Thursday, October 4, 2012

Clouds on the Horizon - A Storm is Coming


As some of you are aware, over the last several months I have been working over in CloudParty, learning the new tools and the differences of the system and the company there. It has been an extremely eye-opening experience and one that is basically impossible to do without making comparisons. Though the best evaluation of anything is accomplished by studying it on it's own merits, not holding a mirror next to it of something more familiar, I am unable to do so after spending the last six years of my life in SL. I have, however, been able to make a fair study of it, in light of making specific and repeated comparisons to SL, much as I imagine the developers of CloudParty themselves have done in making the decisions on what to do and not to do there. I say this because on numerous occasions I find myself realizing how they have accomplished this or that specific function, and saying "wow, they got that right. I wish SL did this." To be fair, there are of course times when I see something there and say, "SL does this better," though those occasions are few and far between, and becoming more rare as things progress there. In fact, several things that SL did actually do better have already been corrected or changed and, perhaps most importantly, when they are changed, the change is accomplished quickly and effectively.

It must be noted that comparisons to other virtual worlds are made as well, the most notable after SL being the disaster that was BlueMars. I spent over a year entrenched there, and have the grey hairs to show for it. Though I did learn a lot there, including getting a solid head start on working with mesh before it came to SL, I can't really say much about it other than it was a perfect example of what not to do with a virtual world, and how not to run one. It's hard to imagine a company that understands the community less or ignores them more than the lab does, but they managed that somehow, which is why BlueMars is now but a speedbump on the virtual highway (unless you like taking augmented reality shots of your dress up barbie on your iPhone). With the experience base I have in all three virtual worlds, I thought to write a few things about CloudParty in the hopes that it can clear up a few things I see being commonly misunderstood about it.

Rustica in CloudParty

Firstly, it is only in very early beta still, having only been open for a few months. The biggest mistake being made is people comparing it to the current SL. A more realistic comparison, if one is to be made, would be comparing it to the SL of 2004 or 2005. If viewed in that light, I would have to say that they are well ahead of the curve in many respects. The recent avatar updates that were released provide the user with an avatar that is much more realistic than the basic avatar we had to work with for many years, until the residents themselves started providing them for the lab to use. I have no doubt that if a few skin, shape and clothing designers went over there and put some things together, the quality of the avatar would quickly rival that of Skyrim or one of the more recent games out there. Until some skins show up there, and some custom content, things will, quite frankly, look as shitty as they did until people started providing decent content in SL. The tools are there, the designers and content are not. Yet.

The avatar developer kits are about to be released, and while there are already major advances from the initial offering there, it is important to understand that they are also continuing to take input and make additional changes to it, like more sliders and joints, etc. In this first round of development, the shape and UV layout are already better than both SL and BM avatars. There are more joints, and better placement of those joints. Facial and finger movement and animation will soon be possible, as well as mesh morphing, something SL has never had. My personal favorite aspect of the avatars, aside from the ability to use normal and specular maps on the skins and clothing, is that mesh clothing already has a proper deformation when the sliders are adjusted. In contrast, it has been over 300 days since Karl handed the first mesh deformer to the lab, and STILL we don't have it, even though we actually paid to have it developed. If there is a primary factor to consider in how different the two companies running these places are, that is a good candidate. So, we have a world where we don't have to change our size to fit the clothing we buy, where a designer can make one item, upload it and it works on everyone. Imagine that.

Anyone wanting to see what avatars can look like in CloudParty, how far they will be able to go in terms or realism, take a trip over to see the island being developed by Claudia222 Jewel, one of my favorite SL designers who has been over in CP for a while now. She has some figures there which use the materials (normal and spec maps) to full effect, they are amazing and a serious look at what the future holds.

Claudias work in CloudParty

So lets talk about materials. Yes, SL is about to get them, though how that pans out, and when, is anyones guess. I will hold my opinion on it until I can see the results on the terrain of my sim and my items. I do find it interesting that it was announced in short order once CloudParty, which has them already and working well, started. Like mesh, and the mesh clothing deformer we don't have, I cant help but find myself thinking it is a day late and a dollar short. Though the materials system for SL is being done by an extremely competent developer, the deformer for mesh clothing was done by an extremely competent developer, Karl, yet implementing it has left the lab looking like a monkey fucking a football. No amount of skill or talent determines how a feature will pan out once it makes it into final release. It has to go through the machine. In the meantime, CloudParty has excellent normal and specular mapping, with additional graphics capabilities on the way. This is where they are STARTING from, not where they will end up.

The physics system there, while understood by me only on a surface level, seems much more capable than SL, more responsive, quicker and more accurate. When creating a mesh item, LOD's (levels of detail) and physics hulls are automatically calculated. This is a major boon for creators, yet again making the system work much more efficiently and speeding up the design process. If you want to make a house, for example, all the doors and windows, stairs, etc. are done for you. Each physical boundary is created exactly per polygon shape and position. This is awesome to work with. In terms of mechanics, I have seen only a few examples of live physical objects, like a ball, some boxes that fall, etc. Phate Shepard and Real Burger are two people in CP who are working diligently on scripting and physics there, learning the boundaries of the box and pushing them out. Interestingly, the developers there are listening to input, and making changes where needed, based on the input from early adopters like those two.

streaming music within CP

Speaking of scripting, that's another area which, though relatively unexplored, already seems to outshine LSL. The system there uses WebGL, which is OpenGL based. The scripting language is primarily javascript and HTML5, both with a proven track record and more robust than LSL, which is limited by, if nothing else, being proprietary. In just the last week I have seen residents use the /dialogcreate/ tag to design streaming music, video and also run both SL and a second window of cloud party within the open browser window. This also points out one of the most obvious yet strongest benefits of CP, which is that it is all running within a browser. No client to dowmload, no complicated UI to sort out. Not only is this a benefit on the surface, but becomes more so once you realize how much easier it will be to implement changes and adjustments to the system using WebGL.

Making changes to a 10 year old proprietary UI or client application is extremely difficult, which is why it so rarely happens in SL. Considering the spaghetti-like mess of libraries that make up the existing SL client and server, it is a wonder to me that it runs at all anymore. Patch after patch after patch, I can see why they don't like to change things; it has become a major undertaking for a company that has limited resources which are more often than not now focused on making some other product for the lab. Because we need dayglo minecraft, is why. Patterns, indeed, just not the ones they want me to see. For those that take some time to fully explore the world and the tools over there, the comparisons are almost inevitable. 


blizzard created with particles

I really believe that if you take a serious look at how things work in CloudParty, it is hard to come away from it with that many negatives. Those negatives I see most commonly expressed are, sadly, provided by people who have only a surface level understanding of the elements involved. Yes, the world is considerably empty still. Yes, a lot of it looks like plastic still, or very different from SL. Yes the build tools are different, though having used them I actually prefer them in a number of ways. To those people I would say, go there. Build a mesh model, texture and upload it. Play with the environment lighting and shadow parameters. Add normal and specular maps. Do those things, and then you can have a fair and balanced understanding of it. It is really easy, and all too common, to take a quick look and dismiss it, which is a huge mistake.

Lastly, I want to address the 500lb. gorilla in the room, the Facebook connection. This one thing seems to be the biggest complaint most people have with CP, and is also the most commonly misunderstood aspect of it. Cory Ondrejka, one of the original founders of SL, was the guy who started it. He is also now the head of mobile computing for Facebook. Definitely a connection there and one which will, in the long run, be a huge benefit for CloudParty as the mobile community becomes more and more a part of the user base, something which I believe will happen. Already CP can be run on some android tablets, with more touch-based integration planned for the future. While it will run on some mac desktops, it does not and will not run on iPad or iPhone, unless somehow those ever get to use WebGL.

CloudParty is a Facebook app, and it only uses FB login information as an authentication. This is the full extent of the connection to Facebook. Just as Zynga is not Facebook, CloudParty is not Facebook. It is only an app. Yes, you have to have a Facebook account in order to have a CP account, though they are planning on opening up to other authentication methods in the future. In the mean time, what I suggest to people is this little-known feature: Once you log in using a FB account, you can change your CP display name ONCE from the name on your FB account to anything you like. Once you do that, lock your FB page so that only those you have friended on FB can access your page. People that you friend in CP are not automatically added to your FB friends, that must be done separately.

Additionally, if you decide to get an island in CP, you can provide a secondary email and information so that, should your FB account be closed or locked for whatever reason, your business and account with CP will remain effective and open and you wont lose all your content, etc.I am not a fan of FaceBook. Up until CP started, I had been able to avoid it, and wish I could still. For now, my use of it is extremely limited. That being said, the connection to FB that exists there has one massive benefit, one which will, in the end, contribute largely to the success of it where so many virtual worlds, including SL, have failed: Population and growth. 


Every time I log into CP, this fact hangs out in my mind: 1.5 billion Facebook users. Considering that the owner of CP is now the head of mobile for FB also, there is a considerable likelihood that some of those 1.5 billion users will end up over there once they start actually marketing it, which is something that they have not done yet, since it is beta still. This was a mistake that BlueMars made, trying to sell it to users before the developer community even had a working product to deliver with. They put the cart in front of the horse. Once CP is ready and they begin marketing, the well of FB is a very deep one to draw water from; even farmville, basic as it was, went from several thousand users to over 300 million in 6 months, all from FB. Granted, that user base dropped almost as fast, but what retention can you expect from something like farmville?

Provide something like the rich, virtual world that SL provides - with all the social, musical, fantasy and RP aspects - to that same user base, many of whom will be exposed to virtual worlds for the first time, and you have some serious potential for success. This potential is considerably expanded when you provide a simple, well designed UI (the smartphone UI and apps) inside an easily accessible client (the web browser) and several of the difficulties that have plagued SL expansion and growth have been overcome already.

I honestly believe that a user base of 100 million users is very possible there, and likely, if the potential of these elements is fully exploited by the CP developers by drawing from the FB user base. Imagine SL with 100 million active users? Even 50 million, 10 million? Considered in such light, it is hard to think that a community size which rivals SL is unreachable. What that means for us and for SL remains to be seen. I would like to see a future where both places exist, though if CP really starts to take off, I find myself wondering what it is that would keep people in SL aside from the friends and relationships they have there. If those friends start leaving too, how will SL last? I think that, barring the lab actually shutting the doors, there will always be people in SL to some degree. There are certainly some which will never leave no matter what else is available, as evidenced by the people who still login to the open sim grids every day. I have no plans to leave SL anytime soon and I hope SL is around for a long time, but how long will it continue to be where we want to login?

In all fairness, CloudParty is not better than SL at everything, but it is well ahead in a variety of ways of both the SL of 2004 AND the SL of today. It takes full advantage of the technology of today and tomorrow, not the technology of 2004 re-purposed and rebuilt over and over again like an old chevy. It is different. They have figured out a lot of things that the lab apparently still doesn't get or are unwilling to pay attention to (like the user base).  Pretty amazing for a group of 5 people trying to make something. I hope that you will take the time to go over and explore the world there and keep an eye on it. I hope that you will be able to see beyond just the surface, as I have, to the existing depth and the future potential. It has an amazing amount of potential to become what virtual worlds have been promising us for the last 20 years yet never fully delivered, something more a part of the common internet experience for everyone, more what we all do online. The framework is definitely there. I think a storm is coming.

2 comments:

Pandora Quintessa said...

Very concise and informative. Thanks Max.
-- Pandy

Mykael said...

Excellent post. CloudParty are, at the moment, a small, highly focussed company that are really working to make CloudParty the VR everything it can be. They are running an agile beta and are both listening to their users responses and making changes to accommodate them.

What cloud party needs now are some more content creators and designers who can push the envelope. Implement what they can imagine and give the developers feedback on what works and what doesn't, on what could be easier and what could be better. No guarantee they'll incorporate all the feedback, but every bit they do makes it a better place. And the better it is, the more people will come...