Free for All: Looking at Second Life's mesh with Bernhard Drax

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Free for All: Looking at Second Life's mesh with Bernhard Drax
Flufee avatar screenshot
I've been hearing the word "mesh" thrown around the Second Life community for quite some time now. I'm no dummy, so I have a pretty decent idea about what it is and how it works. Essentially it is a modeling tool that allows creators more flexibility when it comes to building in Linden Lab's sandbox. Mesh creations can seem more realistic, flowing, and smooth when compared to much of their prim counterparts. But I'm getting ahead of myself already and now need to explain what a prim is.

I decided to get some help from Bernhard Drax, known in Second Life as machinima artist Draxtor Despres. He works with Bytegang, a group responsible for Flufee and the first series of fully-mesh avatars in Second Life. Even with his explanation, it won't be easy for me to explain mesh, but let's have a go at it. Mesh is important to understand because it represents a huge shift in not only how Second Life residents build, but how they play as well.

Mesh creations screenshot
Mesh really clicked for me when I watched the older video that is embedded below. If I normally want to build a house, rocket pack or tank, I would need to build those objects by using sets of basic shapes called prims; short-hand for primitive shapes like squares and tubes. If I built a dagger, for example, I might use a tube for the handle, a rectangle for the hand guard and a curved prim for the blade. I then apply textures to everything using Second Life's built-in tools. I can even add scripts to the object to animate my avatar, create sounds or to interact with other objects like another player's shield. Second Life is a brilliant, relatively simple and easy system for the creation of three-dimensional objects. If you can name it, you can build it in Second Life. Even someone like me who generally has the scripting ability of a third grader finds ways to make weapons, spacecraft, underground homes and even remote control toys. I taught myself over the years and even took a few classes in world.

Mesh is more complicated. Mesh creators use fancy programs like Maya -- programs that professional three-dimensional artists use to create characters and effects in movies and television. Those programs can be expensive, but there are free versions as well. Even then, learning to build something in mesh is not just a weekend project. It takes time. What results are objects that can have a more flowing, natural feel to them These objects might even be easier to download as well. Any Second Life resident knows about the pitfalls of performance, so hearing about faster load times is always a good thing.

I have heard about a resistance to mesh designs from current Second Life creators. As someone who has seen MMOs change over the last 13 years, I know that generally any change will cause some stir in a community. I have heard examples of players who complained about changes that, by all accounts, were nothing but positive. It goes with the territory. In the case of mesh, though, players who create in Second Life using only prims have seen mesh as a slap in the face. According to Drax, it's not as though prim support or prims themselves will be going away. Prim building allows for real time, collaborative building. Thanks to prims, I can literally log into the world with some friends and build an entire structure or object with them, in real time. Prims are instant, easy to learn and familiar. It would be hard to imagine a Second Life in which three-dimensional modeling programmers outnumber the "normal" folk who don't have the time to learn such programs.

Of course, with time comes better technology, technology that is easier to learn. Who's to say that one day even complicated three-dimensional modeling will not be as easy as literally playing with virtual clay and importing the model into Second Life? Second Life might even provide those more complicated tools within the world at some point.

Another main advantage of mesh technology is that it allows players to keep their creations offline. Normally, a player would use Second Life to create and host all of their items. Players often use giant, empty areas called sandboxes to try out new designs and to tweak creations. Mesh allows players to use programs outside of Second Life to create their designs, then pay to have them imported into the world. While taking the building process out of Second Life might contribute to a less social game world, the creator of the mesh items owns the rights to the objects. Any object created using in-world prims is owned, technically, by Linden Lab.

"There is no guarantee that mesh will take over Second Life, but I have to admit that I am seeing more and more amazing builds in-world thanks to mesh. Some of the most impressive items and I have ever seen were created using mesh."

There is no guarantee that mesh will take over Second Life, but I have to admit that I am seeing more and more amazing builds in-world thanks to mesh. Some of the most impressive items I have ever seen were created using mesh. But a lot of what makes a good build comes down to great textures, and having an eye for textures is often what makes the difference between a builder who makes items that look and feel more realistic or stylized and someone who cannot sell a thing. Textures have remained pretty much a constant in Second Life; players pay to upload them or buy them from other players and often spend more time on them than on the object they are trying to make.

A house, for example, is generally just a series of right angles and shapes. With beautiful texturing and simple effects that do not rely on mesh, that same conglomeration of prims can feel warm and inviting and can sell. Art is still a large part of Second Life (although rarely reported on) and a piece of art is often nothing more than a flat object with a texture on top. I've sold art in Second Life over the years, but I don't need mesh to create a painting.

In the end I think mesh will be reserved for more high end objects while prims will remain the basic building block of Second Life. You can use a complicated modeling program to make avatars all day, but mesh cannot make up for a possible lack of originality or eye for detail. Artists and creators have been relying on very, very simple objects to create wonderful things for thousands of years, I don't expect that to change any time soon.

I am excited to see what mesh can do for Second Life. If it's true and mesh does help decrease lag while making even more amazing builds possible, then I cannot wait to see Second Life in another year or two. Even then I have a feeling that sometimes you just need to build a box...and prims will do just fine for that.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!
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