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Column: Letters From The Metaverse

Letters from the Metaverse: Sound + Fury == null;

September 19, 2006 6:16 PM |

[‘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 machinima.]

Last week I was wondering about machinima in Second Life, and this week I decided to look at it. I have to be honest; I think that machinima is almost always terrible. Much like using video games to create architecture prototypes, it works fantastically to create quick and dirty mock-ups of shots, locations or even scenes, but to create whole movies? Gosh, no thanks.

I actually went to see a whole range of machinima at this year’s Worldwide Short Film Festival in Toronto and was sorely disappointed; that the best they could find was the laughably overwrought (if technically impressive) World of Warcraft movie The Return was a bit depressing.

So, now you know about my in-built prejudices against machinima, you can probably take my opinions with a grain of salt. But! I genuinely think that with so many interesting locations in the world, hundreds of players who really have nothing better to do than be extras and built in video capturing tools, Second Life really does seem to be the ultimate “game” in which to create quick and easy machinima.

And having watched quite a few machinima shorts created in Second Life by now, I’d say that the only problem that affects Second Life’s machinima is the same that affects most others; loads of technical ability, absolutely no creative talent. As per usual, it’s like asking C++ coders to write Shakespeare. I've taken a look at a few of the best and worst.

2006_09_19_spurs.jpgSilver Bells and Golden Spurs – Probably one of the best known Machinima films from Second Life, as it’s the main one linked on the Second Life webpage, this is an amazingly impressive piece of work with a massive cast, mature camera angles and great set, let down by freaky animation (particularly the mouths) and a lame voice over. Made with the help of Linden Lab and apparently cost $555 to make, though. (The live action El Mariachi was made for only $7,000. Seriously. You could just save up.)

Second Life: Get One
- Best-of-show winner in the 2006 Second Life movie trailer contest, this is exactly the kind of thing they would pick to win. An absurdly overblown, if well edited, paean. Has a blustery voice over that'll sicken anyone who’s actually struggled against the many, many flaws of Second Life. Horrific.

Better Life – A man in a wheelchair escapes into Second Life, a “better life” in which all he seems to do is fall through the sky. Comes back to that “asking to C++ coders write Shakespeare” thing; the wheelchair is unsubtle to the point of being offensive.

2006_09_19_tour.jpgTour of the Solar System – Not a narrative, more a short educational film created by the well known Second Lifer Aimee Weber, it’s nice but I really don’t see what it gains by being machinima. Planets are usually fairly easy to create and animate in anything (Even I could probably do it in Lightwave, and it’s been years since I’ve used it). Some pretty incongruous music at points, too.

Lip Flap – An at least slightly funny, if far too self-referential (And therefore self conscious) film about a couple getting ready for a party. Has some character models perfectly representative of Second Life, too (i.e. hideous caricatures of what people think is attractive).

If you’d like to try making Machinima in Second Life, you should probably start at the Second Life page on it which includes a white paper written by Eric Call (creator of Silver Bells and Golden Spurs). It’s perhaps amusing to note that the best piece of machinima about Second Life is probably the Second Life episode of Tra5h Ta1k; it’s astoundingly true to the world.

[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, Plan B magazine, and Eurogamer. Check out his workblog, too.]

Letters from the Metaverse: A Second Life in Film

September 12, 2006 8:01 PM |

[‘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's film culture.]

Well, I’ve been taking a bit of a break from Second Life this week, as I’ve been incredibly busy attempting to cover the Toronto International Film Festival. Film competes regularly in my affections with videogames, and I’m usually rather fascinated by the influence of one on the other. It’s worth noting, I think, that very little of Second Life feels “filmic”, unless you think the world feels a bit like virtual reality as imagined by early 90’s films like The Lawnmower Man, which it does, a bit.

Of course, the big news that I’ve kind of missed is that there’s been a massive security breach of the Linden Labs customer database, “potentially exposing customer data including the unencrypted names and addresses, and the encrypted passwords and encrypted payment information of all Second Life users”. While this obviously is a problem, no one seems to be quite clear on how much of a problem. It’s the first time I’ve felt “unsafe” on the net, however, which isn’t really a good sign.

2006_09_12_galaxy.jpg

Ahem. That’s slightly off topic, however. The truth is that despite not being a particularly filmic experience, Second Life also holds tributes to a variety of film and TV shows the same way that it has its own Little Silent Hill. For example, only a quick teleport away is Galaxy, where you can live your Star Trek dreams until your heart is content. I didn’t know the Starfleet Academy accepted furries, but there you go, I suppose! Like most areas, the play and fun is to be had in social situations, and without it, it’s a bit sterile, as nicely designed as it is. I only think I’ve watched maybe one full episode of Star Trek ever, and that was almost entirely on the Holodeck (something to do with Sherlock Holmes?) so I can’t really comment on this too clearly, but it seems… Nice?

2006_09_12_garden.jpgI actually reallyenjoyed my trip to Nakama, however. Although just as quiet as Galaxy , this is an astoundingly (if near randomly) designed anime city featuring many aspects of anime films and TV shows. I was immediately impressed to have teleported into one of the most alive gardens I’ve seen in Second Life, with trees and plants swaying in a light breeze, but flying around and exploring the city was a pleasure, from spotting giant robots from Evangelion, through to strange and sweet little rainbow towns.

2006_09_12_eva.jpgLooking around Nakama, however, I observed that what I noted about Little Silent Hill, that “it’s like wandering a movie theme park and seeing all your favorite props and locations, just slightly out of context” is as film-like as Second Life can get. It’s too easy to bump into a prop building and shatter your illusion, rather like a boom mike falling into shot.

Having said that, were you able to get your head round the logistics of it, Second Life must be one of the most wonderful playgrounds available for those interested in creating machinima. There are enough locations on Nakama alone that could form the back drop of practically any narrative that I hope that people are exploring the potential. I guess I should find out!

[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, The Gamer's Quarter, and Eurogamer. Check out his workblog!]

Letters from the Metaverse: The Littlest Pyramid Head

September 5, 2006 12:02 PM |

[‘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's gamer culture.]

For some reason in the past week in Second Life my internet connection has been dropping packets like crazy, making coverage near impossible. That is, of course, not necessarily Second Life’s fault; it’s no better or worse at dealing with adverse network connections than anything else, and as much as I’d love to make a disparaging remark about how it doesn’t match up to World of Warcraft, having never played WOW, I can’t. Having said that, there are reports that the recent update is causing some major lag, so Second Life could be contributing to it, though I’m certain it’s not the root of the problem.

Network issues or not, I’m giving up on exploring the games in Second Life, because it’s become finally utterly and completely apparent that the games in Second Life are either absurdly primitive, depressingly broken, or sexual in nature. The latter, of course, not really requiring much in the way of HUDs, statistical systems or even really custom animations; a filthy mind seem to be enough.

It might be very hard to play a game within Second Life, but it doesn’t mean that the people who use Second Life aren’t gamers, and though they’ve perhaps learned to keep the activity of gaming separate from Second Life, they still bring their culture with them.

2006_09_05_lsh.jpg
Little Silent Hill, for example. It's a strange experience; slap bang in the middle of some busy areas yet masked in a thick, strange fog, it’s a not entirely faithful recreation of everyone’s favourite small town horror. Complaining that it’s not entirely faithful, though, is a bit like complaining your local Chinatown isn’t exactly like Beijing. When you wander the streets of Little Silent Hill, entirely safe (well, apart from "griefers", who are running fairly rampant recently) there’s still that creeping fear, even if it's a bit like wandering a movie theme park and seeing all your favourite props and locations, just slightly out of context.

2006_09_05_ph.jpgThere’s the occasionally jarring moment; I don’t think I ever saw any neon signs in Silent Hill advertising porn magazines, but that’s Second Life for you.

The quirks of the engine also lead to some interesting fudges to get the atmosphere right; the fog appears to be giant semi-transparent polygons, but I’m not a coder so I can’t be sure. The fog does appear inside enclosed areas, however it’s done.

It’s nonetheless an interesting area to visit, and much like a movie set theme park they’ve got a nice range of merchandise, with my particular favourite being the “so darn cute!” mini pyramid head avatar – the stuff of my tiniest nightmares.

Using Second Life as a convenient way to go on sight-seeing tours of imaginary places is a nice way to waste some time, but it really only left me hungering only to revisit the "real" Silent Hill.

[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, The Gamer's Quarter, and Eurogamer. Check out his workblog!]

Letters From The Metaverse: Living in a Ghost Town

August 29, 2006 12:20 PM |

[‘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?]

Letters From the Metaverse: Numb Skull

August 22, 2006 8:01 PM |

[‘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 adventure games in Second Life.]

Oh Second Life. We’ve had some interesting times, you and me, over the past 8 weeks we’ve been together. Mostly, I must admit, I’ve been complaining about the games I’ve played with you. “Too glitchy!” I’d think, bemoaning a lack of polish, or “Not user friendly!” I’d sigh, wishing for a better interface with the world the game was trying to present to me. I’m beginning to think I’ve been a little too harsh on all of those bedroom coders and Second Life architects. You see, maybe it’s not them. It’s you.

2006_08_22_arrival.jpg
Now don’t get me wrong, here. I think Second Life is interesting, and it’s certainly getting around – I noticed this week that Warren Ellis (creator of comic series Transmetropolitan, and many more greats, including the superb recent Desolation Jones) has begun blogging about it, and there was a big convention or something last week? But I’m coming to the conclusion that Second Life is almost completely unsuitable for any kind of games other than the simplest (by which I mean board games, or Tringo variants) until there are some major upgrades, because I’ve never been quite as frustrated in Second Life as I have been trying to play “The Pot Healer’s Adventure” on the island of Numbakulla.

2006_08_22_village.jpgNumbakulla is the adventure “sim” that is (kind of) supposed to be a Second Life version of Myst or Riven – a gentle mystery that you must unfold while exploring the island.

It’s set up quite wonderfully – when you teleport to the island you find yourself stood in front of a ship wreck, and can grab the notebook object required to play, and (if you choose) wear some game specific clothing. From that point on you begin exploring, anywhere or anyhow you wish, picking up objects such as keys, and using them in other areas.

The Pot Healer’s adventure relies quite heavily on “tooltips” (those small pieces of information you see when you hover your cursor over something) as otherwise you’d never have any idea what was of use, and it has a nice collection of notes and text fragments scattered around the island to help you unravel the plot, which is admittedly still somewhat obscure to me now.

The island is incredibly nice and well constructed (visually, at least). There are flaws, here and there (the odd spelling mistake, and so on) but by and large it does feel harsh to blame the problems I experienced on the creators, but the unfortunate fact is, however, that a litany of errors simply made me give up in frustration.

2006_08_22_ship.jpgTo list only a few, climbing any stairs or high slopes looks ridiculous as my character bobbles about, bashing into them until he miraculously manages to glitch himself over them. There’s a waterfall that there is no escape from. Second Life seems to allow the ability to ‘sit down’ on doors and warp through them; I did this by accident, actually, and found myself trapped inside a boulder. It’s just all so glitchy and ruinous, that compared to the cold, immaculate (and in my case, alienating) perfection of Riven or Myst, the illusion is completely destroyed by my regular battles with the interface and Numbakulla’s battles with the engine.

The plus side, of course, is that in this case, it’s free, and if you take a ride around the island on the flying ship you can see it all without having to deal with the glitchy movement of your character. If you can put up with it, however, Numbakulla does seem to feature an in-depth (if a little obscure) adventure that is probably better played in a group.

[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, Game Reactor (translated into Danish!), and Eurogamer. He's just started a workblog. Why don't you visit it if you want to find out more?]

Letters from the Metaverse: Turning Japanese

August 15, 2006 10:42 PM |

[‘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 melee combat games in Second Life.]

It's something to be said for the power of numbers going up that when I logged back into Second Life after filing my last column I couldn't help myself from getting my character to level up one more time before I said goodbye to the island of Navora.

This week I fully intended to check out Numbakulla, a “sophisticated quest sim” in the vein of Riven or Myst, until I got distracted by a flashy video of samurai combat on Wager James Au’s New World Notes. As a person who enjoyed Aquire’s PS2 title Way of the Samurai, this looked promisingly similar.

2006_08_15_welcome.jpg

Samurai Island is split up into two sections – a facsimile Edo-period Japanese town, which takes up most of the island, and small walled off area, Combat Samurai Island, where the game takes place.

2006_08_15_adult.jpgSamurai Island has to be one of the most beautiful areas in Second Life I’ve visited, with great colors, textures, and a cohesive theme. It also manages to load fast enough that blurry or missing textures don’t break the illusion too fast. What does break the illusion, of course, is the fact that like everywhere else in Second Life that’s rated mature, it’s full of sex shops. It does include a kind I’d never seen or paid attention to before – porn video stores.

This is a digression, but it’s actually a clever idea. The videos are probably cheap at $300 Linden for a day’s rental, and I can see people, or more accurately, the perverts of Second Life, stumping up the cash for this. They even had Debbie Does Dallas!

I wonder, do the adult movie studios have a Second Life presence? Can you rent videos that aren’t porn in other stores? Both, I imagine, are also good ideas.

2006_08_15_fight.jpgMoving on, however. If you walk into the combat area, you can pick up a bokken – a wooden practice sword, which allows you to see the HUD, practice blocking, and perform one attack.

It’s a nice freebie, but is limited to the point of uselessness if you want to actually spar with someone. If you decide you really want to play, you have to run off to find the one very small store at the back of the island that sells “real” swords, that come in at the not to be sniffed at price of $800 Linden, which is nearly $4!

Yikes! You might be saying, but on the Gamesetwatch expense account it goes, and Seven Kikuchiyo was standing tall with his very own blade, featuring 15 different animations/attacks and an inventory system.

Surprisingly, once you’ve got a fully working sword, it really does play a lot like the aforementioned Way of the Samurai, with the addition of a little lag and Second Life’s ridiculously unsuitable movement controls. Sparring mostly takes the form of slow battles featuring a lot of blocking, with both combatants taking their time to look for an opening to make their decisive strike, though it can get a bit scrappy at points due to lag.

2006_08_15_hud.jpgScrappy as it is, it’s very playable, and much more immediate and better integrated with Second Life than, say, Dark Life, featuring as it does a HUD and an inventory system. Sadly, of course, once you’ve learned how to fight, there really isn’t anything to do other than smash boxes and fight practice dummies unless there are other players interested in sparring, and that can be a really limiting factor.

It’s probably not the intention of the designers, but if Combat Samurai Island was expanded into a fuller RPG experience, it’s something I could imagine returning to repeatedly. As it is, yet again something full of promise in Second Life is little more than a fun , though pricey, diversion.

[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, Game Reactor (translated into Danish!), and Eurogamer.]

Letters From the Metaverse: My Dark Life

August 8, 2006 5:25 PM |

[‘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 RPGs in Second Life.]

I remember reading a short post Gamesetwatch’s dear journo-chum Kieron Gillen once made on his workblog, in which he stated “Gaming’s dark secret: Occasionally it’s enough to see a number getting bigger.”

2006_08_08_backpack.jpgWhen it comes down to it, it’s true. There’s absolutely no other reason that I can explain why this morning when I logged into Second Life just to get a few more shots of Dark Life, the (get your head around this) “MMORPG within an MMORPG” that I’d find my self watching my character hit rats for another couple of hours, tidily dragging me over my deadline for this article and then some. Indeed, you might find it a bit hard to believe, but he’s actually doing it right now while I write this article. I’m just occasionally clicking back to the Second Life window, running him back to the shrine to heal, and then running him back to fight rats.

It’s all because of that bloody Givan dagger.

You see, I’d started Dark Life shortly after my disastrous attempt at golfing, and decided that perhaps sports weren’t the way to go in Second Life – after all, they represent something we understand perfectly well in real life, and therefore have pretty far to fall. My only experience as a medieval warrior comes from video games, so this seemed to be a likely positive game experience in Second Life.

2006_08_08_action.jpgDarkLife is set on the Island of Navora, a small plot of land with a town, a swamp, and other stereotypical RPG areas. When you arrive you must purchase a backpack, which costs $498 Linen (around $2), and a basic sword and shield which cost a nominal $1 Linden each. Once you own these things you are perfectly able to go adventuring around the island of Navora – as long as you’re prepared to begin the hard slog of leveling.

DarkLife is not a sophisticated RPG. It features no quests, and perhaps due to the realities of being inside Second Life and featuring many autonomous monsters it’s one of the laggiest areas I’ve visited so far. It therefore features a very simplistic, turn based combat model. Interestingly, and something that makes the game feel a bit like a throwback to the Multi-User Dungeons of old, is that the majority of commands are performed using the chat window. So to cast a spell, say a heal spell, you say ‘magic heal’. To check how much gold you have you type ‘gold’. It can lead to a fair amount of cross chatter.

2006_08_08_action2.jpgWhen I began playing DarkLife, even with its beta status, I wasn’t particularly impressed. Much like FloG! Golf system, the price you pay seems entirely too high for something that isn’t particularly polished or even finished. In Dark Life it stings even worse, as even though in-game items such as weapons and spells are purchased using gold, each item also requires a payment of $50 Linden.

So, to get yourself entirely kitted out with new weapons and armor it’ll cost you several hundred Linden, and therefore realistically several dollars each time you upgrade. I could see a month of DarkLife costing me $10 dollars, and while the price might be comparable to a month of World of Warcraft, there’s really no comparison in content. And for those of you taking issue with my comparison, there really isn’t any comparison in content to a free Roguelike, either.

But sometimes, it’s enough to see a number getting bigger. I can’t complain about the other players – there aren’t many, but they’re pleasant, and generous. After several unrewarding hours killing rats with the basic sword, this morning (unasked) another player gave me 1000 gold, which I instantly invested in a Givan dagger, only to find that my stats weren’t high enough to use it. And so I spent yet more hours killing rats and watching my numbers go up, and strangely, I enjoyed it, and enjoyed it even more when my new dagger allowed me to venture out into the swamps and begin to kill dragonflies.

If you’re a Second Life devotee with lots of money to burn from your full account it’s a nice timewaster. But I can’t recommend anyone else pay to play a beta.

[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, Torontoist and Eurogamer.]

Letters From The Metaverse: A Good Flight Spoilt

August 1, 2006 8:50 PM |

[‘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 sport in Second Life.]

Last week I was pretty addicted to Tringo, despite the fact I thought it was of debatable worth as a game experience. I lazily thought about this week simply covering the other casino style games available to players of Second Life, which are your usual fodder; slots, blackjack and so on, but also includes games entirely new and not in any way derivative of Tringo. For example there’s Slingo (slots mixed with bingo) or Bingtris, which is bingo mixed with Tetris. Wait, what?

2006_08_01_golf.jpgI’d rather do something more wholesome than gambling, though, and what could be more wholesome than a nice round of golf?

It must say something that the two sports I’m most aware of in Second Life are golf and sailing. I like to imagine it says, “All of the denizens of Second Life might be massive sexual deviants, but they’re also WASPy as hell.” But I digress.

The Holly Kai Golf Club is, as far as I can tell, the first golf club in Second Life, and features the Ocean Nine, which is, thanks to the ease of flying in Second Life, an unusual 9-hole course played across a series of islands, so it’s a nightmare of water hazards. Golf is played using the floG! system, an object you wear that creates a HUD of a sort familiar to anyone who’s ever played a golf game. The system is however full of quirks specific to the world of Second Life. The HUD spawns the ball for you, and also spawns an aiming arrow above the ball which you must click to maneuver yourself into position to tee off.

2006_08_01_flog.jpgAt the Holly Kai Golf Club 3 hours of play costs $300 Linden (around about $1.50). This money activates your free floG! HUD, allowing you to spawn balls and aiming arrows. If you’re planning on playing a round you should probably also pick up a score card. You have to fill it in manually (!) but it does have a much needed map of each hole on it; I initially started to play the first hole without it, and realized I had absolutely no idea what direction to shoot in.

So once you’ve picked up your HUG, plunked down your money and grabbed a score card, you’re ready to get started, and I can reference that quote that the law requires any writer to use in any article about golf. Unless it’s in a golf magazine, natch. Mark Twain once said golf was a “good walk spoilt”, and when it comes to Second Life, I have to say it’s a good flight spoilt. The Holly Kai Golf Club has some lovely architecture and the islands are all very pretty in that Second Life kind of way (I’ve grown to accept bitmap trees) but the game just doesn’t stack up.

It’s disappointing, but simply a side-effect of Second Life that all those user friendly aspects of dedicated golf games aren’t there with floG!, so there is no information about how far each club hits, no automatic club selection, no automatic score card and no special interface for putting. Most of those are pretty acceptable and other aspects like course flyovers you’re perfectly within your abilities to do yourself.

2006_08_01_steely.jpgWhat isn’t so acceptable sadly is the iffy way that the floG! system works. Rotating your aim is incredibly slow, and the shot meter, something which absolutely requires precision, always seemed to continue turning for a second or so after a click. I was pretty sure it was registering my clicks at the right time (well, kind of sure) but I was never, ever satisfied with the timing. That’s a pretty damning flaw.

Worse, sadly, it’s buggy. I’ve managed to strike my ball relaxing 10 foot away from it simply by entering and exiting the aim mode and clicking various things, leaving my shot meter active. That pales into insignificance compared to the 3rd hole, where my ball entirely refused to go in no matter how many times I hit it.

I feel like I’m being quite harsh on floG!, but the fact is that there’s absolutely no reason to play golf in Second Life until the system is further developed, especially considering it costs a quite hefty $1.50 or so for 3 hours play, which you have to use in one go. Were it cheaper and without bugs I could recommend it as a nice time waster with friends, but currently seasoned golf gamers should stay away.

I think I’ll stick to PGA Tour Golf.

[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, Torontoist and Eurogamer.]

Letters from the Metaverse: You Know When You've Been Tringo'ed

July 26, 2006 12:50 AM |

[‘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 gaming in Second Life.]

Last week when I left you I was in Yadni’s Junkyard, trying to make head or tails of the system of ‘animation overrides’ that is required to change your animations from the unbelievably terrible defaults set by Linden Labs.

I've given up. While yes, buying a box of animations is easy enough (point and click!) And viewing said animations is easy enough (point and click!) Actually overriding the animations seems to either involve coding, or using someone else’s animation override system. Of the two I found on offer (for free, admittedly) in Yadni’s Junkyard, one came with a help file which said “It’s open source, work it out yourself” (really!) and the other, it seems, expected you to be familiar with the other! So, looks like I’m stuck jerking my way around the world of Second Life for some time yet.

2006_07_25_tringo2.jpgBut enough about that. Really, the past few weeks I haven’t managed to prove to anyone, least of all myself, that Second Life is much more than a glorified chat room, with a dress-up doll attached, for players who don’t want to get their hands dirty with coding. As the voracious kind of gamer that reads Gamesetwatch, I imagine you’re simply chomping at the bit to find out what opportunities there are for real ‘game’ experiences in the world.

Well, I decided to go and find the most obvious and popular game experience in the world, Tringo. Already discussed on these hallowed pages by SimonC (who linked to a nice article at Wired) Tringo is a kind of competitive Tetris/bingo. Flying over to creator Kermitt Quirk’s island (“The Home of Tringo”) I found absolutely no one there that was interested in playing. Luckily, however, I could see one of Kermitt’s neighbours was in her house, and in traditional RPG manner I just barged in without knocking and rifled through her stuff, by which I mean I asked her nicely if she knew where I could play Tringo. She let me know the ‘hot’ place to play was Ice Dragon’s Playpen, and finding there was a Tringo event running, I dashed off to get involved.

Tringo can initially be bewildering. You have to find a space to sit and click the board to receive your game card, and as soon as the game master decides the game begins. Your game card is an in-game object on which you can see your 5x5 game board, score and the next piece to be played, and during the game all players must place the pieces on their board to make rectangles of 2x2, 2x3 or 3x3 for points. As all players receive the same pieces the strategy really is about maximising your score through your arrangement, rather than speed. I mucked my first game up completely, uncomfortable with the way in which I interacted with the game board in the world, but with my second game I managed to come second.

2006_07_25_tringo1.jpgTringo is not *exactly* a gambling game – it’s free to play but you can choose to donate to the pot and it’s this aspect, that you’re competing for as tangible a prize as is possible in the virtual world, that makes Tringo so thrilling. When playing for a pots of over $500 Linden (equivalent to a dollar) it had the same kind of addictive, one more go thrill of cash-prize online poker. I found myself playing for hours simply to try and win one game. Alas, I still haven’t yet.

The strangest thing about Tringo, and perhaps its flaw, is that taken in isolation it’s actually quite boring. You can play it online here, but playing for points alone just isn’t the same as playing for prizes, and the utter lack of coverage for the solo play GBA port perhaps hammers this home.

It’s going to be hard to tear myself away from Tringo, particularly with the idea that I could start to actually make money with it, akin to those who play online poker as a career. However, the more I play it, the less I’m sure I’m enjoying it!

NEXT WEEK: SimonC checks my character into a Second Life Rehabilitation Centre to get me over my Tringo addiction.

[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, Plan B magazine and Eurogamer.]

Letters from the Metaverse: Take Shelter

July 18, 2006 12:45 PM |

[‘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 some 'newbie' areas.]

Teleporting For Fun, Profit

Well, after buying myself some sweet duds last week I was actually at loss for what to do. And as a newbie in the world, this is a pretty easy situation to find yourself in – you get yourself all dressed up and have no idea where to go.

2006_07_18_castle.jpgThe first idea to get out of your head is the most obvious one – to just randomly teleport places and see what happens. This probably isn’t such a good idea, as you’re just asking for trouble.

Making that decision I found myself on more than one island of ill-repute, and I don’t think I’m quite ready to talk about the trauma I experienced teleporting somewhere only to find myself trapped in a cage by a huge muscular goth. Let me just say I’d noticed he was already dragging around two naked slaves on a chain and I decided he didn’t need a third.

A Different Kind Of Orienting

As a newbie, it’s much safer to stick to areas where people are going to be a bit friendlier to you. The first thing I found, actually, on my quite random travels, was an area advertising Orientation Castle, which is worth stopping by if you’ve managed to forget how to do anything in the world. It’s not particularly clearer than Orientation Island (and frankly, probably less helpful to navigate) but at least it’s there, and wonderfully under populated. It’ll send you off to a Help Island, too. But if you are (as I am) past trying to find out how to do things and you’re looking for things to do, one excellent place to start off is The Shelter.

2006_07_18_dancing.jpgGimme Shelter!

A fairly well known area in the world of Second Life, it’s the first ‘club’ in the world I decided to visit. Now, as a Scot, clubbing to me means drinking too much alcohol while standing in a dark room full of people where music blares too loud for anyone to hear anyone else, before buying a kebab and then making a quick stop off in an alleyway to sick up said kebab and alcohol.

Naturally this isn’t an experience that can be easily replicated in the world of Second Life. For one, no matter how loud you turn the music up you can still ‘hear’ what everyone’s saying.

You could recreate the real club experience by getting really drunk at home, I guess, which makes your typing worse, but despite not really feeling like a club the shelter is a nice example of a clean, friendly area in Second Life, though, it is in a Mature plot of land, which means, as per usual, there’s a ‘Sexoporium’ about two doors away.

When I arrived people were just dancing away and chatting, and who was I not to join in? There are also piles of free stuff at the door, there are regular events, and if you want to learn of other places to go or people to see, plenty of people are willing to help.

Yadni's Hunks Of Stuff

It’s there that I learned of Yadni’s Junkyard, for example, which is absolutely chock a block with free stuff (or stuff which costs only $1 Linden, which is nothing, really). This is a nice place to go to pick up either new clothes, new stuff to have fun with (Weapons! Vehicles!)

Or, indeed, plenty of free builder tools if you’ve decided you want to take an active role in creating new objects, animations or clothes. Personally I’m too lazy to even work out how to switch my animations from ‘jerky cripple’ to something half decent, but to each his own!

NEXT WEEK: I get banned for using my free watermelon gun to fire watermelons at passers by, because I’m too scared to go to any areas where people might fire back (or force me into BSDM servitude).

[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, Twitch Film, and Eurogamer.]