, and one of which might actually be interesting.

The inappropriate one is the obvious one: every character has a level, and the most obvious driving force behind the entire game is leveling up. You level up very very fast at the beginning, which provides a steady stream of little rewards to start with, while you’re still perhaps finding out what-all there is to do in the game. Low-level characters can only go to low-level places, and use low-level items, and fight low-level monsters. A high-level character can kill a low-level character of the other faction with a single blow.

Importantly, it’s a ranking system among characters (“toons”), but not among players; in general each player is expected to have a number of toons, and the level 15 druid that you’re talking to is quite likely just the latest toon of someone who also has two or ten level 85 characters of other classes and races.

And this would all be completely inappropriate for Second Life. SL isn’t about some ubiquitous overarching story that everyone is taking part in, some set of predefined ladders that everyone goes up and that everyone is interested in. It’s not about creating a character, leveling it up one of the available ladders, improving one’s gear, and then starting a new character with different abilities, to climb a slightly different ladder. SL can be this, if you get into one of the RP systems, but that’s entirely up to the player; it’s not baked in. And it shouldn’t be; changing SL to be that way would be like making it into an “is my AV hot or not?” app for cellphones, or for that matter into a sales platform for dishwashers. It might be profitable, but I (and I think most residents) would lose all interest.

On the other hand, WoW also has the more recently-added “Achievements” system. Achievements are things that you do outside of the level system, and that get you at most little decorative rewards, like a new title to display over your head, or a pet that will follow you around but doesn’t actually do anything in the game. And the vast majority of achievements don’t even do that; it’s just another achievement that you’ve achieved, the game makes a cool little noise and informs anyone standing nearby and anyone in your guild who happens to be logged in at the time, but that’s it. There’s a “compare achievements” mechanism that you can use to compare your achievements with those of anyone nearby, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen or heard of anyone using it.

Could we have a similar system in SL? Maybe. It wouldn’t be like the thing on the forums at all, with every person having one single rank-like title (“Honored Resident”, “Member”, “Advisor”, gak); instead there’d just be alot of checkboxes that you could either ignore entirely, or work more or less hard on getting them checked off. Having checked off alot of them would not get you any special powers on the forums or in the world. I can’t emphasize this strongly enough; tying them to special powers leads to cheating and hacks and drama and destruction.

There could be a bunch of very easy checkboxes, so that new residents get a nice welcoming stream of validation messages when they start out. And it should be easy to ignore those checkboxes you never intend to check off; someone who has no interest in combat games should not be constantly prodded by the viewer because they have not yet checked off the “kill or be killed in a combat game” box. (I really hate the thing on Facebook or wherever it is that’s always reminding me that I’ve provided only 47% of the intimate personal information that they’d like me to reveal; that’s all I ever intend to provide, thank you very much!)

So what would be some fun checkboxes? I’m sure people are making lists like this all over the SL web even as I type. :) Maybe:

  • Find the Friends List panel
  • Find the IM and Group IM panels
  • Say something in open chat
  • Walk!
  • Fly
  • Teleport
  • Find the world map
  • Teleport to somewhere on the world map
  • Receive an IM
  • Send an IM
  • Offer friendship to someone
  • Be offered friendship by someone
  • Buy something / spend Lindens
  • Sell something / receive Lindens
  • Rez a cube
  • Change the texture of something in Edit mode
  • Create a new piece of clothing / body part / notecard…
  • Join a group
  • Create a group
  • Take a snapshot

And so on and so on. :) Most of those are newborn sorts of things; I think I’ve done all of them but “create a group”.

We could argue that once someone’s been inworld for awhile, they will have found other sources of validation and fun besides the little achievements. On the other hand it’s easy to imagine the occasional olderbie achievement: “Rez your 500’th cube” or “delete your 10,000th thing from inventory” or “make your 100th friend”. Even “own an entire sim”. How about “be hired by Linden Lab”? :)

I dunno. I think I can convince myself that these things might be fun, and might increase new-user retention some. On the other hand I’m not sure, given all of the things that might be fun and might increase new-user retention, if this is anywhere near the top of the list. (Get sim-border-crossings working first, ffs!)

:)

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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…