Archive for the 'Virtual Worlds' Category

The Technical Cost of Persistence

One of the most compelling features of many games set in online virtual worlds is that the game world is persistent. That is, life in the game world goes on, even when the player is not there. When the player returns to the world, their character and belongings are as they were when the player left the world, but the state of the world itself will have moved on – buildings may have been constructed, monsters killed, and so on. Any artefacts left by player in a public area of the game when they went offline may have been moved or taken by other players whose characters are still roaming the virtual world.

At a technical level, what this means is that the game world must always be available – the computer servers that run the game must be online 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, keeping the virtual world running. Even when there is no-one in world, there may be elements of the game physics that require some computation to be carried out.

To get an idea of what’s involved in developing the infrastructure that supports a persistent virtual world, read the article Massively multiplayer online games, Part 1: A performance-based approach to sizing infrastructure on the IBM developerWorks website. Don’t worry if you don’t understand all the terminology – the article was written for an audience experienced in the design of large computer systems. There is a still a lot that you can learn from it as a less technical reader. For example, as you read the article, try to answer the following questions:

  • what does the author mean by the phrase “game platform”? What are the dominant game platforms for Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs)?
  • what strategies do developers use to cope with large numbers of players, particularly when they come from different areas of the world, speak different languages, and so on?
  • how does the design of the EVE online game compare with that of most MMOGs?
  • what is the “response time” of a game, and how is it likely to affect a user’s experience of the game?
  • what factors are likely to impact on the performance of the game? How might the design of the game’s computing infrastructure address these issues?
  • the article suggests designing the infrastructure using a “tiered” approach – what tiered levels are suggested, and what does each one do?
  • what are ‘bottlenecks’ and how are they likely to affect the performance of the game?
  • what is “latency” and how is it likely to be perceived by a game player? What elements of the system design are likely to affect the latency of the game?

Phew… you maybe found that quite a challenging exercise? But hopefully a worthwhile one? When reading a document like that, it’s always worth trying to ask yourself questions about what’s being said to further your understanding of it; and if there’s jargon you don’t understand – don’t worry. Try to read the document “for sense” the first time through. You can always go back to the document after looking up the terms you don’t understand, or asking for clarification from someone who may know via your social network…

If you did answer the questions, and maybe even jotted down a few notes, trying writing a blog post (500-1000 words or so – and link back here!;-) to summarise the original article and communicate some of the high level issues and considerations involved in designing the computational infrastructure for an MMOG. And if there’s anything you didn’t understand, try posting a comment back here and then keep an eye on any follow up replies…

ARGs, Serious Games and the Magic Circle

In “Alternate Reality Games: What Makes or Breaks Them?“, a blog post reviewing the rise of alternate reality games (ARGs) (see ARGs Uncovered for an into), Muhammad Saleem suggests several characteristics that a successful ARG should embrace:

- Storytelling or narrative
- Discovery/deciphering and documentation elements
- Cross-medium interactivity
- Blurring the lines between reality and fiction

To what extent do you agree with this view? If you are familiar with an ARG, write down how the game conforms to Saleem’s list. If you aren’t particularly familiar with an ARG, see if you can identify features of the ARG Perplex City that correspond to the categories listed above. To what extent do you think these “essential characterstics” apply to any digital game, ARG or otherwise?

The post also describes some ‘features’ that the ARG should avoid if it is to be successful:

- Lack of interactivity, too linear
- Lack of a reward
- No instant gratification
- Too difficult
- Same old game, different name
- Too scripted, too commercial

To what extent are these ‘negative features’ likely to detract from the success of any digital game, ARG or otherwise?

One popular refrain of the actors/characters in an ARG is that “this is not a game”. This reflects the fact that the game is being played out like a piece of invisibe theatre in the real world. At the same time, the actors act out the game narrative in a way that encourages audience participation, providing interaction with the game as far as the audience member is concerned, even if the actual direction of the game is largely scripted and tightly plotted ‘on-the-inside’.

How do you think the ‘this is not a game’ view relates to the idea of the Magic Circle, described by Salen and Zimmerman as “the boundary that defines the game in time and space” (see Getting Philosophical About Games)?

In the section “Community Formation and the Magic Circle” from the Game Studies article The Playful and the Serious: An approximation to Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, Hector Rodriguez comments thus:

Game designers aiming to highlight trust and suspicion sometimes take the radical step of rendering the boundaries of the magic circle deliberately ambiguous. Phone calls or text messages received in the middle of the night may be real calls for help from a friend or part of the game’s conspiracy. Well-known examples include the Electronic Arts game Majestic and the plot of David Fincher’s 1997 film The Game. This uncertainty can generate experiences that resemble philosophical scepticism about reality. The designer becomes the equivalent of a Cartesian evil genius capable of controlling, and potentially deceiving, our sense of the distinction between reality and make-believe. From the designer’s standpoint, the players become toys to be played with; the game designer is the only player who for sure knows where the boundaries of the magic circle are.

A footnote in the same article elaborates further:

[6] The fuzziness of the magic circle is not restricted to children’s play. Recent scholarship on “expanded” or “pervasive” games has highlighted three techniques that subvert the magic circle (Montola, 2005). First of all, the location of the game can be ambiguous, uncertain or unlimited, so that participants may not be sure about the place where the game is played. Secondly, the temporal boundaries of play need not always be sharply demarcated from the rest of daily life. A game may, for instance, lack a clear-cut beginning or end; or its duration may extend until it coincides with a player’s entire life, even span several generations, so that its temporal boundaries become effectively irrelevant. Thirdly, games can blur the boundary between players and non-players by bringing “outsiders” into its sphere.

Serious Games and the Magic Circle

Just as ARGs make use of the ‘real world’ to roll out the game, we have also seen how real world situations can be ‘folded back’ into digital space, opening up the possibility of playing ‘real world’ games in virtual worlds (for example, The World of Serious Games).
To what extent do serious games require the player to adopt the view that whilst they are playing a game (and so insulating themselves from the real world by entering the magic circle) they are also not playing a game, in the sense that their performance in the game world could actually be replayed ‘for real’ in the real world, maybe as part of their job?

Friday Fun #11 Moshi Monsters

Something for the family this week – Moshi Monsters:

Moshi Monsters is a free online game for kids, in which they adopt a monster and look after it. Kids whose parents give us their approval can become members on our site, and can adopt a Moshi Monster. Kids care for their monster by solving puzzle games, which earn their monster virtual rewards called Rox. Kids can spend Rox on virtual items like food, furniture and other treats and toys for their monster. Over time their monster will increase in level, be able to visit new locations in Monstro City, and earn all kinds of in-game rewards for playing. Monster owners will also be able to make friends with other owners and leave messages on their pages.

(For more details, there’s an “in-depth tour” of the game on the Game, Set, Watch blog: Exploring Online Worlds: Mind Candy’s ‘Moshi Monsters’.)

It’s claimed that the ‘solve-to-earn Rox’ puzzles make the game “educational” – do you agree?

To provide a faintly serious side to this post(?!), how does Moshi Monsters address issues of child safety and parental control? What is the Moshi Monsters line on advertising on the site, compared to its ‘thematic rival’, Neopets? To what extent do you think Moshi Monsters is simply providing a vehicle for selling Moshi Monsters branded goods?

How does the parental advice offered by Moshi Monsters compare with information for parents provided on other child-friendly social networking sites such as Habbo Hotel, Club Penguin or Barbie Girls?

If you’re after 5 minutes of *really* educational fun (?!), why not have a go at Typeracer

The game it to type a quote out from a book, movie or song lyric faster than the people you are competing against…

Have You Got a Second Life?

Of all the 3D virtual worlds that can now be found on the internet, Second Life is arguably the one that has received the most popular press attention.

If you have ever been in to Second Life, then you will be familiar with the sort of things it can offer. If you have not visited Second Life – or indeed, never been into a 3D, avatar populated immersive world – here are a couple of quick tastes of what life is like “in-world”.

The first is a presentation about Second Life that has been uploaded to the social presentation sharing SlideShare – “An Introduction to Virtual Worlds: Second Life and Beyond. Even if you have been into Second Life, quickly flicking through the presentation may point out some features about it that you didn’t notice at the time.

The second is a user-generated movie about Second Life that I discovered YouTube…

How does Second Life differ from 3D worlds like Google Earth or Virtual Earth? How does it differ from 3D game worlds? In your opinion, is Second Life a game?

Now watch the following clip about the game “The Sims” (IGN Review) – what similarities and differences are there between Second Life and The Sims?

The most obvious difference to me is that in The Sims the player takes on a third person, God-like role, controlling the actions (to some extent) of their player characters, whereas in Second Life, the “player” becomes (or actually is) the avatar.

In the Sims, the game world is a self-contained fiction: the aim of the game, such as it is, is to help the player characters live out their lives in the Sims world. To a certain extent, there is an element of ‘progression’: players must look after characters within the game world that are dependent on them and help them keep up with Joneses – get a job, and education, a house and so on (every time I have tried to play the Sims the session has ended with my characters’ house burning down!)

In contrast, Second Life just provides a canvas for creativity and social interaction – Second Life is an online world (in contrast to the desktop or console bound Sims) within which you can chat and socialise with other people from all over the world.

Want to know more about Second Life?

We’ll look at worlds like Second Life again in later posts, in the contexts of community and making money in virtual worlds…

In the meantime, the following video replays a Google tech talk, recorded in March 2006, featuring a presentation from Glimpse Inside a Metaverse: The Virtual World of Second Life. Even though Second Life has moved on since the presentation was recorded, if you’re interested in hearing about Second Life from the insdie (including some insights about the techie stuff!) it’s well worth listening to:

If you want to try Second Life out for yourself, you can find it at Second Life – http://secondlife.com. If you would rather read about Second Life second-hand, then there’s always the book Second Lives: A Journey Through Virtual Worlds, by Tim Guest!

However, as we’ll see in further posts, there are plenty of virtual worlds other than Second Life, many of them popular with different age groups (Second Life is largely for the over-30s!). So don’t feel as if you have to join Second Life to experience a 3D virtual world – as you’ll see in the next post on this topic…

Our World in 3D…

In the series of posts on alternate reality games (ARGs), we saw how ARGs could make use of ‘real world’ technologies to help engage the player in a game , by creating “real”, fake company websites, for example, or contacting the player, in context, via SMS.

In this post, I’d like to briefly explore the extent to which the real world is using user interfaces that are reminiscent of 3D games to recreate a version of the real world in virtual space. To set the scene, if you aren’t familiar with 3D services like Google Earth to Virtual Earth, might I suggest you have a quick read of Friday Fun #9 Gaming in Google Earth and Virtual Earth 3D and follow a couple of the links from that post, before reading this post any further…

You might also care to listen to Building a 3D Model of the Globe, a presentation from 2006 by John Hanke & Brad Schel, the Google Product Directors at the time.

Or watch this demo of 3DVia 3D models in Virtual Earth…

Recreating the world…

Although only a few years old, the origins of Google Earth are already confused by the mists of time. In Notes on the origin of Google Earth, Avi Bar-Zeev of research and development consultancy Reality Prime, and one of the people involved in the development of the software application now known as Google Earth, writes: “So we seem to have a few diverging memories on the origin and motivation behind Google Earth. One co-founder says it was Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. One co-founder says it was the famous Powers of Ten flip-book and movie.”

Whatever the origins of Google Earth, the pace with which it – and other tools of its kind – have been developing means that it may not be too long before it may take on the role of a virtual world. Avi Bar-Zeev again (Google’s Virtual World, Redux): “GE already is a virtual world. It’s a virtual earth. It has all of the features of a virtual world (spatiality, point of view, presence, information modeling), minus a few we’ve come to expect from a game or socially-oriented space (seeing yourself, seeing other people, and directly interacting tog[e]ther). … The thing about GE is that it’s a so-called ‘mirror world.’ The whole point was always for GE to accurately and compellingly reflect information about the real world.”

In that article, what does Avi Bar-Zeev claim are some potential applications of using Google Earth as a virtual world? Five points to the first person to post a list of them back here as a comment ;-) What other applications can you think of that may be missing from that list? If you think of any, post them back here as a comment, or maybe write a blog post summarising the original list and then adding your ideas for further applications too.

It has been possible for some time to import ‘artefacts’ (or objects) into Google Earth and Virtual Earth. But whilst objects in Sketchup Warehouse may have been intended for use in Google Earth, ‘real’(?!) virtual worlds, they can also be used in real unreal virtual worlds(?!), as this example from Scenecaster shows:

Support for Google Sketchup Warehouse models has also been announced for use with the Multiverse virtual world platform, as this CNET article describes: Google tools to power virtual worlds.

What is the Multiverse “Architectural Wonders” project described in the CNET article? The article itself was recent some time ago (can you find out when) and attracted quite a lot of attention when it was announced. See if you can find out what the current state of the project is, whether it was dropped, or whether it appears to have transformed into something else, and comment back here with the latest news you can find…

From 2D to 3D

Creating 3D models ‘by hand’ is not the only way of generating them. Traditional 2D photos can now be processed so that “3D views” of them are possible, hinting at a future where you’ll be able to import a model of your house into a mirror world simply by photographing it…

Unfortunately, the Fotowoosh website is no longer available – it will be interesting to whether it reappears as a fully fledged service over the coming months…

When People Roam the Virtual Earth…

Google Earth and Virtual Earth already provide the opportunity for anyone to explore a virtual 3D version of many real world cities. To what extent do you think the experience would be different if instead of the current ‘any point you like’ birds eye view camera positioning, the camera view was over the shoulder of your own personal avatar? How and why do you think the experience might feel different?

If you are interested in knowing some of the technical details behind an early implementation of Google Earth, How Google Earth [Really] Works tells the tale from the horse’s mouth…

If you did listen to the Building a 3D Model of the Globe presentation, see if you can find out how much has Google Earth moved compared to the description of Google Earth given in the presentation. What predictions were made in the presentation about the future of Google Earth (as stated in 2006) and to what extent has the current version of Google Earth met, fallen short of, or exceeded those predictions?

[The videos from this post can be seen in the "Our World in 3D" show on the Digital Worlds Splashcast video channel.]


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