Jan 112009
Life III Box

Life III Box

So been having a nice break here in Bondi, doing all sorts of cool commercial and/or creative non-LAMP projects plus playing some great new games (Fallout 3, Mirror’s Edge, Elder Scrolls/Oblivion etc:) mostly on the PS3 and PC/Mac. Hunting around the non-mall games stores in Bondi Junction I came across a dusty old cross-platform game called Life III: Escape from Reality in the $10 bargain bin. The system specs said it runs on all platforms, consoles & even has some locative real world elements, but is ideally meant to be played as a 24/7 casual game – which struck me as a bit of an oxymoron 🙂

OK so I got stuck into this old game and it became apparent that it had a very intricate and sophisticated engine and was in fact the most detailed MMRWRPG (tm!) (massively multiplayer real world role playing game) I have ever seen. So for those who haven’t played this cool game, what follows is a run down of the game play, various quests/levels and the rewards at various stages.


Gary Hazlitt Level 1-8

Gary Hazlitt Level 1-7

After you log in and give yourself a name and password (that you will of course forget at the next login) you appear in an upper bedroom of a typical suburban house. You have the choice of gender but whatever I choose it still gave me ‘male’ – the first major bug I spotted. At the start of the game you are supposed to receive clear game instructions, but much of what was said was pretty indecipherable across these early level orientation/control levels. A good point, I was surprised from the outset at the quality of the graphics for such an old game – but don’t want to focus too much on that!

Basically what happens at the start is two mentor characters (a man and woman) follow you around and tell you the way the game works. They chastise you if you make mistakes (or what ‘they’ think a mistake is) and encourage you if you do what they consider beneficial to your progression through levels 1-8. There are some funny moments too here as the controls don’t seem to really do what they are supposed too and you end up crashing into walls, speaking at inappropriate moments or dropping items that you need for good health and karma.

Most disconcerting is that you often find yourself randomly projectile poo or vomit which causes you to drop 1 or 2 levels – pretty bad game design here as there doesn’t seem to be a real reason for this. A final point about this level is that there is no obvious button to quit that game, so you have to grind on.


Gary Hazlit Levels 8-13

Gary Hazlitt Levels 8-13

The game box had no manual (beyond the simple how to start leaflet) so as you progress into more complex areas of the game you are really in a fail forward mode (although I did find a few hints using Google ‘game cheat sites’ and Self-Help section in Borders).

There is a little too much emphasis on giving out information (across levels 8-18) with the Non Player Character ( NPC) ‘info’ bots endlessly delivering in chat (or text items for inventory) historical background, do’s and dont’s and communication and number skills. This was particularly boring especially as the two mentors from earlier levels appear every now and then and keep pushing you into these information areas. Only very occasionally the NPC info hubs inspire you with poetry or music – but most mentors said that wasn’t much use in the game, so you can ignore those bots.

I actually found through these levels I was constantly trying to cheat, choosing the break things options, putting them back together or fiddling with my avatar to make it more attractive. This was useful because as soon as you hit level 14 the online MMRWRPG features kick in and you become aware of other players in the 2-3 environments you are hanging around.


Gary Hazlitt Levels 13-18

Gary Hazlitt Levels 13-18

After a few years playing these levels you realise that the mentors have mostly been mis-leading you and you start to only trust other players who are around the same level as you – and so you join guilds and clubs with your new found friends. There becomes a kind of comaraderie as you try to level up together and this leads you off on some cool adventures, exploring nearby buildings, parks, towns and even self-guided trips to the city or guild trips to countries. The game HUD (Heads up display) here is useful as you monitor your various status’s as you play:

  1. The levels of attractiveness to opposite sex
  2. Coolness quotient from your peers/friends
  3. Amount of risk taken
  4. Body Odor (best to keep this low)
  5. Stimulant balance (you have to take as much as possible without going into the red)

One thing I noticed about some of the other players who had been through their tutorial in small country towns and outback areas and as their connection (& transport system) was quite laggy, they were unable to do any of the more sophisticated quests other players were doing. I was surprised this bug made it through q&a as it really needed to be fixed.

Also at this point in the game I found most players had already teamed up in guilds but the players that didn’t were mostly trapped with the information bots who had convinced them to do more text based quests, and they were almost playing a different game at this point (should have really been an expansion pack).


Gary Hazlitt Levels 18-20

Gary Hazlitt Levels 18-20

Although the game had its interesting moments, I was still not clear of the goals and at these levels many players found that taking some of the pills and potions lying around on sleeping fellow guild members made everything a little more fantastical and fun – but after a while that didn’t really help with the game goals either. As you level up to 20 things really started to change. Suddenly you are teleported to a unknown city location, wandering streets and without mentors or friends you really start to create the micro game rules yourself (within certain limits set by the community now).

I expect the game designers were not quite sure on the transition here and thought it best to consider anything up to level 20 as training – but I found the earlier levels come across as pretty heavy game play – especially the dating scenarios where you have to constantly deal with other psychotic players of the opposite sex who just don’t want to help you achieve the ‘getting-it-on’ challenge.

But being dropped into what is essentially a different game altogether with new rules and without the ability to save should have been thought through a little more.


Gary Hazlitt Levels 21-35

Gary Hazlitt Levels 21-35

Now this middle part of the game is kind of grindy. Long boring sections where all you seem to be doing is accruing ‘credits’. The game has an economy, and unless you’re one of the players that managed somehow to hack in credits from previous older family players, you really had to struggle to build up enough ‘credits’ to level up particularly quickly or just buy cool things for your inventory. The addition of an online leaderboard certainly helped motivate you as did the many NPC quest givers that you met at parties, subways, taxis, buses etc:

The most powerful quest giver and one that often gave you red herring challenges to accrue credits quickly was the inworld ‘media boards’. These were large TV-style screens placed at seemingly endless locations that showed you how well other players were doing and suggested how you could try some of their quests – which seemed to be focused on how skinny the avatar can be, the best personal transport units or how many players were ‘following’ you (called the ‘fame status’).

The only route that seemed to pay off in this game though was the ‘work’ quest. This involved rather tiresome, mundane activities (reading messages from people, sending messages back, walking around office floors and generally trying to be nice to everyone you met). As soon as you tried to do something adventurous or break the now, quite rigid game rules here your credits fell and you found yourself dropping back between 5 and 10 levels to begin it all over again. The key skill here it seemed was to be friendly and helpful to other players and regardless of any other skills you may have, your credit balance would slowly but surely accrue. One player (who had played this game a few times) told me that having a variety of skills really helps at the higher levels so I spent my non-grind time, building up skill levels in other areas. Some players though were just spending their credits on fast cars, bling and fancy clothes for their inventory and a game place to put all this stuff.


Gary Hazlitt Levels 35-40

Gary Hazlitt Levels 35-40

At level 35 there is a global quest given to all players, and this comes as a bit of a shock – “make a version/clone of you for future challenges”. This had to be taken on, all players at whatever credit or skill level you were at. It seemed you had to find a player of the opposite sex and form a small guild with the sole intention of creating a faction. The small creatures that you make together have similar skill and health traits to you and you have to train them for a particular role – to help you in later quests.

It suddenly becomes obvious that you are now one of the mentors from an earlier level and this is pretty good games design, getting you a lot more deeply involved in the game play. Several players for whatever reason do not complete this challenge, even though they attempt the ‘making’ bit a few times.

But unless you have enough credits, a place to grow the small creatures and a strong ‘credit’ flow in, you cannot complete this. Even so it didn’t seem to affect my game status much as I was a member of several in-game guilds with a variety of interesting quests. But the game writers could have been much clearer in how important or not this particular game quest was.


Gary Hazlitt Levels 40-50

Gary Hazlitt Levels 40-50

OK the game had been pretty stable and bug free up to this point. But as soon as I levelled to 40 some strange things started to happen. Firstly my avatar became pretty distorted (it grew fatter). Regardless of what activities I was doing or how much energy I absorbed, my character just got larger and larger, and slower. Another thing which must have been a serious bug with the questing engine, as many of the new quests were ones I had missed at earlier levels (they seemed pretty boring at the time). Most of these news ones were about teleporting to some distant land and not really doing any game play at all? What’s the point of playing a game if there is no goal? Others involved hanging around chatting with friends and creating new guilds. These had to be comprised of players at the same level as you but even more challenging, with similar status’s – and often those who completed the ‘cloning’ challenge would not be able to team up with those that didn’t.

Other challenges involved tweaking your avatar to convince others around you that you were a level 20-30. This proved harder than it seemed as fiddling with the shape of your nose or the size of your breasts cost a lot of credits with little reward – as after repeating this quest a number of times the avatar would start to fall apart. The game programmers must have had a ball creating this quest.

A key problem through these levels though was the fact that as at the start of the game the controls occasionally didn’t do what you told them and in some social situations rather embarrasing body noises were emitted, or on one occasion I completely lost it in a driving quest at the local shopping mall car park, crashing into several other players. Although these were kind of fun in retrospect, they seemed a quite frustrating at the time.


Gary Hazlitt Levels 50-85

Gary Hazlitt Levels 50-85

Getting through levels 40-50 was very frustrating and lots of earlier game elements started to come into play. The final higher levels involved less adventure and more about tidying your inventory, looking back at machinima re-runs of some of your earlier quests and contacting old guild members to sit and chat in team-speak about those earlier quests. Around level 55 things start to get a bit weird again. The control mechanism all but breaks down and you almost become a noob again as your character starts to emit body waste missiles at various players from several orifices. It is kind of funny at times and others just downright messy. This all changes as you approach level 70 and the game world becomes more and more fantastical.

What you thought was a pretty static city or home environment suddenly becomes ‘elastic’. By that I mean the graphics become almost translucent and everything you see is earlier game elements and lots of glowing light. This makes the rather simple challenges at these higher levels much harder – trying to walk to the shops in a glowing pink hurricane of childhood memories is pretty hard, but you get used to it. As you level up to 70 the final quest is a simple task of ‘letting go’. It wasn’t clear in the game cheats on the web what this was, but it kind of meant, you did nothing for a while and you levelled automatically. A nice touch I thought. So the final element of the game was the game graphics/world dissolving into white and rainbow coloured lights…great music here too btw!


I forgot to mention that when I was at the store they gave me another box for free the Life III expansion pack called “AfterLife III”. – no one had apparently bought this extension to the game as it got bad reviews from religious groups. I told the store I probably wouldn’t get that far, but here I was anyhow. I installed it and low and behold it gave me an extra 15 levels. Now much of this was the same as 50-70, kind of spiritual quests, asking questions about what kind of character you were, analysing the way you did things, how it could be improved and all that stuff. But the interesting thing was at level 84, as you travelled around this ‘celestial’ environment (with wonderful particle effects) you kept getting flashes of another bedroom in suburbia. Yes, incredibly as you hit level 85 you became a noob again, you began the game again, with two different mentors hovering over you. I didn’t really have time to play the whole thing again, and I managed to find the quit option at this point. I did save it for another time though.

I am not sure what happened to the company that created this game, I suspect they fell out of favour with most Life I and II players who found the whole thing rather grindy, difficult and certainly were unable to commit more than 70 or 80 years to it – given there are plenty other games to play which are far more exciting and have much more interesting rewards.

Postscript: SilkCharm just read this and in-between fits of violent giggles pointed me to a cool book (that I haven’t read) called God Game byAndrew M. Greeley Some similarities?

Also if there are any parts of the game I may have missed or have cheats for please comment below! If you have played this game and you want to write a review I will add it to the bottom of the post – please include your player character name so we can hook up in game 🙂 !

Finally, finally – an obvious prototype for the immersive version above discovered on YouTube 🙂 – I can see why they left out the ‘revenge’ bit !

Dec 062006

The Relentless March of Channels and Formats into Second Life

bb 07

Rather than just referring to the many standard press articles about the growing number of companies or formats that are setting up in Second Life (the media’s favourite MUVE at the moment) I have been ‘living it’ so to speak. My inworld blog JustVirtual provides an inworld perspespective, my avatars POV, of close encounters with the outside world’s ‘brand immigrants’. They are indeed seen that way by many residents, not disimilar to any alien brand entering a real ‘developing’ world. The recent companies include NBC, Philips Design, IBM, Reuters, Endemol and others that suggest that the next generation of entrants are moving in, with a far more robust and serious vision than the first wave who were just pushing product.

I can’t break the 4th wall in my other ‘fictional’ blog, I know strange, so I thought I would comment on two recent events in Second Life in 3rd person. The first is the preliminary days of the Virtual Big Brother and the second is Second Life’s most attended inworld event, the switching on of the Christmas lights in Rockefeller Plaza sponsored by NBC.

Big Brother Begins

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With these new entrants we are seeing a move to second gear, a shift in the maturity of the platform. Not technically (it still falls over an awful lot) or from a business model perspective (subs are still in the low 100k’s vs nearly 2 million registrants) but a web 3.0 paradigm shift – using the environment for quite practical and engaging services. I personally use Second Life (and other MUVE’s) for educational and creative purposes so I am probably already ahead of the curve. But onto to show. Big Brother selected its final 15 contestants (pic below) and I covered much of the lead up in this post. Most of the ‘housemates’ are women, I suspect because the producers are mostly male (I wonder how many of the females avatars women have a real world male driving them? We shall see.) I was actually on the last final 60 shortlist, but being able to commit to 8 hours a day online for the whole of December was impossible for me, so I didn’t pursue.

bb 06

A couple of friends are in there and already it is really interesting to see how the virtual Big Brother is becoming even more compelling than the real one! As well as the traditional backstabbing, personality differences or supportive housemate interactions (remember this is real people talking/communicating with other real people) all involved are are allowed to communicate to and lobby the many hundreds of passing/visiting ‘audience’ members. This ‘conversation’ is very engaging for those involved, the audience is resontating with the programme, or rather with the ‘experience’ – because this is no longer pre-packaged or controlled reality ‘video’.

For the audience inworld this is belonging to, and being part of the ‘game’. Lillani Lowell (my current vote and friend leading up to this event) gives an view down this particular rabbit hole for those who are not in Second Life (or likely to be) in her insightful updated blog from inside the house (the equivalent of the diary room I suppose – but here we get to see all entries). The odd but also thrilling part of the experience is being able to go and talk to the ‘stars’ of the show, whenever you want. They are there 8 hours a day ready and willing to ‘interact’ with you, albeit just to get you on their side perhaps, secure your vote, still it beats, hands down, an SMS into the void that we get with most so called ‘interactive’ shows. It will be very interesting to see how Endemol adapt to and learn from this process, this is a really exciting experiment as games/tv and online social neworks collide. Will they copy elements from this evolving format out into the rather stale ‘real world’ version? Perhaps not, as this is after all a self contained hybrid form which is best left to grow and learn to stand on its own feet.

bb 04

Above a group of loyal fans of Lillani (a talented scripter and builder) discuss the challenges ahead – in this Big Brother the housemates make things, complex 3D builds for charity. It is easy to appreciate the benefits of a this very diverse audience being used for these kinds of social experiments, game/tv formats. This is web 2.0 meets ‘TV form’ meets ‘games’, all evolving before our very eyes. It is also about game psychology, potentially interesting passive video generation and definitely about immersion for those involved. This particular version of the ‘show’ is thankfully nothing like the ‘real’ big brother, but it needs only the brand really to garner interest. The exciting thing is, it can and will go a lot further and I suspect there will be many other TV ‘formats’ and channels licking their lips. This is a really cheap way to pilot and user test web/tv/game shows after all. The ironic thing is though that this will likely gradually become the format for the masses over the next few years rather than the return to the traditional linear video route.

bb 03

A Virtual Christmas

The next event is one that starts to show the way forward as regards ‘merged media entertainment’ as I call it. The NBC virtual christmas was synchronised with the real event in the real New York, there was a virtual camera inworld streaming the virtual event onto the web and there was real TV news reports covering the inworld going’s on plus – a live band playing into the environment. My inworld post ‘Virtual Christmas with NBC’ gives an insight into the experience with far more images, for the 1000+ avatars across 18 or so duplicated sims – second lifes largest inworld event.

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So TV, web 1, 2 and 3, virtual world, live concert and outdoor all mixed and mashed together. I found myself checking nearly all my blog categories for this one! Another important part of this event was the sympathetic branding in the environment. It wasn’t in your face, it felt part of the experience particularly as the incredible build of the Rockefeller plaza and tower was copied down to the finest detail. Aimee Weber and Bedazzle Design are now experienced developers who themselves are old residents and have empathy with residents. This is critical to the future of these spaces. Better films are made by filmmakers who love watching film, games by games players, music by musicians who love to listen to a variety of sounds and virtual worlds by those who inhabit them. No brainer really.

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Above we can see the branding which didn’t spoil the experience for those waiting for the switch on of the christmas lights. The over representational build, the vane attention to duplicating every detail of the real world is not to my ‘particular’ taste but I can appreciate the ‘craft’ and stupendous effort. I think the real reason we are witnessing these 2nd generation ‘build and brand’ combinations is to draw more audience. The more cloning of familiar real world spaces the more tempted to enter, will be those normally reticent in entering MUVEs, virtual worlds and MMORPGs. I also think the more they see (in posts like this even) familiar brands the more comfortable they will be in taking the leap. The familiar chant of ‘get a life’ generally come from those who dont understand these 3D social networks, so now that sustained business models (millionaire Angshe), bona fide identifiable brands and big TV formats are taking root I am sure they may at least want to understand. Its going to be an interesting Christmas 2006.

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Posted by Gary Hayes ©2006

Nov 072006

Big Brother Second Life 01Been hit by a server hacker in London today so would have blogged about this earlier this morning! I have talked before about TV branded virtual worlds and what I called Merged-Media Entertainment, those strange synched and non synched, virtual/real cross-over entertainment formats that have great potential. Anyway the plot thickens as yet another major brand moves into our beloved MUVE, Second Life. The new TV brand to enter SL is more about self contained entertainment inworld and social experiment than brands pushing boxes. Yes the Big Brother ‘rat’s maze’ format goes inworld. There are a few posts on the web about this (Tony W and SMH) but here is the official press release (on the BBSL site is a fun trailer looking at the cross-media evolution of the BB phenomenom). An excerpt from the PR…

Endemol Netherlands is to launch a virtual international edition of Big Brother in Second Life, the fast growing online fantasy world created by Linden Lab, to begin on December 1. From today, November 6, people from all over the world can apply to take part in the first ever virtual reality show, the winner of which will receive a tropical island in Second Life. By registering in the virtual Big Brother house, candidates can apply to take part in Big Brother Second Life. Endemol will select 15 participants from 3 time zones, who will take up residence in Big Brother Second Life as of December 1. Participants must spend a minimum of 8 hours a day in the house. Each week other avatars � animated inhabitants of Second Life � will decide which three residents must leave the virtual show. During a spectacular live finale on 31 December, the most popular resident will win an uninhabited tropical island in Second Life.

Big Brother Second Life 02Naturally intrigued I went to the Kingdom of Media Island (91,153,29) this morning and signed up as a potential contestant. There were 70 plus other hopefuls already, keen to spend 8 hours a day locked in a virtual glass cage – making furniture and buildings for a month (sounds like a normal day for me at the moment!). The pictures here show the minimalist design and how quickly a format can enter these spaces. The environmental build here struck me as a bit of a rush job, an experiment – getting a march on the many other broadcasters about to ‘play’ with other formats in these spaces. I hear on the grapevine that the BBC is about to jump in too! Endemol has managed to get there first and the hybrid format (which sounds odd to say the least) is kicking off in December and will last one whole month, over XMas. So those lucky, or not so lucky contestants will be tied to their computers over the holiday! Here are the official inworld instructions that I brought out, just for you.

Big Brother Second Life. Become a resident of the first virtual Big Brother!
Big Brother continues to write history. After the earthquake caused in Holland by the first series in 1999, the rest of the real world was conquered. Now it’s time for Big Brother in the virtual world: Second Life. Interested?
The first virtual and international Big Brother starts on 1 December. If all of your fellow residents get eliminated, leaving you as last in the house on 31 December 2006, you win a tropical island in Second Life! If you are able to spend a minimum of 8 hours a day online in the virtual house from 1 through 31 December, subscribe now and go down in history.
– The event starts 12-1-2006 (December 1 2006)
– 15 Contestants from all over the world
– Each contestant has to be online at least 8 hours per 24 hours for 1 month
– Visitors vote on their favorit contestant
– Each week 3 contestants have to leave the house
– The winner is the proud owner of a Second Life private Island
– The contestants enter an empty house. They will have to build their own furniture
– Each week the contestants get the assignment to rebuild a building in the contruction area

Big Brother Second Life 04

I like the idea of people wandering around these goldfish bowls watching avatars building interesting object d’art, things to decorate the ‘house’ and the large collaborative building tasks. At least some talent is required here but I am not sure a month of this will sustain in and out of world interest? I would have liked to have seen some elements of role playing and set design for elements of performance or machinima and other social skill prowess. No doubt these and other things will follow as the month progresses. I spotted some other brands in one of the glass cubes in a mall, that suggest some other Endemol formats may be on their way in. A second life Makeover, or Fear Factor or even Deal or No Deal.

Big Brother Second Life 03

I do wonder is this pure ‘cloning’ of a TV format into a shared online virtual space makes sense? Do reality formats lend themselves to virtuality? I have often talked about the potential for things such as Alternate Reality Games IF, and only if, all parties agree to suspend their disbelief and agree on the narrative foundation. After all the contestants could teleport off to a bar or dance club when no one is around, who would know. Who is policing them when after 5 hours logged in they appear AFK for twenty minutes. The fact is that they could be sat at home watching real TV or doing a million other things. Endemol really have to keep the tasks rolling in to promote a churn of inworld audience. Here are the corporate ‘shops’ and beach in the distance, surrounding the studio and ‘BB House’.
Big Brother Second Life 05

Free advertorial merchandise is already available. Not sure I want to become a walking billboard just yet though. That triggered me thinking of one format that I think could be developed in Second Life – the ‘real’ big brother. A kind of reality programme (not too far off Laguna Beach I posted about a few weeks ago) that has avatars tracked and their activities monitored for real as they go about distributed quests across the whole grid. Sort of Goldrush meets BB. Next series, the real big brother in an unreal world.

Big Brother Second Life 06

Of course the visitors and studio audience need a place to relax. The beach area feels a little tongue in cheek, probably took twenty minutes to drop a few sunloungers around the place. If the intention was to emulate the real world, prefab, cheap and cheerful BB then they have done well. One thing I do hope SL BB develops is the usual pot pourri of cross-media in and out. SMS votes, mobile phone highlight machinimas, inworld viewer interviews and vox pops, TV slots, web profiles etc etc: I can’t imagine they are not considering those elements but hopefully develop some wonderful new ones (many of us are planning likewise) that is afforded by this ‘enhanced’ environment.

Big Brother Second Life 07

The most impressive element of the BB Island was the studio come dance club which may actually be the biggest draw. A traditional SL club feel is evident which feels as if it was designed by SL regularls. But it is made more attractive with a strong ‘youth’ish’ brand and with a constant flow of tourist/audience I can imagine many folk spending their virtual dance time here, to be seen and no doubt heard.

Big Brother Second Life 08

The final image shows the scale of the glass cages and how close they are to the studio central area. Nothing like the real show where the BB House is a good walk away from the ‘review’ studio audience. This felt overtly gladiatorial with a caged, ‘captive’ animal feel, a sub/dom element which certainly predominates in the world (the role playing Goreans for example). I can imagine some interesting interactions between contestants and audience will prevail. I am keen to know how they are going to police visitors and potential griefers here. Endemol do not own Second Life, there are quite a few things outside their control, vs the top heavy control of the real BB. We shall see what happens if SL is griefed beyond recognition over the Xmas break.
Big Brother Second Life 09

As to the format itself. Will the audience be allowed to speak to contestants via chat or IM? That would break the fourth wall. Will they be filming highlights for broadcast TV or web clips? Will they allow existing residents, many of whom are capable camera people to capture clips and YouTube them? These are probably questions that in the early days of the form be allowed to pass without too much resistance, but over time the Creative Commons and resident owned IP will start to jar with those format owners who would probably want to control how their brand is propagated from the virtual to the real world. Perhaps my images here may cause some issues with Endemol?

That aside for now we must say well done Endemol. I know there are many others planning, talking about, thinking about doing likewise, but Endemol took the leap. Risking egg on their faces but given the under the radar launch and low SL audiences, more of a sandbox format perhaps. I remember when the first real BB came out and ‘who would watch a show about people locked in a house’ conversations abounded around. I followed the first real world BB in Holland in 99 when I was at the BBC and in fact most of the ‘not gonna last’ comments came from my BBC colleagues who saw this form of reality TV as truly dumbing down. Many expectant broadcasters will be watching the SL version through December to see how this pans out. How much engagement a world full of plastic, jerky people will deliver and who knows some of us may even be ‘in’ the house. I think Endemol is the contestant here and the real audience are all the other SL hybrid TV, format creators.
Posted by Gary Hayes © 2006

Jul 222006

A quote to start off yet another Virtual World post…

‘“Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion’” Democritus (Greek philosopher, 460-370bc)

AFTRS Island Second Life

We live in a world where you don’’t need to eat or drink, you cannot die or harm yourself, you can breathe underwater and you can fly? Add to this our ability to build things in mid-air, walls you can walk through, objects that disobey basic physics and we have the potential to create social spaces only limited by our imagination. I have decided to take on solo, the task of completing the first phases of a sim, an Island we called Esperance. The build is truly started from scratch on behalf of the ‘‘real life’’ Australian Film TV and Radio School, where I currently work as Director of LAMP, outreaching into the Australian Industry – but also focussing on activating the internal school community. Given a blank canvas I have come face to face with the tensions that exist in creating back-to-back social and work-spaces, in a virtual world. The main tension is actually one persistent in second life – to be representational or to be original, to innovate or invent and to over-build or leave space.

Second Life Midnight CityBut to start with a broader question, given the flexibility mentioned above in Second Life why is there still such a high propensity of real world cloning taking place? Not just copying individual instances of architecture but dense populating communities. OK I know the way land is sold back-to-back in SL, that it is inevitable that it will get dense but even on islands our human nature drives us to build way too much. There are malls just like our real world ones, city streets and buildings with ceilings, windows and physical walls and endless roads and pavements so you can ‘‘walk’’ around. Yes it does seem remarkable that in Second Life many of the residential, social and commerce areas are just models of our real world spaces for our enhanced real world avatars to exist in. Some of the earliest builds like Midnight City (above) complete with New York police sirens and pneumatic drills, replicas of Amsterdam, endless Arabian palaces and several concrete University campuses abound. Why do we need the recognisable? Why is the recognisable not even extended slightly to include unique, never before seen features? OK there are a few but the mainland of SL is, at a rough guess, over 90% environments that can be built in the real world. We do need some recognisable areas to start from sure but why not extend and experiment.
AFTRS Island Second LifeThe areas I enjoy most in SL tend to be the enhanced naturalistic spaces such as The Lost Gardens of Apollo, the Underwater Caves at Rua or The Pot Healer Game on Numbakulla. So in designing the AFTRS island from ground up I had to balance the need for work (media production spaces) along with the need to socialise, play and relax. I knew this was going to be a never-ending, iterative organic process so I took the plunge and over one day two weeks ago effectively built what will be the foundation of the AFTRS Island (I have enhanced it last weekend and those are the images you see here). With a list of needs I decided to roughly consider the island as two broad areas, work and the play. I started a ground level literally with the terrain greyscale file. This allows me to terraform the whole island in one go using a simple 256 pixel square 13 layer raw graphics file, manipulated in photoshop. After five or so misses I got the basic landscape close to what I needed and have of course been tweaking on the ground ever since. I wanted a balance of flat, built up spaces and naturalistic, vertical play areas. That balance I believe is still being achieved, but will be an on-going journey, especially when staff and students start to get their building ‘‘legs’’. I did have the option to make the ground completely natural and build functional spaces in the sky but I believe work can be enhanced by being near the coast with crashing waves and natural sounds around you.

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” George Bernard Shaw

AFTRS Island Second LifeTo follow on from the start of this post I had a traditional tryptch of building options ‘– representations, enhanced representations and originals. The representational spaces included the main cinema/theatre (pic above) a smaller enclosed forty seat TV studio, a range of production backlot for film sets, and a few scattered dept. offices. The theatre took most time as I wanted something to hold up to one hundred in a screening situation and double as a multi-camera live shoot for theatrical and music performance. It is constantly evolving and getting close to a functional space. I built a ‘‘representational’’ sadly, new camera for all areas, and added AngryBeth’s great camera switching script that she gave to me a couple of weeks ago.

AFTRS Island Second LifeThe enhanced representations included a main AFTRS information, meeting tower and a range of naturalistic forest, coastal and mountain social spaces. The tower, which sits in the mid point of the island, would hold areas for visitors to see, interact with and find out about Australian Media plus a few permanent office-type areas. There was talk of building a replica of our new campus, but as this is still being designed and my reticence for the real world I suspect that will go away. For the main tower I wanted something that allowed views of the whole island at work, didn’’t feel claustraphobic and was easy to explore ‘– by flight as opposed to walking up long ramps everywhere.

AFTRS Island Second LifeThe picture on the right show some aspects that are still being developed, but the translucent, phantom walls and easy to access layers means we can keep developing upwards as departments and info needs come on stream. It takes some getting used to, avoiding walking through phantom walls as you will fall out of the building, but hey don’’t walk through walls. The central fly-up tube is proving interesting in tests as it requires some control over your ascent skills, slowing as you get to the floor of interest and flying through the wall. I may build this on the outside wall as people tend to keep falling back down the central tube as they explore each floor!

AFTRS Island Second LifeThe third build paradigm, the original spaces include some ground up designed rotating meeting pods which allow up to nine seated chatters, a breakout five way enclosure and a couple of underwater meeting spaces. I was surprised how sitting underwater with fish swimming around actually allowed one to focus far more than a boardroom, campground or simulated coffee shop. I am developing a growing range of experimental flying spaces, many slowly rotating but allow all users to focus on each other while providing a sense of change and space. I like meetings in NightSpys ‘‘Holodeck’’ that I have permanently out in the backlot areas, but as this is 360 views of our real world it breaks whatever fourth wall there already is in SL ‘– no I am developing more amorphous, soundscape and organic spaces that promote original thinking which I will cover in a future article.

AFTRS Island Second LifeFinally back to the start it is worth pointing out the thinking behind the layout of the island. Even though the island is effectively a series of smaller ones, as I wanted water to be only a few tens of meters from anywhere and no built up canals, it was important to make the whole area walkable for some game applications. I have been to many sims and not got a sense of real space as, and this contradicts what I said earlier, you are blocked from walking and only walking. It is possible to circumnavigate Esperance by foot and I have designed quite a few hidden valleys and caverns for simple quest games, especially around the LAMP (Laboratory for Advanced Media Production ‘– which I direct) mountain, breakout areas. There are many other aspects that one must consider when developing the areas around the island and these must fall into the mood category. The vegetation, environmental sounds or music, local props (waterfalls, fires) and of course thought about the composition and delineation of each space and how much it is removed from other spaces but still provide some island continuity.

AFTRS Island Second LifeIt has been fun starting this process from scratch and I am finding that that all the AFTRS students who have been initiated into the environment are getting very excited about the many and various aspects of it. I am excited to know what those being trained professionally in the craft of TV and film making (many who go on to win Oscars) can do with this environment, I wonder also how representational (like the TV studio set above) they will need it to be to create wonderful machinima rich with story. There are many other things we have planned for the world including script and story development through improvisation and indentity experimentation, set design, collaborative development of interactive 3D objects and environments, game narrative creation and sharing/hosting screening festivals, presentations and learning events – plus all the awareness raising around Australia’s premier media academy. As in any new form there are the early entrants who pioneer but then quickly those who can communicate narrative (linear and interactive) at a much higher level are tempted in when it reaches a level of maturity, second life is very close to being there.

AFTRS Island Second Life

I have tried so far in the initial phases to not borrow too heavily on either the real world or existing areas in SL. If you are any of the twelve thousand land owners in SL you will know how satisfying but fiddly it can be creating the spaces in our virtual world, the constant tweaking, going through endless modifications and alternate builds. One thing should pervade your thinking though, try to fight the need to fill in all the spaces and make the virtual world as over-built as our real one.

If you want to see more images and the build in progress visit this photo journal on the LAMP site.

Posted by Gary Hayes © 2006