It all started in the Forbidden City
Imagine yourself in the middle of Beijing, China. You're standing in front of The Meridian Gate - the largest gate of The Forbidden City, built around XV century. Behind it a magnificent complex of characteristic traditional Chinese imperial buildings spreads out. The sky is perfectly clear and the rays of sunlight cast your shadow on the clean cobblestone square. Nice eh? Well, it would be, if not for the loud Chinese zither music that you can't turn down or off. The music would probably blend in well if it was RL, but the place I'm refering to is the Virtual Forbidden City, which I visited together with Uzi and Sql (the originator of the trip). We've been on Skype conference together and the music effectively prevented us from communicating with each other. But first things first.
The Forbidden City: Beyond Space and Time is an initiative by IBM and Palace Museum in Beijing 'to provide the means for a world-wide audience to celebrate and explore aspects of Chinese culture and history'. Basically, it is a virtual world dedicated to educational purposes. The project launched on October 10th and is pretty fresh, which probably explains the technical difficulties we've encountered. I don't like to pour cold water on new projects, so I'm not going much into details, but the situation looked more less like this: when we logged in as guests, things worked quite OK, but we couldn't use some of the features of the software. We were also scattered on different servers, so even when we were in the same place we couldn't see each other and we couldn't explore together. On the other hand, when we logged in as registered avatars, we could easily find each other and had nice avatars, but game menus were missing or were entirely transparent except for some captions. So basically we couldn't explore the world neither as guests nor as registered avatars. After 2 hours we grew tired, closed the viewers and went to SL to find the Forbidden City in there.
We came back, though, to give the project another chance, since we figured out these:
- You can bring Options menu by pressing Ctrl + O, and you can turn off the music from there. Once the music is turned off, The Virtual Forbidden City becomes a very peaceful place, full of balance and harmony, and continuous sound of Chinese wooden shoes against the cobblestone (which later becomes irritating too and I'm sure sooner or later you'll turn down the volume of sounds as well).
- The solution to transparent menus is quite hilarious: you need to change decimal separator in your OS regional settings to decimal point (we use decimal comma in Poland, and most of Europe actually). I'm not sure why the menus work fine when you're a guest. This might be the first case where a user of a virtual world can do more as a guest than as a registered avatar. Nonetheless, this is failing to fulfill a part of project's mission statement ('for a world-wide audience').
Apart from exploring you can also watch 'Scenes' depicting everyday activities of Qing dynasty and join 'Activities' which teach you further aspects of Imperial family customs. All in all, it's worth checking out - it's not everyday that you get a chance to visit Imperial Palace in China ^^
As I stand in the Imperial Garden, admiring the scenery and pondering over the possibilities the Internet provides, a man comes from across the alley. Before he walks past me, he stops for a while and bows politely in front of me. There is something about this place that makes you immerse into the imperial atmosphere. Try it.
The starting screen
From left to right: random avatar (in green), me as Imperial Consort, Sql as Imperial Guard and Uzi as Imperial Woman; in the background the view on Golden River (note the transparent menu bug on the top left of the screen)
Following one of the Tour Guides
One of the scenes: Court Painting
One of the scenes: The Emperor Having Dinner
I'd probably finish my blogpost here, if not for Sql. About two days after the trip to the Forbidden City he innocently mentioned he's going to check out Entropia. I said I always wanted to check out Kaneva. One word led to another, and before we realised we ended up checking other worlds and MMORPGs throughout the next few days. That was the time I decided to write a short review of each one, and that's what occupied my 'blogging' time through last several weeks.
Rave it if it's cool
We chose Kaneva as our starter. The adventure begins in a tutorial world, where a nice male voice says: 'Welcome to the world of Kaneva where you and your friends will experience a totally new way to hang out and share media together'. Well, remember these words, cause it seems there's not much else to do in Kaneva (more on that later). The tutorial is really well done and guides you through the basic aspects of Kaneva, i.e. how to walk, how to interact with things, how to chat with people etc. It's short, concise and easy - you just follow the yellow brick road... erm... I mean the green arrows. What I miss though are other newbies trying to find their way in a new world, as it is in SL. I always find conversations in starting areas of SL cute, but in Kaneva you're completely alone at that point. In this case (and many other actually too) SL wins, as you can help each other and start social interaction with fellow avatars from the very beginning.
During the tutorial you also collect coins scattered around on your way. Not that someone told you to collect them but they're gold and shiny, and if you ever played Mario Bros you just know you should collect them for some reason :) The coins give you Rewards - Kaneva money. There's also another currency - Credits - which are required to buy some of the available products. The only way to acquire Credits is either to purchase them with your credit card or earn them by selling clothes. I'm not sure if you can exchange Rewards into Credits, or Credits into RL money. Seems like you can't, and so, in this case, creating content in Kaneva doesn't bring RL money. To earn more Rewards you go to a club and play Dance Party Game, and this is one of the first things we did in Kaneva with Sql.
The dance game is fun in the beginning, but then it becomes boring. And I feel most of the things in Kaneva are this way, even though the tutorial seems to be promising a really interesting experience. The thing is everything becomes very repetitive. You always start from your home, and from there you either go dancing, shopping or chatting with friends. Visiting a new location always result in a progress bar ('Downloading Zone') appearing on your screen, making you wait before entire place is downloaded - and despite that, some things still aren't downloaded once you enter, so you need to wait even more. I definitely prefer SL's real time download on the go. Not to mention all those locations and hangouts are very limited as to what you can do in there. But if you find something you like, you can rave it. Raving another player, location, community etc. is a way of saying you think they are cool. The idea is quite similar to profile ratings that used to function in SL. The more raves, the better reputation.
You get your own apartment for free in Kaneva, which is something we don't get in SL, but that's not enough to keep the user in, right? I decided to look into content creation in Kaneva and I find the possibilities very limited, because the only thing you can actually create are clothes. The process is very similar to the one in SL. You download a template and you use your graphic program to create the clothing item (players can try them on before buing; pretty cool, we need that in SL ;)). But you can't create new furniture or other in-world objects. You can only re-texture the content provided by Kaneva creators - something that SL resident would find very limiting, non?
So I think Kaneva is all about people. If you make friends there, you'll probably want to come back to chat with them. Kaneva can be fun, but since it doesn't offer anything unique to me (I can do the same and more in SL), I don't think I'll be logging in regularly. I might check in from time to time, though, to see if anything changes.
Kaneva Dance Party Game
Testing emotes in my apartment
The basics of objects edition
People dance in Kaneva all the time, even in malls
Beware the Young Combibo
I'll be honest with you - I don't get Entropia Universe at all. Neither does Sql. We visited EU a few times, but we didn't manage to understand 'the purpose'.
We started the adventure in a tech room where we customized our avatars' looks. I must say there's a lot of options to choose from - however, you can't change anything later without paying, so make sure you're happy with what you see before moving on. Once we finished, we were teleported to planet Calypso, to a place called Port Atlantis. Dressed in tight jumpsuits and cute sneakers, we set off to explore the area.
There are three main activities you can do in-world: mining, hunting and sweating... yup, sweating, but not in the sense you're thinking now. Actually, it's worse :P You collect sweat from animals called Young Combibos (there are probably more species, but we didn't come across them). Supposedly the sweat is then used to 'create Mind Essence used in Mindforce', but we didn't manage to discover how to convert sweat into Mind Essence, neither to find out what Mind Essence and Mindforce actually is. Also, we didn't try hunting and mining, since you need some tools, which, as I understand, are only available for money. It seems to me you can't do anything in Entropia without PED - Entropia's currency. The PED (Project Entropia Dollars) can be exchanged for real money, as in SL, but PED's value is higher relative to the US dollar than Linden Dollar's value and the exchange rate is fixed (10 PED = 1 USD).
As I said, there's not much to do without investing real money first, though 'investing' is a bit exaggerated word here - for me it seems more like a 'hidden subscription'. Not only do you need money to have an interesting gameplay, but you also need it to pay maintenance fees for objects and equipment you acquire, since they wear with use. So while Entropia trailer looks quite enticing, almost none of what's shown is available to non-paying players. I say 'gameplay' and 'players', cause Entropia generally seems to be more like an online game than a virtual world, more MMORPG than MUVE.
Content creation aspect was disappointing. It looks like it's the Entropia designers who add new content, not the users. As far as I know, users are only limited to setting up their venues using items already available in-world. And with design possibilities so limited, I don't think MindArk (Entropia developer) should use advertising phrases like 'a real economy, which offers a complete alternative to the real world'.
Sure, Entropia can be fun to non-paying players - as a chatroom or a meeting place, if you learn how to get around. But if you're looking for more, Entropia might not be your choice. But here's the thing. Sql and I had a slight presumption we might not have gotten outside Entropia's equivalent of SL's orientation island. My presumption got stronger during one of my many visits in-world. As I was chasing Combibos, someone attempted to steal my shoes. A minute later the ground shaken a bit and I saw a man in white underwear, running around and detonating bombs. That looks a bit similar to SL welcome areas, non? So all I have written here might not be very accurate and I suggest you visit Entropia yourself, and once you figure it out, explain it to me :)
The starting screen
The interface (note our cute sneakers)
Exploring the world
Space pirates and asteroids
EVE - a world far away in the future, whose history goes back to the discovery of a natural wormhole in space. Since the wormhole lead to a new astral system (New Eden), the discovery raised new hopes and new dreams of then society. Millions of explorers transported through the portal and started new colonies. One day though, the wormhole collapsed, separating new colonies from Earth's galaxy that supplied them. Among those who managed to survive five races emerged: the Amarr, the Minmatar, the Gallente, The Caldari and the Jovians. After generations of war between the nations, a truce was declared, and now these five empires are looking for prosperity and wealth in the farthest depths of space, in the times of uneasy peace.
Luckily, it's not a prediction of the future. It's the storyline behind one of the most popular MMORPGs in the world - EVE Online. I visited EVE with Sql and Uzi almost everyday of the 14 days of free trial. Sql became the captain and took me and Uzi under his wings, on our way to rule the space :)
EVE is definitely not a virtual world, but a game, and quite a good one for those who are into space, universe, planets and all that jazz. That's why Sql and Uzi were more fascinated by EVE, than I was. I never liked 'space stuff', except some great book series like 'Dune' and 'Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy'. But EVE was fun to me as well.
After completing the tutorial, you start with some amount of money and a ship. As you finish successive missions, you get better ships and equipment, as well as money rewards. You can develop your avatar's skills in order to use more advanced items. The missions are fun and quite narrative, and it seems the game is endless. If not for paid subscription, we all would probably continue playing EVE, develop our corporation and eventually rule the game ;) And then I'd talk them into becoming space pirates.
The only thing I didn't like was too much flying around. I'm probably used to teleports in SL, and going through all those stargates to get where I wanted was a bit irritating. So, when I needed to fly somewhere, I'd turn on the autopilot on my ship and switch to my web browser to do something constructive while the ship was on it's way to the target destination. The stargates, though, do remind of SL's telehubs in the past, don't they?
All in all, the game is worth checking out if you're looking for something fun to do online.
My avatar in EVE (you get to choose face, hair, clothes, background and lighting, but you can't change them later)
One of the many docking stations
Fighting the enemy: me and Sql on the front, and Uzi at the enemy's backyard
I must say I was very curious about HiPiHi. I read over at Torley's blog that it's very similar to Second Life and I wanted to check it myself. I wondered what my reaction would be. I had thought I'd either be critical for so much copying or I would really enjoy it, since it resembles the virtual world I like. Sql joined me as usual and well... here's how it was.
We somehow navigated through HiPiHi Chinese website and found English client to download. But then, when we installed it, it wasn't English at all. It was still Chinese. We googled for some guides but trust me - don't use these. They tell you to install Chinese fonts or change some of your OS language settings, but it's not needed at all. Just go to your HiPiHi folder UIData LocalSetting, find LocalSetting.xml file, open it in Notepad, change 0 to 1 and save. Easy. The interface is not fully translated into English, so there are some options in Chinese, but at least you can get around.
As we logged in, our avatars appeared on a meadow. After a short study of the interface, we decided to teleport somewhere and maybe see what other people are doing. But there are almost no people in HiPiHi. Perhaps it's because it's still in the beta stage. That's possibly the same reason why HiPiHi is so empty, like huge wastelands. On the other hand, we had a feeling things are not downloading properly, as if a lot of content was blocked for some reason. The locations we visited looked as if someone stopped working on them half way through. The emptiness is even more weird, when you find out that users can claim land for free in the beta stage (it will be taken from them once the official version of HiPiHi is released). And it's basically impossible to find land that's free to claim. Everything is occupied, yet empty.
As to the similarity to SL, it is the most visible in the content creation system. Almost everything looks the same, except HiPiHi has a few more prim types to choose from, and a built-in tool to add 'sitting' to chairs and other objects (though I didn't figure out how it works). And even though things look almost the same, I find SL content creation tools much more intuitive than those of HiPiHi. The similarity is also clearly visible when editing avatar's appearance. While the layout and the options are a bit different, avatar settings in HiPiHi bring SL to mind immediately. But you know what they say... If you copy, you'll never be ahead. However, they do have some stuff I'd like to see in SL, meaningly built-in swimming (which activates when you fall into water) and flexi skirts that don't get split into pieces when you walk or jump.
Generally speaking I expected more of HiPiHi. Maybe things will change over time - more people will come, the tools will become more intuitive, the translation will be better. But for now there's nothing unique in there that would keep me entertained. However, when I visited HiPiHi once again before uninstalling the client, I found a location that convinced me to try it again in future. It finally wasn't a wasteland, but a nice grungy urban location, built with attention to details. So I am planning to come to HiPiHi once again. I think, though, it will be more of curiosity than the willing to become a regular user.
HiPiHi avatars - me and Sql
Gestures - called 'actions' in HiPiHi
Learning how to create content
Someone's learning, someone's being lazy ;)
Nice grungy urban area
As you probably noticed, my views on the reviewed MUVEs/MMORPGs are mostly critical. You might think it's because I'm so much into Second Life, but it's not like this. Actually, I was very open minded because I was thinking of becoming a regular visitor to one of these, if I get to like it. Not that I'm bored with SL - it's rather out of curiosity. Of course I did compare the worlds I explored to SL as they would need to give me something unique, different and interesting enough to draw my attention for a longer time.
I must say I understand SL popularity better now that I visited other places and I know why those who claim they're leaving SL almost always come back. SL offers better and more diversified experience in all fields: social, educational, creative etc. It just provides more possibilities, more things to do, more things to learn, more things to find out about and more things that can be useful in RL. And it looks better too. There's no alternative to all that. At least not yet.
Well, for now I'll be more often in good ol' SL :)
As always I'd love to hear your opinion, and if, by any chance, you're a regular user of any of the reviewed worlds, I'd love to hear about your experiences and your reasons for liking that particular one.