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Free for All: Xulu Universe is more than Second Life-lite


Xulu Universe is a new world built with far-reaching horizons. In reality, those horizons are within reach for anyone who wants to take the time to travel. If you see it, you can go to it. Xulu Universe is also a world of endless building opportunities as in Second Life, although comparing it to Second Life wouldn't quite be accurate. Where Second Life is a sandbox with no set boundaries, Xulu Universe is more of a standardized experience. Sure, there are plans to allow players to add unique touches to creations, but initially, creators will have access to a limited toolset. Don't let that fool you; the tools are quite robust and easy to use.

Last week I joined Xulu Entertainment's co-founders, CEO Nanci Solomon and CTO Joe Santos, for a tour around the new building MMO. We drove, flew, ran, shot, stacked, and jumped through the physics-based world thanks to a new peer-to-peer-styled server plan. What does all of this mean? Click past the cut and I'll do my best to explain what Xulu Universe is all about.

Gallery: Xulu Universe alpha screenshots | 6 Photos

Xulu Universe screenshot
I think the first thing players will notice when they log in will be the far-reaching horizon. That's the first thing I noticed, anyway, and as I reflexively squinted my eyes, I could see buildings far off in the distance. What was this new place? I am so used to Second Life's cluttered landscape that it was shocking to be in the middle of one not covered in objects and flashing signs.

The development team explained to me how the game client will connect to other clients through a peer-to-peer-styled network. Essentially, a group of you and your friends can form a sort of group computer to help process all of the information needed to play the game. Hopefully, this will allow the graphics and realistic lighting to run smoothly. I'm not an expert on deeper technology, but I did notice a wonderfully smooth game. For a title that is in alpha, it ran very well and looked great too. We jumped into what seemed to be circular ships by simply hitting escape and joining an "exploration" channel. The ships were fun and easy to fly, and I jetted off into the distance for several minutes, exploring to my hearts content and instantly teleporting back to the meeting area.

The main thrust of the game -- or world, I should say -- is free-form exploration, and eventually, free-form building. These builds will be hosted in private plots, and if the designs prove to be popular enough, they'll be added to the general world. Separate tools for building races, shooting ranges, and combat areas are available freely to players. The tools look a bit complicated at first, but all of the menus and pop-ups are easy to understand and are titled in a way that is self-explanatory. Within a few minutes, a player could have a racetrack or other playground built and ready to go. If you have enjoyed building in Second Life or There, you will probably love Xulu Universe.

What do the devs say is the key difference between Xulu Universe and Second Life?
Xulu Universe focuses on supporting a full range of game genres, like high action racing and sports, in addition to socializing. Using physics everywhere and high performance is at the core of Xulu Universe, so we developed a different type of system to support that. There will be the same degree of social interaction possible as in other virtual worlds, and a huge variety of games to choose to play with friends or solo, as well as the option to spend time building your own portion of the world.
I'd love to see a world like Second Life that also maintains a bit of restraint. Second Life's wonderful openness has often been costly, causing issues with lag, griefing, and x-rated material foisted on unwilling gamers. The Xulu Universe developers want to concentrate more on performance-based gameplay that is backed up by socializing. Second Life does it all and can sometimes suffer for it. During my tour of Xulu Universe, I was thrilled to fly over empty areas of the world to discover a new road and eventually a new venue.

Venues are basically self-contained areas of the world that are accessible through an instant teleport or by traveling in real-time. Some of them resembled large arenas, while others looked more like pieces of art that were actually a series of loops and ramps. I played in a shooting gallery and on a strange, giant see-saw. The goal was to be tossed while inside a car in order to gain a high score. Many of the creations I visited were erected by players relatively quickly, but the innovation shown was pretty awesome. As many developers know, players will almost always find some new use for a set of tools, uses the devs might not have predicted.

"I expressed my fears and was told that the creations will be policed, although it's not clear to what degree that will be possible."

Eventually, the toolset will grow beyond loops, ramps and objects. With the eventual addition of a virtual marketplace, 3-D modelers, artists, and amateur animators might be able to make money from creations. When I heard that players will eventually be able to add whatever they'd like, I was concerned. The developers assured me that there will be limits on what can be placed in the world, but I was still leery. Here I was in this pristine landscape that went on forever, and the few creations I found were different from each other but felt as though they were from the same world. I fear that Xulu Universe could turn into Second Life-lite, becoming just as ugly as Second Life can sometimes be. I expressed my fears and was told that the creations will be policed, although it's not clear to what degree that will be possible. At very least, the Xulu Universe developers are including easy access to all of the different venues so players can easily avoid the junk and go right to the good stuff. That approach works well in Second Life.

Virtual world MMOs are often cursed by the same stuff: problems with griefing or unintended uses of systems. It has taken Linden Lab years to get its community relatively under control, but I still have problems convincing potential new players to try it out. Does Xulu Universe's more consistent set of design tools mean that the world will stay cleaner, more open, and just as vast? I can't see that far into the future. For now, however, I found a really neat set of tools for players to create fun things with. There appears to be some new designs behind the scenes as well, allowing players even on older machines (and eventually mobile devices, according to the developers) to play the game easily. The peer-to-peer connection might not be a new tech, but its use in an MMO is uncommon. The level of complexity is "slightly above Little Big Planet," so building and hosting a game should be no problem for most users. I watched as a development team member built a racing track in front of my eyes. The tools were obvious and clearly labeled, unlike scripting and advanced building in Second Life.

Xulu Universe is currently in a sort of open alpha, so go over to the official site and sign up. I imagine there will be quite a few changes applied to the game over the next few months, but even now, it's a great new world for explorers and builders. I can't wait to see where the game -- I mean world -- goes next!

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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