Steam punks

Well, here’s a bit of excitement – sl is to finally get some of the clever graphic gadgetry that users have been asking the Lab to come up with for as long as anyone can remember. Except, of course, materials with the benefits of normal, specular and diffuse mapping isn’t being implemented as a result of the plaintive requests of dedicated sl residents, Jira entries or feedback received from users… it’s basically a carrot to dangle in front of the 40 million members of the gaming community who subscribe to Steam – am i the only one for whom that sort of approach has left a slightly bad taste in the mouth? The cynic in me, (yes, really!), can’t help thinking that’s why pathfinding, Project Shining and the advanced creator tools have taken such a high profile in LL’s plans of late, whereas things important to the residents, like Quarl’s mesh deformer have languished in the doldrums of QA – do you spot a pattern here?

Perhaps i should point out that i know absolutely nothing about Steam, other than a great many of the good folks that walk its corridors are pretty damn serious, hardcore gamers – the sort of people with 6 monitors and ice-cooled graphic cards, housed in computers hand-built in Tibetan monasteries by people rejected by CERN for being too clever.

We’ll come back to those people in just a moment… before we do, let’s consider what these graphicular improvements to sl are going to mean in real terms to most of the everyday inhabitants of the virtual world:

We’ve known for some time that work has been going on to improve the graphics pipeline feeding sl, but most of us thought that the emphasis would be on improving speed, by removing much of the graphics donkey work done by the viewer and having it done server-side instead. So, it was a bit of a surprise when the announcement about the new support for maps was made, even though it’s rather good news. If you’re floundering, here’s Seren’s jargon-buster –

Normal mapping – Bump mapping with attitude. Using co-ordinates from a complex shape and mapping them to a less complex one to give a representation of the original. So, every detail of the original is given a co-ordinate, which can be rendered onto a simpler shape. Think of slapping one of those rainbow coloured sculpt maps onto a cube prim to make a banana shape – it’s much the same thing.

Specular mapping – This is what good sculpty and meshy makers build into their meshes to give an impression of how their object interacts with light. It maps where the shiny, bright highlights are.

Diffuse mapping – In simple terms, the opposite of specular mapping. This can be used to give items depth and the illusion of strong textures. A diffuse map effectively defines where the shadows and dingy bits of an object should be – it’s great for weathering and ageing effects too.

All good stuff, huh? Of course – that’s why this kind of graphic functionality has been de rigeur in gaming for centuries, (erm, maybe not centuries, but certainly a very long time!). If we come back to our serious Steam gamers, without these fundamental graphic qualities for object materials, their interest in sl will last precisely as long as it takes to stop laughing in disbelief! Which is precisely why the Lab wants to implement them.

“Wait a cotton-picking minute”, i hear many of you screaming: “does this mean that unless i install a Diamondium Hypertrophic Stellar96GP XL™ graphics card in my computer, i won’t ever be able to use sl again?” – Nope; you can stop panicking, there’s every chance – unless the Lab balls’ things up completely – that the new graphics won’t make a blind bit of difference to performance, in fact they may even prove to be less process-intensive!

However, i predict that this new-fangled graphics wizardly is going to get Linden Lab nowhere with the hardcore gaming community for two very simple reasons –

  1. High quality, well-built creations, utilising the new mapping is – as with prims, sculpties and mesh – entirely dependent upon the skill and passion of the highly-talented builders and creators within sl. Their passion is building the world and enhancing the experience of everyday residents through creating places to live and trade, things to wear and toys to play with. What proportion of those people do you think will be willing to turn their talents to creating games-focussed content, particularly for a bunch of highly-demanding and obsessive new recruits from the gaming community? Yes, the noobs may well choose to build their own content… but why bother when other games provide it all as part of the experience?
  2. Currently 100% of sl is not geared up to take advantage of the graphics capabilities and, once it is rolled out, the proportion of new objects that will take advantage of it will be incredibly small – and will stay that way. The new mapping can’t be retro-fitted and nobody is going to clear away all their existing content with a big smile on their face just because it’s not as pretty. SL is, always has been, and likely always will be a mishmash of ancient and modern – a mix of top-notch creator content and crappy ‘i made this!’ resident builds. It will never be sleek, smooth and homogeneous, and it will never compare to professionally designed and built gaming environments. SL residents couldn’t give two hoots about this, (how many people do you know, for example, have ever bothered turning shadows on? – if indeed they can), but proper gamers will be bemused and sorely disappointed in what they see.

A good thing for sl? – yes. Will it make any measurable difference? – probably not. Will people leave Skyrim in droves to set up homes and go shopping in sl? – i’ll let you decide!

s. x

She comes in colors ev’rywhere; 
She combs her hair 
She’s like a rainbow 
Coming, colors in the air 
Oh, everywhere 
She comes in colors 
The Rolling Stones – She’s Like A Rainbow

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This entry was posted in Builder's bum, Linden Love, Philosophicalisticality, RL, SL, Techietalk. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Steam punks

  1. It is a lot of work, and no little disruption, just to bait serious gamers to take a look at SL. The advantage is that this group has the hardware to actually see SL in it’s full glory. I doubt very many will care, but we get the goodies anyway so it really is no loss in the end.
    LL needs to now move to their core resident group, the tired, poor, huddled masses who frequently find solice in Second Life using computers and connections that are near the low end of what LL defines optimistic as minimum. Perhaps some kind of subscription streaming service. Paying for a streaming service could be cheaper than a decent gaming computer, especially if a decent chunk of hours came with a premium account. These are historically the people who stay in SL because they have the most to gain from the social and fantasy aspects of our little world.

    • Call me fatalistic, but i can’t help wondering if LL will ever turn back to their core user group – the Lab has never been particularly communicative with the users, but in the pas few months any sort of meaningful communication seems to have completely dropped off the agenda. My gut feeling now is that the principle thrust of the business plan is to raise the profile of the Lab in the tech community, once more, so that it’s seen as a viable player in the industry, rather than a rather quaint and antiquainted niche provider.
      i expect to see a lot more LL involvement in mainstream gaming and pop-up projects and rather less interest in maintaining the interests of sl residents over the coming months.
      SL isn’t dead – not by a long chalk – but the halcyon days are well and truly over… SL continues to provide an important function for the Lab – testbed and sandbox for new plugins and innovations; yes, sl and the residents will benefit from these, but ultimately, i don’t think we’ll be the end users, by any stretch of the imagination.
      s. x

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