Lots of Lil’Lives

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Considering how many pundits discuss the futility of Virtual Worlds, it amazes me how many companies try their hand at the art. The current media darling amongst the contenders is the just announced Metaplace, a Virtual World creation system designed to be web based. The idea seems to be for people to create lots of small, interconnected virtual worlds, sort of like Switzerland.

I have heard of this concept before, and I am dubious. I prefer a large, cluttered, noisy world to a smaller, orderly, more limited one, even if I can jump from world to world. The fact that as of now it is 2D (3D version in “development”) also doesn’t fill me with love.

The fact that the developer is already discussing companies building their own virtual worlds for limited marketing campaigns make me view this as more a corporate fad and money spinner then a serious attempt at changing the web, but we shall see. Some impressive net personalities seem to have confidence, at least in Metaplace’s founder Raph Koster.

The following article appeared in the indispensable GigaOM, penned by the once and future Hamlet Linden, Wagner James Au.

Metaplace Unveiled: Raph Koster Brings Virtual World To The Web

Call it Second Life on the web, call it an MMO markup language, call it the most powerful open-standards, web-driven game platform ever made public — however you end up describing it, we finally have the main details to go on. After a year of rumors and terse venture funding announcements around Raph Koster’s new San Diego-based startup, Areae, his stealth Internet project is finally public.

Hours before he went onstage at TechCrunch 40 to officially introduce Metaplace, Areae’s metaverse for the web, Koster’s publicists finagled me an extensive interview and first look at the platform. Formerly Sony Online’s creative director, Koster also directed the Star Wars Galaxies MMO and led design on the groundbreaking MMO Ultima Online. So everyone in the online game/virtual world industry has been eagerly waiting to see just what he was planning.

To be honest, I’d expected a user-created online world built on top of a Java platform or something. Instead, Koster’s vision is far more ambitious: in effect, he’s proposing to make online world elements like dynamic, graphically shared space, avatars, and virtual currency part of the standard code which drives the web. How is that possible, and how can they compete in such a crowded market? What follows are my first hasty notes, on the day the web married the metaverse.

Destroying the traditional walled garden: An MMO accessible through Flash apps, 3D clients, cellphones, etc.

Up to now, most MMOs have been “walled gardens”, requiring an extensive client install. Metaplace, by contrast, is “A Web browser with virtual world capability.” And it’s a browser that comes with its own tool kit, for people who want to build worlds, and a community/marketplace where developers can give away or sell their templates, scripts, and so on, hosted on the Areae network.

Thanks to the underlying HTML-style code by which Metaplace defines each individual world served by its network, you can literally copy and paste attributes like graphic appearance and user interface from one Metaplace world to another. In the demo, Raph showed me a Habbo Hotel-style living room (Metaplace will launch with this 2D isometric graphics view as standard), but Raph and his team expect the variety of worlds to grow with their tools, eventually accommodating hardcore MMOs like World of Warcraft—or even a new Second Life.

So instead of a single contiguous world, someone visiting the Metaplace web site gets presented with a YouTube-style home page (see photo of Metaplaces Beta log-in page). Instead of videos, however, you have a variety of worlds to choose from, with ratings in terms of popularity, genre, and other categories. This prevents users looking for different worlds with different audiences and genre expectations getting their experiences crossed. (Or as Koster calls it: “Oh no, you got my Cartoon Network in my Suicide Girls!”)

Gaming the system: Koster eats his dog food

As a renowned game developer, Koster has a rolodex of top developers in games and the tech world in general, and says Areae has been talking with an A-list roster of people interested in creating their projects in Metaplace. More key, Koster say he’ll be developing his own next MMO on the Metaplace network, which will probably gain a large audience in and of itself (thanks to his reputation) — while also creating a signature prototype for his company’s platform. (Koster wouldn’t provide any details on his new game, however — he said he’s saving that for a later announcement.)

Areae’s many revenue models

  • World-making is free — much like some introductory blog services, Areae only starts charging users for hosting their Metaplace world when they begin generating heavy traffic.
  • There’ll be sponsored worlds from advertisers and/or Areae partners.
  • Virtual currency can be spent across the network, and can be sold for real cash — which users and developers can buy from Areae.
  • An Adsense-style ad network will track user behavior based on what Metaplace games and worlds they play, and feed them appropriately targeted ads.
  • A mini-Metaplace world can be embedded within a web ad, creating instant brand engagement to promote a sponsor’s products.

Philosophical Differences: Metaplace vs. Second Life

While Second Life is evolving as an immersive 3D metaverse which slowly incorporates web elements like XML and RSS in-world, Metaplace is beginning as a web-based network which swallows the attributes of online worlds. As Koster put it: “We don’t think the Net is getting stuffed inside a giant 3D client.” That’s just the Second Life strategy, which demonstrates the fundamental philosophical difference between Raph Koster’s Areae and Philip Rosedale’s Linden Lab. Rosedale wants a one-world utopia where all Second Life users share the same space. Koster wants a metaverse that looks more like the web. “Cramming people into one world doesn’t make sense to us,” he told me.

Metaplace: The geek details

  • Content creators will use the Lua programming language.
  • Client agnostic.
  • Fully interoperable with the web.
  • Modular scripts that are click-and-draggable from world to world.
  • Every object in Metaplaces is a web object, and can thus serve XML data. (“We speak web top to bottom.”)
  • World developers have tools to charge their users Metaplace money, which they can then convert into U.S. dollars. (Which is why you’ll need to give Areae your Tax ID number, when cashing out.)
  • Areae is now developing an open source 3D engine and cell phone-driven platform. (“All of our clients will be open source.”)
  • Speaking of which, Creative Commons licensing is in consideration. “That seems like a natural fit.” (And notably CC evangelist Cory Doctorow is on Areae’s board of advisors, along with other stellar MMO figures.)
  • Open Beta planned for Spring 2008.
  • Alpha testing begins now, starting with 50 volunteers. In later months, that will expand to 500, and by the time it goes to closed Beta by the end of the year, will have room for up to 5000, a community of early adopters which Areae will help teach to use the development tools.

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