Friday, July 15, 2011

Changing the Rules: NPC's in Aurora

Remember what I said about changing the rules, and offering another experience? Let's focus on that a little more, with a juicy new feature in Aurora.

One thing quickly becomes clear when visiting any SL™ type virtual world- is that there's a vast expanse of uninhabited nothingness. Like a lone wanderer, I've passed through entire cities, 4 sims large, completely barren of any sign of life.

And this is a huge downer.

Once in a while you'll find the sculptified noob, perched precariously behind a counter or at a door, or a picture cut-out. But you know on first glance, there is no sign of life here. Those dull solid eyes, pixelated, as though a picture was stuffed into a glass casing. That image cut-out of Captain Jack Sparrow sitting behind a tiki bar evokes no more emotional response than a casual acknowledgement in passing of a cardboard cutout in a movie theater- it may even be scripted to talk, but it shows up in green text and immediately your mind blocks it out as spam- like a fortune teller bolted to its seat and programmed to flail its arms in a rigid manner and speak with a voice that sounds like a tin can.

Enter, the NPC. NPC's are crucial to games because they offer that simulated feeling of agency in an entity you know isn't real. Whether you be a sprite, cube, or cactus- the modality that the world in question presents you as will be the one you will associate with signs of life, be it human or not. (You know you've done it, you talked to every NPC in some RPG at one point, just to see all their responses.) NPC's have all the powers that you do in that game, so they feel like a comrade, or another living being, they move through the game world via the same mechanisms you do.

They have the ability to make you care about them, hate them, or invoke other human-human emotions towards them.

They are the ghosts within the machine, the characters of your story, they are the actors in your play unfolding- and now Aurora has taken its first steps towards enabling fellow world builders to fill their stages with life.

Their NPC API is still in its early phases, but the implications are immense. I'll be keeping an eye on this as development unfolds. Check out some code examples here.

I know I got a bit emotional here, but I have a special affinity for the avatar, and characters in general. In a sense, when we build, we're telling a story- and I know few stories void of characters.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

"But can I still access my av/friends/stuff?" - The Open Grid Dilemma

At current, it seems you have to already know what the OpenSim/Aurora projects are before someone can convince you to visit one. Any time I suggest it to a friend who's spent a lot of time in SL, more like as not, the first thing out of their mouths is "But what about my avatar, and all my stuff?" or "But can I still talk to all my friends?".

But I don't really think that's the main barrier to entry.

It seems counter intuitive, I know- they just said what they wanted didn't they? Yet, we all hear often enough "Ok, I'm gonna log to go on Steam/WoW/CoD/Minecraft for a bit, ttyl." These all still qualify as virtual worlds- but they're leaving their avatar, inventory, and even acknowledging closing off communication channels with their whole SL friend's list to go. Minecraft sees especially more comparison to SL™ in this instance.

Watch what they do, not what they say.

Each virtual world is offering their own particular reinforcing reward, the prospects of which override each other at any given time in priority. So people go round robin, getting tired of one thing, and moving on to another, until they tire of that and go back to the other competing priorities.

So what does this have to do with OpenSim/Aurora?

The turnoff here is that more often than not, what you're basically saying to someone when you discuss an open grid is:
"Here, I have something that looks exactly like SL™, plays like SL™, but has none of the properties that keep you in SL™."
And that's the wrong foot to start off on. What you need to be saying is:

"Here, I have an experience that you can't find in SL™."
And then you shift the reason people login from SL™ style rewards- to your own definition. It could be a community that can't afford to own a sim in SL™, it could be a game that doesn't exist there. Whatever it is, you need to offer a differing experience.

All the technology is certainly there, but to attract more than just builders who understand the value of free reign over a sim, you need to offer an experience that differs enough from their SL™ one to make them feel like they're entering something different- not just relogging.

OpenSim/Aurora offer features beyond what used to be thought possible for any individual. HyperGrid, host-your-own-sim scenarios, obscenely high prim allowances, obscenely high prim linking allowances, the ability to create your own grid with as many sims as your computer can handle- the technology keeps finding new niches that it's versatile enough to fill because of its agile nature.

But it's the available interaction that makes your world different that gives you value.

Raison d'ĂȘtre

So, what is it that gets the average SL™ user to log off the grid for an hour or two to play in another virtual world, but prevents them from playing in another open grid?

Socialization and reward. (In my humble opinion.)

There are people you want to interact with, and a world different enough that its rewards seem unlike the ones you've just exhausted yourself on in the virtual world previous.

You've just had a stimulating intellectual conversation with Scuttlebutt the Gray about violin making, and now you feel like hack'n'slashing stuff in [insert MMO here]. In both cases, the rewards are different, and both enough for you to switch worlds.

Make your worlds different. Focus your communities. Have well defined goals.

My personal laundry list of suggestions?
  • Make a unique game: The architecture and client both allow for scripted objects and HUD's. Take advantage of that!
  • Start a sim building project: Normally for a small community, costs are too high to afford much space at all. With 45,000-80,000 available prims, there's plenty of room to grow.
  • Create an art installation
  • Personal sandbox hangout: Upload costs are getting expensive. You can allow other people to connect to your local standalone with the right configuration. The bonus is, upload is immediate, and you don't have strangers around with wandering eyes.
  • Create a roleplay sim: RP sim's need space for the requisite immersion.
The key is, make sure your newcomers/friends have something to wear, a way to make themselves feel identifiably individual (socialization)- and something to do (reward).

Whether it be talking with other friends, or shooting at zombies. Don't let your sim remain an empty silent build wasteland!

Remember, you can still remain connected to SL™ without running two viewers!

I recommend Radegast. It can minimize to system tray so it doesn't clutter up your taskbar, and still allows you to do a lot of what you normally do in SL (minus the walking around of course- but there's an experimental feature in the latest nightly builds that lets you view the immediate scene around you!)


Anyway, just some thoughts. This is a juicy topic, I'll probably revisit again later :)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Resources: Free Skins

For OpenSim/Aurora users, assembling your own personalized avatar can be tough. Here's a link to a page with really high quality skins ^^

Prim Equivalency Saga

It's been a roller coaster while LL figures out prim equivalency. With people owning parcels with limited prim count, and mesh upload creating a seemingly heavy cost for even simple objects- it seems the mainstream use of mesh is going to be relegated to avatar attachments.

Ironically, this may cause a boost in Opensim/Aurora usage, since prim count is virtually a non-issue there. In some sense, you could suggest that it's easier/faster/cheaper to develop a plot of land in an open grid if prim equivalency cost keeps mesh from replacing sculpts in the architectural and landscaping arena in SL™.

We'll see how it pans out though. It may eventually end up that the cost/benefit ratio is acceptable enough. In which case, the next hurdle is to get everyone on a viewer that can see mesh.

Links for further reading:
Calculating "Prim Equivalency"
Prim Equivalence Explained

-- Raz