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Second Life Review
Dialogue, 2004-03-09

Since I started writing for MMORPGDot last year I've visited over half a dozen Virtual Worlds. I've blasted critters on Rubi-Ka, sliced bunnies in the lands of Vana D'iel, and slashed ineffectually at pillbugs in Endless Ages. For the past month, I've been ... chatting. At the other end of Massively Multiplayer space from the likes of EQ and FFXI are a new breed of Virtual Worlds that disregard combat entirely. In fact, it's up for interpretation whether this type of World can even be counted as a Game. Today I'll be discussing my time in Linden Labs' Second Life. Second Life has attracted a lot of attention in the last few months because of the intriguing decision by the developers to allow users to retain property rights over their digital creations. In fact, that was how the game first came to my attention. Since that announcement, the Virtual World has continued to grow with a sense of user empowerment. Houses, vehicles, animals and plants sprout from the lands that Linden built. Second Life is a unique experience in the world of Massively Multiplayer Games.

Getting Started

The entry into Second Life is simple. All you need is a modem and a lot of patience or a dsl/cable connection. The client is fully downloadable from the 2L website, and all of the account information necessary to register the game is done through the site. If you're interested in tryout out 2L before playing it, there is a 7 day trial period available just for downloading the client. Once you are registered and signed up, you're allowed into the game-world as a newborn with a generic shell. The first thing you're going to want to do is customize your appearance. This is the point where the creative types get weak in the knees, and for good reason. Second Life has, hands down, the deepest and most detailed avatar modification system in any game currently on the market. Star Wars Galaxies and Tony Hawk Underground look like arcade games in comparison. Literally every aspect of your avatar is customizable, from the slope of your ears to the tilt of your jaw, the shape of your head to the length of your hair. Second Life also allows you, from the start, to create and customize your own clothing. The length of the sleeves, pant legs, neckline, everything is changeable. Customizing your avatar also introduces you to one of the facets of 2L that you'll be examining a lot if you do a lot of item creation in-game: textures. 2L comes with a large assortment of textures to use on objects (and on yourself). I utilized their careful selection to give myself a lovely mocha-colored zebra stripe pattern to my shoes. I may have been new to the world, but I was already starting trends. Once your appearance is in order, you have a responsibility as a newbie to learn about the world around you. Beginning players start at the "welcome center" area of the Linden Lands. This center is listed as your "home" for the purposes of the command "Teleport home", and is an invaluable place to pick up information and meet people. From the welcome center you can walk to areas that introduce you to building, shooting, playing games, and using the world interface.

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Changing the World

Second Life is an artists paradise, a sort of freewheeling nerd commune where folks who walk through life going "Gosh, I wish I could represent myself as an animated squirrel" find their dreams made real. In Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash" the Metaverse is depicted as a fantastical virtual realm where everyone can represent themselves as they want to, create what they will if they have the talent, and sell their works to other like minded folk. Take away the black background and you have Second Life. At it's core, like all Virtual Worlds, 2L is a programmed existence. In most game worlds, the people who know the scripting language used to make objects move and react and that have the proper permissions to do so are the developers. 2L extends that privilege to everyone who enters it. Don't like the way you look or walk? Fine, change it! In my tour of Second Life I saw aliens, beavers, squirrels, bats, rats, a woman riding a pegasus, a guy surfing over clouds, and a dwarf building a condo. Whatever you can think of, you can make. If you know how.

Second Life provides for it's inhabitants unfettered access to the nuts and bolts of the gameworld. Every item you see, and some you don't, are objects that can be examined, modified, and scripted. At will you can take a copy of a bench you see sitting on a street corner, modify it, and plunk it down anew in a stunning lime green. If you have the rights to, of course. Like the real world, Second Life has a very strict sense of intellectual property. Users can designate their creations such that they cannot be modified or copied. This look but don't touch attitude has a very lucrative purpose: even if others can't make copies of your work, you can. And you can sell them. The best place to do this is on land that you own. Yes, not only can you buy a hoverboard or a puppy-cat, you can purchase a piece of the Linden Lands. Only certain areas are up for grabs, and they go fast. Either you can buy them directly from Linden Labs (if they're new) or you can purchase them at auction from fellow 2Lers. Once you have a piece of land, you can do what you can do in other free build areas, only moreso! Most of the free build areas are wiped on a regular basis. By purchasing land, you can begin to create a foundation for your own private world within a world.

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The Almighty Buck

Literally the limits of your imagination, and your pocketbook, are the only things stopping you. Yes, your pocketbook. Since Second Life is part of the real world (subset though it is), one of the inevitabilities of existence must be dealt with: taxes. In this case, the taxes are levied upon objects you've created inside the game world. The reason for this is simple. More objects means more drain on the server. The servers need to be maintained, and more objects mean more servers. So your taxes must be paid on a regular basis on all objects. More taxes are leveled against especially big objects or ones with intricate scripting. At this point, you may be asking yourself two questions: What are Linden Dollars, and how does a currency that I've never heard of pay for real life servers? Linden Dollars are the in-world scrip that is used in all transactions. LD are charged for every object, and service, and taxes can be paid in LD. They don't take up any space in your inventory, and it's a universal currency. The answer to the second question lies in how you obtain Linden Dollars in the first place. Real Money. Second Life makes concrete what some other games hedge around. There is a definable exchange rate between Linden Dollars and real-world currency. Linden labs as of this writing accepts $10,000LD in exchange for a land use fee (tax) of $5US, so every US dollar is worth approximately $2000LD. Now you may be understanding why I mentioned property rights at the beginning of this review. By selling in-game objects to others, residents of Second Life can make real world cash. This isn't new, of course, as any search on Ebay could show you. This is one of the first times in the world of Massively Multiplayer spaces that a company has endorsed the sale of in-game property for real world funds, and the possibilities are fascinating.

Graphics & Game World

The first thing you notice when you enter Second Life is that the graphics are...functional. The point of this world is definitely not "ooo shiny", so I don't want to give it trouble for the graphical presentation. Just be aware that 2L isn't going to be giving World of Warcraft or SWG a run for their money graphics wise. Beyond the initial lack of shiny, you're likely going to be overwhelmed by the amazing amount of "stuff" in the world. Even at the welcome center there is a large assortment of signs, avatars, and constructs to take in. One of the initial disconcerting aspects of the world is the fact that textures you haven't encountered yet need time to load, resulting in a blurry reality as the world around you is loaded. Beyond the initial reactions to the game, Second Life is pretty neat place to sight-see. The users have created some fascinating architecture, and there's a lot of neat stuff to oggle. The creativity of the userbase is what limits the cool factor of your surroundings in 2L, not the developers. And thankfully the userbase is extremely interesting. And friendly! The residents of Second Life were always happy to help with problems of understanding, interface, and communication. If you're wondering, the best way to make a friend in Second Life is to ask what they're working on. Everyone is always working on something in 2L.

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Sound & Music

Second life is a palate upon which aural artists can paint freely, unafraid of impinging upon any world concept the designers have in mind. In other words, there is no music in Second Life. There are a modicum of sound effects, mostly a dull thump when you hit something that drove me nuts. Now, of course, this is Second Life without the influence of an artist. In a dance club, I grooved to the beat of a netfeed pumped into the world through speakers. I walked through a garden and enjoyed a choral arrangement that arose as I passed through a bed of flowers. And on a seashore I watched as dolphins played and chattered to each other. I even read about a gentleman who decided he wanted a soundtrack wherever he went, and so made a jacket with tiny speakers as part of it that projected a quiet score as he walked. Like everything else in Second Life, it can be there if you want it to be.

Stuff to Do

Now you're saying to me "Okay, I can build stuff. What else can I do?" Well, besides have meaningful conversations with other real people, the more gamery can partake in a variety of activities. Some of the lands that Linden have put out just recently cater specifically to the weapon fanatics of the game. These "war zone" areas wipe their structures after a day or so, and allow players to construct quick shacks and buildings to act as bunkers. Then they begin to blow each other away using the weaponry of their choice. There is a basic "gun" that you can use on the welcome center firing range, but for most people that's just not good enough. Bazookas, machine guns, and other assorted shoot-em up fair have been created for the war story lover in you. Besides war games, there are a number of competitive activities. Basketball, mini-golf, hockey, and baseball have all been implemented in Second Life. Races of all kinds are very popular whether they're in the air, on the water, or on land. And in 2L a lot of those races involve vehicles like helicopters, hover boards, and unicycles. If you're a really competitive sort there is a "Leader Board" that allows you to compare your standings in a variety of areas against your fellow Second Lifers. The boards are also useful to get you in touch with the thriving social calendar in Second Life. Parties, dances, clubbing, birthdays...just look it up on the social calendar, teleport there, and have a blast. If you're looking for more structured or informative events, there are community leader led talks on a regular basis in small amphitheatres. These talks are open opportunities for leading members of the community and representatives of Linden Labs to get feedback and answer questions about the game. The one I attended was staffed by a very friendly guy who was more than willing to answer my goofy newbie questions. If you're really hard pressed and looking for something to do, check out the New World Notes blog maintained by Wagner James Au. It's a frequently updated listing of some of the random goodness you can find in 2L. It's listed from the main Second Life site, so it's definitely worth a look.

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As one of the new trend in non-gaming Virtual Worlds, Second Life is a unique experience. If only for the chance to try creating something interesting, I recommend using the trial period. As this really isn't a game per se, I'm reluctant to actually review it. My opinion, for what it's worth, is that this VW services a specific subset of MMO culture. The amount of energy it can take to make something worthwhile, as well as the scripting language, means that the likely users of this service are both already Massively Multiplayer users that have some skill in graphics or programming. The resulting culture is fascinating to take in, a sort of hippie commune inhabited entirely by geekery. In comparison, There (review on Thursday) is more norm-friendly on an interface level. Overall, I enjoyed my experiences in Second Life much more than my time in There. The people were friendlier, I had a blast making stuff, and the overall scheme of 2L makes more sense to me than the economy of Therebucks. Ultimately, choosing to participate in a Virtual World of this nature is a choice based on the culture of the World. The people of 2L, creative, talented, and friendly, are awaiting your decision.

The Verdict
Graphics (10%) 65%
Sound (10%) 50%
Control (10%) 80%
Community (15%) 98%
Game World (15%) 90%
Fun (40%) 80%
Overall 80%

Reviewer's System
Version: 02/04
CPU: 1.8 Ghz
RAM: 512 Megs
Graphics Geforce 4 Ti 4200
Sound Soundblaster Live
OS: Windows XP

Average Reader Ratings: 8.5 (6 votes)
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