In this article, I’ll draw a comparison between the short history of 2D interactive content development on the web and how 3D content development might follow a similar path, and how I believe we’re inexorably moving towards professionalisation and templatisation (as opposed to hobbyism) with regards to content creation in virtual worlds.
Way, way back in February of this year, Second Life blogger Shug Maitland wrote a short and pithy post about what Second Life users need, which inspired me to pick up on the content creation thread she started in her post. Truth be told, I wrote 90% of the post you are now reading in February, and put it on the back-burner (I do that, a lot) to revive later when the timing was more right. With the recent Linden Lab interviews appearing in MMORPG and Variety, where top Linden staffers compare Sansar to WordPress, I couldn’t help but go back to this post, update it and publish it.
In her original post, Shug suggested Second Life needs more specific content creation tools so that the non-professional content creator can create mesh objects. She said:
“Mesh is all the rage in SL, and for good reason. It opens a whole new world of possibilities. What we need is an intuitive method of building mesh for SL… What would be best would be for LL to create/adopt/outright buy a platform specialized for SL. I would envision an application that would open a sandbox and an avatar (my own?). Easy to use controls that build on the prim construction techniques I already know with the added ability to push and stretch into organic shapes.”
For better or worse, I very much doubt that will ever happen. Instead, I see 3D content creation in virtual worlds following a path towards professionalisation and templatisation. This is also a ‘power to the people’ trend, and one that doesn’t favour the few (the committed hobbyist) at the cost of the many (everyone one else who just wants to make stuff).
If this trend follows what we’ve seen in 2D interactive development over the past two decades, then this means that in the future, we’ll have more generic 3D objects and fewer options. On the plus side however, it also means we’ll have higher quality, (even) lower prices and more adoption across a wider class of amateur content creators using template processors made by professionals.
A few clarifications before I start: By professionalisation, I refer to the act or process a practice becoming more professional – in the commercially productive sense (not necessarily the quality sense) of the word. By templatisation, I refer to the process of making generic outlines from which people can make derivative works.
At the end of this article, I’ll share how Linden Lab is now comparing the new VW platform (e.g. Sansar) to what we predominantly see on the WWW (world-wide web) platform, for creating 3D and 2D experiences, respectively.
Professionalisation and templatisation in web content (2D) development
Back in the old days (I’m referring to the mid 1990s and early 2000s), few people knew how to make websites. Most developers were hobbyist coders that had some experience with programming and liked to tinker with basic HTML code.
Before website development became an industry, multinational companies (e.g. Coca-Cola and McDonald’s) hired hobbyists (e.g. the COO’s nephew that was ‘into computers’) to develop their corporate websites. Mostly though, the jobs available were few by today’s standards, and the task of making web content was typically a side-of-the-desk project found mainly in educational and government environments. Some people made personal websites for fun.
Websites, back then, were heavily text-based, and generally ignored commonly accepted design principles. But it was a new world and it worked for a while.
The opportunities however, were limitless. All you really had to was learn the basics of HTML code. If you could create a text file and upload it to a web server via FTP… Presto: You were a website designer!
As the web transitioned from its idealistic phase into the commercially essential platform it is today, established print designers applied their skills to the web to broaden their toolkit and income opportunities. Print designers made a lot of brochure-ware during this phase, often supported by the hobbyists to make it all work. The web started to look a lot better, but is was still a shadow of the functionality and interactivity we consider a given today.
Over the two decades since hobbyists and print designers launched the first commercial websites, many of them leveraged their skills and experience to become professional web designers and developers. There are some people in the field today that have focused entirely on web content development during their careers. Today, one needs advanced skills to compete in the web content development job market – it’s no longer a hobbyist pursuit. In my view (and like all my views debatable) web development transitioned into a new phase with the arrival of a) database-driven websites, and later b) WordPress.
When database-driven websites arrived on the scene (during the late 1990s), the days of making websites from a linked collection of static HTML documents and image files were immediately numbered.
Then, MySQL databases stored and dynamically served content to the visitor through the server-side scripting language known as PHP. This was the first nail in the coffin for hobbyist coders and print designers that didn’t have the time, patience or aptitude to learn how to design and develop databases-driven websites. Over time, web designers and developers became considerably more professional, established educational qualifications and professional organisations, and agreed to standards of practice.
These days, it would be unthinkable to turn to a hobbyist to create your website or blog in basic HTML. If you’re a business, you’ll hire a professional web developer and have them develop a database-driven website. If you’re a recreational blogger, you’ll use a free or self-hosted service like WordPress, and take advantage of free or premium theme templates. Free plug-ins and widgets give most of the functionality that anyone ever needs (even for most corporate builds). If you want something custom-coded, you hire a professional web developer to adapt the template. For the average web publisher / blogger and most web developers serving small to medium-sized businesses, it’s all about using and modifying templates.
Today, it might take a couple of hours to set up a website on WordPress, install a theme, and host it for free. That same website might have taken a coder / designer 3-6 months to build to the same design and functionality specification using old methods and tools. That same website would cost you at least 4 figures in labour costs. Why would you ever design a website from scratch today unless you’re a business that wants to use it make money? Even professional web designers today turn to Premium WordPress themes at the start of a project (that cost between $20 to $100), and customise these themes to produce a significant proportion of the websites that you use today.
Making websites the old way just isn’t cost-effective or productive, and thus web development is no longer a hobbyist pursuit.
So that’s the very abridged history of 2D content development when seen from this perspective, let’s now look at how things have worked in Second Life.
Professionalisation and templatisation in 3D content development
I see the arrival of database-driven websites is analogous to the arrival of mesh objects in Second Life. Like building websites with static HTML pages is now considered archaic, the days of the hobbyist building with prims seems almost… well, primitive.
In Second Life’s early years (2003-2009), you didn’t need to be a professional designer or developer to rez a prim, size it, shape it, texture it, or link it with other prims, and you still don’t if you’re a do-it-yourselfer. Like the hobbyist coders writing HTML code, you just had to be brave enough to experiment with the building tools – and voila: you’re a 3D content developer!
Most of the objects made by early builders ignored commonly accepted design principles; but again, it was the best we had, and they worked for a while. Second Life had its boom in 2007 and the big corporates arrived on the scene, sometimes hiring average Second Life residents with relatively rudimentary building skills to create and manage their regions in Second Life.
The virtual world platform didn’t deliver on the commercial promise like the world-wide web did (despite Philip Rosedale touting Second Life the next internet revolution towards the 3D web), so the corporates left whilst the hobbyist content developers remained. As Second Life’s population grew; however, residents with design experience, training, and sometimes nothing but aptitude, entered the content development fray and started making 3D prim objects that looked a lot better. These creators relied on scripters to add functionality to their creations, and many learned some of these skills themselves.
It was still a relatively level playing field for years – until mesh changed everything. And, just like building database-driven websites, making mesh objects wasn’t easy.
To make a mesh object, you need to learn to use a third-party 3D modelling application (i.e. 3D Max, Maya, Blender). I’ve not tried them, but even the cleverest whiz-kids I’ve known find them a tad mind-boggling, so for the moment at least, it takes a special type of brain to make it work (or a tirelessly patient one). As it stands, many Second Life builders gave it a wide berth, even with the now almost ubiquitous demand for mesh products. Many prim-based creators simply stopped creating all together. Yes, one can still make prim objects in world and convert them to mesh using converters like Mesh Studio, but these objects (to me at least) still keep their primmy appearance.
I think that 3D content development in virtual worlds will likely go the same direction as web 2D content development – in becoming more professionalised and more template-driven. Even today, we’re seeing more and more professional 3D modellers introducing objects into the marketplace that most hobbyists simply can’t compete with in terms of sophistication and realism.
Similar to how most bloggers use free themes templates and databases like WordPress to blog recreationally, most of us don’t want to build our own mesh objects, so we buy existing objects and make derivative works.
I’m a Second Life builder, but only in the sense that I buy objects from Second Life creators and assemble them to create environments and immersive experiences. I don’t actually create these objects, I just assemble them. When I shop for objects, I favour full-perm mesh objects. Not only do these objects look better because they’re mesh, they tend to have a lower land impact and are considerably more flexible to use. I will avoid no-copy and no-mod objects like the plague, only choosing them if there is no other choice.
These are effectively templates, and templates are the future. We’re now seeing a proliferation of Second Life creators who use professionally made 3D templates on which to base their mesh designs. The home and garden category is also following suit. The original content can range in cost from a relative mint to being freely available for download. Either way, professional creators can price these objects extremely competitively for the end-consumer, flooding the market with pretty much the same tree, the same rock, and the same mesh body.
Many will decry these developments by calling it elitist and cookie-cutter (just see the comments to my article on mesh heads for a taste of what that looks like). I don’t have such concerns, because I’m looking at content development from both sides of the fence, professional and the personal. In my professional life, I get paid to create content for professional websites (primarily using WordPress.org). In my personal life, I get a kick out of using WordPress.com to create content for my personal websites.
Fast forward to Project Sansar as compared to WordPress for 3D content development
In reference to creator tools, the July 19th MMORPG article quotes Peter Gray (Linden Lab Global Communications Director): “These tools (Linden hopes) will be much more accessible than those of Second Life; Gray compared Sansar to WordPress or Instagram, noting how those platforms make it possible for people “to communicate and share their ideas without having to build their own websites.”
Both Mr Gray and Ebbe Altberg clearly like the thread of this analogy, as it was given further play in the interview for the Variety article, appearing 23 July:
But the most fundamental difference between Second Life and Project Sansar is a lot more conceptual: Second Life has always been first and foremost about Second Life itself. Sansar will be about individual VR experiences, powered by Linden Lab’s technology.
Project Sansar will allow brands and other developers to build their own VR experiences, and then deep-link to them from their websites or third-party apps. Users will still have to have the Project Sansar software installed to use them, but it will feel a lot more like custom experiences. “Second Life is a platform dressed as a product,” said Altberg. Project Sansar will be a platform that will allow others to build products. “The experience is the primary brand,” he said.
Altberg compared Sansar’s role to WordPress, the popular blogging and web publishing platform that now powers a quarter of the world’s websites. Linden Lab’s goal was to turn Sansar into a WordPress for VR, allowing enthusiasts and big brands alike to build VR experiences without spending tons of money and man hours on custom programming, he explained.
More experienced publishers will be able to use Sansar in connection with popular 3D software; initially, Linden Labs wants to make it work with Maya, and eventually add support for Blender, Sketchup and other apps as well. Getting those animations up and running in virtual reality will be a lot easier that starting from scratch, promised Altberg.
Today, WordPress powers 23.3% of the top 10 million websites, and is the most popular blogging system on the web, powering more than 60 million websites. At it’s essence, it is a web template system that uses a template processor that facilitates a low barrier to entry for content creators – like you and me. In its professional capacity, WordPress allows professionals to make professional websites faster and more easily than they ever could before.
It’s certainly not a bad model to emulate.
This approach also aligns very closely to Principle 5 of the Sansar Six, which I first shared in June – in my article with regards to Linden Lab’s latest marketing practices – which I’ll reiterate here, because I believe we’ll be seeing more and more stories and announcements in the coming months that touch and expand on these six principles:
The Sansar Six:
- Discovery – helping users more easily find content
- Accessibility – making it easier for users to access the next generation world across devices and platforms (which was partly addressed in the MMORPG article)
- Scalability – building with not just a few hundred in mind, but tens of thousands – in terms of size of creations, but also in terms of audience and market reach (which was addressed in the Variety article with regards to instancing of experiences)
- Quality – rethinking physics, lighting, scripting, visual quality, and audio fidelity
- Usability – making it easier to create and consume content in world
- Monetisation – changing the business model so that it can scale by introducing revenue models that are more broad based (see my article on inworld ‘taxation’ which has since been confirmed many times over).
Feature image courtesy of Scott.