Editorial: Lessons for Sansar from the Failure of Blue Mars

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.

Secoond Life Marketplace 2 Jan 20173. 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.

Blue Mars_ Quiplash and the Suzette Groupie-bots.png
I always laugh when I see this old picture from Blue Mars. The tone-deafness of this automated bot “welcoming” system was staggering. Obviously, someone at Blue Mars thought that this sort of work was a high priority! I just wish I had taken video of this travesty!

Scene of the Day: A House on the Hill

There was a good turn-out of avatars at today’s casual meetup at Theanine’s playful experience, A House on the Hill.

Meetup at House on the Hill 2 Jan 2018

AnuAmun gave a running fashion show of his latest sexy, skin-tight creations (he’s in the yellow hair and the black-and-yellow armour in the bottom right-hand corner of this picture), which led to yet another discussion about the baked-on underwear for the default Sansar avatars and ways to get around that limitation!

Virtual Reality Vs. Real Reality

This image haunts me. It hits a little too close to home for me. I first posted it to my Google+ feed, back in 2012. I still don’t know who the original artist is or what the title of the work is (and Google image search was no help at all).

Virtual Reality 2 Jan 2017

(This particular copy of this image comes from customize.org, where someone, not the creator, uploaded it. UPDATE: A sharp-eyed Facebook reader has provided me with a link to the original creator of this image on Deviant Art. It is called “Reality”, and it is by the artist Eran Fowler. Thank you, Jon Potts!)

As I have said before, there have been times in my life—past and present—when I have spent more time in virtual worlds than in the real world. Ever since I discovered Second Life over a decade ago, virtual worlds have been an escape and a refuge for me at times when I have felt lonely, depressed, and anxious.

This is not a problem as long as you never forget that you are dealing with a simulacrum of reality. But it becomes a problem when that virtual world begins to serve as a replacement, a fill-in, for real life. And it becomes a very serious problem when you prefer this artificial, flow-charted route to getting your social needs met in virtual reality, as opposed to the infinitely messier road to fulfilment in the chaos of real life.

I know what I’m talking about because it happened to me with Second Life, and to a certain extent, I’m still recovering from it. In some ways, I’ve fallen back into my bad habits. My apartment is a mess. Dirty dishes are currently piling up on my kitchen counters as I spend hours learning how to create avatar fashions using Marvelous Designer for Sansar. My real-life social life basically consists of weekly dinners with my best friend and with my Mom, with the occasional coffee with other friends who ping me on Facebook.

I’ve already shared the story of how I first encountered Second Life, and the impact it had on me. I won’t repeat that part here. I spent—and some days, still do spend—too many hours in various virtual worlds: old failed ones like Cloud Party, Twinity, and Blue Mars; shiny new ones like Sansar, High Fidelity and Sinespace; perennials like Second Life and Opensim. All the time, I knew what I was doing: I was running away from facing my own real-life problems; I was depressed and dosing myself with a drug that made me forget how miserable my real life had become. It was easier to face the screen than to face reality.

In the end, it took one intense experience to overcome another: I joined Google+ when it launched in the summer of 2011, and I immediately began having real conversations with people instead of avatars, participating in face-to-face in hangouts, and posting items that people enjoyed and thanked me for writing. That first year was a heady and exhilarating time, hard to describe to someone who wasn’t there. And my visits to Second Life shrank, eventually becoming as little as once a week for perhaps an hour, then once every two weeks for 30 minutes, to … not really caring much about it at all. I didn’t have the urge to play anymore, for many years, until I was accepted into the Sansar closed beta in December 2016. That re-triggered my interest in Second Life, and I landed up spending more time there too.

I know I still need to work on my self-discipline and set some firmer boundaries, to push away from the computer more often and hit the salad bar, hit the treadmill, or hit the iPhone and organize a dinner or a movie night with my friends. But at least now I truly “get it”. I’ve started researching MMORPG addiction, and I realize what happened to me was hardly unique. Today, BBC reported that the World Health Organization will officially list “gaming addiction” as a mental health condition for the first time. If anything, it’s a growing problem worldwide; North America is probably behind East Asia in acknowledging and dealing with it.

And that’s the one thing I worry about in all this VR-triggered feverish hype and headlong rush toward services like Sansar and High Fidelity: for some vulnerable people, it’s just too easy a way for them to think they’re actually connecting when they’re not, and it’s just too easy a way for them to avoid their real-life issues. I don’t know if there’s an easy solution for that, but awareness is a good start.

Outfit Outlay: Ballet Flats by Kokoia

You can’t have high heels in Sansar yet; we are stuck with flat shoes for female avatars for now. But Kokoia has crafted some beautiful ballet flats in five different colours, which makes the lack of high heels bearable for now!

Kokoia Shoes 2 Jan 2017.png

They are S$150 (US$1.50, or CDN$1.88) each. They come in tan, blue, white, red, and black. They’re just one item among the many women’s clothes and home furnishings available for sale in her store.