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Second Life
February 23, 2004 | Joel Davies

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the Pac Man house
Second Life is an ambitious attempt to create an online society, complete with commerce, living arrangements, events and adventure. It features near total customization of characters, objects and to some degree, the world itself. Not quite following the traditional Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game model - there are no quests to complete, and no set roles to play. You simply enter the world to interact with it's citizens and the environment.

You can do some pretty hefty customization to the overall appearance of your character. Pretty much ever single physical characteristic can be altered in several ways - hair style, hair color, skin color, clothing, musculature, facial features, the whole nine yards. My first attempt at character design was supposed to look kind of like Liam Neeson in "Rob Roy" but after I finally got the plaid pattern applied to the kilt, it looked like Grizzly Adams in a Catholic School Girl uniform. Since I didn't want to be labeled a weirdo in this strange new online world, I eventually chickened out and went with the standard designer "all black" ensemble. I even tried to make my avatar look like me - and aside from losing 25 pounds in my Second Life, it was a pretty fair representation. However, once I shaved my avatar's head to look like my own shiny bald head, everyone else's avatar also appeared bald to me. It was like THX-1138, but without the cool cars.

Actually, there are pretty cool cars in Second Life, and as you earn money, you can buy some nice transportation. Busy Ben's Vehicle Lot offers a place for aspiring designers to create cars, tanks, planes, hovercraft, motorcycles and flying brooms to sell to other users. I picked up a lovely hovercraft finished in a retro Flash Gordon style, an Indian motorcycle and another high-performance hover car for good measure.

Users can build pretty much any kind of object they wish, and sell it to another user. Instant house kits, vehicles, furniture, all kinds of stuff. Actually, it seems this is the main point of the game - to make stuff for other people to buy.

Gameplay in Second Life is kind of hard to explain. It seems to be made up of equal parts of interaction, exploration, and work. In order to make money to buy all the good stuff (land, objects, outfits, whatever) you need to create things to sell to other users. This means you are going to have to spend some time working - developing models, textures and scripts to power objects. Once you have an object to sell, you need a space to both advertise and sell your product. This means either renting space at a store - or buying land, building a structure and then finding some customers.

Of course, you need money to buy land, which means you need to build stuff first. To my surprise, this Second Life seems a lot like my first one - I needed to work my butt off to get ahead. Unlike my first life, I was handed a hefty budget to start out with, so I bought some toys with my new riches. I bought a few vehicles to drive around - only to discover that land based vehicles are not allowed everywhere - plots of land must be designated build areas in order for me to use my motorcycle.

The Web site described games and competitions - but I never did find any games, or mention of games in Second Life. So, I mostly spent my time wandering around, talking with random folks, and trying to buy some land with my big wallet. There is a lot of ground to cover in the online world, and I spent a lot of time walking or flying (yes, you can fly, just like Superman) around the world's various districts.

Interactions are kind of strange - you can approach a user and use a chat client to "talk" to them. When you chat with another avatar - you're avatar actually looks down at an invisible keyboard and audibly types in mid-air. All chats with other folks are punctuated with the telltale rattle of keyboards.

Buying land proved to be tricky. First, I had to find some open land to buy that I could afford. Once I finally found a nice little plot - I transferred some of my cash to the previous owner, and presto - I was a landowner. Almost. I received an email that I need to update my account in order to complete the land transaction. The email took me to my online account, where I discovered that to own any significant amount of land, one needed to pay an extra monthly fee, which increased as the amount of land increased. Since I seemed to be much more wealthy in my Second Life than my first, I opted not to complete the transaction, and several days later, my cash magically returned to my character.

The world is actually a giant grid, that has a lot of room for expansion. There are land rush events to claim land scheduled every once on a while, so there will always be new land coming into play for new users.

Overall, I saw a lot of evidence of other users, but not many actual users themselves in Second Life. Virtually everything leaves an artifact - taking off your party hat (all users have a standard-issue party hat, for parties, I imagine) and leaving it on the ground will actually leave that party hat sitting there until someone else picks it up. In a lame attempt to get more people to talk to me, I wore my party hat for a while.

I also learned the hard way that a kernel panic in the middle of a motorcycle ride means your motorcycle is left in the middle of the test course for other folks to stumble across. No one else had permission to move my cycle, and after restoring my system, I could no longer find it. I did however, get a note that it was left in the middle of the course, and to move it immediately - which I was never able to accomplish.


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