The evolution of virtual worlds

26th Jun 2009 | 12:00

The evolution of virtual worlds

Is this where you'll be spending your time in the future?

Social gaming on the rise

Stitching Facebook and MySpace into a 3D environment might not seem like the most exciting project in the history of gaming, but a handful of intrepid gaming companies are wondering if social gaming is going to be the next huge, very profitable thing.

The logic is simple – not everyone enjoys blowing up friends and enemies when they go online, or obsessively assembling a vast arsenal of ultra-weapons and superhuman skills. While World of Warcraft and its medieval and science fiction beat-'em-up and shoot-'em-up siblings have questing and wizarding locked down, the popularity and momentum of social networking suggests that there's serious money to be made from friends and fans. But is this really gaming? And does it matter?

Pride of place in the pantheon of chat-'em-ups goes to Second Life. Whereas most games demand smooth and fast performance, Second Life goes against tradition by offering gamers an experience that's laggy, awkward and slow.

Your fellow players' avatars twitch and jerk around in virtual space like cyber-puppets on springs. When you log in – or res, in game jargon – it can take up to 10 minutes for your surroundings to res around you. Until then, you can find yourself missing essential walls and floors, standing in a void, bumping into nothingness when you try to move and unable to do much at all.

With high-end bandwidth and a top spec PC some of these issues are reduced, but no one would ever accuse Second Life of being excessively polished. The political instincts of Linden Labs, Second Life's creators, are similarly awkward, with regular drama over policy changes and peculiar changes of direction.

It doesn't help that both its client and server software are notoriously bug-ridden and crash prone. Some users can't stay logged in for more than an hour without a crash and the server database regularly ignores transactions – none of which inspires confidence.

User loyalty is even more remarkable considering how expensive Second Life can be. The cheapest entry-level annual subscription costs an eye-watering $72. But you can't do much in the game without buying land. Doing so carries a one-off cost of ownership – fees are variable – as well as a monthly payment for 'tier', or land tax.

A small patch of 1/128th of a sim costs $5 a month in tier and basic land prices can be astronomical. If you want an entire region or island, expect to pay $1000 up front and a blistering $295 per month in tier. And yet, Second Life remains very popular.

While the total number of registered players is in the millions, only around 100,000 are active. But 100,000 is still an impressively high number for a game that doesn't allow much gaming. Although there are combat areas and a healthy trade in virtual weapons, laggy responses and random res times make Second Life a less than ideal place to engage in online sparring.

Nevertheless, a number of online entrepreneurs have done surprisingly well for themselves selling combat systems and clothes, and by offering other associated services such as bars and chat spaces for after-combat socialising.

While Second Life is a bad platform with conventional gaming, it's popular for people hoping to establish virtual friendships and relationships. There's no lack of people to meet and no shortage of places to meet them. And because avatars and locations are almost infinitely customisable through a combination of scripting language and simplified 3D design and texturing, it's possible to live out a fantasy – whatever that might be – much more easily than in real life.

Newcomers to the field

Newcomers Kaneva and Multiverse have been quick to jump on this idea and have made it their focus. Kaneva is more of a shop-'em-up – you can socialise, you can buy things and you can work for money to make it easier to socialise and buy things. There isn't a lot else to do and, although you can put money into the game to buy virtual items, you can't build and sell new virtual items in order to make money.

If your horizons are broader – or if you're an antisocial billy-no-mates – you may be less than thrilled by the experience. But it's a relatively kid-safe environment and is ideally suited to popular and not so popular teens looking for a wider circle of friends.

Multiverse, meanwhile, is still in beta and offers an even more slimmed down experience of virtual loft living, giving you a wall of friends you can fill up and visit. In its current Multiverse Places form it's more of a virtual chat room than a game space. But it already includes direct links to Facebook, so you can meet your real life friends in a virtual space.

In the longer term, it's pitching itself as a meta-platform for further gaming development – which means that some time in the future you'll be equally able to blow up your real life friends with the usual impressive variety of super-weapons. Or you can buy them lunch. It's up to you.

At the other extreme, Mindark, maker of Entropia Universe, is pitching its alternative meta-platform as a possible business opportunity for lazy or impatient game developers who don't want to develop a 3D engine from scratch.

EU's Calypso game planet is now up and running and gives players a fairly conventional science fiction gaming experience, with mining, monster hunting and collaborative questing to pass the time. The interesting part is that in-game profits can be converted into real cash at a fixed exchange rate of 10:1 with US dollars. It's not an easy way to make money, but once you're skilled and past the noob stage, you may be able to make a respectable £50 a week from your persistent gaming addiction.

The future of virtual worlds

Masses of data

Looking at all of these games, there are some common weaknesses. The first is that the volume of data needed to generate a 3D world is so high that servers and broadband pipes inevitably choke on it.

Entropia gets around this problem by downloading the entire game environment to disk in a massive 1.3GB package. Second Life takes the opposite tack and downloads objects and art only when they're needed. Kaneva and Multiverse use methods somewhere between these extremes, but none of them are perfect.

Both bandwidth and server speed will have to increase by at least a factor of 10 before game performance becomes acceptable – and then just watch how they blast through many ISPs' bandwidth caps. At 20MB/s, you can easily reach the top of a 40GB bandwidth cap within a week, so caps will also have to rise by at least a factor of 10.

At the server end, these games can make make extreme demands of commercial bandwidth. Kaneva, Entropia and Multiverse are relatively simple and therefore not too demanding, but Second Life's model thrashes its database servers until they weep and beg for mercy. Until commercial bandwidth prices go down significantly, its subscription fees look set to stay high.

Speeding up sims

There's a more basic issue that affects playability. Game areas are typically split across servers, or at least run as separate server processes. In Second Life you can't fly or walk across sim boundaries reliably – turn up the graphics requirements and you can find your avatar coasting along with plenty of momentum but no control. Move fast enough and you'll crash out altogether.

Technically, when a player moves from one sim to the next, their avatar and inventory links have to be copied across and deleted from the old sim. The most popular sims run slowly because they're busier. Meanwhile, the rest of the grid waits in limbo, wasting most of its processing power. The majority of sims are empty most of the time, making this an incredibly inefficient way to run a virtual world.

Any other game that uses a similar split-sim approach will suffer from the same problem, but help is at hand from a project called Darkstar. Darkstar isn't a game, so you can't log in, and it's still in beta. It's designed to handle the back end of online gaming – process assignment, asset management and the nuts and bolts of database handling for multiple players with multiple objects in multiple environments.

When it's finished. Darkstar should solve the sim problem, allowing an entire grid to redistribute its processing power evenly wherever it's needed. Artificial sim boundaries will become a thing of the past and databases and inventories should both scale smoothly. The potential is explosive because Darkstar will make it possible for anyone to add their server to an open gaming grid and contribute both their own world designs and extra processing power, which will be available on demand.

Building the worlds

So what does it add up to? The state of the art isn't necessarily impressive today, but there's huge potential for the future - and it's not necessarily in the obvious places. If you take Project Darkstar's open source approach and combine it with the user generated content and coding of Second Life, along with the social networking and trading features of the other games, you get something that's completely new and addictive.

From the time of Doom WADs onwards, players have been customising their games. What makes multi-user worlds interesting isn't so much that they're 3D and multiuser – so are many other games – but that open customisability is an integral part of the experience. For some people, trading and chatting are less interesting pastimes than being able to build new environments from scratch. For others, the opposite is true.

So far, game and world developers have defined how a particular world works and hoped that users will like it enough to buy it. But the ultimate game is a blank canvas for gamer-created experiences of every kind. All that's needed is some server space and a set of rules for linking worlds to one another. And with Darkstar and Second Life's Open Grid initiative, which allows anyone to run their own server from home, this is already starting to happen.

What made the web interesting was what bean counters like to call 'low cost of entry' – basic web space was never expensive and only relatively simple and cheap tools are needed for development. Most of the bigger, more popular web apps, including Facebook and MySpace, developed from simple starting points. So the magic formula for success is a low cost framework that means anyone can join with the minimum of effort, but which can be expanded almost infinitely.

That's the fundamental principle that turned the web into a global phenomenon in just a few years and it's not hard to see how online worlds could go the same way. Once everyone has high-speed broadband running at 20MB or more, it's going to be easy to park open source server software on a spare PC and build your own virtual homestead, space station, art installation or night club.

It's also going to be possible to create stores that sell real-world goods and services to complement the virtual goods and services that are already available. The money problem isn't solved yet, but you can be sure that someone somewhere is already thinking about it. Once bandwidth starts ramping up again and one or more cash-handling interfaces appear for developers to start adding to their projects, expect to see an explosion of interest and a thriving combined virtual and real economy.

This might sound unrealistic, but most of the current development cost for gaming goes on developing 3D engines and art. If an open source 3D platform arrives, it will leave developers free to work on art and scripting and there's no lack of enthusiastic amateur talent for both. So if you've written off online 3D worlds as chat rooms with eye candy, watch this space – a few years from now they're where we'll all be.

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First published in PC Format Issue 227

Liked this? Then check out The evolution of gaming graphics

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