Sunday, November 30, 2008

I Are A Content Creator!

Something that distingishes Second Life from a traditional video games or MMORPGS like World of Warcraft is that the vast majority of the world is designed and built by residents. There aren't any missions to follow, villians to vanquish, prizes to earn, or battles to be fought…except those you make for yourself. When folks first log into Second Life, they often ask "What do I do?" and I feel self-consciously lame saying "Well, anything you want, really." It makes me feel like I drank the Linden Lab Kool-Aid and now it's suddenly spraying back out of my nostrils.

Second Life is big on the notion that users can create "content" in the virtual world and retain full ownership of their intellectual property. That's kind of a big claim considering that "property" only exists in an artificial environment run by a privately-held company and (so far as I know) can't be transferred elsewhere. But the practical in-world upshot is that Second Life users can build things and sell them to other residents (remember, the Linden Dollar is tied to the real-world economy) or just give them away for free.

Since everybody in Second Life has an avatar, the biggest categories of Second Life "content" are avatar add-ons like clothing (shoes, pants, skirts, jackets, shirts, undies, you name it), hair (all "good" SL hair is a wig!), skins (which make your avatar look pale, tan, made-up, like a zombie, or whatever), animations (so your avatar can have non-default "body language"), and tools that, say, tell you who is nearby or let you fly higher than something like 280 meters above the ground. (Oh, and other types of "tools" are available as well—for instance, boys in SL are "unendowed" by default. Giggle.)

Since I started in Second Life, people have been telling me I can just build stuff, and it's true: the Second Life client has tools built into it that enable anyone to create prims—3D "primitives" that, manipulated and grouped together, make up most of what you see in SL. Switch to build mode, click the ground, and boom there's a half-meter plywood cube that belongs to you. (Instantiating an object in-world is called "rezzing"—yay Tron.) To build you have to be on land that allows object creation—the owner has to configure their land so people can create things there. Lots of places allow that, but usually have "parcel autoreturn" set, meaning that prims you create get "returned" to you after a period of time, sometimes as soon as one minute. Unless you're really fast, that's not enough time to build anything—it's mainly there as a courtesy to let people "rez" stuff quickly to show other residents or unpack. Without autoreturn, any prim created on a parcel would be there essentially forever—"prim litter" that can only be picked up by the prim creators or the land owner. One form of "griefing"—causing trouble in SL—is to fill up people's plots with prims so nothing more can be created. Parcels—and whole sims—have arbitrary fixed number of prims they can support at any one time.

The upshot is that building anything besides a bunch of plywood boxes means owning your own land (requires a premium account), renting land (costs money), or using a sandbox—an area specifically set aside for folks to experiment with building, usually with an autoreturn value of four hours or more. Nothing you build stays around very long, but sandboxes are free and offer enough capability to get your feet wet. Or dirty. Sandy. Something.

So what got me started playing with prims? Um…yeah. Girling up my avatar.

In real life, I have three hoops on my left ear, and usually wear some simple ear studs that belonged to my grandmother. (They come from back in the day when having pierced ears was considered kind of slutty. No comment.) Second Life let users "attach" items to points on their avatars, and I quickly found some free jewelry items that could stand in for my nose ring and get repurposed for my left year. But you can only attach one thing to an attachment point at a time—once I had one hoop on my left ear, I couldn't add two more! Nor could I add studs, assuming I could ever find some that resembled m grandmother's.

Talking with folks, it seemed the only solution was building: use Second Life's tools to create a single combined object that linked together three ear hoops and a stud into a single combined object—and that object group could be put on my ear as a single item. Armed with that information, I headed off to a sandbox recommended by a friend and started playing.

Making and grouping the hoops was easy—but making ear studs was difficult. I discovered that while Second Life lets residents make prims with dimensions up to 10 meters, it doesn't let users make prims any smaller than a centimeter. Way too big for my ear studs. But I knew I had seen objects smaller than that! In fact, I'd seen them at Ode, home(?) of SL jeweler Random Calliope, who makes astonishingly detailed high-prim jewelry. Soon, I'd figured out how to make "fake" tiny prims—objects that appear smaller than they actually are by using transparent textures and (sometimes) strange contortions. And, bing! Lou has ear studs!

Lou's simple ear stud and triple hoop, all as one object.

Making two-prim ear studs got me thinking about how other objects might behave using the same tricks. And it was extremely frustrating: the building tools might be more accessible than AutoCAD or other 3D building tools, but they're still pretty inscrutible for everyday folks. So, I attended a building class in-world at the U21Global campusU21Global is a joint venture between Universitas 21 and Manipal Education, and they have an in-world presence in Second Life. The class clarified some features which had confused me—especially how to use little virtual rulers. I went back to the sandbox, and after a while I had this wire brooch:

Wire brooch with micro-prims.

The shiny bar below the brooch measures 1cm × 2cm—remember that 1cm is as small as a prim can get in Second Life! But look at the little colored "gems" set in the wire brooch…they appear lots smaller than 1cm, and the wire is thinner still.

Ironically, the brooch kind of came out too small. When I wear it, people have to zoom in to see it! Probably just as well—it's not perfect, and not quite what I intended. But it's a start, and now I have "intellectual property" in Second Life!

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