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Wednesday 30 July 2003

Second Life, the new coming? [drdave]

You probably won't have heard of Second Life ( There's no surprise there, since I'm not sure it's supposed to be a massively marketed game of the same mould as Everquest or Asheron's Call. Hell, I'm not even certain it is a game as such. There's no Win Condition, very little progression, no competiveness (aside the artistic) and above all, no killing. Okay, there's some killing, but more on that later.
Second Life is what would be produced if you locked a box of Lego, a copy of Neil Stephenson's 'Snow Crash' and a handful of San Francisco hippies in a basement and supplied them with oysters and spanish fly for a month. It is, essentially, the internet's first steps towards a metaverse, an online community where expressionism and artistic flair is King.
Okay, I'm not making myself clear here. Probably because Second Life is so pig difficult to catagorise. Nevertheless, here goes: SL is a persistant online world, much like Everquest. It has places to visit, landscapes and physical laws, much like Everquest. Unlike Everquest, it doesn't have a story, it has no monsters, it has no aim and it has no progression. What is does have, however, is a set of relatively well realised 3D construction tools that are available to everyone in the game. In a nutshell, this is it. 'Players' (or more appropriately, inhabitants) are free to purchase land and create objects on that land. The cash to do this comes in the form of a weekly 'stipend', basically a free cash injection at the beginning of every week. While this is enough to buy you a modest sized land and build a respectable looking log cabin on it, it will fall some way short of allowing you to build and maintain (objects you own incur a weekly taxation) some of the more extravagant sprawling mansions and appartment complexes that are perfectly possible.
This is where the game comes into its own. SL is essentially a shell, much like the real world, which allows for possibilities. The true potential of the game is in the concept of emergent behaviour. That is, the tendancy of patterns or practises to emerge within the framework of a set of rules. In giving the players weekly money, the game's designers have allowed them to go so far but no further. To see what the game is truely possible of, for example, players have had to devise a rudimentary economy.
Using just what they begin with, clever players have carved niches for themselves within the game world. Some players have chosen to manufacture objects, such as clothes, furniture or even weapons, and sell them at a profit, thereby allowing them to plough money into working on their 'projects'. Others offer transport systems to get around the world. Games have even sprung up here and there - there's a tank battle game, complete with scripted tank effects, or a large deathmatch warehouse offering simplistic, counterstrike play. It should be noted that this differs from Tradeskills on EQ et al in that whatever you make and sell is entirely of your own devising. If you want to sell shirts, you have to design the shape and textures, if you want to sell miniture FFVII dolls (as someone seems to be) you have to craft the dolls from simple primitives.
Another example of emergent behaviour was in the almost legendary War Of Jessie Wall, in which a group of perhaps 100 players from World War II Online migrated en masse to SL and proceeded to buy up land in the damage enabled (you can be killed) 'Jessie' part of the world. They then plastered their creations with pro Iraq war slogans and posters, an act that was not taken too well by other players. Eventually, a series of acts of vandalism and graffiti occured, with anti war slogans popping up. Soon, a wall of scripted turrets appeared in Jessie, coded to seek out non-WWIIOLers and the situation descended into a minor militaristic skirmish. Probably not the best example of human behaviour, but an indicator of the kind of felixibility that the SL system allows. For those interested, the 'War' was eventually resolved by a peace summit arranged by SL's in-game journalist (
With the freedom to create, the world takes on a very surrealistic appearance. When you first enter, you'll be overwhelmed by the myriad of bizzare structures, outlandish avatars (which you can customize to an almost excessive degree, as often as you like) and peculiar offerings. You'll fly around (you can fly) just looking at things, pressing buttons or talking to folk. You might run into the automated japanese styled dirigible has been unleashed on the world, tasked to roam randomly, offering flyers for a section of the world that has been themed (by the players) with Anime-based objects. Or you might see the clever player that has built a UFO that he pilots around the world 'abducting' players here and there. Everywhere you look there are vast granite towers, curved glass domes or just simple wooden huts. There's a weird mini-zoo with tiny penguins tucked away somewhere.
SL is very much a game for those of an artistic bent. Personally, though I'm fascinated by the concept, I find it difficult to express myself with the object creation tools. I look around and see truely majestic buildings and structures, and then look at my four-walls-and-roof creation and can't help but feel frustrated. Even my avatar has ended up looking like a bald, fat bastard. I have no trouble with the scripting side, but whats the point in that when I have nothing to apply it to? Maybe I need to set up a script selling business and have a professional build me a house...?
Another weak point is the 3D engine. SL is a cracking is idea bursting to get out, it just needs a 3D engine capable of doing it justice. As it is, SL looks a bit anaemic visually. It isn't helped by the fact that the 3D is streamed - the client itself is a 10Mb download, and it pushes objects and landscape to you as you encounter them. This has the bizarre effect of making objects pop into being as you're just standing there - a house, for example, will look like a simplistic box when you approach it, but as you stand and watch, furniture, textures and fine details will 'rez' out of nowhere and complete it. Its a strange experience, but one that lessens if you increase your cache and spend a while online.
In short, SL is a fascinating idea. I can't for one minute imagine that a lot of people reading this will give it much truck, because it is essentially a flawed genius. And with an almost vertical learning curve and fetid appearance, it will probably lose more people within five minutes than any other game. Nonetheless, it is only a 10Mb download and comes with 5 days free trial, so you don't lose anything by trying it. What you gain, however, is an insight into a possible future of the Internet, a look at a developing community and a fascinating glimpse at the phenomenon of emergent behavior.


  1. Get rebot an account, he would 0wn :)

  2. But dave, what we really want to know is......does it rock????

  3. Sounds to me like a persistent online version of the Sims.

  4. Sims already has one of those itself: The Sims Online. SL shares some similarities with The Sims I suppose, but it is way more freeform and the Sims likenesses have only developed because it seems the natural tendancy for people to try to build aspects of society into chaotic systems. SL allows this.
    The existence of a weekly allowance is merely a mechanism to prevent the out-of-control building of objects, which would eventually litter the landscape and have inevitable performance consequences.
    And beyond the customisation of the avatar and the building of a house (which is by no means required, though oddly, it is one of the first things people try), the similarities are essentially cosmetic. It has more in common with IRC and Lego than anything else.