Self-critique

8:30 am local, and here I am “replying” to the latest Single Frame Story without having submitted one…

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Thing is: I’m a lot better with words than images. Oh, yeah, I post a lot of snapshots — but that’s all they are. No setup, minimal if any tweaking, and always of other avatars or builds. What I’m saying with them is either, “You’re my friend and I want us both to remember this occasion,” or “You’re a random stranger who struck my eye with your originality, and I think you should be seen by other random strangers.” (The latter goes for builds as well as avvies.)

Composing a deliberate photographic image to illustrate a theme… not so much. Of the two I’ve offered so far, one was recycled. When “critique” appeared as the topic, the first and only thing I could think of was the Op-Ed page (tab at upper right), because that’s where and how I do my critical thing. You can go there and read some of them if you want — or not, up to you — but there was a time when I could, and did, spend six to eight hours polishing before posting.

That’s where the “self-critique” comes into this: it’s the two-edged sword of the writer.

Even so… “Single Frame Story” has become my favorite avatarian blog. To see the entries from others is to see into their minds, if only through the path their creators want you to take. Even when the topics don’t inspire me to try, the results are always inspirational.

And, it’s a challenge — to me, to stretch the mind, to try something I haven’t before. I need that.

We all do.

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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.

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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.

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Pathfinding: The Long View

I have no use for Pathfinding on my home parcel. I don’t intend to ever make a “character”, let alone set it wandering like the undead, then rez obstacles in its track for the lulz. :P But hey, there’s a lot of stuff I don’t do: scripts, sculpts, animations, textures… I’m a primslinger; I make buildings out of blocks.

I know it’s gonna be buggy as hell: it’s a Lab product. But I also know that’s not going to get in the way (much) of the people who have been waiting for capability like this.

And that’s a good thing.

People have been building games in Second Life for nearly as long as the Grid has existed. When I read Inara’s precis of it, I thought immediately of two ancient examples of “pathfinding”. The first was “Vorago”, built on Varney by Tcoz Bach in December, 2003:

“Was”, as in no longer there. The house in the lower left corner of this overview, ban lines and all, replaced it.

The second is “Medieval Crusade”, built on Immaculate by Tedd Tigereye in January, 2004.

Watch out for these guys!

It is still there (lower left) – and so is Puff the Dragon, after 8 years and more.

So, yeah… Pathfinding is gonna is still going to need work. But those Resis did that with Version 1.2! (Check what was new with that Release.)

There are artists out there who will grab Pathfinding and run with it — and some of them, eventually, will blow our minds.

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