Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Blue Mars - An Amateur's Guide

The open Beta Test of Blue Mars is supposed to begin 12:00 pm HST, September 2 (which should be 3:00 pm SLT). I was one of the hundreds (if not thousands) who participated in the closed Beta Test which ended August 31.

I had heard bits and pieces about Blue Mars and, months ago, when a call went out for Beta Testers I had signed up. I totally forgot about that until I got the email recently inviting me to go wander around and explore. I'm not sure what I expected. One of the reasons I went is that many comments about Blue Mars related to how it would do so many things better than Second Life. I wanted to see this for myself. :)

The "amateur" in the title of this post is me. I'm not a gaming expert (duh!). My experience with virtual worlds is limited to Second Life and the occasional brief foray into some others. I have never played World of Warcraft or any other shoot'em up online game. In fact I've never played a video game (unless Bingo counts). I say all this because, of course, my background colours my view of what I saw. Many of the things I encountered are probably considered "normal" to those with experience in gaming. If, like me, your experience is limited primarily to Second Life then these notes might help you when you go visit Blue Mars. And I do encourage you to go visit. I'll try to limit my "opinions" about what I saw to a small section at the end of this post.

The pictures I've included were actually screen shots. If there's a way to take snapshots inworld I never found it. The rectangular shape of the inworld pics is due to the fact that it isn't (at least yet) full screen.

Let me start with an overview - and again, I'll relate points where possible to what we're familiar with in SL.

  • Blue Mars is composed of "Cities" which would be the approximate equivalent of a continent in SL. The "City" is owned and developed by somebody willing to pay Blue Mars for that privilege. I don't know the price - you have to register as a developer (free to do) and then contact the company to find out. I assume that the pricing will be made public after the beta period.

    To quote the Blue Mars FAQ:

    A City is a themed location where users can play, socialize, and learn. Each city is represented by an independent data and rule set. Each city owner defines the look and feel of their location and sets the rules on what content is acceptable in their city. Cities are tied together by a central city browser that lets players move from place to place. Furthermore, our global participation based reward system allows players to earn points and rewards by exploring and playing in different cities.

    Once the owner has created their City they can (if they wish) then lease "Blocks" (like our regions but the size is about 62,500 sq m.) to other people. Those "Block Developers" can create and (if they wish) then rent out apartments, shops etc., to others. Content Developers can put their own items or services in shops for sale.

  • There are no inworld building tools. Anybody can build (they emphasize) but you must do it offline.

    Again, to quote the FAQ:

    The core Blue Mars client and interface is focused on enjoying the world through play and interaction, not content creation. Rather than force developers to learn new ways to create content through our own proprietary toolset, we support industry standard content creation tools like 3DSMax, Maya, and Flash.

  • I'm sure you've heard how great the graphics are - and they are very nice. A lot will depend on what the individual City and Block developers do. One thing that is terrific is that there is no waiting for anything to rez - this is because the City is downloaded on to your computer.

  • I'm trying not to judge the place based on SL so I'll just say be prepared: there is no flying, teleporting exists only in one City I visited and it was - let's say - limited. Walking is done by clicking the ground in front of your avatar. A white cone appears and the avatar walks to it. If you click the ground beyond a certain distance the avatar will start running. I did discover that at some point during all that clicking and walking the up arrow finally worked and cones started appearing automatically and your avatar kept going.

  • If you change the direction your avatar is walking (again by clicking on the ground in the direction you want it to go) your avatar will move in that direction but your perspective will not change. For example, you decide to make your avatar turn left and proceed in that direction. It will do so, and walk from right to left across your screen. I met somebody who had figured out how to change perspective - right click and use your cursor to cam around. Write that down - because you're going to need it. :)

  • Do not expect to recreate your SL avatar in Blue Mars - at least not initially. The ability to modify your avatar's appearance is very limited. I'm sure that will change - this is still beta.

  • There are question marks on the screen - if you click them you will get packaged help information that may assist you with whatever you're trying to do.

The first thing you have to do is register (easy) and then you download Blue Mars. There were the usual three options (complete, minimal and custom). Again I'm used to downloading Second Life so I picked "complete". I have a 100 mbps connection (although I won't claim the transfer rate is that high) and it took 2.5 hours to download what turned out to be 1.33 gigs. Others I spoke to had download times ranging from 1.5 to 5 hours. What I had on my computer were 4 different "Cities" (I believe there are 5 in the open Beta). I'll talk about them as I walk you through the actual Blue Mars "experience". :)

When you logon you arrive at the main "Central City Browser". In essence billboards which each depict a separate City. You click on the City you want and are transported there. I believe that billboards of all of the Cities will be there even if you don't have them on your hard drive. I don't know what will happen if you choose one you haven't yet downloaded - I assume you would then get the option to do so.

Being fond of landscapes and nature, the first City I chose to visit was the "Waterfall".

I'm sure it's beautiful but I never got much further than the landing point. It turns out it's a timed "game" where you fly around in a type of vehicle. Remember I've never done video games. I did (on my fifth visit) finally get the craft off of the ground and through that ring ....then promptly crashed into the water and gave up. So I went back "home" and picked "Beach City" next.

I walked around for a while - it's very large when you can't fly. But it looks good. I sat down and had a conversation with two nice gentlemen (one of whom had figured out the way to change your perspective). What you can't tell from here is that whoever had done the animations for the chairs went a little overboard. The three of us looked like we really needed to go to the bathroom. :)

I decided not to try to play golf - I was still sore from crashing my plane. So I went to New Venice.

This is a very pretty place even though it was still under construction.

I decided to experiment with the camera while I was here. You'll notice the open menu on the bottom left of the picture - the four "head and shoulders" are the options for your camera. In these two shots I'm using the farthest distance camera option. (Note that the menu has been redesigned and a new "Menu Tray" is operational in the open Beta Test.) I really wanted to try and look close up to something so I walked right up to a pot of flowers.

Then I changed my camera position to the avatar's perspective and got this:

Using the right click/cursor will allow you to swing your camera around but the distance you can move it is very limited.

I'll give you a few conclusions I've reached - remembering this was an early beta, but I think the basic architecture will remain the same.

  • I suspect that each "City" might wind up being a "virtual world". I think users will pick and choose what they will download and that will limit their ability to move around the Blue Mars Universe. Update: To be more explicit - there were a lot of questions about what Blue Mars was ..... a virtual world? a gaming platform? My conclusion is that Blue Mars is a host. It provides some very basic infrastructure but the City Developers will create worlds, online games etc., and set the rules for content and behaviour.

    I have this image in my mind of City Developers standing at the initial login site yelling "pick me". Early adopters will have an easier time getting users to at least test their Cities. Once there is a lot of choice it will be harder and harder to get noticed.

    City and Block Developers will have to provide enough content to attract and keep enough residents to create a community with a viable economy from a Shop Owner's perspective. It will be interesting to see how that works.

  • There is no suggestion of what the maximum concurrency might be in each City but I have trouble imagining hundreds of people at a concert or lecture. Not because the technology couldn't handle it but because you wouldn't be able to see anything. The combination of very very limited camera functionality and all those chat bubbles would make it a less than enjoyable experience. (Just my opinion of course.)

  • There are lots of reasons I love Second Life but the ability to build is number one. I realize that much of what we do is done offline (textures, skins, clothing) but the ability to create objects is something I find impossible to imagine doing without. Until I have decided to learn Maya or 3DS Max (which might happen...someday... maybe) I won't be living in Blue Mars. I will probably go visit, because I expect there will be some extraordinary builds, but I will continue to live in Second Life.

There are a lot of things I haven't said about my opinion of Blue Mars. I really think you should go see it for yourselves and reach your own conclusions.


Dale Innis said...

Thanks much for this! I think I'm going to be subsisting on intelligent reviews and stuff for awhile, given that even if I had the time to download that much stuff I don't have that much disk space. :) Ah, well, new computer coming in a few weeks...

Honour McMillan said...

:) I met one guy who was going to go look for a 1 terrabyte external drive - he figured if nothing else he could use it for RAM in SL.

Cristopher Lefavre said...

Sounds interesting indeed; I have registered for the public beta so maybe we'll meet?

I do wish SL would take some steps in the Blue Mars direction: It should be possible to "freeze" a sim, downloading it to the client and let the client handle physics in a sort of "game" mode. Such sims would be great for concerts, meetings and high traffic malls; places where you really don't need the "on the fly" creation of objects.

Raul Crimson said...

Thanks for this post, Honour, really complete and interesting report.

Actually i'm not sure i like that you can't "build inside", i understand that's what makes SL sometimes slow, but i love that possibility. Anyway, i would like to check it myself for a while to make my own opinion and be more fair. As you say, is hard to experience Blue Mars without comparation to SL.