Monday, August 27, 2012

Second Life Redux: Terraforming in a nutshell

(In August 2012 I re-joined the "gameless" virtual world Second Life, for the first time since being active there in 2006 and writing an arts-and-entertainment web magazine about that unique universe; I'm there this time instead mostly to get a new prefab housing and furniture company up and going, so I can make actual money, although undoubtedly I'll still be exploring a lot of places and attending a lot of events. I'm documenting the entire thing here at this blog, and especially exploring all the sociological issues that come with this city-sized uncanny valley and the millions of daily-visiting citizens there. Youcan click here for the very first entry in this series if you want, describing my past, my new company, and my goals in a lot more detail.)

So, greetings again from the virtual world Second Life, where I am now the proud owner of 2,048 square meters of beachfront property in the beautiful and mysterious Linden Sound; as regulars know, this is to serve as my first workshop and retail space for FABB, the prefab housing company I'm specifically in Second Life again for to open. This is going to involve me building things from the ground up for the first time; so I thought for the next several weeks, I would document and explain the process to serve as a tutorial of sort, both for other new players and just non-SL people who find this stuff interesting.

But first, let's do a little terraforming! Because like I've mentioned before, the whole secret to Second Life (and why it can attract millions of players despite having no traditional game play) is each and every element -- every step, every detail -- can be either adjusted dramatically by a person or created whole-cloth from scratch, everything from constructing a castle to changing your eye color. And that goes for the land you own as well; except for certainly ridiculously high and low extremes, you can pretty much terraform it into whatever shape you'd like it to be, and so it's good to get that done before you bother starting to build something on it. So here, for example, you're seeing the northwest corner of my property, which the previous owner left awkwardly built up right next to two of my neighbors' terraformed water; so to be neighborly, plus give myself more water area of my own, I thought the first thing would be to sink all the land under the sea level and create a little communal pool of sorts.

And here it is, now sunk, but not very realistic to true life, therefore not much of what's considered a good terraform. Or at least if you're trying to live an "immersive" life in SL, which I'm trying to do. And that's simply what comes with using the big bulldozer-type tools that are available to you here as a player, when doing giant radical shifts over a large parcel of land.

And so that's when you switch over to some more fine-tuned controls, like you're seeing in this literal screenshot of my laptop screen; for those who don't know, SL comes with its own screenshot capability that acts as if your avatar literally had a camera in-world, so that none of the menus or voice balloons show up in them, which is usually what you see here when I'm illustrating these essays. As you're seeing above, that amorphous set of arrows trails around the landscape in this wireframe 3D way when you move your mouse around; and depending on what setting you have it on (lift, lower, smooth, etc), it'll do subtle work on the terrain every time you click and hold your mouse over a certain bit.

And so once I was done with the heavy lifting, that's exactly what I did, was take my smoother and make a nice pristine beachfront line for myself again, only this time with a lot more water space beyond.

And so when all is said and done, here's how my land is now looking, compared to how it appeared when I first took over the deed. Which, granted, is not much of a change, which was one of the reasons I bought this plot to begin with, that it was nearly ready as-is.

But then here's the big change that most people don't see; all that flattened underwater land you're seeing above is mine as well. And that's because you can build and move underwater in Second Life just as easily as you can above the water, which I find really charming and fascinating, and one of the things I really want to do with FABB is build a series of cool Mid-Century-Modern sci-fi underwater homes (which now that I think about it, will work pretty well as sky homes as well, which is a hugely popular thing in Second Life), so I needed to give myself lots of space in order work on such homes. But a WHOLE lot more coming about that over the coming months.

So that's it for now from here in Quilassito; and coming next, my first building lesson, as I start the process of building my very first prefab home from the ground up. Talk with you again then!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Second Life Redux: Land Ahoy!

(In August 2012 I re-joined the "gameless" virtual world Second Life, for the first time since being active there in 2006 and writing an arts-and-entertainment web magazine about that unique universe; I'm there this time instead mostly to get a new prefab housing and furniture company up and going, so I can make actual money, although undoubtedly I'll still be exploring a lot of places and attending a lot of events. I'm documenting the entire thing here at this blog, and especially exploring all the sociological issues that come with this city-sized uncanny valley and the millions of daily-visiting citizens there. You can click here for the very first entry in this series if you want, describing my past, my new company, and my goals in a lot more detail.)

So greetings again from Second Life, where each week I'm giving myself one major goal to completely accomplish that will get me one step closer to being a regular there again, creating prefab houses and furniture for sale to other players, and getting a store up and running so people can actually buy them. And to be frank, partly I can thank the fact that I'm only rezzing in through a laptop at public spaces like coffeehouses as far as staying on target for getting all this business stuff taken care of, the main reason I'm back in the Grid (to try to make money, that is); because when I was a citizen in 2006 and rezzing in from home, it was just way too easy to get distracted by live events and sex clubs, neither of which I can do very well anymore while in a public forum where people are constantly walking by and glancing at your computer screen. Being at a cafe for an entire morning or evening to do all my internet stuff anyway, it's easier to merely schedule in some set time to be in the Grid, where I have a very focused agenda and a concrete list of things I want to get done that day.

For example, now that my avatar is set up, and now that I'm a premium member and have my starter home set up, the next thing to take care of is securing a much larger piece of land than the 512 square meters I'm currently in, and in an area where the land starts blank and I can do whatever I want with it. See, just to explain it from the most basic terms up, for anyone reading this who needs it, there is both a free way to play Second Life and a version with a monthly subscription fee; but the interesting thing is that both membership levels offer almost exactly the same kind of actual playing benefits -- you can customize your avatar as much as you want even as a free member, bring in and cash out money from the real world, both buy things and sell things, and travel anywhere you want -- merely that it's only premium members who are allowed to own land. But in a place where the entire point is to try to feel like you're in an actual real geographical location, just as real as the physical world only with a few fantastical elements thrown in, most people realize after a few weeks there that it's not really much fun to be homeless in Second Life, and to always have to rez up on someone else's property and never have a chance to just be alone in private so you can check your email, try on new outfits, etc. Hence, "The Grid," the cartagraphically accurate and real-time-persistent virtual world that makes up Second Life, in reality thousands of physical servers in some remote warehouse in northern California, almost every inch of which is owned by individual players. And that's made up of the "mainland," i.e. the big blobs of land you see in the above big map of the entire Grid, some of which is owned by Linden Lab for public use, and all of which is generally terraformed by them into realistic-looking continents and then mostly sold off to individual players; and then there are the hundreds and hundreds of private islands you see scattered throughout the rest of the map, literally representing one physical server, or 32,000 square meters of land, each rented out by an individual player or small group of players for $4,000 a year in maintenance and usage fees, plus an initial $1,000 setup charge. And as you can see, there are a lot of people who pay this kind of money every year to be there, for a whole variety of reasons -- from small business owners who are making enough money there to justify it, to real estate developers who do special terraforms and then sell off parcels themselves to other players, to roleplaying groups who kick in the money together so they can all live in their Goth/Gor/Elf/Swinger compound and role-play privately 24 hours a day, to corporate entities like CBS and the BBC (just to name a couple) who maintain full-time presences there, to danceclub owners, to sailing groups, to mall realtors, to universities, etc etc etc.

Of course, the smaller your particular parcel, the less of that $4,000 per year in server maintenance fees you're responsible for; so for example, I was looking this week to buy a total of 2,048 square meters, easily large enough and with enough prim allowances (around 485) to have a workspace and small retail presence, something no-frills that will just show off the houses and let you buy them, but with most of the other details farmed out to Fabb's blog and SL Marketplace page. And that amount of land will generate a property tax to me of $15 per month, which when you add the $6 a month I'm paying to be a premium member is a total monthly commitment for me of $21; and so that's the minimum amount I need to be making from sales there to consider myself not a moron for rejoining Second Life, which is why I call it my "not a moron money" rate (which was a grand total of $17 as of last weekend). And while there are plenty of opportunities for buying land within the private island sector, in just about any kind of landscaping, any kind of theme, or any kind of 24/7 roleplay environment you can imagine, let's not forget that a main goal of mine this time is to live as "total immersion" a life there as I can, and to really try to get into the spirit of being an actual citizen in an actual virtual world; and when you're an immersion person you simply must get a plot on the mainland, because it's only there that you really see a total long-view commitment to geographical reality. And so like I said, the mainland right now consists of around half a dozen or so distinct locations, none of which have official names from Linden so I just refer to by names I make myself: so as numbered above, there's the North Continent (1), the very first mass of land that was created in Second Life history; Linden Lakes (2), the second oldest; the South Continent (3), which was the one being created piecemeal back when I was first here in 2006; the East Continent (4), which was created sometime between when I left in 2006 and now in 2012; Linden Islands (5), obviously created to address the insatiable desire among Second Life citizens to own beachfront property; Linden Flats (6), a series of stony plateau areas that almost looks like post-volcanic terrain, with forest areas extending from there to the waterfront and with shallow beaches only; and IKEAville (7), the continent I profiled in my last post, essentially an entire continent just of suburban starter homes for beginning players. And then there's yet another landmass there as well on the extreme right; but I still haven't gotten to visit that one yet, so am not sure what its nature is.

Now, I happen to have a soft spot for the South Continent, since that's where I lived when I was first here in 2006; so in order to find land for sale there, you simply turn to the big map, turn on the "land for sale" button, and start looking around. And lo and behold, after maybe five minutes of scanning around the coast in super-magnification mode, I came across my first piece of waterfront 2,048-m2 land; so I teleported over and checked it out, as seen in the above photos. (All red lines and arrows today added by me after the fact in Photoshop, to give you a better idea of the lots being talked about; these show up in much more detail automatically when you're in Second Life and turn the option on, but are purposely omitted when you take the "in-universe photos" that illustrate my blog entries here, different from simply a screenshot because they also deliberately omit all explanatory tags, interface menus and the like, literally as if your avatar had a camera in the virtual universe with them.) Don't forget, when your property extends into the water, you own the land underneath that water as well; that's why it's important that I find waterfront property, because one of the things I want to build and sell through Fabb are cool Mid-Century-Modernist sci-fi-looking underwater homes, and I need some underwater land in order to test them out.

And of course, it's not just the quality of land that's important when shopping, but what your views are all around you; so here's the view from this particular plot, for example, first looking right and then looking left.

And then here's the view at the end of the canal I'm on, which is another important thing to check out in my particular case; because back when I was on a faster set-up, one of my favorite activities out of everything in Second Life was to hop in a sailboat, and drift down these multitudes of waterways found in the Grid, watching this utterly magical and endlessly surprisingly virtual landscape change in real time in front of your eyes as you sail along, just slowly enough so that you can take it all in (just one of the many things that leads console-obsessed teens to call Second Life "the videogame for your f-cking mom"). I can't do that on my cheap little $300 laptop, but I will be able to do this on my screaming fast, graphics-heavy Mac at home as soon as I have home broadband access; and that will be happening next year when I finally move into a new apartment, so I might as well start setting things up in the Grid for the time twelve months from now when I will be able to have a vastly different and better experience there than I am now.

Okay, so I create a landmark in my notes, take a few photos, then I'm ready to turn back to the map and find another 2,048-m2 plot; and here's the next one I found, way over on the opposite side of the continent. But as you can see, it's not nearly as nice a place; it's essentially a big piece of flat land that's been mostly submerged, then curved in a weird way to add some dry spots to the plot, and that'll be terraforming hell to get to look right again, plus will never fully be able to connect back to the shoreline anyway, because I wouldn't own that narrow canal of water you see right behind it. Plus there's a lot of really big, cheesy stuff around here; and while it's true that the views at Second Life are constantly changing at a moment's notice, because it's so easy to demolish and create new things here (literally a single click of a button), and because land so often changes hands and purposes, it's also true that humans are largely creatures of habit, and I learned back in 2006 that the view you have when you move into a parcel is largely the view that you're always going to have, save for individual buildings sometimes going up or down around you. So already I have a pecking order with just two choices so far, which is good because I'm going to have to eventually narrow this down to one anyway.

And so this is what I spent last week doing, is just logging in each day and spending an hour or so roaming around the big map, looking for open 2,048-m2 plots that might be available, then going and visiting them. Because buying virtual real estate is just like buying physical real estate in that regard; your chances of finding the perfect spot for a bargain price is directly dependent on how much leg work you're willing to put into looking around and hunting for such bargains. Although I'll tell you of a huge change that's taken place in Second Life real estate since the last time I was here in 2006; and that's that the fabled land boom that was taking place back then is definitively and probably permanently over, and that the "abandoned" land that Linden claims back from people who close their accounts (a growing amount every day) is sold back to the public for the ridiculously low price of one in-world dollar per square meter, or approximately half an American cent. See, there was no abandoned land that could be sold back to members in this fashion back in 2006; in fact, so many new people were signing up to Second Life every day back then, Linden literally couldn't get new servers terraformed and online fast enough for them, since they were contractually bound to get private islands rented out by individuals up and running first. And so for this brief period, entrepreneurs with deep pockets took advantage of this fact, and snatched up new islands just as fast as they could order them, chopping them up into smaller parcels and immediately flipping them to other players for a 300-percent markup; in fact, this was the biggest news item in all of Second Life when I was originally playing in 2006, that some Asian housewife had become the very first person in human history to make a real million American dollars in a single year off nothing but virtual land. Oh, but not anymore; for while I could've realistically expected to spend US$40 to 50 back in 2006 on a beachfront parcel the size you're seeing today, if I limit myself now just to Linden-controlled abandoned land (and every photo you're seeing today is of a Linden-controlled abandoned lot), I'm guaranteed to spend no more than eight dollars instead. But yet there are still lots and lots and -lots- of people there trying to resell their plots for 2006 prices, I suspect many of them people who bought high and now bitterly refuse to let go unless they can break even; so in one sense, it can seem kind of foolish that they're continuing to charge such high prices, since such a large and ever-growing amount of land around them is going for only one-fourth to one-fifth the price; but in a way you could argue that it's smart to hold out as long as you have the time and patience to do so, because success in virtual real estate is all about the locations available at the exact time someone is buying, and you might very well find someone willing to spend the extra cash to have just the right exact kind of plot they want, at the exact moment they most want it.

And it's not just the private islands, by the way, where you find terrain diversity; this top shot above for example is from that "Linden Flats" continent I mentioned, full of rocky plateaus that lead to forested areas that stretch almost all the way to the waterfront; and then the bottom shot is from a special alpine section of the Grid, one of the oldest sections in fact, flu of legitimate mountains off which you can own nearly vertical little slices for your gravity-defying ski lodge. (And this area has lots of other cool stuff too, that you won't find anywhere else; for example public ski lifts that will give you real-time sightseeing trips over an entire region, just like if you were sailing or driving or flying in a blimp.)

But when all was said and done, this is the plot I picked, up in the northern section of the Linden Islands; part beach, part underwater, it gives me direct access into that huge cove you're seeing in the big map, an important thing to look for when you're a sailing aficionado like me and want to go for long uninterrupted rides; because it's important to remember that there are only a few little squares of sailable water surrounding each of these continents, and that the rest of the blue you're seeing in the big map is simply shorthand for geography that doesn't actually exist, meaning that you can't directly sail or fly from one continent to the next but merely transport, meaning that it's these big interior bodies of water that ironically give a person their best sailing experiences.

Also, it's important to remember that your view changes dramatically based on what your "draw distance" plus "object count" levels are set at, because for someone on a cheap computer like me, you simply can't have your software working at the maximum rate all the time without freezing and crashing every ten minutes; so here above are comparison views of the same angle from my new land, at the top from the minimum draw distance of 64 meters, and at bottom at the maximum distance of 512 meters (and also with a better sky turned on, featuring real-time animated clouds). And in a way this is kind of nice, because when I have days where all I'm doing is construction work on my own land, it's nice to be able to dial the totals way down and get a quick feedback rate; it's just too bad that we all can't have the kind of computer/internet setup needed to just have it in its most powerful view all the time. By the way, when I finally get a broadband connection to my screaming fast graphics-enhanced Mac at home, I'll get views even better than these; all joints will be rendered much more smoothly, the water will be even more sophisticated, and I'll even get sunbeams and artificially blurred focal distances. I can't wait for that, man!

And then like I've said before, Second Life also renders four different times of day, depending on what you set it to; so here's my new parcel as it looks at sunset, midnight, and sunrise the next morning.

And then here's the view looking back towards the continent from the water, first in minimum then maximum draw distances, then at sunset, midnight, and sunrise the next morning.

And then just to round things out, here are looks both west and east from my new property too, basically up and down the shoreline.

So that's it for now from here at Quilassito in the Linden Islands; and coming next week, I get to work, first terraforming my land into just the exact shape I want it, then actually building my first home for sale, as well as my first set of prim-heavy accessories (patio lanterns, etc) for the "fully loaded" version, and to sell as individual pieces. That report will be coming next weekend, so I hope you'll have a chance to come by again then.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Second Life Redux: An evening walk through my neighborhood

(In August 2012 I re-joined the "gameless" virtual world Second Life, for the first time since being active there in 2006 and writing an arts-and-entertainment web magazine about that unique universe; I'm there this time instead mostly to get a new prefab housing and furniture company up and going, so I can make actual money, although undoubtedly I'll still be exploring a lot of places and attending a lot of events. I'm documenting the entire thing here at this blog, and especially exploring all the sociological issues that come with this city-sized uncanny valley and the millions of daily-visiting citizens there. You can click here for the very first entry in this series if you want, describing my past, my new company, and my goals in a lot more detail.)

Well, this weekend I finally finished the process of getting my avatar set up, my premium account going, and my starter home picked; and this week I'm going through the process of land-shopping, so to have a workplace for constructing my prefab homes and also a retail space within the Grid (which I don't technically need -- I could just sell them at Second Life's in-house online marketplace, basically the of the Grid, and in fact I will be selling them there as well), and will have lots and photos and thoughts to share with you this coming weekend. But in the meanwhile, on one of these evenings here at Dollop Coffee in my Chicago neighborhood (which is where I'm always logging in to the Grid from, leaching off their broadband internet from my $300 "mom laptop" that barely runs Second Life adequately), when I had maybe a spare half-hour left before they closed, I decided to finally take a walk around my neighborhood, which I've been wanting to do ever since getting my starter home. After all, like I mentioned, Linden Lab (owners of Second Life) is doing this now a vastly different way than back when I was here in 2006, and I'm fascinated with how it works and in discovering how effective it's been.

See, once you become a premium member ($10 a month, or $6 a month if you buy a year at once), one of the perks is that you get a small plot of land for free, 512 square meters to be specific (1/128th of a "region," or one square on the big map, which is essentially one physical server in Linden's warehouse in San Francisco), usually assigned to you just randomly somewhere in the Grid's "mainland" (which from initial exploration seems to now consist of five continents, when there were only two when I was here in 2006...but a lot more on that in the coming months). And back when I was here the first time, that land essentially came to you blank, and you built whatever you wanted on it; and so these vast fields of starter plots essentially became these anarchic, immature, basically 3D versions of MySpace pages, full of crappily built houses, 50-foot-high neon-green penises, and an endless amount of shitty sex clubs and casinos. But this time when I signed up for a premium account, the Second Life website asked me what kind of terrain I'd like my starter home to be in (flat with lawns, hilly with woods, etc), and which of four or five different types of houses I'd like to have (different for each terrain -- think Epcot's League of Fake Nations); and when I got there for the first time, lo and behold I discovered that I was no longer allowed to do any terraforming on my starter plot, nor demolish my house, nor even do any landscaping. (My land literally extends just to the edges of the house; all the green space between the houses is owned by Linden, and all the landscaping up to them.) And so that instead creates more of a 3D version of Facebook, where everyone's home looks vaguely alike but with a pleasant aesthetic to it all, and with people allowed to decorate inside their home to their heart's content, just not to change the home itself.

And indeed, as I took a walk around my neighborhood the other evening (an area I've been calling "IKEAville" in my head), the simple fact is that there's just not much to it, which is both a good and bad thing, I'm convinced. Because let's say for example that you're a new player, that you're in fact some hipster mom who's been convinced to try it by all your Stitchin' Bitch friends (a demographic that makes up a huge amount of Grid citizens); in that case, at least you're not going to be chased off immediately by giant hundred-foot porn pictures and slot machines and neon-green penises, with such a bland yet aesthetically pleasing environment probably just the thing to help you ease into the daily life of a Grid resident. But on the other hand, this creates yet another of what tech people call a "barrier to adoption" for new people -- because if you simply spend an afternoon wandering around IKEAville and never transporting to any of the other continents, you'll undoubtedly quit Second Life that same afternoon, convinced that there's nothing in the entire Grid at all besides endless fields of empty suburban housing. And man, Second Life already has just such a tremendous amount of barriers to adoption already; does it really need another?

But still, like I said last time, there are some players who are taking to their starter homes quite nicely, and decorating the interiors to reflect their individual tastes, just like you adjust your Facebook or Twitter page to reflect your individual taste. And frankly, this is all that a whole lot of Grid citizens are there for in the first place, is to have a unique little place to have their friends over and chat; because as popular as chatting through text or voice online has been over the last twenty years, you can just imagine how more intense it is when you have literal 3D cartoon figures representing each person talking, and with thousands of unique "conversation enhancement" animations you can deploy while chatting (winking, shrugging, frowning, etc), and with texts appearing literally as cartoon voice bubbles above people's heads, and even with the opacity of those voice bubbles becoming more solid or more invisible based on how far away two avatars are from each other. So here above, for example, is someone four or five doors down from my place, who's tricked out the inside of their home rather nicely; and since it's literally impossible to steal things from other people (or indeed to even pick things up on someone else's land unless they specifically give you permission), a lot of people leave their places "unlocked" so that others can roam in and out at will, although there's also an option for turning on an impenetrable electric field around your land as well. (Also, you can ban individual people from entering, which very neatly takes care of cyberstalkers.) So imagine having your usual fun little Skype conversations with your friends like you always have; but now imagine that everyone's audio is getting streamed into this virtual house, and with all of you possessing avatars that can interact in 3D space even as you're talking. And now you're starting to see why Second Life is so addictive to some people, and why a lot of them are perfectly happy with a little home like this and don't really need anything else.

Oh, and a technical note, for those who aren't already aware; that since people are scattered throughout the real world when all logged into this one virtual city, the day and night cues can't be synchronized to anyone's local time, so most people just manually set the day or night graphics to whatever they want. (This can also be manually set for all avatars by a land owner, for example if you own a goth castle where it's supposed to be midnight all the time.) So here's how I look in the Grid in the middle of the night, which I don't think I've actually posted any photos of yet.

Oh, and one more tech note for those who don't realize -- that the sophistication of the graphics is automatically modified according to the power of the computer you're on. And like I said, I'm on a puny little $300 "Best Buy Special" laptop, perfectly fine for updating my blogs and getting on Facebook and all the other reasons I bought it, but just barely able to handle Second Life in any way whatsoever; while the images above, for example, are all from $5,000 screaming fast gamer systems, which always make my jaw drop whenever I come across another one of them online. All of these particular shots, by the way, come from Linden's in-house Photo Of The Day blog, which I really encourage you to stop by and visit if you want to see some truly breathtaking screenshots from this infinitely varied digital world.

So like I said, when you first become a premium member anymore, the first thing Linden asks you is what kind of terrain you'd like your starter home to be in; and as you can see from the big map at the beginning of this entry, they're essentially including all of these terrains in one big "suburban continent" (which based on its size leads me to believe that this entire concept of a suburban starter-home continent is a fairly new idea). And so this basically creates these "buffer zones" between the terrains, which are exactly one server wide; and you can actually go walking through these buffer zones while you're there, like you're seeing in the above photos, which I find just really fascinating.

This entire suburban continent is now being maintained by a brand-new employee group at Linden, known in-universe as the "Public Works Committee;" and as you can see if you click through to the large version of the map screenshot directly above, obviously one of the perks of being in this employee group is that each of them gets to design one cool or funny thing to go on each of these buffer servers between terrain zones. So here on the server closest to my house, for example, is a humorous fake historical marker, supposedly honoring the slot where thousands of suburban home owners from my zone were once slaughtered by all the Asian samurai in the zone next door, just to have the entire zone abandoned again when the notoriously shy samurai discovered that none of the blinds in the suburban homes actually work. Cute, Linden, cute.

And then make a 180-degree turn at this monument and walk thirty seconds, and you're suddenly in the next major terrain zone of this continent, in this case the woodsy Asian setting previously alluded to. And as you can see, this works essentially just like my section does -- four or five homes to choose from, arranged closely together but not packed in, with a sort of basic infrastructure for at least moving around in the neighborhood.

So that's it for now from here in the heart of IKEAville; although the next time we talk, I'll have moved out of my starter home altogether, and will finally be on a much larger piece of land that will serve as my home, workshop and retail space. That's coming this weekend, as part of a huge report on how exactly one goes shopping for land in the Grid, so I hope you'll have a chance to come back again then.