Shiny… and not so

When you build with only prims and sculpts, the more detail wanted, the more objects it takes. That’s easier to get away with in, say, InWorldz, where the prim limit is 3 times Second Life’s per square meter. Not so easy in SL.

Except… there’s more than one way to impart the sense of 3-dimensionality besides making it out of blocks. Ever hear of trompe l’oiel art?

That’s oil paint on flat canvas, from 1887.* In our own time, there’s a movement of sidewalk artists who do some phenomenal work when seen from the optimum angle:

The child is real, by the way.

Linden Lab’s announcement Thursday of a new, open source “Materials Systems” project seeks to enable trompe l’Viewer: a way of adding metadata — “normal” and “specular” maps — embedded in mesh objects and textures that fool the graphics rendering engine to interpret a surface other than literally.

If you endured Intro to Optics in a uni-level physics course, you might recall that normal refers, not to behavior, but to the line perpendicular to a surface at a given point, and that reflection and refraction are measured as an angle away from the normal. Specular, in optics, means “mirror-like”; that is, light is reflected directly back toward the source; specularity in computer graphics is a way to control how reflective a surface is, and where.

Put the two together, and you have a way of creating detail on an otherwise flat (or smoothly curved) surface without having to add more more triangles and vertices to the mesh. The Linden Lab post has a short teaser about results (which you should watch), and Nalates Uriah’s blog has a couple of examples from outside SL, as well as an important reminder: It’s all mesh, and it always has been.** Avatars, clothing layers, skins, prims, sculpts, even the sky! Go to your Advanced menu and turn on wireframe to see for yourself.

Think about what skin, clothing, and texture artists will be able do — eventually — with Materials tools. OK, so SL may never look like Pixar put it together (seen Brave yet?), but it may eventually look a lot less flat.

The keyword in the last paragraph is eventually… which brings us to Teh Lab’s other announcement of 16 August: “Second Life is Expanding to Steam”. There was quite a kerfuffle when that news hit the SL enclave in the Twitterverse.

Here’s my reaction, cobbled together from a series of Tweetrants:

“Let them come, and they’ll build it.” How many times have we seen that before?

Since they can’t retain the new signups they already have, why bother looking for more? Unless it’s another round of “let’s make money hosting someone else’s content,” which I strongly suspect. $1000 down and $295/month for a 256m-square sandbox. When someone successfully raises startup cash online for game development in SL, then I’ll believe it’s got legs.

So… yeah. Materials and Pathfinding: great potential tools for builders and game developers who, if they show up, might create some really cool shit that might attract the kind of gamers who use Steam as a one-stop source for stuff to play — eventually. Gotta get the devs here first, of course, but does Linden Lab include that in their thinking? Nope — it’s “cart before horse” time again.

Let’s say, once those shiny new tools are sufficiently “out of beta” to be useful, that someone is genuinely interested in SL as a game development platform. It’s going to cost them a minimum of $4540 for the first year, per sim, plus the nickel-and-dime game of upload charges, just to sandbox the thing. Like I said: when I see Kickstarter appeals on Twitter to bankroll a game in Second Life, then I’ll know that idea is working.

Meanwhile… people go to Steam to play games, not make them. Hard-core MMO players, if they’re curious enough to create an account, are going to take one look and say “Pffft!” Second Life requires self-direction (not to omit a steep learning curve), and that’s not what most people play games for.

Last time I looked, five months ago, SL had about 28.25 million total signups over the life of the grid. It’s up to 30.5 million now – 2 and a quarter million more new accounts; 450,000 average per month, or about 15,000 a day. Yet median concurrency continues to slide, slowly but perceptibly, somewhere south of 40,000.  They can’t keep the newbies they already get every day; why are they going for more, before the improvements that might make more want to stay?

It is a puzzlement.


Civil War Regalia of Major Levi Gheen McCauley, George Cope, 1887 (Art Institute of Chicago)

** The Lab likes to throw the word “mesh” around in various contexts, with various connotations, without explaining that it’s all the same thing. “Mesh import” is exactly and only that — a means to import items made out-of-world (in Blender, et alii, ). “Pathfinding mesh” is, like the materials maps, merely an addition of metadata to the terrain – which is also, and always has been, mesh: a mathematical 3-space construct of points, connected by lines into triangles that imply a surface.


2 responses to “Shiny… and not so

  1. Why do you assume the additional tools to make SL more 3D are only useful for game development? Many of the designers I follow on Plurk (who primarily create clothing and homes) are very very happy about the new tools. They suggested the SL fashion industry and the home/garden industry will both benefit tremendously from the new mapping tools

    Steam may or may not be a useful recruitment tool. Time will tell. But I do think being on Steam will not amount to much of anything with respect to retained users as you suggest.

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