Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Shadow Knows…

Linden Lab has been boasting for at least a year and a half that they were on the verge of bringing "best of class" graphics to Second Life and today they rather unexpectedly took a major step in that direction. As of Viewer 2.7.1, released today, Second Life residents can optionally enable a number of real-time lighting, focus, and shadow effects aimed at making the virtual world more photogenic.

Lou at home, seen through the new tricks in Viewer 2.7.1—
shadows, occlusion, and depth of field.
(Unedited screenshot direct from SL.)

One of my peeves with Second Life is that while it offered up to eight lighting sources in a particular "scene"—that's a limit imposed by OpenGL, if a video card can support them—the lighting is horribly fake. The sun and moon count as light sources, so users can encounter (or make!) up to six other light sources. Lots of people wear invisible prim "facelights" to highlight their faces—fires, video screens, lamps, vehicles, and all sorts of other things can emit light.

But it's tremendously fake light. It illuminates nearby surfaces, but it also has this amazing nuke-yoo-lar ability to penetrate solid objects: it you set a strong light on the solid roof of a building, the roof isn't going to block the light from coming inside: stand under the roof, and you will be strongly illuminated by a light that shouldn't be able to reach you. You can see this effect all the time in Second Life: lights that magically shine through walls, through stone, through avatars, through…well, everything.

Another thing that makes Second Life lighting fake is the lack of shadows. Years ago Linden Lab apparently implemented some sort of client-side "foot shadows" that can appear around the feet of avatars in the morning or evening—basically, the only time you notice them is when they're hanging in midair where they shouldn't be, because an avatar is sitting, using a pose, or something. Linden Lab apparently implemented more realistic shadowing in their official Viewer but never enabled it because it so seriously degraded the viewer's performance. Some third party viewers—most notably Kirsten's Viewer—took the idea and ran with it, but Kirsten's viewer has always been described as "bleeding edge madness"—it's for folks with high-end graphics hardware, and the few times I tried to use it, the viewer crashed on launch. (Kirsten has actually added 3D support recently, which gives me a headache just to think about.)

So. With Viewer 2.7.1, Linden Lab has finally rolled out shadows and lighting effects in its official viewer. Although the new capabilities aren't available for every graphics system that can run SL—it looks like you need something supporting OpenGL 3.0 with at least 512 MB of video RAM—users can choose to enable them and take a look. When users look in their custom graphics options (Preferences > Graphics > Advanced) there are three new checkboxes and a pop-up menu—if they're available, then Linden Lab thinks your video hardware can support it. Lighting and Shadows is the basic setting for enabling shadows—Linden Lab calls these "high quality" shadows and they seem to be sort-of right: they move dynamically with the sun and moon, respond in real time to moving objects and avatars, and deal with moving "flexi" prims just fine. They also seem to deal with alpha layers in textures pretty well: if you see a tree with swathes of leaves done using a semi-transparent texture on a prim, the shadows will enable light to shine "through" the leaves. Neat!

The performance hit seems substantial. On my admittedly-aging computer with video hardware gamers would sneer at derisively, enabling shadows essentially cuts my frame rate in half: where I would normally get 20-22 frames per second in a typical scene, I'll be around 10 or 11 with shadows enabled. (That 20-22 fps is already substantially lower than the performance I got under Viewer 1.x and SnowGlobe, so I don't really believe the Linden's claims that Viewer 2 performs so much better than Viewer 1. That might be true, but if so it's being bogged down by a bunch of other things that I probably don't particularly want it doing.)

Ambient Occulsion seems to make for more contrast in parts of objects that aren't illuminated, and produces much smoother and fuzzier shadows from the sun and moon. Depth of Field seems to be a huge performance hit, and basically, blurs out things in Second Life that you're not looking at. If you move your camera to a point, that object will shift into a sharper focus, but other things (including stuff close to you—like your avatar) will shift out of focus. The effect is similar to focus effects seen in many console and PC games, and while it feels out of place in Second Life—it makes me feel like I have a vision problem—it may have uses for screenshots and other places effects can matter. The screenshot of me at the top of this post uses Depth of Field to blur out the background—although I will note it was remarkably difficult to get my avatar into focus for that screenshot.

The Shadows popup menu hints at what I think is the most intriguing details of the new lighting system. Users can choose that no objects produce shadows (counter-intuitive, but seems to produce slicker lighting overall then turning of Lighting and Shadows altogether), have the Sun and Moon produce shadows, or have the Sun, Moon, and Projectors (emphasis mine) produce shadows. Remember that superfake nuke-yoo-lar light Second Life has had for years? That's still there, and it's called Point lighting. A Projector is a new kind of light source that can point at things like a spotlight or flashlight would—and light from Projectors produces shadows. Like, real, honest to goodness, non-nuke-yoo-lar lighting. And it can be a textured light, creating enormous possibilities for ambient effects and even simple things like projected slide shows.

Suddenly, I think the Lindens might be on to something worthwhile.

The main problem, of course, is that all this is only available in Viewer 2 (third party Viewers will eventually pick up on it) and Viewer 2 is still absolutely atrocious. I happily concede Viewer 2's script editor is slightly improved and I actually like the location bar. But. I have so many usability, interface, design, functionality, privacy, and security issues with Viewer 2 that I don't even know where to start. Suffice to say: Viewer 2 is an absolute usability disaster—and I'm not holding up Viewer 1.x as any paragon of usability, either.

Viewer 2.7.1 also includes the Linden's latest attempt to "fix" in-world search—to me, it seems sluggish, inaccurate, and near-useless, but I'm sad to report that actually is an improvement over previous versions of Viewer 2 search I've seen. Viewer 2.7.1 is also a tits-and-ass enabled Viewer, so disable that feature or be prepared to see people made of jello.

Nonetheless, it is nice to see the Lindens spring a surprise like dynamic shadows and a new type of lighting effect. (And they've even—documented it. A little.) Please continue to surprise residents with things that overcome long-time limitations of the platform. Thanks.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Not That We're Keeping Track or Anything

Some eight months ago former Linden Lab CEO Philip Rosedale laid out a set of concrete goals for the development and advancement of Second Life. Although Rosedale has once again stepped down as CEO—with former EA exec Rod Humble coming on board a few months ago—I thought it might be useful to take a look at what's happened with these goals. Despite perpetuating an open-and-accessible atmosphere, in my experience Linden Lab is consistently obtuse and non-committal about how it plans to manage and extend its virtual world platform. These concrete goals were a rare articulation of the Lab's goals and were made after the Lab went through a significant downsizing that saw many well-known and veteran employees exit. The goals bear revisiting.

Mesh imports will enter beta by the end of 2010

Status: accomplished. Mesh imports have been up and running on Linden Lab's beta grid (Aditi) for some time. However, Linden Lab has not released a timeframe for when they plan to bring mesh imports to the main grid, nor have they articulated the "costs" of mesh—since meshes can be very complex,unlike sculpts some single-object meshes are likely to cost more than one prim apiece. Also, since creators will want to use mesh to create elaborate vehicles and environments, Linden Lab may increase the maximum size of standard prims to accomodate large meshes. Standard SL prims are currently limited to 10m³; reports have Linden Lab considering a new limit of 64m³. Other reports have Linden Lab waiting until third party viewers like Phoenix have viewers available based on Linden Lab Viewer 2.x code—viewers need to be updated to support mesh, and that pretty much means no viewers based on the older 1.x codebase will be able to view mesh objects. But the bottom line: mesh is in beta and interested users can work with it.

Users will be to create and edit their own Display Names

Status: accomplished. Display Names have been out on the grid for some months, and as a result Linden Lab has limited all new avatar account to the last name "Resident." In my personal experience, user adoption of Display Names seems low; even people using viewers that support Display Names often turn off because it reduces the usability of their Friends List, means they have to put up with a variety of "clever" names that use Unicode characters and special symbols in an effort to stand out from the crowd. And, when the name system fails, folks with display names just see avatars named "??? ???". My viewer doesn't support Display Names, but I wrote a little script that will tell me someone's Display Name. I find it's quite common for SL users to address people by their usernames rather than their Display Names, implying they are not using the Display Name feature in their viewers.

Group chat and sim crossings will be "fixed" by the end of 2010

Status: not accomplished. In my experience, group chat is even worse now than it was at the time Philip Rosedale promised it would be fixed by the end of 2010. The last two Buccaneer Bowl games have been significantly impacted by group chat failures, and what little group chat I engage in is, ironically, mostly people apologizing and complaining that their comments are out of order or missing due to group chat failures. Linden Lab apparently has been experimenting with converting the group chat to XMPP technology; however, recently reports have those tests producing no significant improvements.

Similarly, sim crossings have not improved. Linden Lab has rolled out a change that, when users cross between sims or teleport to a new sim, the data associated with their avatar is compressed (using gzip) on the server they're leaving, then transfered to the new sim where it's unpacked, saving significant bandwidth. However, if I have that correct, the change doesn't seem to have produced a significant improvement to sim crossings—there is a minimum lag of several seconds walking between sims—and the new systems now seem to mean teleports are a crapshoot: you can teleport, but you might not get anywhere, or (worst case) you might find yourself logged out of Second Life instead of arriving at your destination. I'm basing these comments not just on my personal experience, but observing avatars near me. My home parcel is located on a sim boundary, above a Linden railroad that other SL users often "ride" across a multitude of sims for fun. I regularly see avatars get "stuck" at the sim boundary near me when they try to ride the railroad across it—and my sim is comparatively quiet and underutilized. Don't believe me? Hop one of the bizarro vehicles that roam the Linden Roads and see how far you get before crashing.

Linden Lab will be shutting down the Teen Grid

Status: accomplished. Linden Lab shut down the Teen Grid and moved 16 and 17 year-old avatars to the main grid, where they are permitted to visit regions rated "General," but not "Mature" or "Adult." So far as I can tell, the sky hasn't fallen as a result of letting teen users onto the Main Grid; however, as an avatar who has elected not to participate in Linden Lab's age verification procedure, I have noticed an increase in the number of locations I am unable to visit. Some SL users I know remain deeply concerned about the presence of minors on the main grid, and apparently land on Linden Lab's adult-only continent (Zindra) continues to command a premium compared to mainland.

Linden Lab's Viewer 2 will adopt a scrum development process

Status: accomplished. Linden Lab has been kicking out betas and "official" release of Viewer 2 with regularity, so much so that they're up to Viewer 2.6 in their official release channel—they ought to be considering the question of whether they're going to run with Viewer 2.10 after 2.9, or whether they're going to round up to Viewer 3.0. The frequency of Viewer 2 updates has enabled Linden Lab to bring new features into the Viewer quickly; however, some of those released have had significant stability issues, suggesting the Lab hasn't magically solved the traditional problem of scrum development: quality assurance.

Viewer updates updates will be background downloads

Status: accomplished. Updates to Linden Lab's Viewer 2.x now download in the background whether users want them to or not.

Assets (textures, inventory, etc.) will be fetched using HTTP

Status: accomplished, I think. Linden Lab's HTTP Assets project has apparently rolled out, however, I have not personally observed any improvement in texture or inventory loading, while I *have* observed an increase in frequency in which my viewer's local cache (of textures and other stuff I'm "using") becomes corrupted, resulting in a crash or causing the viewer to crash on launch.

Linden Lab will eliminate new user orientation

Status: plans changed. Linden Lab does seem to have eliminated new user orientation, but "Help Island" and the infohubs are still up and running. Instead, Linden Lab has implemented "Basic Mode" and "Advanced Mode" in Viewer 2.x—Basic Mode restricts users to a tiny handful of approved destinations in the virtual world; users can only select from canned avatars, and can't buy or create anything. To do any of that stuff, they can switch to "Advanced Modes" at any time.

Linden Lab plans to make an iPad client for Second Life.

Status: no update. I haven't heard a peep about this from anyone since the day it was "announced."

Not that I'm keeping track, but I count that as one failure (sim crossings and group chat) out of eight items that had measurable deliverables—and considering the new Viewer "Modes" as the equivalent of eliminating new user orientation. The iPad app was a pie-in-the-sky thing; it hasn't been done, but nothing specific was promised, either.

What else has come along?

OK, so Linden Lab has delivered on a lot of what it promised back in August. What else has Linden Lab done along the way?

Avatar "soft physics"

The Linden Lab official viewer now supports butt, belly, and boob jiggle.

Web profiles

Linden Lab has converted avatars' in-world profiles to a Web-based platform, meaning avatars' profiles are now visible to the entire Internet (unless a user specifically makes their profile private). This change has not been without ramifications: for a while, Linden Lab was publishing all information in an avatar's profile to the whole Internet regardless of inworld privacy settings (including hidden groups); after that, setting a profile to private broke specific group management functions, making many common group management tasks impossible. (Here's the official bug; you have to have an SL login to view it. Linden Lab claims to have fixed it.)

Marketplace emphasis

Linden Lab is increasingly emphasizing its Web-based SL Marketplace as its preferred way to sell virtual goods, de-emphasizing the idea of shopping "in-world"—actually teleporting to an in-world store, finding the thing you want, and buying it directly. In some ways the Web-based store is a convenience move: many SL users apparently prefer shopping on the Web, and considering how frustrated I get shopping in-world, I can understand that. However, I also consider the Marketplace highly problematic: it seems to be consistently gamed by creators offering hundreds of versions of the same item—making it difficult to impossible to browse—search seems useless, and there's often not enough information available to make an informed decision. However, Linden Lab's stress on the Marketplace seems financial: they get a five percent cut on every sale.

Website revision

Linden Lab rolled out another major shift to its Web site—now dubbed a "Community platform"—that attempts to present SL's forus, Q&am;A, blogs, and knowledge base into a single unified presentation. (SL Wikis, the Marketplace, and user account management remain separate.) Among the new changes, users can get ranked based on "his or her contributions to the platform."

In-world search still deeply broken

I hate to flog a dead horse, but in-world search hasn't worked for me in either my antiquated Snowglobe viewer or Linden Lab's official viewers since October of 2010. Apparently it does work for other people, but remains deeply flawed, with complaints that people, parcels, businesses, and locations can't be found even when searching for their exact name. As a result, I have to rely on group notices (see group chat failures above) and out-of-band sources to learn when events I might be interested in attending are scheduled to happen. The only way I can find SL businesses by name is to use Google—and hope they have an out-of-band blog or other resource that includes a pointer to their in-world location.

So why did I run through all this? I'm sensing that the day Linden Lab blocks viewers based on the old 1.x codebase is coming sooner than later. At that point, I will be faced with a decision to use Linden Lab Viewer 2.x—which, in addition to a deeply problematic interface, is burdened with deep privacy concerns—use a third-party viewer based on Linden Lab's Viewer 2 code (same privacy concerns, plus a third party in the loop), or…leaving SL altogether.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Reign O'er Me

Ye Dear Readers will know that I can't keep this blog away from Second Life trivia for very long. So I hope I'll be forgiven for offering a few quick updates since moving Lou's Clues to my own "home" parcel."

The Frivolous Corsairs finally win Buccaneer Bowl!

We Are The Champions!

Although it's almost month-old news now, at long last the Frivolous Corsairs walked away with a Buccaneer Bowl team trivia championship! The team last month was me, our erstwhile captain Rain Ninetails, with very able backup from Honey Potez and Billy2Times Krams. The title was a long-time coming: although the Corsairs have had a number of second-place finishes and are often pretty competitive, the top spot has eluded us since the Buccaneer Bowl got started way back in January 2009. Although I haven't been able to attend every game (and once, technically, was on a winning team as an honorary Triviator) the Corsairs have managed to field a team for nearly every Buccaneer Bowl, and it was great to finally come out on top!

And I suppose I just need to say this up-front: while it's nice to win, it absolutely isn't a requirement for me. What I find remarkable about the Buccaneer Bowl is that we're able to assemble so many people into the same place at the same time and conduct a rather complicated, two-hour event and have a bunch of fun while doing it. I know this is going to sound wrong, but I kind of think of the Buccaneer Bowl as a monthly party where many of my smartest and funniest friends turn up to be…well, funny and smart! Although I wouldn't wish it on my teammates, I could come in last place every month and still enjoy the Buccaneer Bowl games just as much. Although there are lots of fun events and things to go in Second Life, the Buccaneer Bowl has been one thing I always look forward to with kind of giddy anticipation.

TriviAid for Japan Relief

The Second Life trivia community is developing a bit of a tradition of trying to do events to benefit real-world causes and organizations. In November of 2009 folks pulled together to conduct a 24-hour Triviathon benefitting Relay for Life, and various hosts have put on games in support of various realworld causes. Although there's no lack of worthy causes in the world, the earthquake, tsunami, and ongoing nuclear crisis that have struck Japan have been on everyone's mind, so this month the Second Life trivia community put together TriviAid, a series of games over a nine-day span that encouraged users to support Japan relief. TriviAid dovetailed on a similar effort organized by the Phoenix Viewer project—which set up an account to pass donations along to Global Giving, although hosts were encouraged to support charities of their choice if they wanted. Honey Potez took the lead there, spearheading contributions to Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support (JEARS), a group of three Japan-based no-kill animal rescue organizations—and Honey made it count by pledging to double all received contributions.

In a world where a Linden Dollar is worth less than half a penny, raising money even for a good cause can be difficult: many SL residents have no money at all, and many carry the equivalent of just a dollar or two—and then there are people like me whose only in-world money comes from what we can win or earn. Nonetheless, Honey's efforts to support animal rescue totalled US$200, total TriviAid donations came to $L39,784, or about US$330.

Yes, in the grand scheme, it may not seem like a tremendous amount of money, but bear in mind there's nothing about Second Life trivia that's a profit-making venture: as a group, we haven't done any significant work to monetize the activity because, frankly, that's not why we do it. If you want evidence that virtual worlds can offer significant support to real-world activities, check out Project FUR: they also worked to raise money for JEARS, and set out a whole sim filled with virtual goods being sold as a benefit. Last I checked, they had raised more than $6 million Linden dollars: that's over US$24,000.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Tits and Ass

So I'll just put the bits up front: Linden Lab is going to be adding "avatar physics" to Viewer 2.x, giving users the ability to configure their avatars to have their butts, bellies, and (of course) breasts bounce around when they move. Here's a peek.

Click through for the full jiggle on YouTube.
No, that's not me. If you're wondering whether it's common for female Second Life avatars to dress and walk around like this, the sad answer is yes.

Avatar physics is already present in development builds of "SnowStorm," Linden Lab's main viewer development project, and should be reaching everyday avatars fairly soon. It will also (very likely) be adopted by third party viewers (like the Phoenix folks' "FireStorm" and Imprudence's Kokua) that are based on Linden Lab's Viewer 2 code base. They will essentially get the feature for free, and will likely come up with ways to "innovate" it beyond Linden Lab's default features.

The feature is being implemented as a wearable clothing layer for avatars, so avatars can put on "Physics" in much the same way they wear skins or tattoo layers. Presumably, users will be able to create multiple physics layers they can switch in and out to go along with different looks. Similarly, folks who have in-world businesses built around avatar accessories will probably be able to pack physics "layers" along with their skins, shapes, and other products. Unlike Viewer 2 alpha and tattoo layers that get "baked" into an avatar's overall appearance and are thus visible to users of older viewers, Linden Lab's avatar physics will only be visible to viewers that specifically support the technology. So if you stick with an older viewer, you're not in the game.

Do You Like to Watch?

Over a year ago I bemoaned Linden Lab's then-forthcoming Viewer 2, and tried to place it in the context of third party viewer development at the time. I primarily focused on privacy and security issues with Viewer 2, deigning not to comment on its design, interface, or usability. (Lou's take on viewer design: Viewer 1.x sucks, Viewer 2.x is worse.)

In the last year, major privacy and security issues have twice rocked Second Life's tiny little boat on the rough seas of the Internet. First, Linden Lab had little choice but to draw-and-quarter Emerald, the most widely-used third-party viewer application, for abuses and privacy violations. That fiasco gave birth to the Phoenix project, which has tried to pick up where Emerald left off, offering Second Life power users a more tweak-tastic viewer while at the same time trying to come up with a third-party viewer based on Linden Lab's Viewer 2.x code base. (That project is called FireStorm, and I gather it's in limited testing now.) Converting to a Viewer 2 code base is important for viewer developers because, slowly but surely, Linden Lab is breaking features in earlier 1.x viewers and, one day, those old viewers won't be able to connect to Second Life at all.

Linden Lab's second test on privacy and security came in the last two months from a product called RedZone, which purported to be a tool that enabled land owners to identify users of copybot viewers—illegal viewers that essentially exist only to steal content in SL. However, RedZone went several steps further than Skills Hak's Gemini CDS, which purports to do the same thing. RedZone used SL media streams and other tools to gather IP address info on Second Life users in areas "protected" by RedZone. That information was sent to an external site, where it was correlated and made accessible to RedZone customers: one of the features was an alt banner, which assumed that all connections to Second Life from a particular IP address must be the same person. RedZone would show its customers which avatars had connected to SL from a particular IP address, and offer to let users take action against them all en masse. In addition, RedZone logged failed logins to its Web site, and stored those failed passwords as "possible SL passwords" associated with a particular account—statements from its creator imply that the information would be used to try to log into SL using those credentials, and delete their accounts using Second Life's Web-based administration tools.

RedZone's creator was eventually identified as a convicted felon with convictions for fraud. Shortly after RedZone's servers were hacked (which is how some of these in-house details came to light), Linden Lab removed RedZone from the grid, along with nuking the creator's accounts, groups, and known alts.

OK, Why Did You Prattle On About That?

While it was operating, RedZone publicized bits of aggregate data about the Second Life avatars they scanned. One of those aggregate bits was the viewer versions in use by scanned avatars. There's no reason to suspect those numbers served any purpose other than pleasing RedZone's creators, but one of the figures was interesting:

Scanning more than 9 million avatars, RedZone found that about 40 percent were using Linden Lab's Viewer 2.x.

Yep, that's right: after more than a year of flogging Viewer 2.x, roughly two in five SL avatars are using it. A considerable majority of Second Life users are not using Linden Lab's primary viewer software.

If that percentage is accurate, it represents a significant challenge for Linden Lab. Linden Lab wants to advance their platform. They want to make Second Life more accessible and fun to everyday Internet users. They want to roll out new technologies that support inworld businesses and the content-creation community. They want to see concurrency and their user base grow, not stay comparatively stagnant. But they don't want to alienate the majority of their users in the process.

What's Linden Lab Going to Do About That?

Linden Lab has taken some steps to try to make Viewer 2 easier for new users. The biggest change, implemented under the watch of new CEO Rod Humble, is a Basic Mode for Viewer 2. Basic Mode is now the default when users start Second Life, and tries to sweep away a lot of the interface clutter and confusion in favor of a paradigm that lets people get inworld quickly, not look like a total dork, find something fun to do (via preset places to visit), and have happy positive thoughts about SL. If they want to go further—customize their avatar, use voice chat, buy virtual goods or Linden dollars, create their own objects, etc.—they can log back in using Advanced Mode via a toggle at the bottom of the screen and tap into all features.

However, Basic Mode is not going to convince any of the folks who are not currently using Viewer 2 to get on the bandwagon. What might?

Tits and ass.

Oh You're Kidding

No, I'm not. A year and a half ago, Emerald was already established as the dominant third-party viewer on the grid. But if there was one feature that pushed it over the edge to massive adoption by mainstream SL users, it wasn't client-side animation overriders, avatar keys in profiles, improved radar, or the ability to set draw distance on the chat line. It was "breast physics."

The cynic in me is definitely talking, but I see Linden Lab's "avatar physics" as a similar "grope" to get users to embrace the Viewer 2.x platform, whether that be in Linden Lab's official viewers or in third-party viewers based on Linden Lab code.

To the Lab's credit, their implementation of "avatar physics" is more comprehensive than that originally incorporated into Emerald (and since propagated to third-party viewers like Phoenix and Imprudence). For one—erm, two—things, it also includes butt and belly waggle, so las chicas con culo can do all the jiggling they want and Santa avatars can have their own bowl full of jelly. And unlike the existing breast physics feature, which is client side and applies to all avatars equally whether they want it to or no, Linden Lab's physics layers will be opt-in. Don't want your bits jiggling? Don't wear the physics layer. It also means that, if users do choose to use physics layers, other avatars will see the effect they're intended to see: each avatar can have their own unique jiggles, including no jiggle at all.

Unfortunately, I also think avatar physics will have a negative effect on Second Life's image. SL already has a reputation as the red light district of virtual worlds—heck, Linden Lab has created a whole adults-only continent where users effectively need to show their ID to enter. Avatar physics caters almost purely to prurient interests…and that may not be the kind of "fast easy fun" with which Linden Lab wants to continue to be associated.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Home Is Where Your Trivia Is

So, in case anyone was wondering what's happened with Lou's Clues, I've decided its new "permanent" home will be my own little flying island. It's not a big place, but we seem to be able to pack in the avatars, and—despite being mainland—lag has not been a serious impediment.

Lou's Clues at the flying island (Image by Cygnoir Blanc)

With the closing of [MonoChrome], my Lou's Clues trivia game faced a bit of a crisis. Do I continue doing the game? If so, do I shop around for a new place to host the game, or take things into my own hands and…open up my own trivia venue? Or maybe some other path would be better?

When Sinnamon Sands and Jez Oh formally announced [MonoChrome]'s pending closure, something extremely flattering happened: virtually all the major "trivia venues" in Second Life contacted me, offering their locations as a home for Lou's Clues if I needed it. Sure, there's a tiny bit of self-interest in offers like that—those venues would get "traffic" from anyone attending Lou's Clues, exposure and promotion for their venue and other events, and probably small amount of tip income from players to support the venue. However, those offers are more a reflection of the supportive nature of the trivia community in Second Life: we might not all get along all the time, but the consistent bottom line is that we always try to support each other where and when we can, and I was extremely touched by the support everyone offered me.

[MonoChrome]'s closure brought home to me the weakness of running an event at someone else's venue: it can literally disappear out from under your feet. Although Jez & Sinn handled MoChro's closure with class and plenty of warning, a number of Second Life trivia venues have come and gone—some with more warning than others. Places like Lilly's Pub and Trivy Isle (née Double Standards) used to be centers of my SL trivia universe; places like EyeQ came and went rather quickly, and I've watched hosts shift their games between a number of venues as opportunities and sponsors appear and dry up: one of my favorite games is, I think, on its fourth or fifth location. Even the venerable Marine Park is no more—and I'm sure its disappearance of its high payouts has had a trickle-down effect on the rest of the SL trivia community.

Thinking about possible futures for Lou's Clues, I bounced around a few ideas: maybe it would make sense to keep Lou's Clues "homeless" and move it between different venues every month or so? I pitched the idea around as "residencies," where I would run games at a venue until the monthly Buccaneer Bowl team-based trivia game happened, then use that "off week" to transition to a new location. However, talking with folks, it became clear the idea of a traveling game basically amounted to a complicated effort so I could avoid having to say "no" to anyone. Constantly coordinating moves to new venues (including negotiating SL's ever-more complicated group, rezzing, and event-posting permissions) would consume even more of my time and be complicated for venue operators—they would basically have to go to the same effort to support Lou's Clues as they would for a regular standing game, for a tiny fraction of the benefit. Plus, a traveling game would be problematic for players, who are used to particular games being at particular locations: many arrive at game by way of fixed landmarks that point to a particular location in SL's virtual landscape, not to a particular event. Plus, a moving game is far more likely to be scuttled by a snafu: can't get group permissions sorted out? A simple missed checkbox in a parcel or group settings would mean I couldn't rez the LouTron, post an event, or (in a worst-case scenario) even get to the venue!

So, I decided to emulate Lebn Bucyk's approach with Barefoot trivia—which is, probably not coincidentally, one of the longest-running trivia games in Second Life. Lebn & Preston have always hosted their own game on their own land. Barefoot hasn't always been on their park in Jeongam (lag drove them to a garden at their "home" in another sim for a while), but the principle is the same: they don't run a "venue"—they just invite friends over to their place to play trivia. As a result, they control their own destiny: no one is going to pull the pixels out from under their feet because…well, Lebn & Preston control the pixels.

I decided a similar approach made sense for Lou's Clues, and would have the added benefit of being simpler for me than working with a trivia venue. I wouldn't have to concern myself with coordinating schedules around other hosts or events, nor would I have to promote other events or deal with shifting designs, layouts, and decor. Doing things myself also meant I would have full control of things like music streams, nearby scripted objects, and…well, ambiance. And I hesitate to bring up aesthetics at all because I happen to like all the trivia venues where I currently play, and my own ability virtually decorate is pretty limited. But, at least, if other people find a location isn't to their taste, it falls on me.

So, for the last few weeks I've been holding Lou's Clues at my "home," a small 1024m² parcel on the mainland's northern continent. Since it's mainland, I was concerned lag would be a serious issue, but we've since packed a couple dozen people on the parcel with minimal lag, so I'm optimistic continuing to host there will be practical. And, honestly, it feels right to host Lou's Clue on my own parcel. I've been there over a year now! Although my homebrew flying island hasn't exactly been a secret, darn it, it's about time to invite people over!

Since some people have asked: yes, I briefly considered putting an end to Lou's Clues. Although it's common knowledge amongst trivia hosts, writing a decent trivia game takes quite a lot of time and effort, and these days we all fund them out of pocket: nobody is getting rich as a trivia host. It might only take me a leisurely hour and a half to roll through a couple dozen questions during a game, but those typically represent three to sometimes eight hours of work. (Sometimes it's easy to come up with good questions, but sometimes it's like wringing blood from a stone.) Plus there's time to post event notices, produce material for picture questions or any other special elements (I'm crap with graphics, so this takes me much longer than it ought), plus coordinate any extras or announcements that might go along with a particular game—maybe a game is themed, promoting a particular event or charity, or needs special props or tools.

However, Lou's Clues has always been my way to give something back to the Second Life trivia community. Although I build and script, go to music shows, and still do a bit of exploring and simple hanging out, it's no exaggeration to say that probably half my time in SL is focused on trivia and the friends I've made through playing and hosting. As long as I'm still playing, I'll keep hosting.

So. I hope you'll turn up at the flying island one weekend. Check events for "Lou's Clues."

Monday, February 28, 2011

No Colors Anymore

It's the end of an era—at least for me. Second Life's [MonoChrome] has closed down.

Sitting with Jez at the cleared-out [MonoChrome]

Jez Oh conceived [MonoChrome] as a direct response to the typical SL "club." Most music and event venues in Second Life are tricked out with garish colors, animated doo-dads, things that shoot particles every which way, stuff that take forever to load, gizmos that chatter and nag at you in text or pops up dialogs on your screen…and everywhere bling bling bling. [MonoChrome] had none of that. [MonoChrome] was more of a warehouse basement that the local band used as a rehearsal space…but all the kids hung out and played music when the band wasn't around, then decided to "fix it up" as a real hangout. Posters up on the wall, games spread around, some lights, a plant or two, some nice furniture—but otherwise mostly brick, concrete, a metal-grate balcony.

The motto for [MonoChrome] was "you supply the color." The club itself was purely shades of grey. What was special about the place—what should get your attention—wasn't the build itself, but the people there and what they brought to it. Jez extended the idea past the look of the club to the way it was built: [MonoChrome] was designed to be low-lag, load as quickly as possible, and then stay out of your way.

As such, [MonoChrome] served as one of the touchstones for me and many of my friends and acquaintances in Second Life. It's where a bunch of us held rez-day parties or just turned up for a friendly game of Greedy Greedy (a kind of silly in-SL dice game)—it was our clubhouse, our hang-out, our music venue, and literally my home for quite a while: I had my "home point" in SL set inside one of the club's walls. If you page back through this blog, you'll see lots of screenshots taken at [MonoChrome].

Cygnoir Blanc celebrating her 7th(!) rezday at [MonoChrome] this month
(A winged Lou and Rain Ninetails in the background)

[MonoChrome] was also home to a myriad of other events: Name that Tune games have been running since [MonoChrome] opened its doors, innumerable trivias (hosted by the likes of proprietress Sinnamon Sands, Josh & Circe, and Mako & Honey), as well as a selection of live music shows. And, of course, [MonoChrome] hosted many a Buccaneer Bowl, the monthly team-based trivia event that's near and dear to my heart.

I did a few one-shot events elsewhere, but [MonoChrome] is where I launched my Lou's Clues trivia game and have since conducted 60-odd events. I'll keep Lou's Clues going, although I haven't really settled on how and where just yet. Keep your eyes peeled.

So, now [MonoChrome] lives only in our memories. But I hope it has a lasting influence on the design and vibe of in-world venues, especially amongst the many (many!) of us who spend time there. Jez, Sinn, Dree, Mandy, and everyone—ya done good. Thank you.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Mainlining Mainland

One accepted truism of Second Life is that the SL Mainland is kind of the virtual equivalent of steerage compared to the posh upper- and first-class berths afforded by private sims and estates. To an extent, the perception is justified: Mainland is home to many builds that can generously be described as eyesores, many neighbors that can diplomatically be described as uncouth cretins, and sim performance that can sometimes be measured on a geologic scale.

But that doesn't mean Mainland is without its charms. When I'm not at my own little flying island parcel, attending some event, or off (gasp!) working on some project or other, I can often be found hanging around public Mainland areas. Although there are many high-quality, privately-owned areas of Mainland open to anyone, I often find myself going to places built by the Lindens (or, more properly, by the Moles—often resident contractors working on projects for Linden Lab) for the simple reason that they're intended to be public and open to all. Often I can be found in parts of the Blake Sea or the newly-emerging Sea of Fables, so when Linden Lab's efforts at infrastructure improvements made my home (and thousands of other sims) inaccessible for several hours:

Staring off into the empty space where my home sim ought to be…

…I thought I would go looking for a few new places.

One of the first I found—purely by visually scanning the in-world Map—is a Linden-build "Space Base" in a sim called Mos Ainsley. Although pretty obviously named for a lawless desert town in the first Star Wars movie, the whole sim is a crater with what appears to be some sort of sci-fi abandoned research station. The build features a selection of buildings, tunnels, pressure doors and elevators (about half of which don't work—whether that's deliberate or not I can't say) along with an underground shuttle hangar where you can rez your own craft and fly around.

The Lindens' Space Base, with the pod bay doors open, Hal

Exploring the build, you might find yourself a spacesuit to wear in case things go horribly wrong, and while the build as this weirdly hygienic quality to it, the not-working stuff and the sense that whoever was there just abandoned the place recently creates a bit of an Alien-ish atmosphere. And…if you can find your way through the right airlocks you'll eventually meet the aliens.

"Hey, S'nicklzyb'grr!zub, how's it goin'?"

At some point I noticed there's a spot on the Mainland called "Mare Segundus," and I believe someone told me it was one of the older Mainland "seas" where folks first took at stab at making sailing vessels and stuff for Second Life. I looked for it on the world Map and it's super easy to spot: it's got a bunch of islands shaped like the number "2." Two. Get it? Har har har. I figured with that level of subtlety I probably wasn't too interested in visiting, but at some point I found myself only a sim or two away and thought "what the heck"—and discovered it's actually kind of neat. A lot of Second Life's mainland seas have this vaguely Greek/Minoan/Atlantean vibe to them, like you're stumbling on variously-preserved bits of a long-crumbled civilization. (The new Sea of Fables has recently sprouted a Mount Olympus island, for example.) Anyway, there's a bit of that here, with a few domed structures and an orrery you can lay back and observe spinning. However, the star attraction is a kind of brass-punk rocketship on a landing pad right in the middle of that "2" on the map.

T minus three minutes and counting…

You can poke around the rocket, get a gangplank out to it, and get inside—and if you're not careful, it'll blast off! The takeoff seizes control of your avatar's camera so you're looking out the rocket porthole and see the horizon drop away beneath you—and then you land and you're on an alien world!

The atmosphere is breathable—do we dare go outside to look around?

Of course, you're not actually on an alien world, or even transported to another sim. (Sim crossings are pretty jarring events: you'd notice.) Instead the rocket transports you up about a kilometer into the sky, where there's a skybox carefully dressed up to simulate a bit of a classic scifi alien planet: you feel a bit like Robbie the Robot might appear in a moonbuggy at any moment. You can explore around and check out the weird plants and drippy things—careful, there is a monster and it will eat you if you let it. I was amused to find a flag planted by a previous exploring party—the Moles.

The Moles have claimed this planet as their own
LDPW stands for Linden Department of Public Works

If you bumble around a bit you will eventually find a strange altar—watch out for the tentacles, and be careful what you click!

To worship false gods, or not worship false gods?
Decisions, decisions…

As soon as I saw the altar on the "alien world," I knew it looked very familiar—it's a dead ringer for another strange altar that I found elsewhere on the Linden Mainland, not far from where my friends Lebn & Preston have their house. I don't think the Lindens have any overarching backstory to their builds, but it's kind of fun to notice when things recur and have little themes.

Hmm! This one doesn't have tentacles!

Anyway—the upshot here is that just because a location is Mainland and technically owned and operated by the Lindens doesn't necessarily mean it's boring and a no-fun place to hang out. I often pop to places like this when I'm just kicking around SL for a little bit, knee-deep in multiple IM conversations that need immediate attention, or maybe just looking for some no-script, no-rez areas to test some of my new scripts and toys. (There's actually a rez-enabled area right near that second altar intended for boats and whatnot that I abuse for other purposes.)

Of course, Mainland will always be Mainland, and not everything is going to be neato-keen, picturesque, or even polite. The same day I was galavanting between those altars, I got a message from a friend that it was raining penis-posters at her mainland house. I popped over there, and sure enough: spread across four mainland sims were at least two dozen invisible griefer objects, the sole purpose of which was to emit (literally) thousands of obscene images. Ah, the charms of Mainland.

Standing on a griefing cage 400m in the air, reporting penis-poster-spewing particle emitters—what fun.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Stepping into a Walled Garden

Right before Christmas Linden Lab announced it was bringing in Rod Humble as its new CEO, taking over for the (second) departure of Second Life founder Philip Rosedale. Reaction in the SL user community was rather muted, in part due to the timing of the announcement, but the overall tone was generally hopeful: Humble comes to Second Life from a background in online gaming and virtual worlds with Electronic Arts, The Sims, and EverQuest, and many folks figured that experience might make him a better fit with the SL universe than a chief executive with primary experience in other fields—like marketing or financing.

To my surprise, Humble's first official statement to the Second Life community wasn't about a vision for the future, Linden Lab's business fundamentals, an announcement of new technology initiatives, or leadership shakeups. Instead, Humble has posted a surprisingly charming chronicle about getting his feet wet in Second Life. "One of my highest priorities, over the last few weeks, was spending as much time as possible exploring inworld […] to better understand the product experience, your needs, and the culture of Second Life."

The best thing about the short piece is that Humble clearly isn't intimidated to show that he's new to Second Life—for experienced SL users, Humble's little photolog brings back memories of their first days when everything was new and mysterious and filled with exciting possibilities. Humble doesn't put on airs: he doesn't try to present a sophisticated persona or avatar, and honestly seems to have had fun getting started. In the post, Humble says he popped around to some of SL's winter seasonal activities (I did something similar when I was new to SL), then started playing around with terraforming land and even tapping into SL's building tools (to create a "shack" and a raft) and scripting tools.

I have to admit this last bit delighted me: the head of the company is actually trying to create things of his own in world, and even add interactivity to them! (He made a prim that sends him email.) He's totally up-front that everything he did is very basic, but one consistent criticism of Linden Lab's leadership during my time in Second Life is that, while a few developers and other Lindens log actual time in-world, very few of the top execs spent any time at all in-world. I'm happy he is, I hope he enjoys it, and I hope he consistently spends time in-world.

But. Being a cynical creature, I immediately started reading between the lines. See that omission ellipsis in that quote from Humble, above? Here's the full sentence (emphasis mine):

One of my highest priorities, over the last few weeks, was spending as much time as possible exploring inworld (with an alt and now Rodvik Linden) to better understand the product experience, your needs, and the culture of Second Life.

It's not much of a secret that most (all?) Linden Lab people are hesitant to log into the world with a Linden account: it's like having a target painted on your back, so they use different accounts so they can get around without being harassed. But I am somewhat disappointed that the new CEO's first experience of Second Life is that managing a Second Life experience requires multiple accounts. I'm kind of interpreting that as an indication Linden Lab has no plans to improve account tools, role management capabilities, or other significant deficiencies in the platform that lead may people to use several alts—or, in some cases, entire troupes of them.

Humble segued from visiting a few locations and events to "playing around with the land tool […] on my island." This made me blink. Maybe Humble had a genuine newbie experience with first alt. He doesn't say. But his experience of Second Life, with his own private island won't provide much experience of the needs or culture of average SL users. Most SL users aren't land owners. Among landowners, most don't have a private island. I've been in Second Life over two years and have never used the terraform tool. (I've never been permitted to do so. I literally have no idea how it works.)

No. "Real" new residents get dumped into an infohub, somewhere like Waterhead or Ahern or Moose Beach, where a large gaggle of avatars usually stands around 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with the explicit purpose of getting lulz at the expense of any new resident who might get close to them, or (heaven forfend) ask a question. And let's not even get into the rude noises, flying penises, pixel bestiality, goatse particle fountains, or other common entertainments at those hubs.

Infohubs are also prime locations for scammers and spammers: I popped into an infohub to test a script last week and within a minute received this instant message:

[2011/01/16 22:28] [REDACTED] Resident: Hello, may you help to me with 100 Linden$ for loading avatar picture, please! I do not begging.

Popping back just now (weekday afternoon SLT at a "PG" infohub) I see seven brand-new "Resident" avatars with group tags like "QuickCash" and "Ask me how to Make L$$$," group tags promoting porn Web sites, outright solicitations for virtual sex, and a few older avatars with titlers saying things like "*Homes for rent, contact me*" and "*~*Wanna get lucky*~*" Although, in a ten-minute span, I am somewhat surprised to count only one nude female avatar, three penises, and one person shouting to the whole sim about how he loves Jesus. It's worse in the evenings.

This is the fast, easy, fun, "PG-rated" environment into which Linden Lab is dumping new residents and (now) 16- and 17 year-old residents: as of today, the Teen Grid is gone.

Let's remember: new residents typically have no money. They want to try SL before they commit to hooking up a PayPal account or anything—so they can't buy better clothes, tools, or land. New residents devote a lot of time learning to customize the shape of their avatar, asking people for pointers, seeking out newbie-friendly locations, and looking for freebies. If new residents are interested in building, they're basically limited to sandboxes—and sandboxes are where the gaggle of infohub troublemakers go when they find the more-controlled conditions of infohubs too dull.

By starting out on a private island, presumably with some Linden cash (he is the CEO, after all) Rod Humble is neatly bypassing the typical experience for new residents.

So, not that you're reading this, Mr. Humble, but:

  • Use your alt to check out the infohubs and see how new residents are treated.
  • Try to get by with no money. Search for freebies, maybe try some hunts. Keep track of your time.
  • Attend events—live music is a good choice (but I'd love for you to try a good trivia game!)
  • Continue building. See if you can turn that raft into a boat, and that shack into a house, and that mailpost into, I don't know, a suggestion box.
  • Have fun for diving into Second Life. Don't give up now.