November 2011


Slate has an annoying story on “Why Second Life failed,” which presupposes that SL failed.  I don’t think it did— except compared to the hype.  The authors compare it to Facebook— well, jeez, almost every Internet app is a failure compared to Facebook.

They also annoyingly illustrate the story with a video that showcases butt-ugly SL graphics from about 2006.  SL avatars have improved:

Slate's example (left); today's avatars (right; from an ad)

What’s undeniable is that SL hasn’t developed as Linden Labs expected it to.  Right, because LL is pretty clueless.  They clearly expected it to either be a social network, or a venue for business meetings.  But it was never any good as a social network, and that was clear years ago when all we had was texting.  All you need to network is text chat.  The SL interface— avatars, virtual spaces, logging into a dedicated app— just gets in the way.   You can get completely up to date on Facebook in the time it takes to log in to SL.  As for teleconferencing, this is a pretty niche market, but it’s perfectly well served by a webcam.  Honestly a phone call will do— I don’t need to see the pasty faces of my coworkers in another state or country.  If I do want to see them I want to see them, not an avatar that doesn’t show their gestures or facial expressions.

Also, their basic world model is broken.  I’ve spent many hours building maps for video games, and map designers are strongly encouraged to optimize rendering— mostly by limiting textures and line-of-sight visibility.  SL has to render a huge sprawling world, and as a result it’s slow and you can’t fit more than forty people in any one region.

LL’s main way to make money is to rent virtual land.  But the result is that, well, there’s way too much land in SL.  People build things and never use them, so people new to SL are confronted with a huge but desolate vista composed mostly of crap.

The article is trying to make a point that an app has to fulfill a “job”— i.e. meet some need, even if it’s a new kind of need.  But it fails to actually apply this test to SL.  SL does meet needs, just not those that LL thought it would.

  • It’s a great 3-D modelling program— the easiest one I’m aware of, which is why I recommend it in the PCK.  It’s fun to build things and you can show them off easily.  Of course this is going to be a niche market.
  • I know a lot of people who like to shop and decorate, and they support a surprisingly large marketplace for people who like to create things.  A better comparison is not to Facebook but to The Sims.
  • It’s great for roleplaying— with minimal work  you can create your own RPG populated by actual people rather than NPCs.  (LL has never quite known how to build this market as it includes a heavy dose of sex.)

What these things have in common is that they’re less like social networking and more like games.  From that perspective, what LL should do, I think, is allow modding the engine, in the way that Valve or Bethesda do.  They’ve already open-sourced the viewer; they should open-source the engine too.  Then people could create engines that support NPCs, or combat, or puzzle games, or really expansive explorable environments, or which improve avatar modelling and control.

Or to put it another way: people love 3-d virtual environments!  It’s a multi-billion-dollar industry!  But the LL (or Snow Crash) vision of fitting them all into one big multiverse doesn’t make much sense.

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I started Dead Space 2, which is even creepier than the original.  For one thing, you start out in a straitjacket.  With monsters attacking you.  (If you can survive the first few minutes, it’s actually a pretty clever way for the game to get you slowly outfitted.)

mmmm that's good suit

Isaac talks this time, which I guess is fine.  He doesn’t sound a bit like tieboy.  So far he’s mostly “what the fuck?” which is a pretty valid reaction. 

I’m too early in the game to say much about it, except it’s definitely Dead Space, though with better graphics (and the first game was no slouch), better camera movement, more weapons, and darker hallways. 

I hope it holds up; the first hour has some awfully tense bits.  The sequence where you have to improvise weapons with the telekinesis field is pretty cool.  And the bit where Isaac gets his plasma cutter is gruesome.

I just finished Tim Flannery’s Here on Earth.  Overall I think he’s trying to do too much… there’s a lot of interesting information, but he can’t get into any one topic in depth.

But he mentions something I wish I’d known about when writing the Planet Construction Kit: that the distribution of megafauna on Earth is evidence for man’s original continent (that would be Africa).  Humans are very effective hunters of large game, and when introduced into a completely new environment, such as the Americas, they wiped out all the megafauna.

The major exception in Africa, where the local wildlife has been co-evolving with us for millions of years.  As a result, Africa is the one place where you still have megafauna. 

A partial exception is Eurasia, where there’s been at least some hominid presence for a long time; this allowed creatures like horses and elephants to survive. 

I’ve said for a long time that we don’t know what continent the intelligent species of Almea originated on; this little factoid makes that harder to maintain… we should just look at which continent has the megafauna.  I guess I’m going to have to say that the iliu-ktuvok wars disturbed things too much to make it clear, especially without fossil evidence.  We might learn more in a few centuries when Almea can be investigated with modern field methods.

I just finished Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, which was a Steam special awhile back.  It has mirrors.  As I’m used to seeing shiny surfaces in games that don’t reflect the player, this impresses me.  Here’s one, showing Max.   This one is not a lagomorph.

I passed a mirror. It reflected the shadows deep within me.

Max (like Max the lagomorph) is a detective, an extremely noir detective who floridly narrates his own life.  He’s bummed out because– well, I have no idea because I never played Max Payne 1, but it appears his wife was killed.  He heads out to investigate some gunshots– he happens to be nearby– and it turns into a long epic case.

There’s actually a story here, mostly told panel by panel, graphic novel style, in between the playable chapters.  It works as a storytelling device (and it’s well drawn and acted); it does bother me a bit that there’s not even a nod to interactivity.  Nothing you do affects the story.  Which I guess is common enough, but most games hide it a little more. 

The actual gameplay involves almost nothing but moving through huge bits of urban architecture, clearing out thugs.  (The thugs are always the same, so far as I can see; the chief variation is in how many there are.)  It’s mostly gunplay, and the guns can kill you pretty quickly; in compensation, though, you get bullet time– you can slow time down for ten seconds or so and use this to burst through your enemies.  (They’re still shooting at you, but slower, so if you’re not careful you can still be blown away.) 

A couple times, for a change, you get to play Max’s love interest, Mona:

Mona is a femme fatale, so she's way less emo than Max

This is nice, largely because Mona’s weapon of choice is a good sniper rifle. 

So, you know, pick this up if you like clearing buildings of thugs.  I enjoyed it without falling in love with it; total gameplay was about ten hours.  There isn’t a whole lot of variety, except for a couple dream sequences, and a boss battle that is made much easier by the fact that you can quicksave.  Thank you, Rockstar.  (However, don’t forget to quicksave often, as there’s no autosave.)

For the most part everything is very serious, but there’s one major bit of comic relief: one of the characters, Vinnie, is trapped in a cartoon mascot uniform and waddles around in a huge head and squeaky shoes:

Plus you have to protect this dweeb from the bad guys.

I’m so used to Valve maps, with their pickiness about rendering too much geometry, that I find it interesting that Rockstar apparently doesn’t have this problem.  GTAIV is famous for its huge seamless city; this game features some enormous maps, with windows where you can look out at a large vista.

Via Mefi, here’s a pretty amazing French parody.

The story is that in 1993 Warner Bros. allowed Canal+ to air anything in their catalog of thousands of films. Michel Hazanavicius, who would go on to direct the OSS 117 films, took the opportunity to create an original story by splicing together clips from about 50 films. The basic story is how three journalists (in film mostly borrowed from All the President’s Men, but adding Paul Newman) investigate the last words of Georges Abitbol– played by John Wayne– which were monde de merde (‘shitty world’).  They talk to people who know him, finding that Georges was not the man he seemed to be.

They got the usual actors who dubbed American film stars to cover each actor– e.g. Abitbol is voiced by the guy who did John Wayne. 

It’s in French, but if you follow the  Mefi link at the top, you can read my translation of this clip.  (Don’t just read it, it’ll sound dumb.  You have to get the accompanying visuals and line readings.)

Just in time for NaNoWriMo, it occurred to me in the shower that I should make this T-shirt design, so I did, for men and women.

A search of Zazzle finds some similar ideas, but I think this is pithier, at least.

I’m sure the world is crying out for Almean-themed merch, as well… if there’s anything you’d like to see, drop me a line.

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