I’ve been to Blue Mars and I made it back alive. As you can see on the picture above, it was quite peaceful, except for a few things that creeped me out!
Firstly – what is Blue Mars?
Blue Mars is a 3D social virtual world platform. It’s much like Second Life in that you can build and add your own content and be a co-creator in this online world. Blue Mars is however very new compaired to the rest of the industry, we’re still participating in a launch beta, meaning a lot of it is not finished yet.
I went along with Vaneeesa Blaylock, the Second Life performance artist, who had invited people in her blog post Field Trip: Blue Mars to visit this new “planet”. Sadly my Blue Mars software was rather buggy, so I lost the tour group several times. To add to injury, I had befriended several people, but the interface doesn’t let you see which zone they are in. So I only managed to track them down again at the Welcome Area, which is pictured below.
What can Blue Mars bring to the table?
I’ve always found social platform worlds to be tricky. I’m not sure I completely understand them. As a gamer, I’m left with the big question “but what is there to do in there?“. Aside from the usual shopping and dressing up your avatar, I guess you can explore, chat with others and engage in minigames as bowling and golf, as I am on the picture below.
Blue Mars seems caught in between being something that doesn’t attract gamers (the shopping aspect) and trying to attract users from Second Life, which is very established already.
What can Blue Mars give us then?
I don’t know much about content creation, but I do know a little about the engine Blue Mars runs on, because it was originally made for a computer game (Shortly an engine is the framework upon which the game is built). The first person shooters Far Cry and Crysis both runs on versions of this engine, and are known to be very demanding on computers due to the neat graphics. I remember when gamers would relate to others how good their computer was, by how well it ran Crysis. I’m not a fan of first person shooters, so I’ve never played them, but I did get a small taste of the potential of the Cry Engine by faffing around in Blue Mars. It’s how it goes in the gaming industry, graphics go up up up, and Blue Mars delivers.
I went to the zone called ARAF, it’s a green tinted futuristic jungle like landscape, and I must admit I was utterly amazed at the beauty of the place. It was the first time in Blue Mars that I really felt like exploring this mythical looking scenery – so I did.
I take it as this place was more of an experimental playground to a designer.
A showcase of 3D landscape art.
It is stunning though, and I do wonder if the reason behind me feeling strangely at home there, had to do with the different similarities the zone had to a few zones within WoW (fx Feralas and Sholazar Basin).
My avatar looked completely out of place in in this emerald fantasy though, and I found myself wishing for a nice staff and a hood to go with the style, so I wouldn’t look like such a tourist! As long as you don’t own land in Blue Mars, maybe are you just that – an earthling visiting.
I think my avatar might have a crush on me!
At least she kept looking at me! I have always thought of an avatar as a virtual representation of me in cyberspace, but perhaps Blue Mars disagrees. To me, the identity immersion was completely broken by the fact my avatar liked to look at me (i.e. gaze at the “camera”), and sometimes her posing even looked flirtatious.
I was highly disturbed by the fact, that my idea of her and me being the same was thrown overboard, when she continously decided to turn her head and smile at me. If she is looking at ME, I can’t be HER.
What am I then? I guess I’m the weird pervert who follows her, mostly from behind, controlling her every move? Well.. she seemed fine with it…
The environmental sounds also followed the camera, and not my avatar. I discovered this when I kept triggering a sound of water dripping whenever I changed the viewing angle on my avatar. It turned out, it was the fountain next to my “camera”, which lead to me conclude, that I, as this ethereal stalker, also have a hearing sense besides my evident ability to see things through my lense.
My feeling of being behind a camera became even more accentuated when I noticed this effect of water running down the “lense”, whenever I had submerged my “camera” under water, and brought it back up again. I’m not sure what effect they wanted when they put that in, and I can only assume it’s meant to add a sense of liquid realism to the element of water.
In WoW I never get stared at, in fact, catching a chatacters eye can be difficult, especially when some races don’t even have pupils! It was a very special experience to me, when I compare it the place I come from, where the view of the camera isn’t given any individual presence. I wonder if they are going to keep these paparazzi features in permanently.
It could also just be a case of what Vaneeesa coined as “an out of avatar experience”.
Hello Blue Mars – Meet The Sims
The controls in Blue Mars are very simple and easy to learn, as is the interface. There was one thing I could have wished for still: I wish they had studied The Sims series.
The Sims is a game, and Blue Mars isn’t entirely, but they still have a lot in common. The Sims fx have something called “pathing”. Without pathing, your avatar will walk in a straight line to the destination you clicked (the blue cone in Blue Mars), including getting stuck on whatever is in their way. With pathing your avatar will get to the point you designated by choosing the shortest path, thus being able to turn around fx corners by themselves. I’m lazy and prefer it when my avatar can do all the hard work for me.
Of course this meant that in Blue Mars, moving around narrow places could be dodgy at times, with my avatar looking very silly walking into pot plants and furniture. In Blue Mars, navigating in a house like this one below (from Sims 3), would be a challenge.
The lack of pathing really puts pressure on designers to make places that are not only beautiful, but also functional in terms of effortless movement.
I also wish Blue Mars had taken a look at The Sims when it came to avatar motions and expressions. I like when my avatars go nuts, scream of laughter and slap their thighs. I want them to do a summersault when they celebrate, and cry to the heavens when they are upset.
Here Ironyca is doing a cry emote. Is she crying? Or just looking at her hand?
Since I know Blue Mars is not finished yet, I hope they will add more expressive emotes and less expressive posing and walking. I think everybody noted how fidgety our avatars were while especially sitting, constantly changing position. Walking and running from the female avatar perspective is much like a model stride, like Vaneeesa put it: “I run like Yasmene Bleeth in Baywatch”.
Virtual World or Virtual Zones?
Coming from WoW I lose the sense of world and gain the feeling of instance. Zones are not in relation to each other, and you can’t go directly from one to the other. Instead, every zone seems to have a theme and you download the whole thing before you enter it, leaving your latency relatively low.
I wonder if the houses in Caledonia above are meant for future Martian residents. At the time being, all the zones I visited felt a little empty. I wasn’t able to find any populated domestic area, but maybe that’s in the future.
Based on my experience in Blue Mars, I’d give it some time to get settled and then plug back into it, to see it in it’s full splendor. There’s definately potential and the visual side is alluring.
If some crazy designer would whip up another aesthetic wonder like ARAF, I will be there – with my hood and staff!