Wednesday, April 15, 2009

New answers and more questions regarding the upcoming virtual world Blue Mars

Posted by Bettina Tizzy

I learned considerably more about Blue Mars last night, which is not named after the science fiction classic by Kim Stanley Robinson, despite the fact that its founder, Henk Rogers, is a big sci-fi fan.


By the time he left his secure job where he’d been managing business development for the division, nearly 28 million units of Microsoft’s X-Box 360 had sold worldwide in just over three years. The global economy was imploding, and still Jim Sink packed his belongings in rainy Redmond, WA and hopped on a flight to Honolulu where he would become vice president of business development for Avatar Reality, the company that has been developing Blue Mars since December of 2006.

There, he joined interactive game luminaries Henk Rogers (creator of Tetris, Blue Lava Wireless and founder of the Blue Planet Foundation, among other things), Kazuyui Hashimoto (formerly vice president of technology at Electronic Arts) and 21 others, all working at breakneck-speed towards the Beta launch this June of a new virtual world.

Until recently, not much has been known about Blue Mars except that it will be significantly different from both Second Life® and OpenSim in that it will be powered by the bleeding-edge game engine CryEngine 2 that boasts unparalleled and nearly photorealistic graphics, and that end-users will not be able to create content in-world.

Many Second Life die-hards consider this last point to be a deal-breaker since user creativity is at the very core of Second Life’s raison d'être.

More information became available last week regarding the free-to-play and free-to-download “massively multiplayer virtual world”:

* The world was built for Vista-based machines.

* The company is confident that many thousands of users will be able to simultaneously log into a single “city.” If a particular server gets so popular that it reaches its limit and performance begins to suffer, they can “shard” the server. (More on this later)

* Software Development Kits (SDK) are available for download to registered developers for free so that they could begin creating Blue Mars-compatible content offline. Both the development kit and the preview editor are WYSIWYG.

* Despite rumors to the contrary and in regards to performance, the company stated that most 3D cards on the market today will be able to run Blue Mars, and that even ATI 4850 cards that go for about $120 after rebates can “deliver a strong performance.”

* There is no geographic continuity between places in Blue Mars. Each place or city is a node in the Blue Mars network. Each place is usually around 2x2k. Places can link to one another but you can't fly across a contiguous space above a certain size. When you move from place to place, there is a loading screen.

* “Easy to program” artificial intelligence will be offered to developers who are interested in having conversational NPCs (non-player characters/bots). Avatar-Reality has created an AI gateway to allow third parties to link to their own AI servers. They hope to catalyze the development of game AI by “providing a platform for people to integrate their AIs in an affordable high fidelity real time online environment.”

* The Blue Mars Dollar (pegged to a fixed rate against the US dollar) is a single integrated currency system that “lets developers easily and securely charge for items and subscriptions.” End users can buy packs of currency through the Blue Mars client or through a web site. They can use a credit card, Paypal, or retail Paybycash cards to buy Blue Mars currency. There are no refunds on Blue Mars currency and end users can't cash out. However, if you are registered as a developer or vendor with Avatar Reality, you can charge Blue Mars dollars for goods and services and get paid in US dollars or your local equivalent currency through Paypal.

* Gambling will not be allowed.


I spoke at length with Jim Sink last night.

Your business model is that of providing a platform to developers so that they can turn around and create their own Cities, RP games, or sublease land to others. What about government? What are your Terms of Service? Will each developer rule his or her fiefdom? Will each developer be responsible for newbie education in that environment?

We’re still working out the ToS, but yes, developers will control and set content rules for their regions. There are two ways that developers can get started: they can manage their own City/game server in the Blue Mars network or they may choose to sub-lease land from an existing City developer, which could be a City block, for example. Avatar Reality charges a setup fee and monthly fees to keep your place online, but rather than set our fees based on land size, we charge based on concurrent user capacity (CCU.) It works like the minutes plan on a mobile phone. Our promotional pricing is available under NDA and our public pricing will be available later in the summer.

In August 2008, Avatar-Reality announced that Virtual Space Entertainment, Inc. (VSE), led by the much celebrated artist and concept designer Syd Mead for films such as Blade Runner, Aliens and Tron had become a third-party developer.

Will users have access to voice at launch?

No. We’re working on that and realize that it is important. When rolling out a complicated platform like this, we need to first make sure that it is stable and secure.

I understand that Blue Mars was built for Vista based machines. I’m working off of Windows XP. Will I be able to run it? And what about Mac users?

Yes, no problem for XP, but Cryengine doesn't run on OS X, so no support for Macs. Boot Camp works if you want to dual boot, and server-side rendering services like Online should help expand our market to netbooks and Macs.

What about integrating the web to your world, such as HTML access? Any unique offerings in that area as compared to Second Life?

We can’t render HTML pages natively, but there are multiple ways to work with the web. You can display Flash-based content and the data can go in both directions, so you can update a page out world with content that is going on in-world and vice-versa. When people want to draw from a database, in other virtual worlds it has to go through the hosting service. In Blue Mars, the client can connect directly to the data source and doesn’t have to go through our servers. For example, a movie that is screening in-world is not streamed by Blue Mars; that movie is pointed to an external server. Video will be handled using Scaleform, a flash compatible middleware package that we use for all our UI.

What about scripted objects? What language will you use? Can developers introduce their own scripts?

Yes. LUA-based scripting and our own Casual Games API to give developers a head start.

You say that Blue Mars will be scalable for thousands of simultaneous users per region, and that you have the option to shard a server if it gets too popular. Please describe, in lay terms, what “sharding the server” means?

If it got to the point where 10,000 simultaneous users got to be too much for that region - and we won’t know until we get there - we will probably want to mirror that region (make a duplicate of the region).

How easily will people be able to rejoin their friends if a region gets sharded? What if people are having sex or giving a presentation, teaching a class, or waiting for a purchased item to be delivered? Will they be separated from their friends? And while we are on the topic, will you allow sex in Blue Mars?

We haven’t decided yet on the sex question. As for sharding, it wouldn’t work like that. The developer could instance the entire server and call it “New Honolulu.” You would add that server to a list of several Honolulus. We would never split it and take half the users one way and half the other way. We will also integrate messaging tools so you can join your friends in the different shards of the single server.

We’ve heard about developers, RP gamers, and shoppers from you, but are you also targeting business?

Businesses tend to be excited about Blue Mars for a few reasons. A lot of people in real estate have all these terabytes that are stuck on their hard drives. Instead of creating a new way to build 3D assets, we’ve created import tools. Using a CAD program, they can bring those terabytes into Blue Mars with very little effort and then show off model homes and model communities in an interactive environment. As for advertisers, much depends on building a critical mass of active users.

How about educators?

We will be providing a safe and controlled environment with deep scripting and monitoring support that will give developers the ability to test and track actions and choices made in their region.

You tout robust security and content management. How will you protect developers? Content theft is a significant issue in Second Life and OpenSim.

Anyone who would say you never have to worry about content theft doesn’t know about history. What you do is build methods for the eventuality of dealing with it. Everything is encrypted in our world, and we’ve made it very difficult for people to reverse engineer the system. Say you create a new dress that you want to offer at your store. Every item, when it is uploaded into the system, gets a unique registration stamp and a time stamp. Even if someone just copied an item “visually,” the original creator can submit their code and comparing it against the time stamp, we can determine if it is in violation of the system.

Will there be an approval system for each piece of content before it can make it into the system?

No approval process.

What, in your view, is the special allure for Second Life content creators, assuming of course that they are already competent with the Blue Mars-compatible software and not just working with prims? Will they have to cozy up to the game developers to adhere to their planned environments? Let’s say you make a living creating furniture in Second Life. How might this translate to Blue Mars?

By the end of this week, there will be two editors that Blue Mars provides: A full-development environment that is completely free, though we are limiting the number of people we’re offering it to at this time. We are also releasing a streamlined sort of “sandbox” that would be ideal for a furniture creator. They can take the model that they created in 3ds Max or Maya, for instance, import it into the sandbox editor, and see exactly what it will look like in Blue Mars.

From the get out, the platform has been created with an ear to content creators and artists. “Why can’t we just continue to use the tools we normally use? I don’t want my stuff copied.” They want a reliable system to monetize their work and a universal payment system. Most digital content creators don’t work in prims. They didn’t want to create proprietary content with creation tools like prims or have to relearn how to create content.

After June, we will be providing templatized shops. Developers will sub-divide land and sublease it. Create a space, fill it with your furniture and offer things for sale. Most people will want to set up shops somewhere that is popular. We will probably be offering a limited number of sub-divided parcels to give to developers and operate a test “Demo” City in the beginning where we can roll out new features and offer a limited number of spaces in that city for people to experiment.

Will you have a web-based sales model like Second Life’s Xstreet?

Not at this time.

What about artists? How will they benefit from creating sculptures, for example?

If it is just a matter of a public space where they can share their work, they can lease the space from a City developer and put their content directly into that City. They deliver their data file to the City director and it will be up to the City developer to determine how frequently the content updates will take place, which will not be as frequent as they are in Second Life (real-time). Some might do it every day, while others might update every two weeks. Each city is condensed into a pack file that includes all the geometry and textures. The file they deliver comes in a single pack.

I realized then that we were thinking about two entirely different things. Jim talked about a coming Art Competition that will launch on April 20th. He spoke of fashion, furniture and other practical items that might be exhibited - in addition to paintings, sculpture and particles - with each participating artist receiving a 3m x 3m x 3m exhibition space in a shared virtual gallery to display their work. I described how the mixed-realities Brooklyn is Watching gallery/art-critique space in Second Life had begun with a small land parcel, thinking that all of the art would be rezzed directly on the ground, only to learn that the artists would ingeniously go underground or have their art pieces begin at ground-level and soar as far up as 3,500m in the sky. I told him about ZeroG SkyDancers and how the choreographed dancers wear cascading costumes that are many times larger in size than the avatars wearing them as they move about the sky. (More on art later).

Oh, you won’t be able to fly for the most part.

Won’t be able to fly!?

If a developer wants it, their avatars will be able to fly, but the standard locomotion is not flying. You can get into a vehicle and fly but the framework for people to locomote isn’t flying.

So each developer would have to introduce the animations and fiddle with the physics? What about teleporting?

Teleporting is a balancing act for us. Teleportation to any place at any time is a mistake for a developer. It reduces the potential for the social fabric of a place. You don’t want to make people walk everywhere though. If I want to get from point A to B there are several options beyond walking or running. If I need to move two kilometers away, it is silly to have to wait for a bus. If you have a home, you will be able get there. People will experiment with a lot of different methods.

What news have you for musicians?

People will be excited to use Blue Mars for music, a place for self-expression and community. You want to be able to create events that will draw a crowd and not have the appeal of the event be diminished by the crowd itself. The Blue Mars platform scales to support thousands of simultaneous users per region, so if you are spinning music or creating a place for people to congregate, this won’t be a concern.

Will real-time jams between musicians from all over the world be possible?

They will.

Any advantages for virtual architects?

CAD will be importable, but of course, the further you are away from 3ds Max and Maya, the more steps you will have to take. Keep in mind that you don’t need the plumbing geometry for a real-time rendering. The bottleneck isn’t the polyganol count, but the textures that are the problem. The rendering will be perfectly accurate.

I understand that you will have real-time analyses of player activity. How will marketers be able to use this excellent information?

Each City developer will set some policies. We’re not sure yet how the implementation will run out but we do know this: If it happens in world, it can be tracked and reported on in real time. How many people sat down in Toyota’s new car, for instance, along with any demographic information the users are willing to share.

That raises a number of questions regarding user privacy. Can we assume that you will protect each user’s personal information?


Speaking of demographics, what about men playing as women, or folks who prefer not to be gender-specific? How will that play out?

It will be a matter of how they registered. We aren’t going to verify gender.

What about alts (alternative accounts)? Will you allow that?

We haven’t decided yet.

Will developers be able to limit what users can take from their City to another, or what can be introduced to their City?

You can limit what can be introduced. If you are Sony Pictures and creating a virtual Monaco and it is a black tie-only space, when a user gets there, the system can prompt that user to let them know that this is a black tie-only area and provide information about the only costumes that will be available in that region. You don’t want people running around in Speedos in your James Bond world.


UPDATE: Soon as you're done here, you might want to skedaddle over to Dusan Writer's blog where he has an interesting discussion going and his initial analysis on Blue Mars... plus he called me a Goddess! Well, he can't be right all the time. :)


sororNishi said...

Both Maya and 3D max are so expensive that most content creators in SL will not be able to contribute, and that will limit what gets designed quite severely.

Edo Paulus said...

Good interview Bettina, loads of new info on how Blue Mars will work. I asume many sl artists won't be that charmed by the limitations though (no user creatable content).
Btw, I (Edo Autopoiesis in sl) am one of the juries for the Blue Mars Art Competition you mentioned.

Bettina Tizzy said...

Soror, I forgot to ask, but would imagine that both Blender and Photoshop (I'm thinking about many of Aminom's bodacious sculpties now) are compatible. We'll have to find out.

Edo, hi there and thanks. It's been ages since we spoke. Ha! Now you have me wondering who the other judges will be. We'll have to share some prim tea and catch up soon.

xlent1 said...

interesting notes, thanks Bett. I wonder if they haven't fallen into same trap as SL--making a platform without specializing in a certain user experience? What types of usage is this platform set-up to deliver better than something else? Did they give any ideas on how they will make money? Sell space? charge membership?

Tateru Nino said...

Sounds like some costly content-creation barriers. That's the impression I get from the tone.

melponeme_k said...

This world looks extremely beautiful and I would like to see it. But being a Mac user, I would need to set up dual boot.

I can't see the content creation protocols slowing Blue Mars that much. There are many gamers who would have no problem just being tourists. And it looks as if BM has an eye for land/city zoning. Which means they won't devolve into that eyesore free for all that turned much of SL's land into unusable blight.

The only setback I can see is that the artists who use SL as a forum will need to register as a creator with BM.

Anonymous said...

No economic motivation for the casual user equals failure. The ability to pour money into the system all day long without a chance to gain any means that some cutesy little game with a reward system that is financially meaningless to the casual user will be the driving force. That is only entertaining for so long.

Bettina Tizzy said...

soror and Tateru - I just checked their creator registration page and yes, Blender is on the list.

xlent1 - Thanks! Jim explained their revenue model: 1) Clients are developers, not end-users; 2) Free play/download for end-users, but Cities can charge whatever fees they please. It's their City and they'll cry if they want to 3) Avatar Reality charges the developer with a setup fee and monthly fees, but they don't get involved with most of the governance stuff (and let's face it, we SL'ers can be pretty high maintenance - TOTALLY justified tho, right?)

Oh, one thing I didn't even get into is Blue Mars' user participation rewards program (not unlike a frequent traveler program based on number of places visited).

Tateru - I think about AM Radio and Madcow Cosmos' creations and I hug my plywood prim even tighter. I will admit that I'm tempted to visit Blue Mars and might make it a regular hop on my trail.

@ Melponeme - What Jim doesn't know is that I am more of the Speedo (et al) variety, so I might not be welcome in virtual Monaco when I attempt to appear looking like one of Yoa Ogee's art pieces.

@Dirk - I dunno. Look at Sony Home. And after you have a look would you tell me about it, please? I've never tried any of the console games (I know I know! Geez, what a confession).

Tateru Nino said...

In a sense, Sony Home and Blue Mars look very similar as far as their content models go.

Content creators (corporations/advertisers in Home) get their own areas to dress up and create content in and for (and for sale).

Thing is, I don't expect that BM is just *giving* cities to approved applicants. I'm expecting that if I were to apply, I'd be paying an up-front fee, and monthly upkeep besides.

Nothing I've seen yet disabuses me of that notion.

Bettina Tizzy said...

To be sure, Ms. Tateru! You are right: Revenue model: 1) Clients are developers, not end-users; 2) Free play/download for end-users, but Cities can charge whatever fees they please. It's their City and they'll cry if they want to 3) Avatar Reality charges the developer with a setup fee and monthly fees, but they don't get involved with most of the governance stuff.

Tateru Nino said...

My expectation (especially given the engine licensing) is that the fees for those cities will be quite steep indeed.

I would love to be disappointed in that respect, but I'm not expecting to be.

Corcosman said...

Mars has been visually intriguing since the very first glimpses they offered on their site.

I think one of the truths for any VW is that Events, be it a casual gathering of friends or something more formal and public, are the life of the world.

People are ultimately more interesting than things.

Anonymous said...

I am not sure how musicians or other performers would find this beneficial when BM apparently charges more when more users are present. I rather doubt that musicians or performers will obtain a developers license so that leaves it up to people that manage the cities to bring in entertainment. If the more popular events cost more based upon the amount of users that occupy the city then what behooves either the musician or the developer to put on such events? Apparently I cannot tip the performers so that leaves it up to the developers to work out a payscale to bring in entertainment. If I am there to watch a performance, I am not going to be browsing and purchasing what the developer has for sale in the city so it becomes a money pit.

xlent1 said...

yeah, so we take the risk on monetizing content still, but they get their cash upfront--so same deal as SL.

It seems their model is at least more solid in terms of traffic. So if we make a place, then more people can see it in a day--potentially. But same challenges in terms of what is compelling, what is possible. At the end of the day it is the content that pulls in the people, so I am surprised that these platforms think they can just throw-out a framework and hope quality content will magically appear.

what the difference with xbox? =physics and video rendering. I think the idea that thousands of people can share a virtual space is wrong. It is a crowd not a community. It is noise not value adding.

So really the user experience here is not that much greater than SL--although prettier. Tell me that 100 people can surf together at the same timein virtual Diamond Head and that would be interesting though!

Tateru Nino said...

As I understand it, the 'thousands' is supposed to happen by sharding (virtual copies of the space in which only a set number of avatars can be at one time - any excess get shunted to a new shard).

That's what I've gleaned from interviews thus far. Another thing I'd not be disappointed to be wrong about.

Unknown said...

I covered Blue Mars here:

You really need to go back over and look at what in fact is a content-clearance system, because each developer allowed to place content inworld has to be approved. Their individual content after that evidently won't need to be cleared, but they will have to first be cleared as content partners for this platform. You can't just create at will with inworld tools and have user-generated content from the masses.

Sponge Bob said...

Well.. umm.. I dunno..

They seem to be asking a awful lot of creators to invest their time in creating content for a world that may not take off.

Creating decent content isn't fun. It's hard work. Second Life managed to pull it off by making content creation fun. Admittedly, it was all crap. :)

I think Blue Mars is gonna struggle to get their ball rolling.

and I aint pushing it, I might strain my back!.

Bettina Tizzy said...

@Corcosman, I do agree that attending lag-free events is enticing, as long as they don't get sharded, ensued with lots of reconnecting.

@Dirk - Good point. UNLESS an entrance fee is charged. I'm not sure that avatars can't tip avatars though. Have you seen some info about that somewhere?

@xlent1 I'd be happy to attend an interesting presentation or a live performance by a favorite band if it didn't cost me too much.

What I balked at was the no-flying and limited teleporting. I like to get a move on.

@Tateru - I had never heard of sharding until you mentioned it the other day.

@Prokofy - Not having gone through the developer approval process, I have no idea. It doesn't sound like it would be too stringent, given that the furniture maker can plop his sculpties in Blue Mars with apparent ease. It WOULD be interesting to hear from folks who have passed and failed.

@Thingy - We can't really know what they are asking until we have some sense of the fees involved. And if you are a small-ish developer then you are subject to the sub-leasing fees imposed by the developers, not Avatar Reality. Also, creating content isn't always just about fun. For some, it is their day job and it pays for the kids' braces. For some folks I know, it is an irrepressible and damnable urge. Go figure.

Bettina Tizzy said...

Is no one else excited about the CAD import capabilities for architecture?

Hypatia Callisto said...

"Is no one else excited about the CAD import capabilities for architecture?"

Me me me waves hand around

sororNishi said...

CAD, no....sorry, its like maya and 3ds max...beyond most of us, and anyway...we need a new type of architecture....we are likely just to get the same RL rubbish, just better textured. The problem is movement...avatars dont move like living in human architecture is a pain.

Theres no gravity or weather....the whole thing needs to be rethought, not better imported.

Anonymous said...

@ Bettina BM states above that no one but developers may cash out so I think that would be a pretty clear indicator that tipping performers is a no go.

Hypatia Callisto said...

there seems to be a pretty wide definition of what "content developer" is. As well as products and services. Music is definitely content.

I'm not going to bet that performers can't be tipped, I am willing to bet they can be. I am also willing to wait to see how they get around the issue of performers, it seems they are interested in massively scaling performance spaces, so they've probably given that some thought.

They're not doing a LindeX, is all. They are remaining in control of the money.

Hypatia Callisto said...

ColladaCGF is free
XSi Mod Tool is free
Google Sketchup is free (and easy, too)
Blender is free

Why are people insisting there are no free tools? Go on the Crysis modding forums, you will find out a lot of free ways to get your content into Cryengine. My main worry is that there's no way but Max for anything rigged though, but it seems that XSi may get that ability before long. I hope it does.

Hypatia Callisto said...

"avatars dont move like living in human architecture is a pain."

SL avatars don't move like humans, you mean. Granted that's true, but that's cos they suck. :)

Hypatia Callisto said...

And erm, physics is pretty good in Cryengine2, and the lighting and atmosphere is definitely good.

Let's get this straight, Cryengine2 is THE benchmark for game engines, as far as graphic quality. SL doesn't come close in graphic quality. Not even. So don't go there.

The big questions are if Avatar Reality were able to do the avatar and general UI, transaction, network and storage ends well that needs to be done for virtual worlds. Because that will make or break a virtual world.

Tateru Nino said...

@Hypatia: Not saying there are no or even a shortage of free tools. Just that there seem to be costly barriers to content creation in BM, and I'm not necessarily referring to the tools as one of those barriers.

Musicians: So far it would seem that the content-developer/city-owner would need to pay performers by some other means, since the performer couldn't really cash out. Music *can* be goods-style content but it is usually a service-style thing.

I was under the impression that the Source Engine was the current benchmark, actually. At this stage, only three released games use it (though that's expected to go up to five by the end of the year)

Hypatia Callisto said...

Tateru - Source is not as graphically advanced as Cryengine2 no, however a good art team can pull great stuff out of Source engine, no doubt about that one.

I think it's early days yet, the platform not having been launched yet, I think there's still room to manoever over how musicians can monetize their content. I do understand that AR is worried about stability of the new microcurrency and wishing to avoid problems that quite obviously plague the SL platform.

Tateru Nino said...

Ah, I see. We're using different definitions of the word benchmark. Ignore my comment on that then :)

Iain S said...

Have age limitations been decided yet ie: is this going to be an over 18 game or 13+

Kai said...

hmmm, i see 2 big issues here, not allowing users to create content in-world, and not developing for the mac platform.... Bill Stirling

Edo Paulus said...

@ Bettina: Here's the list of jury members for the art-competition:

Take care, Edo. (Edo Autopoiesis in sl)