This is a picture of Sansar creator Maxwell Graf, on the deck of his storm-tossed ship in the experience Neptune’s Revenge. Max, who is well known in Second Life for his brand Rustica, has had a rather unique perspective on Sansar: he was among the very first people invited into the closed beta by Linden Lab!
Max was kind enough to consent to an interview via chat (which I have edited somewhat for clarity and space reasons).
Could you give a bit of an introduction to yourself and how you got involved in creating content for virtual worlds? In other words, how did you get started?
I got started in VR from 2 directions, and kind of ended up with the 2 paths crossing when I found SL. I was working with a company doing 3D rapid prototyping for the product design concepts I was doing for them, so [I was] researching 3D and real life intersections. I was also playing a lot of solid hours worth of Guild Wars, but kept being more interested in the design than not dying. I kept thinking I wanted to design the environments and content.
Again, finding SL was a real blessing because it was exactly the answer to both of those needs. In very short order, I was starting my own content company designing the products I wanted to design, mostly fantasy-based ideas. I made a huge castle on the mainland in SL in 2006. That was Rustica castle, and it was also the city of LagnMoor within the outer wall. Those two names have appeared, again, in Sansar. Rustica is my brand in SL. (Ryan’s note: SL Marketplace link, in-world store)
What other virtual worlds have you created content for? Yesterday you mentioned both Blue Mars and Cloud Party. I remember you from both.
Yes, I spent about a year in each of those places before they shuttered (RIP AltspaceVR, by the way). I have also been over in SineSpace for about a year. I tried High Fidelity, but quickly left after my personal information “may have accidentally been compromised,” but that was only one reason among several. I did dabble a little with some of the other virtual properties out there, like there.com, some of the open source grids, and even Habbo Hotel back in the day.
May I ask what the other reasons for leaving High Fidelity were? You don’t have to go into detail if you don’t want to. I’m just curious.
Mostly issues with the open access aspects and open source nature of it. Generally, I am a proponent of open source, but content has to come from somewhere and sometimes it comes from places it shouldn’t and is used the wrong way. I saw a lot of IP and copyright issues that concerned the hell out of me, basically. Not sure if that’s an issue any longer, but it was enough for me.
OK got it. Next question. When and how did you get involved with the Sansar closed beta program? How did you hear about it and when did you start?
I heard about it through SL when they announced it a few years ago, and have been following along closely. To be open [and] candid about it, I wrote personal letters and made phone calls for about literally 17 months or so, usually waiting for about a month or two between attempts, to get invited or onboard. I was the annoying SL designer who would not stop knocking on the door. I signed up in September of last year, so [it’s been] almost a whole year. When I got in, it was build 1 and we are at 10 or 11 I think.
When you first started in September 2016, what was Sansar like? What sorts of challenges did you face at the very beginning?
It was a dark and scary place. “….and the earth was without form, and void and darkness did encompass the ends of the earth.”
When I got in, there were people who had accounts before I got here, I could see some comments on the forum, but when I started spending time in here there were really only two other people I ever saw in here doing anything for a while, Loz Hyde and Paul LaPointe, both of whom I knew well from SL. Like animals in a strange land, we herded together for a couple months and there was literally no one else in the world. It was very cool, but also like, why are there not lots of people here making things?
So you were surprised that in the beginning there were so few of you in the closed beta.
It surprised me then the same way it is surprising a lot of people now I think, which is to say that it was a lot earlier in development than I thought. I did not expect it to be alpha, really at all. I was thinking more like it would be where we will be in a year. I think it was great though because it gave me a chance, once I started to think about what was here, to really sort of do a lot of things that even [Linden] Lab had not had the time or people to do yet. To find all the sides of the box, so to speak. To push the limits and break as many things as we could. Like, really basic things like “I wonder how big a texture can be?” or “How far can this land go.” A lot of what I consider the real meat and potatoes of beta testing. Find the holes, find the flaws.
So it was very much a process of test, change one thing, and re-test, and change another thing, and re-test…..
I used my mountain range and trees as a sort of standard method; I use the same resources now that I use in all the worlds I tested, because it was not only a touchstone of familiarity, I knew the assets already and worked with them, but it gave me a measuring stick for Sansar to compare to how those assets worked in other places. I could see how things were here in a very distinct and easy to grasp way.
Can you talk in more detail about your Rustica build and how that tested the limits of Sansar at that time? I remember you saying that it took a LONG time to upload that landscape as one big mesh.
Well, the size of it being 4,096 metres square (which is a massive chunk of land, 16 of the 256-metre Second Life regions per side), but just one big mesh terrain with one big set of materials on it. They [Linden Lab] had not really done that, and for good reason, but I wanted to see what would grind things to a halt. What happens if I plant 1,000 trees? 10,000?
Yes, it took like 3.5 hours [to upload the Rustica landscape]. Optimized, that same content now takes under 10 minutes. A lot of things happened. For one, we found better ways of doing things. Optimizing, etc. I mean, once you get to a certain size, it just slows down. It was not about crashing the system so much as just making it take forever because of something like the variation in terrain height, messing with the physics. We would work directly with the devs to try and define why that was problematic and find a better way to do it.
From a performance aspect, they have really made a very solid foundation for what they can now add on top of it. Even under extreme duress, the existing application and system architecture runs really solid – it’s a very robust piece of software they have created to begin with. This first week of open beta is a good example of that: the system still has not had a crash. With the exception of a few bugs, the opening went off without a hiccup, which is a testament to how solid the engine is.
So when did you publish your very first experience, do you have a date you remember?
I published something the first day I think, because the first thing you want to do is not be alone there and have (in this case, Loz and Paul) other people come over so we could talk about it. “Hey, come look this this damn thing, maybe we can figure out why it does not work.” We spent a lot of time diagnosing each other’s sickness. I mean, we would try to get Jason or someone from the lab if we could, but any snippet of how to make something work was shared religiously. That was part of what’s great about closed betas, you bond and help each other out, its like you’ve beenthroughh it together.
I think the biggest thing that has impressed me was just overall how robust the product has been. They really made a super solid foundation for this platform.
Hopefully, part of what this has been about for me is knowing that I will be able, someday, to look back on this time fondly, as I sit in my rocking chair at the Shady Renders’ Rest Simulator for Old Avatars and yell at the noobs to get off the landing pad.
LOL! That might come sooner than you like!
I think there is a different method for things here, it’s not necessarily more complex, just different. People will have to learn how to get things right here, but it will be easier for them as time goes [on]. It really is more like [how] the rest of the world outside SL builds things, and that will be a transition for everyone, but harder for some than others. It’s just a process.
SL is such a part of my life, for over ten years now, but I always regretted not being able to be in it from the beginning. I was and am very happy to be able to take part in the beginning of Sansar. It has been a real privilege. When they announced the contest, I was able to come up with the idea to take several of my scenes and – with a modicum of changes – connect them together to form a storyline. Starting with Lagnmoor, to Neptunes’ Revenge, to Rune, to AntFarm, to Respite – you go on a journey from one to the next. Each uses some new features in it, like video water, fire, 360-degree video sky, etc. I want people to know that there are clues at each one, to find the teleport to the next, starting from Lagnmoor. (Ryan’s note: I very highly recommend that you visit all five of Max’s Sansar experiences listed here! Try to find the route that leads from one to the next, it’s great fun!)
I just love your Neptune’s Revenge experience. I made it one of my Picks of the Day. How did you do it?
The actually dynamic aspect of the scripting [is] to make the sphere move. It’s not just a video playing inside a sphere, it is also scripted so the sphere moves along a path, so the ship feels like it’s moving when it’s perfectly still.
So you were actually able to get the video sphere you are projecting on to move?
Yes, that’s the rocking motion. Up/down/forward/back along a path. But it works the same to your mind as if you were moving on the ship. I’m really just waiting for some fixes for the video, like the overall quality of playback and and the dead pause between loops.
Well, Max, this has been a great conversation. I don’t think I have any other questions. You’ve given me some GREAT quotes to use! Is there anything that you want to add to what we’ve already talked about?
Just to stress again to everyone…SL is fine and Sansar is still really in alpha. All the things we want that have not been released are on the road map and will be part of it, but if you focus on what is here so far, you can see it’s a really solid start to what will hopefully be an awesome platform. I think it has a long road ahead of it, but if this is how they have started, then I can’t see it really failing. It certainly is not going to poof into vapour like Blue Mars and Cloud Party did. What it does end up becoming is not anything I can guess. I want to make games!