[‘Letters from the Metaverse’ is a regular weekly column by Mathew Kumar about his adventures in the massively multiplayer online world of Second Life. This week’s column covers Second Life as a game development platform.]

This week I’ve been talking to ghosts.

There’s been an unusual bug that has appeared, at least for me, in the most recent version of Second Life; version 1.12. Occasionally other Second Life residents don’t appear, and I’m left holding conversations with only ghosts. They’re not completely anonymous; I know their names but nothing else. It hammers home, in a way, how important the avatar, the chosen form of another person, is to understanding them. As it is, I’m left only with what they said, no sense of who they were.

You see, I’ve been struggling with Second Life, recently. Not using it; I’ve been struggling with what my expectations were, based on the Linden’s efficient PR machine, and what I’ve found when I’ve been in world. I don’t want to turn this into a list of complaints, but when you hear of a thriving online world that’s not only a sterling example of free market capitalism but also the creative sandbox of our dreams, it’s not hard to find yourself disillusioned. Last week I explored a lovingly created island, Numbakulla, and was so utterly turned off buy the reality of the way Second Life forced my character to interact with it.

But the ghosts have told me I’m not the first to feel this way.

2006_08_29_primmies.jpgThe first thing the ghosts told me about was an article by Thomas Robinson on the Black Library. In the article, Thomas laments the death of Primmies, his Second Life game. The winner of a game development contest held by the Lindens and judged with the help of Doug Church, and what killed it? The very next patch to Second Life! It’s actually a rather beautiful article, if a little complex with jargon. The following discussion on the Blackbored is almost as essential, with Thomas Robinson hammering home his point, that Second Life is a failure as a development platform.

The ghosts linked me to a fairly recent post on the Second Life forums. The Second Life forums, not only soon to be closed, are only readable to people with Second Life Accounts. One well known member of the community, Clubside Granville, takes such umbrage at the closure of the forum that he literally leaves Second Life in the post. He has far more reasons to leave than that, and can’t resist scathing comments like “In the end there is nothing to do here if you are not into creating or want something more than a crippled version of IRC in a 3D world”, and states “Second Life runs under five year old physics technology on a platform it was never fully developed for at the time, using a highly inefficient and poorly designed scripting model.”

2006_08_29_chums.jpgThe most depressing thing about this, the ghosts confided, was that Clubside wasn’t just a naysayer. He was trying to accurately point out the flaws for the good of Second Life. For example, they said, he, and a team of individuals, decided to try and create the FPS “SL Conquest” after discovering a Linden sponsored banner ad which stated “Last week I created a multi-player FPS in Second Life... ...This week I'm charging people money to play it.” Clubside himself explained “The goal was to demonstrate the difficulty in implementing this very basic banner ad's premise, both because of technology limitations and cost. It's hard to charge someone for something they can essentially play for free, and it's hard to get people to develop in a system where people aren't ultimately interested because the content can't be compelling owing to those same technology limitations.”

2006_08_29_copter.jpgI visited Carnage Island, the remaining home of SL Conquest. Given a pistol by the nearest passing furry in camo gear, I took part in yes, a comically broken FPS experience. Carnage Island is without game balancing (the aforementioned furry attacking me with a helicopter seconds after he gave me a pop gun) and hampered by the slow character movement, jerky animation and weird collision detection of Second Life. The game does, at least, have random spawn locations, but when you consider that a plus point you’re probably getting desperate.

The last time I logged into Second Life it seemed to have more ghosts than ever.

Maybe one day I’ll be one of them.

[Mathew Kumar is a freelance journalist who’s dabbled in MMORPGs, but is too cheap/strong willed to play past a free trial. He got his break with Insert Credit, and his work has been featured in publications as diverse as The Globe and Mail, Broken Pencil, and Eurogamer. He's just started a workblog. Why don't you visit it if you want to find out more?]