As Blue Mars goes into a scaled, open beta, interest has been rising in Avatar Reality's virtual environment. Inevitably, it's compared to Linden Lab's Second Life and – rightly or wrongly – will probably be wearing that comparison for some years to come. Certainly, Second Life users have found the environment intriguing so far.
It seemed only proper that we sit down with Jim Sink, Avatar Reality's CEO and find out a little bit more about Blue Mars.
Massively: A lot of interest in Blue Mars comes from the Second Life community, and the media's going to be comparing Blue Mars to Second Life for... well, a significant fraction of forever. You're probably tired of the inevitable comparisons already, but Linden Lab's the 800 pound gorilla in the space right now. How do you feel about that?
JS: At least we're in good company. I understand why so many people want to make the comparison.
Second Life opened the door for a huge number of creators. Their community is exceptionally creative and their feedback has had a strong influence on Blue Mars.
Massively: Who or what inspired Blue Mars, as a virtual environment and why the choice of setting?
JS: Blue Mars was inspired by a vision of the future when the power to terraform whole worlds is within our grasp. The name Blue Mars represents possibility and hope. Our dream and passion has been to empower artists and developers of all sizes to bring their own dreams to life in a virtual world that is exceptionally detailed, secure, easy to develop for, affordable, deeply linked to the web, and massively scalable for worldwide audiences.
As to why we built Blue Mars the way that we did, we knew there was going to be an explosion in 3D capability and multi-core CPUs. Blue Mars is a clean sheet design for what a virtual world can be unfettered by legacy hardware and software debt.
Massively: Does Blue Mars represent a game or platform? Is it more like Second Life, or do you see Blue Mars as more of a 'gamey' hybrid like Planet Calypso? We're interested to know what sort of demographic you're targeting.
JS: Blue Mars is a premium 3D massively multiplayer virtual world platform. We aim to drive a new wave of innovation and creativity in the virtual world and MMO application development space by delivering a state of the art development platform that combines the most advanced tools from high end game development with a massively scalable server backend and an integrated secure microtransaction system.
As a platform, we target digital entrepreneurs, game developers, educators, and corporations looking to build immersive themed and game environments, manage virtual land, sell fashions and virtual items, and operate business ventures for a global audience.
Our user demographic will ultimately be defined by the content our developers create. We know that users follow great content and if we can provide a great platform for developers, the content and users will follow.
Massively: So, a platform then, rather than a game?
JS: Blue Mars is first and foremost a platform for developers, large and small.
Our focus is on technology rather than content development. The content we have created was built for the development community so they'd have a head start at creating their own cities and games. The source files for the golf game, waterfall, etc. come with our City Developer SDK. At this time, the City Developer SDK is only available under NDA but we're working to polish off the documentation so we can distribute it as widely as possible. Our Item, Cloth, and Block editors are all freely available at bluemarsdev.com.
Massively: Why is Blue Mars awesome, in your opinion?
JS: Blue Mars is a disruptive, generational leap forward in technology and opportunity. The new frontiers in play, learning, and collaboration made possible by Blue Mars' high definition graphics, state of the art interactivity, flexible development environment, and scalable server architecture that enables thousands of people to simultaneously connect in real-time events will radically broaden the appeal of virtual worlds.
Massively: Tell us a bit more about that, if you could. We understand that a city in Blue Mars is somewhat analogous to an island in Second Life. Is that about right?
JS: An island in Second Life has more in common with a Blue Mars Block than a City although there is certainly some overlap. A Blue Mars City is made up of Blocks. Blocks tend to be about the same size as an island in Second Life.
Massively: And you can really handle thousands of avatars in these spaces? Is that sharded/instanced (like, say Playstation Home) or are you really packing them into the same space, where serendipitous interaction is possible?
JS: We can both pack thousands of users into the same space or shard into separate instances. It depends on what the City developer is looking to do.
We can bring so many people together in the same public space because we don't have to stream in all of the geometry, textures, animations, and scripts to all of the players; most of what they need is already pre-cached on their hard drives when they download the city for the first time.
Not only does pre-caching allow us to bring huge groups together, it lets developers pack a lot more detail into the worlds. For example, the waterfall level in the beta has about 20 million polygons in it.
Massively: Speaking of interaction, can Blue Mars avatars shake hands, hug or kiss? In Second Life these seem to be almost intractable problems that get a very rough and awkward treatment through user-contributed animation and scripting.
JS: You can shake hands, hug, and kiss right now in Blue Mars. The animation coordination is seamless.
You can build animations in pairs so, for example, you can offer your hand to shake and the other party will respond realistically even though they might not have that animation as part of their inventory. But animation pairing goes well beyond simple gestures like a handshake or a hug. You can ask someone to dance and if they accept, the other party can dance their part of a tightly coordinated and choreographed routine.
We're still working on our animation editor to enable our developers to create their own animations as global items and sell them in shops.
Massively: Mature and Adult content has been in the public eye, particularly recently, along with failed virtual banks, and so forth. Everyone in the industry is taking a position on allowable content, from gambling and sex-oriented virtual environments to ones which allow neither. Where does Blue Mars stand in that space?
JS: We don't allow games of skill or chance that offer payouts for anything of value. Same goes for sports or event betting.
We don't allow securities markets, banking services, content that depicts minors or apparent minors engaged in sexual activity, or content that depicts torture.
Regarding Mature and Adult content, it certainly is a hot-button issue. As such, we're moving very carefully. Before we conclude how to proceed with mature content, we need to see how our community develops and to think carefully about how we balance the issues at hand. For now, we don't allow "mature and adult" content.
Massively: You're slowly rolling out beta invitations to registrants. What can new users expect in the very near term?
JS: During our Beta, users can expect rapid change as we improve the client and developers begin releasing content. At this time, all of our users start at a central welcome area where they can select from the demo content.
As more third party content debuts, we will transition to our integrated Places Browser where new users will be able to select content and events by category and interest or start with a general interactive welcome experience that provides guidance on the client's different features and capabilities.
Massively: And further out from that?
JS: Users can look forward to new chat and messaging features, the Blue Mars currency and transaction system, new camera and control options, platform level integration with popular social networks, direct links to Blue Mars content from the web, voice, an optional background downloader for new content and updates, teleports, maps, invites, an online events manager, and a few more surprises in the mix as we move out of beta.
The debut of the Blue Mars beta is a giant leap forward towards the day when immersive virtual experiences powered by ubiquitous dedicated 3D hardware and broadband connectivity are as essential to our online lives as the web itself.
Currently the Blue Mars beta is open to only to Windows users (DirectX 9 or better required), or to Mac users running Bootcamp, and should work equally well on 32 or 64 bit systems. You can apply for beta access to Blue Mars, or apply for the Developer program.