Live your life in a world unrestrained by physics, biology or any other real-world discipline. In this virtual world developed by Linden Lab, you can fly, look like a fox if you want to, or create utterly magical items with absolutely no “real” equivalent.
And, as in the real world, Second Life citizens can buy land, develop it, or simply wait till prices rise to sell to the highest bidder. The “local currency”, Linden dollars, can be exchanged for real US currency. Economics is the one thing that has been imported from the “real world” into this virtual land. This is also one of its vulnerabilities. Last year, Second Life had a bank run. People who bought virtual property thought prices would crash, and started to sell and withdraw their dollars. So Linden Lab lost money in the real world. This meant a currency crunch within Second Life. In turn, this impacted people who wanted to withdraw their real-world dollars from Lively.
Virtual avatars: Walking the streets of Second Life
Money isn’t everything, though—even in Second Life. Many citizens develop counterparts of real-world assets—such as their actual clothing and cars. This world is rife with people giving seminars, foreign language classes, and even groups building temples. So, Second Life looks a lot like real life.
You build yourself an avatar and go look for people with similar interests. This takes social networking to the next level. In Second Life, you can study with a person from Turkey, build online devices with pals from the US, and fly in the sky with people from Delhi. Unlike a computer game, there is no set mission to complete Second Life. Instead, the online world is a new frontier waiting for you to discover and enjoy as you wish.
But this utopia extends only to the borders of Linden Lab. As with Vegas, what you do in Second Life stays in Second life. Your creations, possessions and friends cannot be moved to another location. It is a members-only site, and taking that membership isn’t easy. You need to fill a flurry of forms, then download and install a client software. This is time consuming and usually takes an hour.
The woes continue: Second Life is graphics-intensive, so if you have an old computer or a slow Internet connection, your experience will be marred by glitches, your avatar will move jerkily and all actions will likely be prefaced by a long, excruciating wait. In India, low Internet speeds mean few people can actually transcend to this life.
The new virtual world from Google lets you live a freer life, virtually. It’s not constrained by long downloads. Nor is it restricted to a specific set of users. Here, too, you can roam various 3D “rooms” with different themes: a sci-fi room for fans of that genre; a “Brasil” room; the Google headquarters, complete with T-Rex skeleton, and several more.
Not impressed? Create your own! Stock your room with furniture. Paste your favourite pictures from a Picasa album on the walls. Let a streaming video from YouTube take over an entire wall. That done, you can invite friends to your virtual room or place a link to it on your blog. Unlike Second Life, a Lively room can link anywhere on the Internet. For instance, adding it to your profile on a social networking site completely changes the interaction. Visitors click, add a small browser plug-in, and join you on your online adventures. The best part: Lively runs on almost any computer with Windows XP or Vista—no need for a very high-end machine or a lightning-fast Internet connection.
Inside Lively rooms.
Like most Google products, Lively simply adds on to your existing account, with your usual settings and preferences. Movement and interaction with this virtual environment is mostly via the mouse, so there is no need to remember a long list of keyboard shortcuts (a staple for Second Life and online gaming worlds).
Yet, there is a reason Lively is still in beta. For now, it’s only supported on Windows-based computers. No economic transactions yet; nor can users create new products. The graphics feel more cartoony than “real”. However, most of these shortfalls contribute to mainstream appeal. The lack of any real economics renders Lively immune to bank runs such as the one Second Life faced. A lack of extreme graphics encourages more users—even those without high-end computers—to enter Lively.
One expects an advertisement-based revenue model, as with other Google products (from Gmail to Orkut). Its wider accessibility will definitely make it the most populated online world-cum-social network. The right to create items online should be released via development kits similar to the ones that spurred a mash-up mania on Google Earth.
From the onset, one thing makes Lively different: Communication, whether through text, voice or video, is extremely easy. That definitely makes it more alive. And the freedoms offered by Lively should finally make online worlds a mainstream experience.
GAMING ONLINE: THE MANY WORLDS OF PAY-TO-PLAY
The Matrix Online (MxO)
This MMORPG (massive multiplayer online role-playing game) is a continuation of the movies, the animated series (the Animatrix) and graphic novels. Unlike Second Life and Lively, it is for players who want to live out their fantasy of inhabiting the mythos created in the Matrix trilogy of movies. To do this, each player has to choose a side—they can opt for Zion (pro-human forces), the Machines (the forces against humans) or the Merovingian (a side working solely for itself). Each player chooses one of the three classes of characters—Coder, Hacker, Operative—with specific advantages and limitations.
The player is given missions, according to the side chosen. Successful missions earn a higher status in that particular side, while diminishing a player’s value to other sides. Missions are further divided according to their importance to the player and to the overall storyline.
Unlike Second Life or Lively, the MxO isn’t for people wanting to just interact with others online. Instead, it is for enthusiasts of the Matrix series who are well versed in its mythology. And “walking the path” isn’t easy online—apart from the oodles of firefights, there is also a fee the player must play to jack into this world.
World of Warcraft (WoW)
WoW is the online continuation of a computer game series with the Warcraft name. This is by far the biggest online world, with 16 million players (according to ‘www.mmogchart.com’).
This MMORPG lets the player act out his medieval Tolkien-influenced fantasy. Here a player can either choose a character that already exists in the game series or create a new avatar. As in most MMORPGs, there are classes of characters and creature types to choose from: human, dwarf, orc and troll avatars. This game also lets you play three online real-time versions: One that pits various players against each other; another that lets the player fight opponents who are guided by the computer; and finally a quest mode that lets the player complete various missions that are given to him. The quest mode also lets each player gain experience points (which help during the other two modes) and find rare items (which can be traded or sold to other players).
Like most such online worlds, WoW is also a pay-to-play world—a credit card is mandatory for each player. This world is solely for fans of the preceding computer games or people who are familiar with the games’ plot lines.
Ragnarok Online (RO)
As the name implies, this MMORPG has a lot of Norse influence, with manga-inspired animation. Paralleling the rooms in Lively, Ragnarok has a series of maps upon which the action evolves. These maps support different missions and a wide range of native monsters, which a player must respectively complete and kill in order to get a higher rank. These maps are usually influenced in style and setting by different regions of the world. The three distinct areas are: Rune Midgard, where the player begins the game (resembles grassy European plains); the heavily industrial Schwaltzvalt Republic (Germany); and the religious Arunafeltz region (Turkey).
One thing that differentiates Ragnarok from other MMORPGs is the job system—the selection of a character type (out of many complex categorizations) is called a “job” in RO. As in other online worlds, each player has to choose a character class, each with a different progression and unique strength/weakness set. Like WoW, players can battle other players, although they must attain a certain skill level before they can face off. Another feature is that each player can directly buy more weapons and other useful items from the in-game store—this costs real money, as does the game.
This differs from other game worlds in two basic ways. First, it doesn’t need a subscription. Second, it can be played on computers too slow or outdated for most games. But there is catch on both counts. While it is free, a player can access this world only with a code given on the purchase of the full-fledged PC-playable Guild War games, called Campaigns. Also, it still needs a stable and suitably fast Internet connection. In India, we call a 512kbps connection “broadband”. This is just not good enough for online gaming—what you need is the global standard of about 1MB. The Guild Wars world also belongs to the fantasy genre, letting players choose an avatar from various classes of characters, with unique skill sets. Players are placed on the world of Tyria, which routinely falls prey to various evil characters. You can choose from two modes: One lets several players fight the evil creatures as a common goal or take up a quest; the second mode lets you fight other players directly.
Guild Wars is noted for its well-built graphics which look equally good when players are in fast motion and?even?on a lower-configuration machine. Its sequel, Guild Wars 2, is slated to carry on this tradition.