Whatever happened to virtual worlds?

Mashable has a brief post about virtual worlds, calling them the hottest ticket in tech back in 2005.

We imagined the people of Earth leading double lives in alternate realities. It was the stuff of science fiction, like flying cars and robot butlers, and unlike those things, it actually looked like it could become reality.

But somehow, they never really took off. These days, it’s Facebook or Twitter that have become the world’s virtual hangout, not fully realised graphical worlds where you can walk around as your avatar. (Unless you play MMOs.)

In fact, Mashable can only think of two virtual worlds to compare. Second Life – which is genuinely a virtual world – and Metaplace, which wasn’t really designed to be a communal ‘world’ at all, more a series of unattached themed meeting rooms. Neither of them, despite the hype, succeeded in setting the world on fire. Did they fail to catch the imagination of the mainstream, or were they just not accessible enough? Anyone who tried to build anything in either ‘game’ might wonder about the latter.

They also note that WoW is probably the most successful of all virtual worlds if you go by the numbers. And although purists would shake their heads at the notion of Blizzard’s MMO as an actual virtual world, it does fill some of the criteria. (Sandbox games tend to be even moreso.)

I’d keep watching this space, because we haven’t really had any ultra-accessible virtual worlds on offer. The WoW equivalent to Second Life doesn’t exist, yet. And yet, a highly accessible virtual world might have the sort of broad-based mainstream success that AAA MMOs have lacked.

I don’t know if it would be a good thing for Blizzard to be behind this type of push in addition to their current market domination. But looking at the rumours about their next MMO, they talk about having two worlds in one:

  • a social area, like The Sims, where players can hang out
  • a FPS game type area

The former could be that virtual world. Certainly attracting non-gamers to previously niche genres has been Blizzard’s great strength. Could they pull it off again?

Brief encounters: Free Realms, Metaplace, Galactrix

a href=My journey in Free Realms continues to be one of discovery. This week I finally figured out how to take screenshots whilst simultaneously failing to take any good ones. Funny how that goes.

To take a screenshot: F12

To remove the UI (so you can get a clean screenshot): F10

If using Windows XP, screenshots will be stored in C:\Program Files\Sony Online Entertainment\Installed Games\Free Realms\ImageCaptureOutput

(NB. If the program actually asked you before it installed where you’d like it to go, this might have been more obvious — this is one of the minor side effects from it being such a seamless install.)

I’m approaching FR from an exploring point of view, so if I find myself getting bored or distracted from one activity, I just go and do something else. So it’s quite interesting for me to check what levels I have in different careers because it shows which minigames I most enjoyed:

Higher than 15: Card Duellist, Miner, Blacksmith

Higher than 5: Wizard, Ninja, Pet Trainer, Adventurer

Higher than 1: Brawler, Archer, Warrior, Chef, Postman

So this week I did try out a few of the combat careers, but was put off by the grind. I think this would be much more fun with someone else to play with. But given FR’s total lack of a working friends list, continuing awkwardness of befriending people you actually know, and my lack of being able to persuade my other half/ sisters to play, that will going to have to go on the back burner (for me at least).

I have liked the little mini combat encounters and dungeons that I have seen. But the 2* difficulty ones that you get after level 5 are harsh to solo on my little wizard, who doesn’t get any crowd control until level 10.

Miner and Blacksmith are both more solo friendly. I’m impressed that Tobold has hit level 20 in both, I was finding Blacksmith fun in small spurts but rather grindy overall. It doesn’t help that I still don’t much care for smelting. However, fun in small spurts is what this game is all about for me. I don’t need long sessions and I think it works best if you approach it like a bag of licorice allsorts (ie. just grab a handful of different flavours and see what you get).

I also tried out the Pet Trainer this week, although have still resisted the urge to buy a Pookie of my own (next week I’ll try to get a picture of her side by side with my cat to show the similarity). If you don’t own a pet — which costs real money — you can ‘borrow’ one for 20 mins at a time to train with. I was able to get to level 7 in the first 20 minute session;  the pet animations and sounds are absolutely enchanting, even to a tomboy like me.

I particularly love the way that the pet really gives the impression of slowly learning its new trick. And the trainer (ie. you) is so obviously trying to encourage it.

I’ve decided to limit myself to a similar monthly spend to a regular MMO with Free Realms to see how it goes. I may well buy the pet next month. I noticed that some cost more than others and note in the flavour text that they help you with treasure hunting. I’m guessing that this means they’ll help you sniff out collections when you are out in the world with them, but have not been able to test this yet.

In the spirit of getting more value from my paid month, I also exercised my option to make an alt. Two things I noticed here:

  1. With the alt, I was given the option to skip the tutorial. Hurrah.
  2. Male characters get the option to have cool tribal type face markings and female ones get make-up or sparkly hearts/flowers/butterflies? I’m not making any specially feminist snark here but I know that as a kid I wasn’t into girly stuff and I don’t see the point in limiting options. Plus who is to say that some boys might not want the face sparklies?

In any case, congratulations are due to the Free Realms team for having achieved a million signups in a very short period of time. They’ve made a great little game and thoroughly deserve it. (They also celebrated this with a new loading screen which no longer shows the character with the guitar ;) ). Now, about that friends list …

Metaplace is now in open beta

If you like building stuff, check out Metaplace. I haven’t had a lot of time yet to experiment but the little starting tutorial will give you a flavour for the power behind the tools. As is often the case with tutorials, there seems to be a huge gap between where the tutorial stops and what  you really want to know to do the things you want to do. But I’ll be amazed if a prolific fan community doesn’t spring up to fill in the gaps.

So… Galactrix

I’ve had a couple of train journeys worth of Puzzlequest Galactrix which is not enough for a proper review (even by my lax standards). But I am really liking the ideas behind it, and it does have the freedom of movement I want to see in a Space-type game — that sense of ‘I can fly anywhere in the galaxy!!’.

But crikey it does spend a lot of time saving and loading data. Does the DS have no RAM or is the DS port just  too ambitious/  unoptimised for that platform’s requirements? (One of my jobs in my last place of work was porting code/ drivers from specialist hardware to PCs or vice versa but you don’t need to be an expert to see when the job is … a bit lacking.)

Still, I’m having fun and that’s all I really ask from a game. First impressions from Galactrix — money well spent!