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Second Life for a weekend

    Harry Fuecks

    Had a free weekend to burn so rather than doing something sensible, like enjoying the great weather, decided to check out Second Life from Linden Labs, which has been popping up on more and more radars in the last few months, and just starting to reach the mainstream press.

    It’s actually been running for over three years now but serious discussion as to it’s relation to real life, economics in particular, seems to have sparked wider interest.

    While reading up on it, what really sparked my attention was seeing URLs like secondlife://Shamrock/17/163/99 on game related pages – that identifies an in-game location. Got me wondering if they’d found the magic recipe to hook up today’s 2D, text-based Internet with a 3D space. Further reading leads to LSL, a mini language for players to extend their environment which recently also gained an HTTP client, enabling Second Life mash ups. Was also generally wondering whether this is a prototype for what a 3D Internet might look like.

    What is Second Life?

    It’s an online MMORPG which, from my perspective, has some unique aspects that distinguish it from other popular MMORPGs like World of Warcraft.

    For starters, there’s no objective: no single answer to “what’s the point?”. Calling it a game sets the wrong expectations. Social networking is nearer the mark I guess.

    More intriguing is pretty much all “content” within the game; trees, houses, clothes, you name it was created by it’s players, which raises the legitimate question “is this an operating system?”. The game has developed a very rich culture, in the form of clothing, architecture and pretty much anything you care to think of, all of it player generated.

    As usual the best introductory write up is Wikipedia if you want to know more. Thought I’d throw out some impressions and opinions, based on a short-but-intense experience. I’ve actually deleted my account now – more on that later – and for serious Second Life players, you can happily point out my ignorance – I’ll justify this on the grounds that first impressions are very quickly forgotten but sometimes most valuable.

    Getting Started

    Second Life has different signup plans and Linden Labs recently started providing free access (causing some protest) which is what I used. If I read the small print right the free accounts give you unlimited playing time but place a restriction on ownership of game “real estate” (you can’t own any), which might eventually limit your experience. But to see what Second Life is about, a free account is more than enough.

    After signing up you install a client for Windows (Mac also supported but weaker cousin, Linux alpha out there somewhere) with help from Nullsoft’s installer – I mention that because it gives me a feel for where Second Life’s developers are coming from. Once installed, logging in takes you to the beginners staging area, where you begin to move around and understand the UI, aided by signs / instructions to point you in the right direction.

    The client UI itself is acceptable – makes getting around / doing stuff fairly efficient / friendly but there are areas where it could use more polish. For example switching from typing IM chat text to moving around requires mouse and keyboard or loss of text cursor control, depending on which box you’re typing in. Also the “Inventory” window – a tree control – gets frustrating as it starts to fill up with stuff you’ve gathered. A similar problem to Outlook + endless mail folders in fact: needs a GMail-like “just search” methinks. Warts aside, it is more or less intuitive – there was little I needed to look up in the online help… which is good because there isn’t much online help. From this perspective, I wonder if Second Life is really ready for the attention it’s starting to receive. In particular, detailed information on building stuff is lacking, at least in text form; in-game there are tutorials and players will to help, which may be enough to suffice – I didn’t explore that path in much depth.


    Chatting with other players is a big part of Second Life – for a beginners it’s essential in fact so take the time and be polite. It works much like any other chat application in that respect – instant messaging, friend tracking etc. They’re also planning to support Jabber in some manner, presumably to hook up with other chat networks outside of the game. Meanwhile Skype is popular for people who’d rather talk instead of type.

    The unit of player organization is the “Group” (free accounts can’t start new groups but you can belong to other peoples groups), through which you can also broadcast messages.


    …is in general pretty good. The client is caching a ton of data as you move around Second Life while lag, in terms movement response, is not really a problem, and thats with trans-Atlantic latency, coming from Europe. What is noticeable is when you enter a new locations (teleporting) – it takes a while to load all the vector objects that make up the terrain plus more time to load any bitmaps on what seems to be an “on demand” basis. Raster images are commonly uploaded by players as textures for the vector scenery, as well as for in-game produce.

    Occasionally I also observed strange behavior such as entering a new location to discover my clothes and hair were still on the way; a little disconcerting.

    Database issues are not unknown and lightning struck Saturday evening – interesting reading is Web 2.0 and Databases Part 1: Second Life BTW

    On to more subjective subjects…

    It’s all about appearances

    About the first thing to do, after figuring out how to move, is changing your “avatars” appearance. The game is definitely impressive at this point – there’s a lot even a beginner can do to change their style – think I ended up burning close to an hour on the first attempt. Meanwhile at high level it gets photo realistic.

    In hindsight, making this the first significant interaction with the game is no coincidence. While Second Life has no objective and endless possibility to create things, certain preconditions define the norms within the game. The majority of players seem to be preoccupied with striving for perfect looks (and I’m no exception) – to be an uber-babe/bloke. It’s also a yardstick for identifying beginners, who look grey compared to the pros. I’d argue it stems fundamental Second Life design decisions – a different design could place emphasis elsewhere.

    So it’s all fun, in a dolls-house kind of way but long term think it’s like to be limiting – you’d either be aiming for perfect looks or trying to distinguish yourself from the perfectionists – polarization.

    Adults Only please

    While on the topic of appearances, it should also be pointed out that you’re going to be confronted with things that carry the label “adult”. Something like this is probably at the “conservative” end of the Second Life “moral scale”. Coming from Western Europe, I’m laisser-faire on this point but be warned if you’re more sensitive. A check: if you get the humor in this video (non offensive) you’ll be OK.

    They do have a version of the the game for minors, which probably helps ease this subject to external observers (Scoble got himself banned for this) but I find myself reminded of Girl Next Door – the kids know more than the adults.

    Realistically there’s no way Linden Labs has the resources to police all the user created content in Second Life. Even if they did try to crack down no doubt they’d fail, succeeding only in upsetting players. Again, with a European mindset, the “Follow these general rules, don’t be stupid or lose it” approach they’ve taken makes good sense and seems to be largely observed – I hope that continues to work for them. Copyright rules also seem to be being obeyed – while there is “remixing”, I didn’t observe any blatant plagiarism.

    Creating Content

    …is one area I don’t have any real first hand experience of. There’s plenty to do otherwise but if you get serious about Second Life (and some are very serious), there are some steep learning curves here. I played a little with creating stuff but found the in-game tools hard to manage (first impressions), with little in the way of online help. It’s a learn-as-you-do thing, perhaps comparable to the way most people learn HTML. But it takes time.

    As to what people are creating, off the top of my head…

    • Objects / artifacts: from clothes (and even skin) to cars and buildings. And anything else you could possibly “possess”. This largely involves working with the in-game vector graphics tools and perhaps attaching some LSL scripts to allow the objects to do things.
    • Avatar animations: beyond the basic movements you’re avatar can perform, controlled by the client UI, you need either BVH or LSL scripts to make them do more advanced movements. A popular activity in Second Life is dancing, but your avatar can only do this by virtue of animations, which you’ll either have to find / buy or go to an in game “club” which can provide them (typically colored balls lying around).
    • Media: creating / remixing music, uploading artwork and pretty much anything else you can digitize. Reading around, there seem to be artists creating content exclusively for Second Life, and even known “brands” making cameo contributions.

    What I can comment on is observing stuff other people created. Many times was simply gobsmacked – layers upon layers created by players, often to incredible detail – you really can get lost in it.

    Object Interaction and the UI

    One big problem, for me anyway; given an endless user created objects, how do you interact with them? Often it’s guess work clicking here there and everywhere. Via a right click, the default action “Sit” seemed often to be a default for pretty much any object that hadn’t explicitly overridden it. Meanwhile some things, like doors, respond to a single left click while animations, from your inventory are either attached to your body or activated ssomething like a media file. To me it felt messy and confusing – an abstraction that had already leaked. It’s not unusable – I figured it out in time but this is miles away from Amazon’s “One Click”.

    Get the impression this is a problem Linden Labs were unable to entirely foresee in initial designs and has now been solved in an ad-hoc manner by players and will be hard to fix without breaking peoples work. Strikes me what’s missing is some kind of break through, along the lines of what URIs and links meant to WWW and hypertext.

    LSL Script

    What little content creation I did try, also involved messing with Second Life’s scripting language. It’s… how can I say it… interesting. Strongly typed (benefiting the machine rather than the author) and organized around call back functions corresponding to object “events” like being touched, you also have an API available to interact with the game as well as an XML-RPC client, more recently, HTTPRequest.

    This sounds promising but I found Dav Yaginuma experience revealing (pre-dates the HTTPRequest API) – I’m just not that motivated.

    Second Life really needs to support a language like Javascript or Python to gain adoption. There are a number of references to a new scripting engine running on Mono due soon, so perhaps it’s doable.


    One of the Linden Labs policies is players own the content they create; most interesting because it allows them to sell it (and perhaps end up making real money). There’s a bunch of discussions about the full implications of this, which seem not yet to have been fully tested (in fact lets hope it stays that way in fact – no need for litigation). From a player perspective, for anything you create, you have the option of “locking it down” so you can sell it but the buyer can’t copy it or give it to anyone else. But you also have the option to give free access – let anyone do what they like with it.

    This is another area where I think the fundamental design has shaped the game’s culture (and I’m thinking Open Source here). While the coders are giving some of their knowledge and examples away for free, the media / design crowd seem to have a different point of view 0 you gotta pay buddy!

    Flawed Utopia

    More generally, game money is a critical factor to being able to have interesting experiences and means Linden Labs won’t be winning any awards for having created a Utopia. You get a small salary (depending on your account type) but once that runs out you can either can buy your way with real cash, or work out a way to get other players to give you money, like selling stuff or services – ’nuff said. For beginners with the free signup, this is a problem but, at the same time, does give you something to focus on. Meanwhile you don’t need anything to “exist” in Second Life – no food / sleep etc. It’s just a matter of how much you want.

    If you’re running some kind of in-game business like a shop, is it’s all about getting other players attention. There is a built in search system, where ranking generally seems to work on the basis of number of visitors (not a bad metric but shuts out the new). If you’re not ranked highly in the search, you have to find ways to spread the word. And with spreading the word comes the question of who you happen to know – no doubt, it helps to know the A-list.

    So there’s plenty in this social system to remind us of daily life. I guess what I’m driving at is, as a space for creating content, Second Life has restricted itself to a certain model which may be limiting long term but suits the short term, giving players an easy model to relate to and potentially exploit. I guess I’m looking for science fiction.

    Second Life as a platform

    Taking a step back, I’m left with the impression Second Life really is a prototype for how a 3D Internet might work. Looking at the top sites via Alexa, you have to conclude that the largest proportion of users today are still nerds, otherwise we wouldn’t have sites like PHP ranked in the top 200. While non-nerds know the Internet is there, it’s not yet a real part of their lifestyle. A 3D Internet could change that – while we don’t have to trivialize it to being the next big shopping experience, perhaps that’s why Amazon’s founder is an investor?

    On the URL front, they haven’t gone beyond URIs for game locations, which is a shame. If you start thinking seriously about Second Life as a place to do business, you want to be able to drop people a link to something you’ve just created (or are planning to create even) – think unique resources, in the REST sense and make everything, including avatars, identifiable..

    Integration in the other direction, bringing the Internet to Second Life, is moving along (apparently) with UBrowser being something Linden Labs is working on – a in-game web browser, using Mozilla code, which players can attach to objects.

    According to the Wikipedia article there has been interest from players in being able to add servers to the Second Life network, to host “land”, which so far Linden Labs has declined. Short term that’s understandable – introduces too many new problems. Long term, I don’t see it working as a platform if it’s not open to all to extend the infrastructure, in the same way you can slap down a LAMP stack, install WordPress and away you go.

    Without question Second Life is breaking ground, while Linden Labs gain unique experience in solving problems in this domain. Whether Second Life will become anything more than a game and a novelty remains to be seen. Personally I’m skeptical.

    Time is Money

    So why did I cancel my account, despite having enjoyed a Second Life weekend?

    Simply – I don’t have the time; job, family etc. comes first. And that addictive hook floating around in there is making me nervous. Some people don’t get it (in style!) but I found myself becoming absorbed by the sheer intensity of detail, endless possibilities, the social aspect and all that. Enough to want to stay well away!

    What I do have time for (and am willing to spend money on) is watching a film occasionally – entertainment packed in a two hour nugget, with no ties or things to occupying your brain while trying to get to sleep. Quite how you do this with an online game, I don’t know – perhaps it’s as simple as a controlled account that restricts the time I can spend? But how do I “get ahead” when everyone else is burning the candle at both ends? What if I’m in the middle of a conversation? Self-discipline fly out of the window…

    If Linden Labs (or otherwise) can address me as a customer, rather than fishing for my every waking (and sleeping) hour, perhaps I’d be back. Who knows? Anyway – Second Life is definitely worth checking out. Just keep an eye on the clock.

    Time to get some fresh air.