SLENZ Update, No 133, September 01, 2009

CARTOON  OR SUPER-REALISM

Do the graphics really matter

in virtual worlds?

… and is Blue Mars really the third generation?

Blue Mars 2050 … does super-realism matter?

I have always wondered just how much the graphics matter in virtual worlds: I know my personal preference falls into the super-realism category when it comes to graphics but I’m well over the age of 30 and even as a youngster never had much time for cartoons or comics.

I ‘ve been enamored with World of Warcraft for years as well as the latest Grand Theft Auto offering. The CryENGINE (R)2 graphics,  when proposed for Entropia  Universe, really turned me on. I’m also intrigued  with the possibilities of Lenova elounge, by Nortel, and the  latest offering from  the MellaniuM stable,  the Furnace, and love  today’s graphics in Second Life, especially when seen through some of the better viewers on a high-end computer. I also felt  the failure of Google’s Lively to get any traction with any age group was due to the cartoony style of its graphics.

However, the digital generation, unlike the digital migrants or my generation, the digital dinosaurs, seem to have no problem with cartoon characters or environments: Look at Habbo Hotel (135,000 m users). Although accurate figures are notoriously hard to come by the best estimates from the industry-leader in understanding the marketing dynamics relating to virtual worlds, British-based Kzero, suggest that 57 percent of the estimated 579 million people who are registered users of MUVEs around the world, are children.

Virtual Worlds ‘not a passing fad’

As Victor Keegan reported in the UK Guardian almost  all of the 39 percent growth in MUVE usage reported by Kzero for the second quarter this year came from children.

“Girls used to grow up with their dolls; now they are growing up with their avatars,” he said. In this largely unreported cartoony VW  flood poptropica.com – aimed at five- to 10-year-olds – had 76 million registered users; among 10- to 15-year-olds, Habbo (135 million), Neopets (54 million), Star Dolls (34 million) and Club Penguin (28 million). The numbers start tailing off among 15- to 25-year-olds – apart from Poptropica (35 million), underlining the likelihood that as youngsters get older they will be looking for more sophisticated outlets and for ways to link existing social networks such as Facebook or MySpace to more immersive virtual worlds, he  said, arguing that virtual worlds “are not a passing fad”.

Do those digital generation figures mean, however, that Second Life,  described by  Larry Johnson, CEO New Media Consortium, as “the most currently evolved of the virtual world platforms … the seminal first instance of what the 3D web might look like”,   could  be beaten to a pulp in the marketplace, either by  virtual world  offerings which have even more realistic  graphics  or  over the long term, as the current generation of teens and tweens become adults,   by cartoon worlds like Habbo Hotel.

But, although, we’ve also seen the growth of  the Second Life software-based, opensource OpenSimulator environments, such as OpenLife, OsGrid and ONGENS among others, the arrival of behind-the-firewall applications such as Nebraska and offerings from other stables such as OLIVE Forterra, Twinity, Wonderland, Kaneva and peer-to-peer offerings such as Vastpark , Second Life at the moment, like Microsoft before it, seems to have the critical mass, the content  and the graphics to carry the game among adult MUVE users for at least the next five years.

That doesn’t mean to say that Second Life  wont have competitors in the  short or the long run.  It currently  seems to be moving  to ensure that it can beat this competition by  again emphasising  real life applications;  in some ways it is moving away from its core  user-base, of mainly nerdy, older (as compared to the popular teen and  tween worlds)  fantasists, first movers, former lounge potatoes, weather-bound, shut-ins  and others who delight in interacting with each other around the world, but at a distance.

Mainstreaming Second Life

Although apprehensive about some of the future plans the Lindens have for Second Life, which I feel will, in many ways, destroy the things which contribute to its attractive game/play/art/on-the-edge  feel,  I think the Linden move  to promote training and education uses of virtual worlds and its expressed goal of mainstreaming  through “extending the value of Second Life beyond the virtual world (through) helping Residents more closely integrate Second Life with their daily lives” are  correct moves in  an economic sense.

As Larry Johnson, summing up the growing momentum of Second Life and virtual learning, said in April this year, “I think it’s safe to say now that nearly every college and university has some sort of project in Second Life.”

For many users, however, that is probably the “boring’ direction. And it probably means that many  early Second Life adopters are already moving or will move on to other more edgy worlds taking their creativity – if not their content – with them.

One of those worlds just might be Blue Mars 2150 which  is scheduled to launch into its open Beta phase tomorrow, September 2. Or, of course, it too might join the virtual world scrap heap which is already littered with virtual worlds which have been created, promoted, and sometimes marketed,  and then faded away over the last few years. Remember Outback?

From the preview above – and remember it is a promotional video -  Blue Mars’ graphics are stunning, as are its partners.  It to obviously wants to cash in on the fact that the average social website user today spends $US148 each year, a figure that can only rise.

Blue Mars 2150, which  describes itself as the third generation of virtual worlds (also here) and like Linden Labs is based in San Francisco,  has already secured joint ventures with numerous leading academic institutions around the world, including the National Association of College Stores, with its 30,000 plus members, TERC, the National Geographic Society Alan Watts, NOVA and Smithsonian Institution.

It remains to be seen just how successful  Blue Mars 2150 will be. My belief is that unless someone comes up with something like “interactive, shared, controllable, lucid dreaming”  the Lindens are going to be very difficult to knock off their perch.

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