My Second Life

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The virtual world that started it all

By admin | Oktober 13, 2007


Well, at least for me.

Let me apologize before I start, this will be kind of lengthy.

oldcombine1.jpgSome time in spring 1998 I came across a website that was offering a free online game, browser based and set in the Star Wars universe. It promissed the option to play your own character in the world of Star Wars, together with others from around the world. I was a big Star Wars fan back then and roleplaying in the Star Wars universe had become an addiction by then. So this site was the best thing that could ever happen to me, even more so as I had not been aware or expected that something like this even existed on the net. So I created my character. I can still remember the pure excitement when the words “You are now inside the barrack on the planet Coruscant” appeared on my screen. This excitement was not in any way diminished by the fact that it was just one sentence on the screen. There was no graphical user interface, actually there was mostly nothing. Not even anything I could do at this point. So what was I so excited about? What made me tingle all over was that I was now existing in a virtual universe. I had read about virtual online worlds, but never encountered any. I was using a Mac, which made most games inaccessible to me, I was on a 28.8 modem and I still paid $2 for every minute of my online time, so extensive online gaming or graphically heavy applications were completely out of the question. Yet here I was, a virtual recruit in a virtual barrack.

Most of the actual gameplay happend through the exchange of emails, partially over the mailinglistst that existed and that every new player was automatically subscribed to when he joined, depending on which group he decided to join. So I contacted my group and was hoping for an assignment.

The next thing that happened was that the game went offline.

By now I know that all the administrators went MIA. But some of the players were unwilling to let the game die. With the help of one of the remaining assistants they set up a new game that was launched in December 1998 as the Star Wars Combine. In the beginning, it was just a hand full of mailinglists, but within weeks a client was released, so that old and new players could sign up and create their characters anew.

This was nine years ago, so if I would care to tell everything in detail this would become indeed a very, very lengthy article. Within weeks my character made a remarkable career, making her the personnel officer of the Imperial Navy. Just as fast this game became one of my favourite hobbies.

icis_travel.jpgSo it came as a shock when the old client was replaced with a new one - but one written in VisualBasic and thus placing the whole game out of reach for me and all other Mac users.

As I didn’t want to drop the game, I offered that I could try to write a client for Mac, if I were given the needed specifications. I wasn’t sure, if I would be able to do it. I had enjoyed programming on my old C64 that I had bought during my last year in school, but had mostly stopped coding since I had entered university. So I had used my computer as nothing but a better typewriter for a good ten years. Since I had switched from Atari to Mac and started to explore the internet I had stated to learn HTML and this had whetted my appetite, but still this was something much bigger. I choose to go for RealBasic for the task. I guess “Basic” made it sound familiar, also it was supposed to be similar to Visual Basic and even allowing the conversion of projects from Visual Basic to RealBasic with relative ease. Just that the coder of the VisualBasic client refused to hand over his code. So converting it was not an option and I had to work from scratches. The client would call a PHP script on the server and this script would read and write to a mySQL database. I had a documentation for all existing PHP scripts and now had to build the frontend for the user.

icismac.jpgTo make a long story short, I got it done. As I couldn’t even run the other client on my computer, the Mac version looked considerably different from the Windows version. Less graphically advanced for sure, but I was proud that it offered a few extra features that the Windows version would not have, like allowing the user to log activities to a file on his hard drive or to save game data as a text file. How I designed the client was partially reflecting my own game experience that was largely shaped by doing administrative work for one of the largest groups in the game - the Galactic Empire. Had I been a trader, some features would probably have been different.

The game still had a strong emphasis on roleplaying, if I had to descrieb what it was all about, I would have said “Being your character in a Star Wars universe”. Note that it is “a” Star Wars universe, not “the” Star Wars universe. Early on it had been decided that we would play in the universe as seen in the famous movies of George Lucas, but that all characters and all activities would be ours. In our universe Darth Vader never existed and every single character, including the emperor or the leader of the rebellion was played by a player, which set the whole game strikingly apart from commercial games using the Star Wars theme. So we had a universe created and shaped by its players. If you came to this blog, because you are into Second Life, this will ring a bell. Well, we came first, LL only came later. ;-)

Yet this explains why I felt so strongly drawn to Second Life several years later: It seemed to follow the same philosophy and its creators seemed to dream the same dream, only on a much, much larger scale.

poster11.jpgFor various reasons the Combine later opted for a webbased inteface instead of a separate client. I stoped playing for roughly half a year to join the developers team for this third generation game engine that was given the codename “Darkness”. After a year in total, Darkness was released and is the interface/game engine we still use today. Eventually I stoped playing completely to become a full time administrator, leading the developers team for about a year from spring 2004 to spring 2005.

descenttoplanet.jpgIf I say “full time administrator” this may be misleading. Actually no one working for the Combine gets any financial compensation for his or her work, everyone on the team is a volunteer. The non-commercial nature of the project has several interesting implications. Actually the whole project could ot even exist, if it were any different. This starts with legal implications. Of course the whole game is a blatant infringement of copyrights. We were lucky that the proper copyright holders decided to allow us to continue, exactly because we were not making any profit from it. Probably they were also somewhat impressed by our work, so there was obviously no concern that we may damage the reputation of their trade mark (i.e. Star Wars). Actually they expressed some concern that we could be competition to Lucas Arts own “Star Wars Galaxies” MMORPG that was about to be launched when we were approached by the copyright holders. This was probably the biggest compliment we ever received. Here was a fan project, run by a handful of amateurs on a zero budget, there was a multi million dollar project by one of the most reputable game studios around. And they were concerned, if we may be competition to their game. Wow!

Another implication is how the game is financed. If we run it on a zero budget, who pays the server? The game was started before the dot com bubble burst. The original plan was to make money by placing adds on the website. The concept was never dropped, today we still get soem money in through adds and it helps us to keep the game up and running. But when there was an abrupt stop to the internet boom, our revenues from advertisement dropped dramatically. At that point the game administration decided to ask players for donations, and ever since we allow players to donate we have never been out of money, allowing us not only to keep the game up, but also make upgrades to our server hardware or otherwise upgrade our service (e.g. by having our own IRC server).

Last but not least, we do not have to be commercially successful. Or better: We only have to be so to the point where our players donate enough money to keep the game going. There is no need to maximise profit or to cover large costs. This means we can go for all kind of things that would be too unconventional, too risky or just not adding enough real benefit for a commercial game. The game implements game concepts that hardly any commercial game dares to offer, like permanent death of characters. It can be used as a test case for concepts, techonologies or research and over the years several academic research projects ranging from term papers to master thesises have been done connected to the Star Wars Combine.

Actually I see one of my latest projects as something like such a test case, explorative work with potential for the game itself, but also far beyond the game.

party4.jpgI recently set up a plot of land for the Star Wars Combine in Second Life. There is very little about it that makes it exceptional. It is intended to let people know about the game, to give players the option to meet and socialise - much as they already do on IRC. But what I am really excited about is the fact that players of the Star Wars Combine can now link their account with their avatar in Second Life. There isn’t much this is actually good for so far. Players can now donate to the Combine in L$, that’s basically it. Yet it reminds me of the one sentence appearing on my screen many years ago and about my excitement about stepping into a new world. Small as this first step is, we just linked two virtual worlds. You can do something in Second Life, and it will affect the database of the Star Wars Combine. Now this isn’t really different from what you do when you pay money into or take money out of your account at SLExchange. Yet this lacks the quality of linking two virtual universes. The lack of privacy in Second Life prevents this, all else it would be possible to build a game interface for the Star Wars Combine in Second Life. I am careful as there were so many proclaimed “firsts” in Second Life, and many of them were not really firsts, but so far I do not know of any other MMORPG or virtual universe that is linked to and can be accessed through Second Life. So we may be a first. Maybe not. But I can feel a special, tingeling sensation that tells me that this is something new and interesting.



Topics: VR |


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