[Originally run over at our online game site WorldsInMotion.biz, Mathew Kumar has been speaking to those interesting Austrians at Avaloop about Papermint, which is one of those rare things - a PC online world that's visually striking and interesting in terms of game design. Ignore at your peril.]

Avaloop's new online MMO Papermint, which has had an intriguing history and a distinctly different graphical style, entered Open Beta last month.

Papermint is a free-to-play, browser-based 3D MMO that combines casual gaming and social networking. Players create an avatar from "paper cut-outs" and can then play mini-games, design objects, and decorate their personal space.

They can also get involved in family networks, roughly described as "a web of fictional family relationships between players" -- which can include the possibility of getting married and having children, which are in turn new players in the world.

Avaloop is a fully independent company working out of a "former local cinema" in Vienna, Austria. Papermint has been in development since May 2006 and was in closed beta since May 2008.

The game world is modular, consisting of an ocean with different islands created in collaboration with different artists and illustrators, which allows "microlocalisation of in-game communities according to geographic and thematic differences," with different islands for nationalities or common interests.

In honor of its availability of the alternative online world, Worlds In Motion is talking to lead artist Barbara Lippe and creative director Lev Ledit about the development of this intriguing 3D world.

This includes an in-depth discussion of the striking art direction, the influence of games including Puzzle Pirates, andan exploration of their attempt to create a world where "people can feel physically connected without being at the same place in real life."

What set the development of Papermint into action?

Barbara Lippe: This is a question for Lev, as Papermint is his brainchild.

What I can say is that I got to know him when he was making feature films. For me, he was that typical artsy film guy, but with a lot of humor and drive, and the ability to motivate a team to execute almost impossible things.

I was interested in console games at the time also (and have been since my childhood in fact, when I fell deeply in love with Link), as I had worked in Tokyo before. Japan's game culture showed me a thrilling way to implement my characters into something exciting that people could use and play with.

However, one day Lev came to me with te idea of a virtual world, an online society. I was always glad to turn my characters into "living" creatures and agreed to draw for the prototype.

At that point, Papermint was more of a 3D chat client, but the game features were planned. Lev seemed to be obsessed with online realities (MUDs, MOOs, MMOs -- especially Ultima Online, as far as I know) and was also interested in political and social systems between humans and across civilizations.

Actually, I think he was even dreaming about online societies each night. Papermint was the manifestation of those dreams.

Lev Ledit: To be more precise, what I had in mind 2004, when I started Papermint, were two things:

1.) Giving people the license to communicate. A world where you have a clear idea of the people you meet, like in real life, where you just have to look into a bar, and in the first second, you know if you fit there, if you like the people, if they could like you, who they are roughly, and so on. No concrete information, but a pattern, and human brains love patterns.

You find this in Papermint ithroughthe profile. It's called square sole or sole pattern -- the colors and shapes and flags and symbols floating over every Papermintcharacter. It's not concrete information, but people start reading it unconsciously once they start to get a feeling for it.

Like in real life, some information is simple to set up (our clothing), some are hard to lie about (how we talk), some are dependent on the social surroundings (you can be a cool kid in your classroom when you're seven years old, but in a public space?) -- all of this you can find in the sole pattern.

2.) The sensual experience should not imitate reality. You should feel you're in a better world, a world where people think of sustainability -- looking after their resources; everything in the world should have a meaning, should be something you can use.

The art design is one of the most striking things about the world; how did that evolve?

BL: I never really took any marketing reasons into account when deciding on my art direction. I knew I wanted to create a place where nobody would feel really excluded, and I, of course, thought of the minorities in online worlds. However, I think our audience is much more style-conscious than tech-conscious.

Papermint also should never become a ... game-advertising/logo junkyard; any commercial promotion would have to go hand-in-hand with intelligent, symbiotic game design, not via visual marketing cues.

I was never a big fan of the tech-demo-based Western 3D aesthetics that have developed in games since the 90s. It seemed that instead of boosting an artist's fantasies to unknown limits, the new technology that would enable us to visualize the unreal drove artists to think in much more unfantastic ways. Realism replaced style for a long time.

I was never interested in producing a 3D still life of the perceivable world. For that, my fantasy is way too lively. I want to rebuild the fantastic in my head in a believable way.

I believe in style, saying that the decision to implement a certain, deliberate style has impact on the meaning, the semiotics of the game. If Papermint would look realistic, it would mean something else. But we decided intentionally to use the charms and the significance of 2D in a spatially navigable world. 2D is flat, and this fact does not make it difficult to come up with a paper metaphor.

Paper has a big advantage in that it is real (you can print your Papermint character, cut it, fold it, put it onto your deskā€”in that way Papermint is much more real than any digital hi-def-hi-res 3D world), but also fantastic (paper is able to do things a creature made from flesh and blood is unable to do).

This is great for a lot of slapstick humor. Just imagine paper people folding themselves to somewhere, turning into boats and planes and paper balls, getting wet in the rain or catching on fire.

All shapes and colors are explicit and clear-cut in their appearance as they all have a signaling or game play function. So, for example, every island has a color code of 35 colors maximum. This not only helps to keep the island pleasing to look at, but also includes great game design possibilities.

As you can collect colors and use them to express yourself (dye your outfit, paint your flat, etc.), you have to travel and explore to find new colors if you want something special. People will see your newly colorized feather boa and will become excited about where to get that unique piece. So, every island is worth traveling to just because of this little fact -- and among many other reasons of course.

Style is a message. Style is a decision. To create something in a certain stylistic way, a graphic artist can put his or her message into a whole thing. To develop a certain style also means to liberate the game from any constraints or the pressure to always be graphically up to date (and thus always too late) with any technological development.

Graphics which were just created with the latest technical milestones in mind will look old after the next step technology takes. Papermint is more than a tech demo! Anything that has been done with a stylistic decision in mind will always look stylish in this sense of the word.

I truly believe that the 3D technology we have so far is way too insufficient ... especially for a platform like Papermint, a world that is about and for real people, including their emotions, feelings, and the human interaction between them.

Almost-realistic 3D avatars don't look lovable in my eyes. I prefer to reduce human characteristics to the essentials. It's about the human essential, not about an almost-real-but not-real-enough-and-therefore-alienating 3D idol. A few smartly placed lines can express so much more than a multi-million polygon 3D character.

From a production point of view, this 2D style allows our artists (we invite guest artists from all over the world, especially non-game-artists like fashion designers, illustrators, architects, comic artists, stylists who don't necessarily use 3D software) to use our tool chain and implement their non-game graphics into an actual game.

Our graphics are based on vectors, but in a 3D engine. This is also an absolute novelty and not only keeps data sizes extremely small, but also allows us to make changes on the fly. This enables us to satisfy any user demands extremely quickly. And isn't that service really important for a world full of real humans?

Let me reference a concept expressed by Eiji Aonuma, producer of the later Zelda titles: "A game doesn't have to look real -- it has to feel real".

This is the principle of the art of Papermint, indeed.

Did you look at other virtual worlds and video games?

LL: Yes, and I can tell you, there is one game which really influenced me intensively -- Puzzle Pirates.

We even have a very cool feature directly taken from Puzzle Pirates: the "talking circle." We did this officially, because the people from Three Rings are some of the coolest people I've ever met. One of the many advantages of Puzzle Pirates over all other MMORPGs is identity fixation.

In other worlds, like World of Warcraft, the value of your character is mainly given by the tools and possibilities of your level. This is the reason why you can buy or sell WoW characters. Try this for Puzzle Pirates! It's impossible, because the qualification of your character depends mainly on you, not the game.

This is what I've tried with Papermint, too. Let the characters talk of the player and his/her qualification and not only their money or length of play.

BL: From an art perspective: I grew up with Japanese console game graphics and anime, without really knowing that they were from Japan, and I always appreciated their way of expressing complex things with just a few lines and colors. I liked the color schemes of many games, especially Konami's and Nintendo's games.

Despite the (often unconscious) pop cultural "Japanization" of Western generations since the late 70s, I did not want to mimic an Asian style too much as I also wanted other cultures to find themselves in Papermint. Therefore, we also invite other artists, in order to give mini-communities stylistically what they want.

I'm still not quite clear on how "family networks" work -- especially with new players being born into the world.

BL: In Papermint, you can flirt, fall in love, and marry. You can even have kids.

When you are married, experienced enough, own a flat, use the bed, and are successful in the child-making "game" (it still has to be implemented, but it will be something like a psychological game that feels like ballroom dancing where people have to move in harmony with each other), then the "most" pregnant person online will become the parent of the next real-player child. Parents don't know who their child will be, and the child doesn't know who the parents will be; it's like the real world.

And like in a better world: same-sex couples can also reproduce, and men can get pregnant!

The advantage of being a baby born into a family is that you already have a flat that a bed and, and you are already somehow tied to a family that can give you social power. However, as soon as you make friends or marry, you will rise in social status and can make connections as well.

You've been testing the world for a while. What have you learned from your users' interaction with the world, and how did that influence Papermint?

BL: We decided quickly to change the GUI (which will be finished next release), and we learned it really worked as we thought: People in Papermint take their relations extremely seriously. A wedding is prepared with all the love for detail and lots of care. So are divorces.

Lev's goal to create a world where people can feel physically connected without being at the same place in real life really worked out. I often used to meet a Japanese friend from Kyoto in Papermint while it was in closed beta.

While we sat on a bench and our characters slightly approached each other by sliding on that bench, we couldn't help but blush (putting red paper cheeks on). He also politely looked away when I undressed in order to show him some new fashion I created.

That's really impressive! It feels extremely real, and real world human rules of interaction have the same impact in Papermint.

LL: Additionally, players asked from the very beginning: where can I make money? Are there professions? We didn't expect that, but immediately started implementing professions. Now you can earn mint for many things, and people like it.

Barbara, your love letter really details the journey Papermint has taken...

BL: If I hadn't given my heart to Papermint I would live, love and work in Tokyo again already. But Papermint gave me so much more: true friends, true love, excitement, well... even the prospect of a multimillion Euro deal.

The money thing didn't happen (yet), but what stayed are these strong and warm personal bonds among a team that just will never give up. The victory of creativity over marketing; the victory of independence... this is Papermint!

So what is the future going to hold for Papermint and Avaloop?

BL: As our past is already like a Hollywood thriller, and as I can't remember a single boring working day at Avaloop, I don't dare say what the future will bring. As we are indie, everything can happen from one second to the next; heaven and hell are so close!

But whatever will happen, nobody can ever take us what we have accomplished. We have created a great virtual world as a small team and without big money.

The future will depend on how able we are able to make Papermint visible in this loud, flashy, blinking wilderness of the Internet. It's ot easy without a fat marketing budget. But fat budgets never were our thing anyway.

But we know that if there are people, Papermint can live. It's only the people who can make the world, which we have prepared with so much love and care, become a living place.