Friday, June 29, 2012

June Road Trip: Fast Ride on Desolation Boulevard

Location: Southern Continent, Route 10

Well, the Lindens fixed something. They really did. I'd heard that sim-crossings have vastly improved. Time for a road trip to test it?

Being both busy and bored, an odd combination, I sent occasional reporter Pappy Enoch in "The Rip Snorter," his "weathered" F-150 pickup truck. Pappy was drunk at the time, so he could not write very much but he did send in some "o' them-there picture post cards from the fake highway." Pappy wrote some captions on the back in orange crayon. Here they am...I mean, are.
It were a dark an' stormy..hell, it were sundown when I done hit the road in ol' Rip Snorter.
Sho' nuff am a heap o' abandoned land on the mainland. Maybe that am why things am so fast!
I done meant to do that. Hoo whee! I are a reg'lar Evil Kornevil! I landed in a house too.

Well, here am sum'fin you ain't a-gonna see every day: Furry Germnasium and some right pumped-up fur.
Go figure the only place that had real fake folks (them furs am bots) is a place selling fake-sex toys. I cammed in because I am shy and all that. There were a Gorean feller too but he would not answer my IMs about whether or not he done got lucky. The gal on the left gots pants that am like a belt. Hoo whee I needs to log in more often.
I FLEW down that fake road. Sim-crossings am first rate now! Try that in yo' fancy pants GTO, Mr. Onnagodadvida!

Verdict: And so I will, in July! Overall, it seems that Pappy encountered much improved travel, but the content on display shows what is happening to Second Life: crappy user-generated mainland builds, lots of vacant land, and the most dots on the map at a sex-themed store in a non-adult sim.

 I hope Linden Lab, if only for the sake of its employees and shrinking cadre of other types of users, can make money this way.

Update, July 1: Tateru Nino reports that Linden Lab has a three-pronged offensive underway to reduce SL's lag-tastic experience. Glad to see they are running scared after all our hoopla about Cloud Party. That's how it looks, even though their projects must have been in the works for months.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Like Jilted Lovers?

Location: Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable

image credit: Grizzla Pixelmaid at Flickr

I forget who at one of our VWER meetings told AJ Kelton, aka AJ Brooks, that he acted like a jilted lover when Linden Lab fired its education team and hiked our tier prices. But the simile is apt for me too; it explains some of our community's enthusiasm for Cloud Party, noted in my last post. There's not much at Cloud Party yet. When you cannot sit on your new couch, that shows we have a ways to go. But the will to "go" is there.

Slowly but surely, my own wonder and love for Second Life drained away. For students it was too hard to learn, too slow to use on wireless and their laptops. For me, it meant 200 hours of development for The Virtual House of Usher, a project that we ran a few classes through before my co-developer lost his job, our island closed in SL, and I needed to move on to other pursuits.

I get as much credit, and probably more, in my annual review for a published article. I could have written a few in those 200 hours.

Some of the reaction by SLers trying Cloud Party's new virtual world is predictable: soured on Linden Lab's mismanagement of a once-revolutionary online space, we either wish to punish the Lab or simply try some competition that is easier to master than the largely DIY spaces of OpenSim grids.

At our most recent Roundtable, I found myself spouting these words:

"I have come to hate Linden Lab and don't want them taking my money any more." You can read the rest of our exchange here in the transcript.

I did not get crucified by the assembled educators for saying this. Few SLevangelists were present, so the remarks were civil as we discussed what "special sauce" SL still has. The answers? Good content and community.

Linden Lab is repsonsible for neither of these. Stability, a third common answer, is their doing, but Cloud Party offers that one already with only a few weeks since they opened their world in open beta. The other two will follow.

So how can a firm such as Linden Lab win back our trust? To continue the romantic simile, they cannot or cannot in any span of time worth noting. If we look for exceptions in the history of technology, there is one.

It took decades for Detroit car makers to woo back those jilted by their crappy 1970s cars.

Linden Lab did not sell us a Chevy Vega or similar lemon. It sold us a lovely but doomed Corvair Monza and refused to listen to customers who bought into that dream or decided that they really wanted a Mustang instead. Recent efforts, such as Linden Realms or Wilderness, brought only yawns from our group of educators.

Clearly, Linden Lab lacks Detroit's time and government support. If Cloud Party flops, it's just a start-up firm, but Linden Lab's failure would make big news, even in media outlets that have at best sniggered, and mostly ignored it, since 2008.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Why Cloud Party Matters To Educators

Location: Shiny Canyon, in Facebook!

A great number of pixels have been used to praise or critique Cloud Party over at Hamlet Au's New World Notes. True, one needs a Facebook account, and sacrifices anonymity, to use the service fully. Anonymous logins are possible at the link I gave above, but they only permit limited interactions and the avatar's experience and content--as far as I understand--do not persist.

Here are some reasons I think Cloud Party represents the next generation of virtual worlds:
  • No client: this is key to mass adoption. For educators, it means that a student only needs a FB account. That means about 100% uptake for my students.
  • Real life ID: for Millennials, that too is key. They find virtual worlds "creepy" because, to paraphrase most of my 100+ users, "you don't know who is on the other end of the wire."  Their faith in authenticity may be naive, but it's strong and consistent in this demographic. Blame it on 12 years of "Internet Safety" classes rammed into their heads by schools.
  • Users such as "Pussycat Catnip" argued, with me and others in a long string of commentary at Au's blog, that one key aspect of enjoying SL is being able to assume a new identity. For her, Cloud Party's link to Facebook "makes it useless for anyone wishing to explore concepts like identity or self expression." Frankly, that matters little in how I've used virtual worlds, save for the House of Usher simulation, which is a one-off assignment with roleplay.

    Fretful administrators at colleges and universities will like the seeming transparency of Cloud Party as currently configured, though I suspect that "Cloud Party" to be only a marginally better name than the tainted "Second Life" moniker.
    I'd have preferred "New World" or similar, but Cloud Party goes not purport to be an educational tool. Nor did SL; we just took to it, and so did many others with some very different interests and intentions.
  • Easy UI that looks bound for mobile devices: Desktop rigs are the choice for serious games for serious gamers. They are not my students or colleagues, however; gamers here are a very small, and disrespected, part of the student body. When mainstream students do play games, they are more likely to pick up a console or play a casual game on their mobile devices and laptops.

    Cloud Party exploits the metaphors of mobile computing nicely.
    The Control Panel, shown here, looks like a smart phone and, when opened, provides small icons straight out of the world of mobile computing.
  • Perfect Timing. Educators screwed over by Linden Lab's mid-year doubling of tier have been looking for something easier to use than OpenSim. I think something like this new virtual world could do the trick. My Avatar looks like a newbie refugee from The Sims Online, but I can live with that. Building is very much like SL, from what I see. Linden Lab needs to be worried...very worried.
  • Storm Clouds? Right now, unless a browser supports WebGL, it won't run this virtual world. Nor will iOS devices. I am searching for a app to try it on my iPad.  Android users may have more luck. But for now, the majority of computing on my campus is done with laptops on wireless. About 70%, at last report, of new students bring Mac OS laptops.  On my MacBook Pro, Cloud Party runs very well and the fan never comes on, as it does constantly with SL running the Firestorm viewer.

    I hope that Cloud Party pursues access to all tablet OSes, though one wonders if Apple and Microsoft will open their mobile OSes to WebGL; on a phone Cloud Party would not be useful for more than texting. A tablet might be too constrained for building, but given my limited experience, my iPad's screen is plenty big for moving and chatting.  Much of Cloud Party depends on right clicks, so that would need to be fixed for mobile users.
Now for the experience: In two visits, I completed the basic and build tutorials and got a free house in a region called "Shiny Valley." Easy enough for veteran SLers. What about those new to virtual worlds? The tutorials were excellent, better than what I found in Second Life and more akin to my unalloyed joys of the first hour in Glitch. My interest in Glitch waned, I admit, because of the lack of realistic avatars and its side-scroll interface.

Here I am being greeted by Gwenette Sinclair, one of the new neighbors.  I know, it's The Sims kinda-sorta. But shiny!

We immediately went to YouTube to watch this R.E.M. video:

It's nice to feel happy about this shiny new virtual world. I hope the happy dance continues. Come by Shiny Canyon for a visit.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Why We Keep Inventing the Apocalypse

Location: Perfect June Day, Not a Zombie in Sight

What follows are a few reflections culled from a longer non-fiction piece I hope to publish in Richmond's alternative weekly, Style. Lately, I've been thinking of our nearly pornographic interest in the End Times. I've noticed over the years in Second Life how popular post-apocalyptic settings have been. They are also very popular in games. And while I've not read scholarship on this subject, I wonder about the continuing popularity among college kids of Cormac McCarthy's The Road in both book and film (see image above) versions.

I tend to prefer stories of rebuilding and survival, such as James Howard Kunstler's "World Made By Hand" novels or the second Mad Max film The Road Warrior. These sorts of invented worlds are a minority: of contemporary doomsday TV series, it seems that only "Revolution" is about the urge to remake the world after it falls apart.

So what makes these bleak futures the current staple of Hollywood, computer gaming, and so much of printed science fiction?  With series such as "The Walking Dead" a sub-genre of SF has gone mainstream. It's a recent phenomenon, too. In my copy of Brave New Worlds: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, editor Jeff Prucher finds that decade gave us the earliest coinages of the terms “post-apocalyptic,” “post-catastrophe,” and “post holocaust.” Not by accident do those neologisms parallel perceptions that America had entered a gradual decline. As the Rust Belt shed jobs until Detroit very much resembled a set from “The Walking Dead,” I find it curious that instead of the positive escapism that something like “Star Trek” offers, we went dark and largely have stayed there. Even George Lucas got bleak in its trilogy of prequels, a story bleaker than even the acting of Hayden Christensen as the young Darth Vader.

That's as far as I've gotten. Do post-apocalyptic settings give us freedom we lack in day-to-day life? Let us imagine a clean slate and a new start? Or are they just fun as hell, McCarthy's jet-black work excepted?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

When a World-Builder Dies

Location: Marooned in a Campaign that Ended

Last week, Gary, a dear friend of 40+ years, passed away. He was a gamer of the old-school sort, and he'd been running RPG campaigns since the late 70s.  I'd never really joined him for MMO play, so my encounters were weekly "Nerd Nights" with dice, character sheets, rule books, and a great deal of unhip humor. Gary was a consummate world-builder, as all good game masters should be.

As Gary's health declined in recent years, his "runs" became a bit more formulaic, based upon TV shows, films, or even the online game Mass Effect, and they all got a lot darker. To be honest, much of the fun was gone at times, and non-player characters often rushed in for a deus-ex-machina finish.

Without Gary's presence, what becomes of the characters we players have nurtured over the years? And what of his voluminous notes and maps for various settings, from a vampire-haunted New Orleans to a bleak fantasy setting where, a millennium before, a Sauron-style figure won the final war between good and evil?

As the population of paper-and-dice gamers ages, the questions of "what to do with their invented worlds?" will arise more frequently. There's an academic point to be made here, but I'm in no mood to theorize. In Gary's case, we others in the gaming group have decided to honor his memory by keeping his worlds alive, at least for a time.

We will work to finish current story lines for a few campaigns and, in the bleak fantasy world noted, to finish the setting off by seeing how the characters fare, all rebels against "The Graven One" who has oppressed an entire continent for 1,000  years. Then there is a sprawling project called "Spaceship," in which Gary and I developed a science-fiction campaign of epic scope, spanning two galaxies with 5,000 years of backstory and focusing on the fates of the twin galaxies' alternate Earths. My half of that epic will continue, though without Gary, it will be a somewhat lonely venture.

In spite of the challenges, I'm looking forward to it. And somewhere beyond the veils of reality and illusion that separate this world from whatever else exists, I suspect that Gary is mightily pleased with us.