Monday, 23 January 2012

Exploring Linden Realms

Here's my January column for AVENUE magazine.

Out of the blue at the very beginning of December (apparently it was available to premium users previously, but where Linden announced this I have no clue), came a potential new paint job for Second Life®.  Linden’s latest idea, ‘Linden Realms’, is “the Lab's first-ever game prototype… dodge rock monsters and fierce fireballs as you cross deadly, toxic rivers to complete quests and cash in your crystals for Linden Dollars.”  What’s notable is that (at the time of writing, at least) this venture is apparently so significant to LL that the Linden Realms logo currently displays on the SL home page with equal prominence to the regular SL logo, and over a full page Linden Realms poster.  The newcomer to is now shown our metaverse as consisting of cartoon style fairies, rocks and evergreens.  At the moment, this is the very first thing they see.  Not wanting to be part of that crowd that unleashes the hounds of blogosphere fury every time Linden have the audacity to do something to try to grow their business, however, I decided to give Linden Realms a go. 

The first couple of tries met with failure when I tried to follow links from the ‘Showcase’ section of inworld search on Imprudence: these claimed to be to Linden Realms but one led to a bog standard welcome hub and the other to an island somewhere with a red brick lighthouse and a large group of rather confused looking avatars.  The third attempt was via the Destinations Guide on the web site and got me to the starting point, ‘Portal Park 1’, okay; but that was when I realised from the odd collection of spheres and cylinders around me that I obviously needed a mesh-enabled viewer.  Linden had neglected to mention this, presumably because this whole experience is very clearly aimed at new residents who won’t yet have learned about the existence of third party viewers, especially those not yet supporting mesh.

Attempt number four, then – this time in Firestorm – got me viewing finally Portal Park 1 and its eight gates to the first gaming area correctly.  A note about the gates – and I think it’s worth spending a moment on this, since they’re the first point of contact avatars actually have with ‘the game’: they’re numbered in roman numerals in the following sequence: 5, 7, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8.  Unless I’m missing something blindingly obvious, it strikes me that this sequence is frankly bonkers and likely to confuse the hell out of newbies.  As an experienced SL user, I spent nearly ten minutes camming around (newbies wouldn’t have yet mastered this skill) trying to work out if these were different levels and I’d somehow managed to miss levels one and two.  In fact, each gate leads to an identical version of the game situated on different islands (each island consisting of eleven sims) towards the north-east of the grid and it doesn’t actually matter which of them you choose.  None of this was obvious to the large collection of avatars stuck in a big heap of uncertainty in the centre of the Portal Park, many of whom had disappeared by the time I decided to throw caution to the wind and take my chances on entrance number three – and not by walking through one of the gates.

And so to the first realm itself.  Gameplay can pretty much be summarised as follows: your guide – Tyrah – directs you from one part of the island to another and you have to avoid such obstacles as rock monsters, fire balls, toxic water and rock falls to get there.  Along the way, you can collect different coloured crystals which can be traded at ‘The Portal Workshop’ in quantities of 50 for Linden Dollars (50 red earned me L$1, 50 yellow earned me L$2 and 50 orange earned me L$5; hardly a fortune, but for damned sure more lucrative and more entertaining than camping).  All these things are achieved via some rather slick technology.  ‘Death’ occurs on physical contact with beast/fireball/toxic water/falling boulder, automatically sending you via teleport to the nearest ‘resurrection circle’.  Similarly, crystals are collected simply by walking into them (they disintegrate on touch) and the quantity you have of each colour is recorded in a HUD which loads automatically on entry into the game area.  The HUD – which is also where you receive your instructions from Tyrah – is a point of interest for a number of reasons.  First of all, it loads without asking permission.  Second, it doesn’t get stored in your inventory.  Third, if you take it off you get automatically teleported out of the game.  Fourth, when you return to the game after leaving – minutes, hours or days later (even if you’ve removed the HUD in the interim) – your crystal levels and game status are preserved.  Whatever your orientation towards crystal collecting might be, this technology has interesting potential for use elsewhere on the grid.

Each ‘quest’ is essentially a challenge to find/reach a particular point on the island without dying too many times.  Tyrah asks you to go check out destination A; you finally find it; Tyrah tells you, “Oh, so X is happening there.  Now I want you to check out what’s happening at destination B”. And so on.  Avoiding the rock monsters is initially frustratingly difficult, but gets easier once you realise you can outrun them if you, well, run.  The rock falls also finished me off fairly consistently until the point where I abandoned my strategy of basically legging it through the caves and instead used a stop-start approach to the problem.  I spent a few hours of a Saturday afternoon playing and got sent from the Base Camp to The Shattered Cavern to Banshee’s Peak to Tyrah’s peak and then to a toxic pool in the centre of Devil’s Canyon.  Along the way, I also visited the Sunspire Tower and its satellite platforms, where I experienced being burned up “by the outer layers of an expanding star” (amazingly, the island was not even singed by this) and later “atomised by a broken portal”.  The toxic pool in the centre of Devil’s Canyon was, alas, where I finally abandoned Linden Realms, since whatever it was that was meant to happen there didn’t and twenty minutes of walking around it in circles (and even managing to jump my way onto the tiny island in the middle which I felt had to be the intended destination) led me eventually to conclude there were better things to be occupying myself with on a weekend.

If all this sounds rather cynical, you might be surprised to learn that I actually quite enjoyed Linden Realms.  Simplistic as it is, the gameplay had an appeal to it that reminded me of the eight bit dodge-this-and-collect-that computer games of my teenage years.  It’s simple, but it’s fun.  And the scenery – whilst admittedly a little like something you’d expect to see in a Disney movie for under tens – was well designed, colourful and bold.  The island had a definite atmosphere. The experience is immersive.  Perhaps most amazingly of all, but also most crucial of all for any sort of online game experience – there was practically no lag whatsoever.

I say I gave up on Linden Realms, however I do intend to return to that toxic pool and work out what it is that’s supposed to happen there.  I also want to visit the other realms I’ve since discovered are accessible from separate Portal Parks (check the destination guide).  Is this the start of a new direction to my SL?  Of course it’s not; it’s just an interesting distraction.  As a start to someone’s SL, however, I think this idea has possibility.  It’s hardly a net that’s going to catch everyone’s interests; nonetheless this represents an approach to one of the most difficult challenges facing SL recruitment: getting new residents immersed in the world before they tire of its uncertainty.  A newbie that follows the pointers to Linden Realms as their first SL experience will actually have something structured to do instead of all that hanging around at the infohub, waiting for something to make sense (or, at least, for the guy with the large penis attachment to go away).  The awarding of Linden Dollars is an especially cunning strategy, particularly since – at the Portal Workshop where you trade your crystals in – you’re given a direct link to the Marketplace website, preloaded with a search for items costing between two and twenty Lindens.  This is a great way of getting people interested in their avatar’s appearance whilst caught up in the game… and might even have worked as a strategy were there an area in the workshop for rezzing the boxes when they get delivered.

Which brings me back to my earlier grumbles.  As an idea, Linden Realms has potential.  But it needs significant polish if it’s going to succeed in its newbie attracting objectives; at the moment there’s still too much about it that’s just confusing.  In fairness, it’s a new strategy and should be given time to mature, but a lot of these gripes are relatively easy fixes and just require a little newbie empathy.  There’s technology here that I’m looking forward to seeing exploited by SL’s immensely creative community.  And it’s a good showcase for mesh.  Last of all, I can’t help but wonder – particularly given the prominence that the venture’s been given on the SL website – if this is the first step in an SL ‘rebranding’ that I’ve seen suggested in a couple of blogs.  A year from now, will we still be visiting ‘Second Life’, that world without a proper name that suggests we can’t cope with our existing life?  Or will we be visiting just ‘Linden’?

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