Second Life

Avatar Technology

I recently saw some video clips from “Modeling and Simulations Capitol Hill Expo 2008” where all of the usual suspects on the government/military side of the fence were showing their “serious games” wares for training, simulations, and so forth.

Two things struck me…first, several of the people mentioned “avatar technology” as a big selling point or key aspect of their technology, and second, the “state-of-the-art” being touted at this event (and similar ones) is woefully NOT state-of-the-art.

First, let’s deal with this goofy concept of “avatar technology”. Listening to these people, you get the sense that they really have no earthly idea of what the hell they are talking about, or perhaps they have some inkling but figure that if they talk real fast over the buzzwords, you will be impressed. Being impressed leads to sales!

Imagine a lot of people selling something they don’t quite understand to people that don’t really understand what they need, but feel like they should be buying something to keep up appearances.

But really, what is this “avatar technology” they talk about? It is basically using avatars, or more accurately, 3D characters, as a method or tool for teaching, training, and doing simulations. While this seems pretty obvious to half of the country that has experience with any kind of video game or educational animation, the other half of the country still thinks this is some kind of strange new magical technology.

The idea of using technology from the game industry for non-entertainment applications is generally referred to as “Serious Games”. What a lot of people don’t realize, is that the game industry has been in the lead (for a long time) in innovation, and has been pushing the envelop in multiple areas…3D rendering, 3D lighting, motion capture, artificial intelligence, massively multiuser networking, dynamic load balancing, world creation, behavioral modeling, simulations, physics, and generally anything interactive and immersive. Anyone leveraging any of these technologies in other industries should have a huge edge on the competition, and be able to do some amazing things.

So why is it that nearly every “serious game” application I have come across looks like crap, is clunky, feels like it came from 1996, and is marketed by people that really don’t understand the technology?

My take on this is that the people running the companies that focus on “serious games” (inclusive of anything with the words virtual, interactive, immersive, avatar, simulations, etc.) are generally from backgrounds in government or academia, that acquired some cheap tech and then leveraged their existing connections/expertise to secure grants and government funding. I have yet to see one of these companies run by game developers (current or ex).

The curious thing here, is that this results in a lot of money flowing to these companies, as the military, government, and even corporations are under the impression that they are getting “state-of-the-art” because this is all that they are seeing and being sold. Sure, there are exceptions (and I’ll tip my hat at America’s Army, which used the Unreal engine to roaring success), but not usually.

Probably the most dramatic example of this is the Institute for Simulation and Training at the University of Central Florida. I was fortunate enough to have a guided red-carpet tour of the facility recently as part of a team evaluating the facilities (not directly related to my own ventures, I was acting as a subject matter expert).

The Institute at UCF has quite a lot to brag about, and they do so. Repeatedly. I won’t go into details about the 140+ companies that have some presence at the Institute, or the $18M+ in grant money every year, or the sheer breadth of R&D topics being investigated there, or even the multiple buildings (all quite nice) and the new development. That was all quite impressive, and rightly so.

I do take issue with the presentation of everything as the world capital of simulations, or that this was the end-all, be-all of innovation and state-of-the-art. I’ve never been quite this underwhelmed by anything technology related, except perhaps by the E.T. game or the movie “Battlefield Earth” after all the movie hype. I think the most “cutting edge” stuff I saw could be done by a high school student over a weekend in a garage, or might have been considered pretty awesome in 1993.

One of the big highlights of the day long tour was the simulations/training platform for Forterra Systems. They ran a demo for us that was horribly cheesy (worst voice actors ever), with a pretty solid script that definitely showed off what they could do. I was reasonably impressed with that. However, their tech is severely dated (based on the same engine as there.com) and limited to something like 30 or 40 people concurrently logged in to the same virtual environment.

That last bit stunned me a bit so I commented about using commercial off the shelf (Cots) game technology to implement a more robust “back end” (refering to the server side networking) to get a few thousand concurrent users, or even a more realistic 3D graphics (you know, maybe only a decade out of date). I was immediately slapped down by Dr. Randall Shumaker, the Director of the Institute (who never bothered to ask anyone in the group (outside of the leader, for which the tour was to benefit) who we were, what our backgrounds were, or what we were looking for from the Institute).

Anyway, he pretty much dismissed me, and the game industry as a whole by saying that game tech is too flashy, unrealistic, over hyped, incapable of doing physics (beyond simple things), and essentially useless. Yeah, I was shocked. Someone has been drinking too much of their own kool-aid.

At the end of the day, the lesson here is that the “state-of-the-art” is certainly not so, and that the government is spending a lot of money to transition towards simulations to SAVE money, but there are a lot of jokers taking advantage of the gravy train. Why should they really innovate and push the envelop? Isn’t it easier to just snag all of the grants (SBIR, STTR, etc. and whatever else) and just coast?

Just for grins, if you want to see what I was talking about, simply go to the Forterra site and check out their demos (be prepared to cringe at some of the voice acting, particularly for the “kids”).

I was initially surprised that Forterra has been doing a lot with IBM, but then again, IBM thinks that Second Life and Open Sim are great and next-gen. Right idea guys, wrong implementation. The whole “virtual world thing” is not going anywhere as long as the money keeps going to the wrong companies, tools, and technology.

Avatar Technology is a red herring. The avatars are the least important aspect of virtual worlds and what their true potential is. Avatars are nothing more than self-representations of our individual selves.  Getting excited about more dancing emotes or greater variety and realism in clothes misses the whole point. The real value is in the world itself, and the tools necessary to build them, and make them useful.

 

 

Second Life Grid Trademark really annoys me

Apparently Linden Labs, the creators of Second Life, have gone out and filed a trademark on the word GRID. For you virtual world folks, the word implies a lot of things and is usually interchangable with a number of other cyberspace related words. Anyway, I don’t have a problem with LL getting a trademark on “Second Life Grid” which is usually how it is presented but to try to trademark the word grid by itself is pretty damned cheeky. Personally I find it offensive, insulting, and unfair. They might as well try to trademark cyberspace, web, network, polygon, avatar, pixel, link, and a few other generic terms that are common words, terms, and phrases used in the virtual worlds sector (which includes your standard virtual worlds, mmorpgs, and simulations).

I’m pretty disgusted with this.

I’m beginning to sense a bit of desperation from Linden Labs these days. Their CTO left recently, and their CEO has decided to “step down” in the near future. The media backlash against their unrelenting PR in late 2006 through 2007 (studded with misleading and disingenuous stats about their active users and subscribers) is continuing, and SL is handicapped by many problems that don’t seem to be going away anytime soon.

I think that Second Life would have died a long time ago, but for the fact that there is no clear competitor. Sure, there are places like there.com or whatever, but Second Life has bent over backwards to wrangle a lot of big name corporate sponsorships and virtual presences, and catered to the explorer and tinkerer types. Of course, there are a lot of virtual world experts, luminaries, entrepreneurs, and researchers that have found a home in Second Life. To be sure, SL has been valuable to a lot of people, and to some degree has validated virtual worlds in business, research, education, and online collaboration.

But I still think that the Emperor has no clothes, and the SL house is a house of cards that is very shakey. The first company that comes along with a better offering…more functionality, streamlined performance, better features, etc. will marginalize SL and dominate it, much in the way that World of Warcraft came out of no where and smacked down most of the MMORPG industry (not to worry, that gorilla is getting old and someone will knock them off their throne soon enough).

Anyway, I don’t want to get too far into an anti-SL rant here (at least not without doing it comprehensively and backing up my opinions), but their desire to trademark grid is crossing the line and just one more straw on the camel’s back.

 

 

Virtual Items...who owns what?

The issue of virtual item ownership has been percolating in the background of the industry for a few years, occasionally coming to a boil as a dispute gets some press or litigation occurs. One one side, we have the publishers and developers of massively multiuser online games (usually role-playing, hence the term MMORPG) and virtual worlds (Second Life, Project Entropia, etc.). On another side, we have the end-user…the players who spend hours and hours drudging along to level their character and gain hard to find or rare items. This category also includes people that spend time in various virtual worlds…in some cases generating or creating content of their own. There is a third side that everyone seems to ignore for the most part, and that is the Government (the US Government for the most part).

When you create an account with a MMORPG or Virtual World (VW), you generally have to agree to a “Terms of Service” that is loaded with a lot of legal sounding mumbo jumbo. Among other things, users are expected to recognize and agree that the developer (or publisher, depending on how things are setup) owns, claims full copyright, and reserves all other rights regarding to everything within the game or world. For example, the World of Warcraft Terms of Service states:

Ownership.

All rights and title in and to the Program and the Service (including without limitation any user accounts, titles, computer code, themes, objects, characters, character names, stories, dialogue, catch phrases, locations, concepts, artwork, animations, sounds, musical compositions, audio-visual effects, methods of operation, moral rights, any related documentation, “applets” incorporated into the Program, transcripts of the chat rooms, character profile information, recordings of games played on the Program, and the Program client and server software) are owned by Blizzard or its licensors. The Program and the Service are protected by United States and international laws. The Program and the Service may contain certain licensed materials, and Blizzard’s licensors may enforce their rights in the event of any violation of this Agreement.

Second Life, however takes a different approach:

Content available in the Service may be provided by users of the Service, rather than by Linden Lab. Linden Lab and other parties have rights in their respective content, which you agree to respect.

You acknowledge that: (i) by using the Service you may have access to graphics, sound effects, music, video, audio, computer programs, animation, text and other creative output (collectively, “Content”), and (ii) Content may be provided under license by independent content providers, including contributions from other users of the Service (all such independent content providers, “Content Providers”). Linden Lab does not pre-screen Content.

You acknowledge that Linden Lab and other Content Providers have rights in their respective Content under copyright and other applicable laws and treaty provisions, and that except as described in this Agreement, such rights are not licensed or otherwise transferred by mere use of the Service. You accept full responsibility and liability for your use of any Content in violation of any such rights. You agree that your creation of Content is not in any way based upon any expectation of compensation from Linden Lab.

Before I continue, let me declare a few definitions to help clarify what I am talking about. Yes, labels and names are important. Let’s define User Generated Content (UGC) as content that is built (like fitting legos together) or customized (character race, stats, name, appearance, etc.) based on other content that is created by the developer. Your character’s avatar in the game is not created by you…individual components are created by the developer and put together by you (this includes equipping the character with particular gear and items, or selecting skills, etc.).

User Created Content (UCC) is any content that is created by the user from scratch. This includes written fiction and stories, textures, 3D models, animations, code (widgets, applications, scripts, etc. usually based on some sort of scripting language provided), and so forth. In the case of Second Life, it is a very open environment and architecture, that lets users use tools to create and upload new content. Second Life makes no claim to this content, and they are willing to literally sell ownership rights to sections of virtual “land”.

Ok, moving on. Regardless of which type of content we are talking about, people have a natural feeling of ownership for their character/avatar, as well as everything that the character or avatar “owns”. This goes beyond the name of the character and its likeness, personality, and backstory. In MMORPGs particularly, there is a significant and substantial time requirement to develop characters, complete quests, collect items, and so forth. Users equate their time and effort to collect these items (indeed, most of these games heavily emphasize item collection) as their investment to acquire the items. Remember, MMORPGs are supposed to be about role playing…you are your character. All of these games have built in mechanics to trade items from one player to another, as well as sell these items directly to another player for in-game currency (platinum, gold, silver, whatever), sell them in in-game shops, or even post them on auction systems built directly into the game. While this is absolutely necessary as functionality in any MMO game, they serve to reinforce the perception of ownership…not just by the character, but by the player as well. So, naturally, people attempt to sell items, currency, characters, and even entire accounts for real world currency. There are dozens of auction sites for doing so (Ebay has been particularly aggressive about disallowing such sales), and venture capitalists have funded several ventures that exist solely to buy and sell game currency in multiple MMORPGs (gold farming anyone?).

Developers are usually against this. The reasons vary, but basically they don’t like being left out of the loop and not making any money on it, they feel that users don’t have the right to sell something that doesn’t belong to them, and there are a lot of potential legal issues and pitfalls that developers simply do not want to be exposed to or have to deal with when it comes to this particular issue. It is interesting to note that some publishers, like Sony Online, have changed their stance somewhat and make provisions for things like character transfers and whatnot, but they charge a fee for the service (I don’t believe that the mechanics are there for person to person sales though).

The issue is further muddied by the growing emphasis on virtual item sales (microtransactions) where developers sell game items directly to the player. $5 gets you a shiny sword or some unique piece of limited edition clothing. But do the players actually own this? Or are they just paying for access or limited license to the object? Are they in fact paying a service fee to use the item?

I’ll come back to that in a moment. First though, I want to talk about the third entity coming to the party. The Government. For the time being, the Government has limited its interest and interference to crowing about ratings systems and mature content (rightly so), and the occasional congressional nutcase (both parties) hollaring about how games are destroying our youth and the definite cause of much teen violence (which is ludicrous). The danger that lurks is when the Government decides that virtual items DO have real value, and they DO belong to the end user. Which means, they are taxable. Great. You really want to own your level 70 Warrior in World of Warcraft? What’s the market value on that? Do you really want to have to declare it on your tax return and pay for it? How about virtual property taxes? Be careful what you ask for…

Another quick point…I think Second Life made a big mistake in selling virtual land. The concept is good (and honestly, I was pitching this in the mid 90’s (95/96) with my first MMORPG venture), but there are some issues. One of the problems that Second Life has (and they have many) is that they have a difficult time keeping new users (the reasons I may discuss in some other post). People make accounts, buy some virtual land, build some objects (usually displeasing to the eye, but that is the nature of the toolset and no moderation over user created content), and then they don’t come back after they get bored. What happens? Landscapes filled with a chaotic imbroglio of buildings and objects with no consistency or context…and no population. So, Linden keeps releasing new land and the cycle repeats. Because some user OWNS those objects and virtual land, there is nothing Linden can actually do about it to clean it up or reclaim it.

Wouldn’t it have been better to sell leases, licenses, or limited rights to the property? Pay rent and do what you want. Quit paying rent and your virtual land gets forclosed on and resold. This simple little twist would have made Second Life a much greater success than it is now. Revenues would have been higher, the economy would be much more stable, and high traffic areas would be much easier to develop. Plus, the continual refreshment of content would help keep the world alive and vibrant. This approach (applied to virtual items as well) would let developers maintain all rights to their content in games and solve a few potential pitfalls. Even in WoW, the terms of service should be modified to allow users to transfer ownership rights of their license or service agreement.

I’m not an attorney by any means, but I think this is the way to go. Oh, I haven’t discussed the pitfalls I mentioned earlier. If the user owns everything, what happens in a MMORPG where there are thieving skills? What happens if another character kills your character, or screws up a quest or raid you were in the middle of trying to earn some epic item? If these things have real world value and ownership tied to it, you could conceivably sue them, and the developer for the loss or even emotional distress. Think about it… not very reassuring, is it? What happens in a server outage or rollback? Bugged items?

The moment that users (especially gamers) claim full ownership to the virtual items and start placing real world value on them, the pandora’s box opens wider and wider. Then at some point, developers will be shut down after litigation (ruining it for everyone) or the government will step in with a fat tax package (Obama already wants to raise your taxes by a ludicrous amount…it wouldnt be a far cry for anti-corporate and anti-gamer politicians to go after the mythical internet tax or the more realistic virtual item tax).

Just my two pieces of gold.

If you noticed I was incorrect in anything I mentioned specifically here, or you have some data on which party has been more vocal and anti-gaming (or even which politicians favor taxing internet stuff), please comment and let me know.