Merged realities – events and issues for virtual worlds

1. Habbo Australia have surveyed 4012 teenagers (12-18 year olds) on their concerns, with 81% citing the environment as a major issue, with an unsurprising emphasis on bushfires.

Habbo will be closing down for Earth Hour on March 28th at 8.30pm AEDT. What say you Linden Lab, Blizzard and others?


2. The Alphaville Herald has some stunning pictures of Metaplace builds – it shows the potential power of a well-implemented 2D platform.

3. There’s been quite a lot of focus on this week’s announcement of Sparkle, which allows in-world text chat in Second Life and in OpenSim grids on the iPhone or iPod Touch. Here’s a brief demo:

More on Sparkle once we have a closer look in the next few days.

Video review of Metaplace

The MP Insider blog has a video review of a particular gaming area in Metaplace – Zoo Escape!. For those who haven’t seen Metaplace in action, it’s a useful heads-up on its form factor and its content creation options:

As stated previously, being web-based and having good content creation opportunities should prove an enticing package.

Merged realities: events and issues for virtual worlds

Two of our more popular features each week are our weekly mainstream news roundup, The Watch, and our weekly does of machinima, Weekend Whimsy. The former runs Mondays, the latter Fridays.

We’ve decided to add a new feature that will run in the middle of the week, called Merged Realities. It will be a handful of links to virtual world events, real-world events and non-mainstream coverage of virtual worlds issues. If you have an event that you think will be of interest, contact us with details. Either use our contact form or DM us on Twitter. If it’s Second Life related, feel free to IM Lowell Cremorne.

Onto the inaugural edition:

1. Mandy Salomon, Senior Researcher at the Smart Services Cooperative Research Centre, is giving a presentation on Second Life to the Women in Information & Communication Breakfast Series – if you’re Canberra based this is worth checking out.

2. Metaplace are having a stress test of their platform. If you’re a beta tester, you should have received an email with the details, otherwise log in to Metaplace to find out more. The stress test starts at 1pm PST on Thursday Feb 5th, which is 8am Friday the 6th of February AEDT.

3. Dancing Ink Productions have released the findings from their Understanding Islam through Virtual Worlds project, conducted in partnership with the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. I particularly like the graphic novel option for the findings.


4. The Synthetic Worlds Initiative at Indiana University is out its Greenland world into open beta:

To test some ideas, we have prepared a browser-based game of kingdoms, trade, diplomacy, and warfare in the stone age. The world is called Greenland and it enters open beta today. We invite those interested in such things to help us by testing the environment and contributing reactions and criticism to the forums.

To enter Greenland, go to and choose the Mercator server (the other two servers are closed for internal testing).You will need a code to register for the server; it is GLOPENACCESS.

5. Check out this superb video of avatars as music-makers (via New World Notes):

Bandbots – Second Life Musical Avatars from Chantal Harvey on Vimeo.

Interview – Raph Koster, Co-founder and President, Metaplace

If the virtual worlds industry has elder statesmen, Raph Koster is definitely one of them. It’s a term he probably dislikes, but the reality is he’s had a direct involvement in some key milestones from text-based worlds (MUDs) through to the present day. After spending some time with his latest project, Metaplace, we took the opportunity to ask Raph some questions about its development as well as discussing some wider challenges and opportunities for virtual worlds. If you ever doubted that Raph Koster was a content creator to his core, pay particular attention to his response to the final question. 😉


Lowell: Let’s start with your baby, Metaplace. How’s it progressing?

Raph: It is going well — we are expanding our closed beta now, and we’ve had a lot of big changes going in and more to come as we accelerate towards opening up. Among recent changes have been the addition of a tool that allows you to select models from the Google 3D Warehouse and bring them into your world with just a few clicks. This has led to a huge explosion in the variety of things found in people’s worlds.

Lowell: Content creation is key to Metaplace – what excites you most about what Metaplace has to offer in that regard?

Raph: I think what is most exciting isn’t so much the power of Metaplace – that’s there for sure, and it’s hugely exciting and fascinating and great things can be made. But I find special attraction to the ease and simplicity, the fact that we’re unlocking very complicated stuff for a lot of people who don’t know how to 3D model, or script, or code. So I think for me, it’s the lowering of barriers that is most exciting.

Lowell: 2009 is being touted as the year of the avatar – what’s your take? Has the avatar gained enough traction to be a true aspect of popular culture?

Raph: I think avatars became commonplace a while back. They have morphed into profile pictures and gravatars and they’re simply everywhere. So I don’t know what “year of the avatar” means except to say that something ubiquitous has become universal.

Lowell: Back in 2007 you were quite emphatic that the games industry was overlooking the power of the web as a platform – do you think there’s any greater level of insight now or is there still a significant blind spot there?

Raph: I think it is evident that the game industry has caught on. EA now distributes on Steam. All the consoles have web browsers now. We have now seen multiple games conceived and developed on or for the web jump over to consoles. Web integration in the form of sharing achievements, exposing APIs, posting to web services, and so on, is becoming far more common. I think the pace of these developments is simply going to increase.

Lowell: Where do you see Metaplace gaining its market share from?

Raph: We can’t be all things to all people, of course, and as a UGC platform, it takes a while for every possible use to come to fruition. I would say that from the get-go, we’ll be a highly social, creative place with great ease of use, and anyone familiar with casual virtual worlds and “building” sorts of games and worlds will feel at home. But I also expect users to take us in many directions over time — that’s the beauty of enabling user-created content.

Lowell: Although Google Lively was only a competitor in the broadest sense, what lessons if any have you learnt from their experience and what do you think Google have taken away from the experience?

Raph: Well, I can’t speak for Google! To me, Lively always seemed aimed more at the IMVU-like, avatar chat sort of space. I do think it validated some of our choices — the decision to use Flash, for example, which has so much penetration and doesn’t require a download for anyone, or our emphasis on user-created content.

Lowell: The mainstream media have latched onto sex as a challenge for worlds like Google Lively and Sony’s Home. Have you started to formulate how Metaplace will deal with ‘vice’ issues?

Raph: We’re definitely not a kids’ world. In our Terms of Service we explicitly allow users to make worlds about anything, as long as they do not violate the law. But we also give them complete control over their world — nothing should be in there that the world owner doesn’t want. It’s a lot like having your own webpage, in that sense.

Lowell: As a writer, has anything recently in virtual worlds stood out for you as high-quality writing?

Raph: To be honest, I don’t think that writing has ever been a huge part of social virtual worlds. It’s had far far more of a presence in the RPGs, where it is really starting to get much better.

Lowell: Can you give an estimation of when you think Metaplace will have its full launch?

Raph: We expect the open beta launch will happen later this year.

Lowell: Aside from avatars, there’s some further momentum around virtual goods. What approach to virtual goods will Metaplace likely take in the coming year?

Raph: We will have our marketplace available, with all goods free at first. I am looking forward to seeing the amount of user-created content grow on there, and eventually outnumber our own creations. Metaplace is somewhat unique in that our virtual goods aren’t necessarily just pictures, but can enable unique behaviors and interactivity.

Lowell: Do you agree with the premise that in the near future we’re likely to see more significant regulation and legislation in regard to virtual worlds? If so, do you think we’re likely to see an initial
overreaction by governments?

Raph: It’s inevitable that more legislative or at least legal attention be paid to virtual worlds. And I also think that it is likely that there will be misunderstandings of what is fundamentally a new medium. A lot
of people in mainstream media made fun of the U.S. Congressional hearings on virtual worlds that were streamed into Second Life — and that just indicates a lack of familiarity with them.

So sure, there will probably be mistakes made. But there are industry groups working to make sure that policymakers understand the industry better, and with the rise of the Web as a common medium pretty much everywhere, I think we are seeing that the learning curve is not nearly as high as it once was.

Lowell: You recently blogged on the issue of losing virtual world history – can you see there ever being enough common goodwill to establish some sort of universal timeline / history?

Raph: Well, I know of several projects – the most active right now is probably Bruce Damer’s at And the MUD Wikia project, which attempts to capture the early text-based history of virtual worlds, seems to be off to a good start at

Lowell: After spending my first few hours using Metaplace, it occurred to me that it’s ideally suited to having a MUD-format area – is that likely to be something driven by Areae or perhaps something created by the Metaplace community?

Raph: If you mean games, or collaboratively built games, our tools certainly enable it. Right now, we’re focused on providing somewhat more fundamental building blocks. There’s a lot of sorts of games! But many of our current users certainly enjoy making games, and more power to them!

Lowell: Business seems to be latching onto virtual worlds as a cost-saving, virtual meeting platform – does this offer any opportunities for Metaplace? Do you see the platform as having appeal for enterprise?

Raph: Honestly, I am not a huge fan of pursuing the enterprise market. I am more interested in the mass market, and the ways in which they can take virtual worlds to all sorts of new places. That said, if enterprises want to use Metaplace, we won’t stop them. But it’s not a target for us, we’re a consumer service.

Lowell: Leading on from that, there’ll only be widespread business acceptance of virtual worlds when easily quantifiable ROI can be established – do you think that’s likely to occur in the near future?

Raph: It’s difficult to say. Many of the ideal uses are around difficult to quantify usecases. Do virtual worlds fully replace face to face meetings? I am not sure they really do – going clear back to the text worlds, we have a tradition of user conventions, player luncheons, clan gatherings, and so on, to get virtual friends to meet face to face. There’s no doubt in my mind that virtual conferencing is then a value add, but it might not be quantifiable enough for a business right now.

Over time, as more of the web comes to include virtual places, as I believe it will, I think the value will become more evident.

Lowell: Getting totally away from virtual worlds, you’re a musician so I’ll ask a more obvious ‘desert-island discs’ question: what five albums couldn’t you live without?

Raph: I would trade five albums for a guitar in a heartbeat.

Habbo Hotel – Australia’s growth story

Habbo Hotel is arguably the largest virtual world in existence, with well over 100 million registered avatars (as of June 2008) and ongoing growth. There’s an Australian Habbo portal and in the past fortnight Habbo developer Sulake announced the launch of their in-world currency, the ‘pixel’. Habbo already has a credit system where real-world money can be exchanged for a range of virtual items. The ‘pixel’ addition is more of an achievement-driven option – logging in regularly, paying to join the Habbo Club and staying online longer all give the user ‘pixels’, which can be used to ‘rent’ special effects for virtual rooms or avatars:

New effects include hover-boards that let Habbos glide around the virtual world, a ‘frozen’ avatar that turns a Habbo into a moving block of ice, or bubble machines that blow bubbles into virtual rooms. The pixel economy will be constantly developed based on user feedback.


I took the opportunity to quiz Sulake’s Regional Director Asia Pacific, Jeff Brookes, on the currency announcement and Habbo Australia’s popularity to date:

Lowell: Can you summarise the Australian demographics for Habbo to date? Of the 3.6 million characters, how many unique users are there?

Jeff Brookes: Habbo Australia receives 25,690,252 page impressions per month and, as you know, has 3.6 million registered Habbo-characters. It has 278,509 unique browsers per month and users spend on average 1.00.02 hours per user session on Habbo, which is over twice as much as any other teen website, according to November 2008 figures from Hitwise.

Lowell: What are your primary objectives with the new currency? Are there any plans to allow users to cash out their credits for real world currencies?

Jeff Brookes: The primary objective with the new Pixels currency is to reward Habbo users for their loyalty. We feel that it is important to reward our devoted users, encourage them to spend more time within the Habbo world and provide them with innovative ways for them to enjoy their experiences within Habbo. Pixels are earned by Habbo users in various ways, such as: signing into Habbo once a day, earning more pixels the longer users stay online in Habbo, completing certain achievements, working as a Guide, and giving respect to other users. With Pixels, users can rent certain items for a specific amount of time, have cool effects for their Habbo character, and have discounts on a wide variety of ‘furni’ or virtual furniture that can be purchased with credits.

Habbo has no plans to allow users to convert Pixels to Habbo credits or any real world currencies.

Lowell:. Habbo arguably has one of the largest virtual world userbases – how does one ensure continued growth in an environment of escalating competition?

Jeff Brookes: We maintain and increase our growth by listening to what the users want . We ask Habbo’s to provide us with feedback on new campaigns, games, rooms, furni etc. We feel that it is important to be innovative and always put our users first.

What’s unique about Habbo is that it is specifically designed for teenagers – the layout, content and activities on offer are continually changed and updated. Habbo is updated every month to enhance the user’s experience. We do this so that our users can be constantly entertained and as with all teenagers, this is an important feature.

Keeping users excited and coming back depends upon the fundamentals, which for Habbo are allowing them to choose and personalize a character, browse the virtual world, walk around and chat and express themselves. The new Pixel currency encourages Habbo users to personalise their avatars and their virtual space further.

Habbo Hotel has certainly made in-roads into the Australian market. Achievement systems are common in gaming worlds in particular although rewarding people for spending more time has its downsides. Having spent a number of hours in the past year in Habbo, I can see its appeal. It also reinforces the potential success of Metaplace with its content creation features.

Metaplace: beta impressions

We first mentioned Metaplace over a year ago, and that year has been spent working toward a public beta. In the past week I received a beta invite and I’ve spent a number of hours using Metaplace. Overall, this is one impressive virtual world platform with enormous potential. It makes offerings like Google Lively seem just a little underdone to say the least.

My impressions of Metaplace so far:

1. Orientation as it should be

Any virtual world lives or dies on its initial impression to new users. Metaplace have obviously learnt from the mistakes of competitors by providing a highly integrated sign-up process. It looks slick but it flows nicely as well. The ‘Metaplace Hub’ is the central gathering point and it’s easily accessible at all times given the ever-present web interface.

2. Content creation is king

Second Life is arguably the best platform for unique content creation. Metaplace has some significant parallels but with a much simpler interface. From observing some of the chat amongst beta users there’s a lot more under the hood than initial impressions, but that simplicity is great for the inital learning curve. The tutorials are well integrated and The whole creation interface reminded me strongly of The Sims. For me the standout is the ability to directly import textures (tiles) from either your hard-drive or via a web image search courtesy of Yahoo – the imported images then merge seamlessly into your overall library.

Building structures is also fairly self-explanatory, with good preview functions. For users where content creation isn’t second nature, the interface will help them get started and hopefully more motivated to take on the deeper learning curve. Scripts, plugins, sprites and sounds are the key components you have to play around with once you’ve got a little more familiar with things. I’m no scripter so it’s hard to know how much complexity is built into the scripting options.

3. It has rewards hooks

From the moment you sign up to Metaplace, you start earning badges for standard activities like rating another user’s world or sending a private message. Metacreds are the currency of choice and they can be used to purchase virtual goods for your world. I don’t want to be repetitive, but the integration of the rewards gets a thumbs up. I also enjoyed the fact the rewards weren’t intrusive – it’s more an added bonus.

4. The user community is strong

Although by its very nature a beta means a smaller community, the one that exists seems strong. In the half dozen times I’ve logged in for an hour or so, there’s a constant stream of chat – mostly people answering questions from newer users on more complex content creation tasks. The web interface makes keeping in touch easy and a fairly standard ‘friends’ functionality exists.

5. Great Web / 3D integration

I’ve mentioned the integration aspects a few times, and with good reason. Because Metaplace runs within a standard web browser (I’ve used it successfully on both Firefox and Safari), it makes accessing the world so much simpler than say Second Life. Of course, there are trade-offs for that simplicity such as the graphical complexity of the world and arguably the degree of scripting that can occur. On the up-side, there’s good social networking tools, including the ability to follow any other user’s discussions via an RSS ‘Metastream’.

Another notable for Metaplace is its speed. Initial login takes around the same time as Second Life – the same for movement between areas. Managing private messages, rewards, profile info, avatar customisation and accessing tutorials all occur from the 2D web interface. It’s plain easy to use.

The sum up

The work put in by the Metaplace crew over the past year is really apparent. As a beta version, this is already an impressive virtual world platform that provides some meaty creative options for casual users that don’t want to spend days or weeks creating their space. If you haven’t signed up for a beta invite, consider doing so if you’re looking for something new in the virtual world space. If Metaplace had reached this stage of development 12-18 months ago, their success would have nearly been assured. In the explosion of new worlds under development now, competition is much tougher. That said, the quality of this offering is likely to win a lot of hearts and minds in the casual worlds space, whilst still intriguing the more hardcore content creator.

What do you think? Is Metaplace the sort of world you can see yourself spending significant time in? Does it open up options that other worlds currently can’t?

Raph Koster: MMOs versus MUDs

Metaplace’s Raph Koster has been around long enough to know most virtual world history. He’s raised some interesting points about MUDs and MMOs, stating that the latter have “removed more features from MUD gameplay than they have added”.

One of hundreds remaining: Project Carthage

One of the hundreds of MUDs still running: Project Carthage

What do you think? Is there truly anything new in multiplayer gaming or virtual worlds more broadly? What further evolution would truly impress you?

Metaplace is hotting up

Back in September 2007 we mentioned that Metaplace was a new kid on the virtual world block. That kid is growing up pretty quickly and in an interview this week, Metaplace founder (and virtual world guru) Raph Koster states that widespread access to Metaplace should be available by April. The likelihood is it’ll be free for users to build small virtual worlds, with costs kicking in as your world grows.

Metaplace is a service aimed at people designing their own worlds and potentially making money by charging others for the services they offer, with the ability to cash out virtual currency accumulated. The ‘create your own world’ approach reminded me of VastPark, and there are similarities. There’s a brief conversation on the two here.

I love the idea of being able to create my own world but the actual task seems daunting. The ease of use of the toolset will be crucial – it’s hard enough building basic structures in Second Life let alone trying to construct a whole world. On assumption we could all successfully build a world, what type would you build? I’d love to hear your suggestions / thoughts.

Thanks to Virtual Worlds News for the heads-up


It’s been fairly widely reported over the past week that there’s a new kid on the virtual world block. Metaplace has some significant backing and looks promising. Some key snippets from Metaplace’s company, Areae:

“We think there are all kinds of things on the Internet that would be improved if anyone could have a virtual place of their own”

“committed to an open markup standard for our network protocol – anyone can write a client for any platform they want. We decided to use Web standards for everything we could, which is why you can have a game world that is also a website, or use Web data to populate your world. The scripting language (we call it MetaScript, of course) is based on Lua. You get the idea – no ‘not invented here,’ no closed proprietary approaches”


“We knew it was all coming together when one of our team made a game in a day and a half. And then stuck that game on a private MySpace profile. You can inherit someone else’s world (if they let you) and use it as a starting point. You can slurp whole directories of art and use them as building blocks. Cut and paste a movement system or a health bar from one world to another. Use an RSS feed for your NPCs. We made puzzle games, RPGs, action games… and set up doorways from one to the other”

“We fully intend to be customers of our own product. We’ve already started work on our first big game – a ‘worldy MMORPG’ with what we hope will be a ton of fun game play. What’s more, we figure that some of you who have been looking for a game like that might want to help us build it.”

Metaplace is at alpha testing stage and if you’re keen, you can sign up for that testing.

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