Life, Or Something Like It
Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 7 (July 2004)

Life, Or Something Like It

If you could reinvent yourself, what choices would you make? Would you be tall or short, heavy or thin, outgoing or shy? Or would you become a different species, such as a dog or a cat? In Second Life, the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) from Linden Lab, players can be anyone, or anything, they ever wanted to be within this immersive, realistic 3D world.

"Second Life is a place where you can completely stretch your imagination and the boundaries of reality by exploring a personal fantasy that is outside the realm of possibility within real life," says Robin Harper, senior vice president of marketing and community development at Linden Lab, which was founded by the former CTO of RealNetworks, a streaming media company. "You can do anything you've dreamed about doing in your 'first' life but can't do or haven't done. In fact, our players often use the terms RL and SL—nomenclature for their real life and second life."

Allowing players to incarnate themselves is a novel concept, even in the fantasy realm of an MMORPG. That's because most MMO titles not only limit the activities and locations of the players, but they also restrict the avatars themselves, requiring subscribers to assume a persona that fits within the theme of a particular title, such as the medieval realm of Dark Age of Camelot. In contrast, the inhabitants of Second Life are free to be and do whatever they want inside. That's because the game is shaped entirely by its users—from the avatars and environments to the "events" hosted by the users. People come to create, compete, explore, and socialize, notes Harper.

"Everything in the world is made by the users, or residents, in real time," says Cory Ondrejka, vice president of product development. "All the content is streamed in real time over a broadband connection, so it allows people to work collaboratively. For instance, two users can build a house together—one can construct the east wing and the other the west wing, and simultaneously see what each is doing. They can even place a blueprint on a billboard, and refer to it during construction."

Linden Lab generated the game's initial terrain using procedural textures and hand-drawn surfaces created with Alias's Maya and Adobe's Photoshop, respectively. The company also built the tropical island area, where newcomers learn game basics, and some objects in the start section. (Mac or PC users can log on to for a free seven-day trial. Residency requires a onetime fee of $9.95, plus a monthly or yearly subscription rate. No software purchase or install CD is required.)

Before visiting the island, however, players must create an avatar by choosing between a male or a female model, which also has been pre-built by the developer in Maya. Then, players adjust their model by using approximately 200 available sliders, which alter everything from the avatar's girth and height to its facial detail. In fact, an avatar can be altered to a point where the character is no longer a human.

The remainder of the world content is built by players using a proprietary solids-based construction system consisting of a box, sphere, torus, and other primitives that can be scaled, hollowed, twisted, and distorted to make various shapes. Users also can combine the basic shapes to create far more complicated objects. "We haven't found a shape that can't be built fairly easily," Ondrejka says. Moreover, the primitives are easily compressed, making the data-streaming process faster for the user.
In Second Life, players use the game's proprietary solids-based modeling system to create unique identities.

"Just like in real life, some people are good fashion designers and can make fabulous clothing," says Harper. "Someone made a wedding dress with layers and layers of delicate-looking cloth, which gave it an ethereal look." For those players possessing particular skills such as this, there is an in-world economy that allows them to set up shop and sell their wares to other players who may neither want to take the time nor possess the skills to make the clothing themselves. However, for those players who do, they can even upload textures into the game to make their own unique clothing.

Aside from augmenting their avatars, players also use the modeling system to build just about anything—houses, concert venues, bridges, retail outlets, helicopters, bridges, hot tubs, pet shops, cars, and motorcycles—all of which can be scripted through an embedded language similar to C code. "Some of our more prolific scripters never wrote code before," notes Ondrejka. "It looks imposing at first, but the world is full of sample scripts, and you can't break anything. You just tweak the code and see what happens, then continue."

One industrious player even made a spaceship that flies around the world and occasionally hovers above an avatar before emitting a blue tracker beam that traps a character and beams it aboard. "The space avatars are dressed as aliens and use funny probes on the subjects before dropping off the victims in various parts of the world," says Harper. "Then they give the avatar a T-shirt that says 'I was abducted by aliens and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.' Now, the spaceship is legendary, and at one point avatars were standing around hoping to be abducted."

Recently, Linden Labs added support for complex character development and enhanced motion, enabling players to animate their avatars to do just about anything. Using an open .bvh file format supported by software such as Curious Labs' Poser, players can create and upload animation files, endowing the avatars with distinct moods and movement—creating, for instance, guitar-strumming rock stars to world-class swimmers. To date, users have staged realistic boxing matches, re-created action sequences from feature films, and choreographed elaborate dance routines.
With the same modeling system, they can construct businesses, such as discos (left), or houses (middle), complete with furnishings (right).

To encourage creativity, Linden Labs now grants the ownership of in-world content to the subscribers who make it, revising its terms of service so users retain full intellectual property protection for the digital material they create, including the characters, clothing, scripts, textures, objects, and designs.

When the game launched last year, it contained a general store, a disco, and other attractions. Since then, ambitious residents have added a plethora of content, including an amusement park with more than 30 rides and "themed" towns (such as an Americana village and an anime area). These and other regions can be enhanced with streaming audio clips for ambient theme sounds. In a recent development, residents can now link to Internet audio sources broadcasting live sportscasts, talk shows, and DJ soundtracks directly from real-world clubs to Second Life clubs, for example.

One player even hosted the first known Virtual Book Club event, featuring science-fiction writer Cory Doctorow, that was attended by a number of avatars who lounged on couches and chairs as they discussed the writer's recent novel. "Since the game's introduction, residents have built businesses, designed wild vehicles, and introduced adventure games, all within the digital world," says founder Philip Rosendale (see "Fantasy World," pg. 80).

Users are now free to build as many venues and objects as they want in Second Life, as long as they stay within the object allocation limit for the land they own, whereas before, they were taxed on each object that remained in the world. "This discourages people from overbuilding," says Ondrejka. "Yet it encourages players to experiment and allows them to grow with the system by starting with something small, like a house, until they build up enough in-game currency or real money to buy more land and attempt something larger." Recently, users were given the ability to purchase virtual private islands, which allows them to alter the terrain and even determine who can visit the area.
The skills people bring to the game are not artificial, like they are in other MMORPGs, but are based on real abilities to create models and script behaviors, including those for a spaceship (left) that abducts "victims," trained pets (middle), and fast c

All residents earn weekly grants of in-world currency. In addition, they can earn bonuses, depending on several factors such as their rating on a leader board. So if others rate them positively because of their likability or the look of their avatar or home, then those players earn more in-world dollars—a system that encourages positive behavior. Residents also can earn virtual incomes by setting up shop and selling various wares. One person created a pet store where residents can purchase dogs and even buy "training" (scripted behavior) for them. Another built a nightclub and added a bouncer to take virtual dollars from people wanting to enter.

"Unfortunately, we never know what objects will be in the game at any given time," says Ondrejka. "An amazing building can disappear overnight. As a result, the world is constantly changing."

Indeed, content creation is a large part of the game, but some players forego that option and instead just walk around the virtual space and chat with other inhabitants or attend events, including scripting classes, quiz shows, sporting events, theatrical productions, and more.

"Because it is so different from the typical MMORPG," Harper notes, "some of our players won't even call it a game."

Karen Moltenbrey is a senior technical editor at Computer Graphics World.