Look out, Lindens, here it comes. One in a blue moon, a virtual world comes along that might really challenge Second Life -- and now it's here, Blue Mars. Sign up for the beta here that is reportedly opening in June -- but only if you are a developer who wants a preview of how your content made on professional software like Maya will look in this world. It's not ready for the proles yet.
If you thought that the name of this virtual world meant that it is some kind of wild science fiction outerspace game, like Eve or something, you'd be wrong. Perhaps the top zoom of this planet is a blue mars, but the world itself looks as normal as pie with roads, malls, golf courses. I saw the demos at Engage! Expo and was quite impressed, and spent some time talking to the devolopers. The company is made up of Asians and Americans with vast game dev experience, and is located in Hawaii.
The graphics are breath-taking, and make Second Life feel almost a bit like the Sims Online when contrasted with the crispness. World of Warcraft has "better graphics" too (well, what wouldn't, with no user-generated content to lag it down) but it has these soft, LOTR-like edges, a kind of fantasy world that all seems "drawn".
Blue Mars has a high-fidelity look that makes the avatars seem very real. A key feature of their "realness" is their hair -- it's absolutely kick-ass 2die4 prim hair that moves realistically. Er, wait. Not prim hair. But, um, you know, what they use on this platform. A guy explained it to me in great depth -- he talked about how the people who made the artwork for Final Fantasy were involved (it looks like FF or Fable) and explained something about the skin making too -- but it was lost on me. It has to do with meshes, I guess. The graphics look good just because it has a Cry2 engine. That's what makes it look like a lot of top-quality games.
Oh, you say, but this world can't possibly be "for everybody" given the intensive graphic-card needs it will have -- say, like Second Life, you know? I spent a year in the mud in SL without more than a 64 m2 view when they moved to Windlight, and it's only now after buying a better machine that I got to "see the world". Turns out that the very same graphic cards now on spec for SL can play Blue Mars. The very machines I saw it playing on had those very cards, the NVidia and ATI Radeon (check the website).
But, meh, looks aren't everything, right? They take you a long way, but what's really up? Oh, and isn't Blue Mars "vapour ware"? It keeps saying it will open and delaying. Well, I think that's over now, and they really will open beta in June. They're taking sign-ups now. And here's how they'll win: a content creators' partnership system AND a real estate partnership system, both of which protect value even as they heavily restrict entry to a virtual world economy. In fact, I'm not certain such an economy will work, and I feel a great sense of dismay contemplating all this, because while the Blue Mars variant will be "better" and some creators will "flock" to it, it may not be free and flexible and accessible. The best thing would be if it competed with Second Life by making a different kind of controlled economy that we can see play out as to its viability, but not destroy the Second Life economy, which is more free, in the process. If the two can co-exist, not surviving on "socialism in one country", that would be best for the Metaverse in terms of choice and robust growth.