Republished: Virtual world platforms and technologies

Posted on 6 February, 2008


 This post originally appeared on Dan’s Glass Houses blog on October 23rd, 2007.

I’ve found myself in an increasing number of discussions with colleagues about virtual worlds, their use in education and massively multiplayer gaming in general.  As such I’ve decided to write this post as a reference point for some of the key environments/platforms available today, as well as pointing to a few that are in development or on the horizon.  I’m not even going to attempt to list the features of each environment, so consider this a jumping point to other places you may not have heard of yet.

Second Life is arguably the most significant (non-game) virtual world at this time, and the one most people will have heard of.  Second Life opened in 2004 but only from 2006 did popularity soar.  Big name corporations moved in at (relatively) low cost, but as a shop front and/or marketing space SL arguably doesn’t work (though the associated press coverage of such developments probably made it worthwhile regardless).

SL has flourised as an educational environment, with large (and ever increasing numbers) of projects taking place on both teen and main grids.  The simteach wiki has a list incorporating details of some projects.  My primary involvement (as mentioned previously on this blog) is with the Schome project.

Linden Labs opted to open-source the client earlier in 2007.  This appears to have led to bug-fixes from the community rather than any great leaps forward in client functionality.  The burning question is if (or increasingly “when”) they will open-source the back-end, allowing individuals and institutions to host and support their own servers.

Upcoming features include media on a prim (the long awaited displaying web pages and other file types on in-world objects), the Windlight engine (improved skies and related lighting effects) and the upgrading of the physics engine to use Havok 4 (offering improved physics and less client crashes).

Arguably the two biggest limitations are the inability to host your own service and the limited number of avatars supported per sim (the unit of land).  Additionally the tools for creating the world are limited so the overall look and feel is pretty weak, especially compared to modern game worlds.  However the flipside of this is that the limited and easy to use toolset has been a critical factor in the massive amount of user-created content on which the environment depends.

In my opinion Second Life will be remembered as the platform that helped user-generated worlds take a huge leap forwards.  I wouldn’t like to speculate on popularity beyond 2008 however.

Kaneva, There and Active Worlds I am going to (perhaps unfairly) group together.  They collectively represent existing alternatives to Second Life, albeit not all platforms are functionally similar (for instance not all support user-generated content).  Whilst many projects and developments have been undertaken in these worlds I intend to highlight some of the lesser known upcoming platforms that may represent the “next generation” of virtual worlds.

Open Croquet, to quote their description, is “… a powerful open source software development environment for the creation and large-scale distributed deployment of multi-user virtual 3D applications and metaverses that are persistent, deeply collaborative, interconnected and interoperable. The Croquet architecture supports synchronous communication, collaboration, resource sharing and computation among large numbers of users on multiple platforms and multiple devices.

The key here is that this is a tool for software developers to create more powerful collaborative environments than, for instance, in Second Life.  Version 1 of the Croquet SDK is available for download from the site

A range of projects using pre-release Croquet technologies can be found on their projects page and a showreel from August 2007 is on YouTube.

Opensim is “A BSD licensed open source project to develop a functioning virtual worlds server platform capable of supporting multiple clients and servers in a heterogeneous grid structure.”  It is being designed in the way many people believe Second Life will (or at least should go), that is to support multiple independent regions which connect to a single centralized grid.

Currently at version 0.4 Opensim does have a roadmap albeit unfortunately devoid of dates.  The feature set appears to be similar to Second Life, but with an open development and hosting structure.  Whether OpenSim becomes an important player may well be as simple as how swiftly it can deliver the release version. 

VastPark is currently in beta testing with release scheduled for December 2007.  VastPark’s virtual content platform will enable you to “create and deploy your own 3d virtual world within minutes”.  Despite the apparently imminent release there’s not a great deal of detail available, but do have a look at their website for a promo video.

There is very little detail on Avatar-Reality at the moment (this press release provides a few details), but it’s a virtual world being developed by a number of games industry veterans.  It looks at this stage that system requirements will be very demanding, but one to keep an eye on nevertheless.

Entropia Universe currently exists as a ‘game’ world, although there were rumours that in the future multiple worlds will support quite different activities, potentially including commercial and educational worlds.  As covered in a previous blog post Entropia will deploy the Crytek engine from the middle of 2008.

There are already many well known game creation technologies available, including Game Maker and Torque.  The focus for upcoming tools and environments is very definitely geared towards supporting the design and running of massively multiplayer online games. 

Multiverse released version 1 of its development platform in August 2007.  Already projects are being released with educational Lunar Quest available through the free, downloadable Multiverse World Browser.

Lunar Quest , which calls upon design elements from the 1950s, is intended to educate players in an entertaining and social world. It incorporates flash-based mini-games to teach students about physics, science and math. The combination of an MMOG with flash supports academic experimentation by allowing game developers to easily change which pedagogical stimuli players are given. Inside the world, players act as Lunar Colonization Authority (LCA) cadets, who are tasked with preparing the moon for colonization. Lunar Quest is being developed by Retro Labs at the University of Central Florida with funding from the National Science Foundation.”

Metaplace, a bit like Multiverse, is a virtual worlds platform, but I’d recommend reading the FAQ on their website for full details (it’s one of the few faqs that is easy to understand).  The company behind Metaplace is led by veterans of the games industry whose past involvements include working on massively multiplayer online games including Ultima Online, Star Wars Galaxies and Everquest.  Metaplace is currently in alpha testing.

Project Darkstar is touted as “…the game industry’s first open source, enterprise grade, highly scalable, online game server”.  As it says this is the server technology needed to support a MMOG/virtual world, minus the game part (game engine, art assets .etc.).  Massively multiplayer online games are notoriously expensive to develop and the idea is that by providing an open-source server the cost and complexity is reduced somewhat.  Considerable resource would still be required to create an end product on top of this however.

A further reference point of note is the virtual worlds resources page.  Despite the lengthy list their page is still not complete which only serves to underline how much activity there is in this area.

Finally I’d like to reference a feature titled “$1 billion invested in 35 virtual worlds companies from October 2006 to October 2007”.  This covers a number of major acquisitions and many substantial investments, adding to the argument that the importance of virtual worlds is only going to increase over the coming years.