Remember Blue Mars? The following link is to a short Google+ video, which I made in 2012, that shows my Blue Mars avatar being taken on an automated orientation tour of an architectural recreation of the pavilions of the 1915 San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exposition. (This build was later successfully ported over to Sansar, and it can be visited here.)
Blue Mars was based on Crytek’s CryEngine 2 game engine, which allowed for much more realistic graphics at the time than Second Life could offer. It’s hard to see in this rather grainy Google+ video, but the render quality in Blue Mars then still compares favourably to the Sansar of today. In 2012, I was quite impressed.
Blue Mars was a virtual world created by Virtual Realty, a company based in Hawaii. Arguably, it was probably the one virtual world which came the closest to Second Life in terms of functionality. For a short time back in the early part of this decade, Blue Mars looked like it could even become the next big virtual world. Instead, they essentially shut down production in 2012, granting all the technology rights to Ball State University’s IDIA Lab. What went wrong? Why did Blue Mars fail to take off?
Watching the whole arc of the Blue Mars story as an interested spectator, it became clear to me that launching a new virtual world is a much, MUCH more complicated process than at first thought. The developers have to juggle a large number of different variables in order to succeed, a daunting task for any new company. I believe a combination of four factors led to the failure of Blue Mars development, and that there are lessons that Linden Lab could learn from that failure.
1. The developers worked on non-core technology projects at the expense of key critical features of Blue Mars. For example, much work was done on bots (automated avatars with artificial intelligence) at a time when even such basic features as being able to change default animations, or to modify the avatar’s physical size and shape, were lacking. (See one poorly-thought-out example of Blue Mars bots in the picture at the bottom of this blogpost. Yes, this nonsense was a priority!) There was too small a pool of default standing and walking animations to choose from, and the female avatars’ animations, in particular, were seen by some as too anime-like, and borderline offensive.
2. Virtual Realty made a key decision not to cater to the adult market and to keep Blue Mars at a G/PG13 rating. Whether you agreed with it or liked it or not, one of the segments that kept (and continues to keep) Second Life going are adult activities. (This is the part the news media has tended to harp on, to the point that whenever people hear about Second Life nowadays, they automatically assume everybody is busy having pixelsex.) The harsh fact is, pornography drives the development and uptake of technology (the link is to a 2002 article from The Guardian, and don’t worry, it’s quite safe for work!). By deciding not to support the adult role-play communities, many potential developers simply walked away. Technically, it would have been relatively easy to create separate worlds for adult content in Blue Mars, completely separate from all-ages worlds.
As I have said before, Linden Lab has made it very clear that they do not intend to repeat the early mistakes that were made that marred Second Life’s reputation in many minds. Ebbe Altberg has said that they are not allowing adult content in Sansar until they have strong controls in place that restrict access to that adult content. LL is not stupid, and they know that sex sells. They just don’t want to open the gates until they’re ready. I understand that, and by and large, the Sansar creators understand that. But we aren’t going to wait forever. Adult content has to be somewhere on the development roadmap.
3. There was an unacceptable bottleneck for developers to get content into Blue Mars. Everything had to be vetted by Blue Mars first, as I understood it. You couldn’t simply put an item up in the store like you can in Sansar, mark it for sale, and be done with it. In fact, there was no online marketplace for Blue Mars content at all, you had to set up an in-world store like you did in Second Life. I constantly wondered at the lack of in-world stores in Blue Mars, and the paucity of offerings on display. I do remember that someone had spent the time and money to build a huge, cavernous shopping mall in Blue Mars, and in the end, they only ever had four items of clothing up for sale! Compare this to the over 6,100 items on sale in Sansar already, only five months after its public launch. Linden Lab has well learned not to put unnecessary roadblocks in the way of potential creators, and the dizzying array of items for sale in Second Life (see image, right) is proof positive of that concept.
It is interesting to note that High Fidelity has proposed a fee of US$10 per item as a PoP listing fee for their new marketplace. (PoP stands for Proof of Product? Proof of Provenance? No one ever got back to me on what that acronym actually stands for.) High Fidelity CEO Philip Rosedale is quoted from this thread:
If we are going to be serious about protecting creators content, that means we need to carefully check for duplication of existing work as well as other rights violations at the time that we issue a certificate. We’ll conduct a manual search as well as put proposed registrations on public display for a few days. So the process of putting things into the market will be like registering a trademark or filing a patent. The long term cost of that can be whatever level of protection/search makes sense to the community – we don’t intend to make money there. We set it to $10 rather arbitrarily to start, with the idea that we would see how much it costs to do the work and how much we can automate it.
But the key point here is that we need to do a search for similar items, and that search is inherently hard. Otherwise people will copy each other’s stuff and register it (this has already happened in Sansar, btw), and that will make everyone unhappy.
While I think that it is highly admirable that Philip wants to protect creators, the PoP checking system he is proposing is going to set up is exactly the same sort of regulatory bottleneck that eventually throttled Blue Mars development. What’s wrong with simply setting up a system where users can flag an item on the marketplace, as you can in the Sansar Store or the Second Life Marketplace?
4. Blue Mars was extremely poorly promoted. There was zero (and I mean, zero) press. (I know, because I was searching for it at the time.) Very few people outside of the virtual worlds community had ever heard of it. What few events Blue Mars did have were poorly promoted and sparsely attended. They badly needed capable boosters and promoters—raving fans. The potential for something that was a next-step Second Life was indeed there, but few people got to see it and experience it for themselves and figure out how they can take a part in its further development, so it remained moribund and eventually died completely.
I was rather sad when Blue Mars failed to penetrate the virtual world marketplace, but it also underscored just how complex a job it is to create and promote such an enterprise. Frankly, Second Life was just lucky enough to be in the right place and the right time to become the 800-pound gorilla of virtual worlds. Linden Lab is going to need a repeat of that luck in order to for Sansar become the next big thing. Hopefully, the company has learned some lessons from the failure of previous virtual worlds such as Blue Mars.