We often go to great lengths to point out that Second Life is not a game, as so many people tend to say in order to dismiss it, and rightly so. First of all, because, from a technical standpoint, Second Life indeed has none of the ingredients we expect to find in a computer game: there is no scenario, no goal or sub-goals, no levels, no score-keeping mechanism, no specific objectives etc. Second, to dismiss SL as “a game” or “just a game” is a gross underestimation of its potential, as well as a demonstration of an inability to understand what it is.
Sometimes, though, the “Second Life is not a game” mantra becomes a boomerang; more often than not, SL residents knock Linden Lab whenever it develops and implements changes to Second Life’s software in order to facilitate in-world game developers or takes initiatives to reach out to potential users (such as the effort with Steam). Normally, one would expect SL’s users to applaud efforts by the Lab to appeal to a broader public and ensure the platform’s versatility and relevance through the years. But still, we see forum thread upon forum thread and irate blog posts where people rail at LL for its efforts in this direction. Yes, LL has made many mistakes in the 10 years that Second Life has lived so far, but enhancing its gaming potential is no mistake.
Now, SL is indeed not a game at all. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a viable platform for gaming: from role-playing games to thinly-veiled gambling and from combat to adventure, in-world games are one of the reasons that keep many users faithful to this virtual world. Indeed, Second Life, despite its many technical shortcomings (some of which will be discussed in later posts), is no slouch as a game development platform, and the variety of in-world gaming experiences is testament to this.
It’s a fact that in SL you can be anything – from a swashbuckling, dashing pirate to a Victorian-era sleuth and from an elven warrior to a skipper of a military starship – and all that in an immersive, highly detailed 3D environment that appeals so much to game developers. And it’s hard to think of a better example of a game development team that showcases the capabilities of SL as a gaming platform than MadPea Games, which are the subject of the 8th instalment of renowned machinimist Draxtor Despres’ series “The Drax Files: World Makers”.
MadPea Games was started five years ago by Kiana Writer (RL name: Mari Mitchell) and, ever since then, it has become synonymous with imaginative and immersive games. Now, we all know that the big businesses jumped ship en masse from Second Life when they saw that the unrealistic expectations that were cultivated both by the Lab and the media were not met. That left, as Rod Humble himself pointed out in an interview with the San Francisco chronicle, a gap that was quickly filled for amateurs and specialists who went on to establish a successful cottage industry in Second Life – and, in some cases, beyond this platform.
The way MadPea Games is organised may seem untraditional to most, as it’s an international team: Kiana leads the company’s operations from Finland, while there are team members based in France, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK and the USA. As for the games they produce, well, they encompass just about every genre: adventure, cartoon, horror, hunts, mystery, role-play.
Now, for a very long time, computer games were dismissed and derided by the public at large – and still are. They’re still considered by many, especially people of the older generation, as an activity that befits only children; this misconception, of course, leads them to get shocked by the sight of violent games like the vast majority of first-person shooters. And, in turn, computer games are then blamed for the mass shootings we see every so often in the US – a very convenient scapegoat, as the gun(-crazy) “culture” is a sacred cow and must never be questioned.
One of Kiana’s opening statements in the video is ““I really don’t know why more people are not using virtual worlds like we do.” It’s hard not to relate to her point, if you look at what MadPea has created so far: they’ve produced some of the most memorable in-world games and they’ve worked on a number of important SL/RL crossover projects. As early as 2009, they produced The Kaaos Effect (see Honour McMillan’s coverage of it) in collaboration with Orange Island. In 2012, again in collaboration with Orange, they produced Firefly, which they describe as “a haunting love story”.
But there’s more to that; MadPea have also cooperated with Nature Publishing Group and MacMillan Publishers to produce Notes from the Voyage, an educational game whose topic are the travels of Charles Darwin. Another one of their creations is Reaction, an interactive chemistry tuition tool developed in collaboration with Sigma-Aldrich. These all serve to demonstrate the sheer power of virtual worlds as immersive, interactive platforms in general (and Second Life in particular), as well as the value of having gaming-friendly mechanisms in virtual worlds.
It must be noted that Kiana does not describe herself as a gamerat all: “I’ve played Tetris, and I’ve played Mario Kart, but that’s about it, really,” she says. Instead, she’s a storyteller and, upon coming to Second Life, she saw the potential for bringing her stories to life within this virtual world. Comparing Second Life to other gaming systems, she says (emphases mine) “Immersive storytelling is when you get so lost in the story that you become the hero of the story; you’re feeling the whole environment. This is why our games are working… Because with a lot of console games you become a totally different person, but in Second Life, so many people identify themselves as their avatars, so they get to play as themselves, and that’s really huge.”
And it’s true – have a look at the Monkey Island franchise, where the player becomes Guybrush Threepwood; or Blizzard’s Diablo franchise; or, if you’re older, have a look at Sierra’s Leisure Suit Larry franchise, where you become a wannabe casanova (with styling straight out of Saturday Night Fever‘s worst moments and the entire Air Supply discography in his collection): in all other gaming environments, you become a pre-determined character. But in games that are played in Second Life, you play as your own avatar – and your avatar is nothing but a manifestation of your own self.
But is everything all rosy? No, not at all. For starters, there are technical limitations imposed by some unfortunate design decisions that were made by LL (they got the camera offsets entirely wrong and still haven’t decided to correct them, even though this wouldn’t “break” any content, the whole system wasn’t designed with scalability in mind, thus turning a crowded region into a veritable lag hell, there’s no support for procedural textures, which take a lot less space and generate far less lag than bitmaps, and so on). Then, the way users often develop their avatars can have a detrimental effect on their gaming experience. As Kiana points out, “I don’t think many people actually realise how much work it is to make sure the island is smooth. Everything is so optimised that there is absolutely zero lag. And then the crowds come in, (laughs) and then they start complaining, ‘there’s a lag! there’s a lag!’, and it’s like, ‘Yeah, because you are, as an avatar, taking most of the resources of the sim!’.”
Throughout their history within SL, MadPea have consistently been pushing the envelope of the platform’s capabilities w.r.t. gaming and their projects have always been increasingly ambitious. Their latest project, Unia, a teaser of which we saw in this episode of “The Drax Files”, is going one step forward, as it is an attempt to make an action game within SL.
Now, as to the episode itself; Draxtor once again takes the back seat and allows the interviewee room to breathe and speak. Kiana’s storytelling skills shine through even within the context of a five-minute presentation, and we get a glimpse of MadPea’s vision and products. But, more importantly, we see not only the power of creativity within virtual worlds (and Second Life in particular), but also the way virtual worlds can bring people from all parts of the globe together; not only in a friendly, romantic or sexual context, but also within a collaborative, professional context. Furthermore, in this episode we see some of the complexities and concerns of creating an immersive, interactive world.
- The Drax Files: World Makers [ Episode 8: MadPea Games] on Youtube
- Will Second Life have a second life? – Rod Humble interview to The San Francisco Chronicle’s Benny Evangelista
- Kaaos Effect – Mad Pea Productions – by Honour McMillan
- Procedural texture – Wikipedia
- Draxtor Despres on YouTube
- Draxtor’s website
- The Drax Files 8: Gaming Second Life – by Exotix (Inara Pey). Highly recommended, not only for the concise and complete coverage and commentary of the episode, but also for the fourth part of an ongoing discussion with Draxtor Despres.
- UNIA teaser by MadPea Games on Youtube
- The Drax Files on this blog