Sunday, 22 February 2009

The Direction of Virtual Worlds

New Kids on the Block
Three new Virtual Worlds are about to go beta.

The first, Blue Mars, is quite simply stunning in its graphics, being based on the CryEngine2 game engine, the heart of such games as Crysis. The realism is staggering and is destined to raise the bar significantly in Virtual World technology. Trailers are available here.

Second, Entropia Universe, while not being a newcomer to Virtual Worlds, is about to launch a brand new world, Creative Kingdom, also based on the CryEngine2. See their teaser trailer here. Their original World, Planet Calypso, being based on their own proprietory software, which is looking somewhat jaded today, although better than than the graphics in Second Life. Soon after Creative Kindom, Entropia plan to launch CRD, China Recreative Dreamland, following a contract signed in 2007 between MindArk (the owners of Entropia) and the Beijing Municipal People's Government to create the largest virtual world ever. The deal was negotiated for almost a year and Entropia Universe was chosen over several other bidders, including Second Life.

The new project will permit up to 7 million concurrent users logged into the virtual universe, which is amazing, considering that Second Life is currently groaning under the strain of just 70,000 concurrent users.

For sure, these high-end Virtual Worlds will require some pretty awesome hardware to run on to show off all their features, what the performance will be like on low-end High Street PCs remains to be seen.

Third, at the other end of the spectrum, is Metaplace, which requires nothing to download at all, and is a completely browser-based experience.

The approach taken by Metaplace is interesting, as it seems to be following a recent trend.

Multiverse, who have been around for some time now, and who supply free server and viewer Virtual World software, are about to launch Battle, a Flash game that can run on Facebook, MySpace, and other social networking sites. Battle will showcase Multiverse technology that will make it possible for developers, that are currently using its standard platform to build 3D PC or Server-based virtual worlds, to create 2D versions of the same titles that will run in a browser, enabling games that are started on a PC to be continued on a mobile phone.

My son tells me that he never plays any online game, or visits any virtual world, that he cannot access via his mobile phone. If its not on his phone, it doesn't exist.

What now for Second Life and OpenSim?
Two of the basic rules of marketing is 'supply what the customer wants', and 'keep your eye on the competition'.

Neither of these two basic rules seem to be close to the heart of the key decision makers within Second Life, or the core developers of OpenSim. Indeed, in an amazing irc session earlier today, one of the core developers said that 'marketing is a null concept for us'. This was in response to a user who was arguing for greater end-user focus, while the developers seemed to be more technology/code driven. There is nothing wrong with innovation, but innovators need to have a clear idea of just who the end user is, or several years of hard work will be all for nothing.

OpenSim is some months, even as much as a year away, from even going beta. One year is a long time in Virtual World terms, and I fear they could get left behind with a rather shabby looking technology compared side-by-side with the latest that is currently available, and what is yet to come.

One of the developers said that OpenSim was the only source of opensource Virtual World software, completely missing that both Vast Parks and Multiverse have been offering free server and client software for well over a year now. Another developer argued that while the Second Life software had so many problems associated with it (scalability for one), they could not adopt a different technology, due to their investment in their existing technology. This, in business terms, is called the dodo strategy to failure. I am pleased to see that Entropia do not accept that argument, or that fate, and are nearing completion of their new CryEngine2-based world.

OpenSim did make one significant departure from the Second Life feature set, when they introduced the Hypergrid, enabling anyone on a Opensim-based grid to teleport to any other. This was an amazing achievement. However, I fear it will take a much more radical approach if OpenSim is to have any kind of reasonable product lifecycle once it is officially launched.