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1/14/2009
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Metaplace Readies Virtual World Platform

InformationWeek's beta tester says that the Metaplace platform will likely achieve its goal of making anyone into a virtual world designer.


Metaplace: Make Your Own World

Metaplace: Make Your Own World
(click for larger image)
The corpse of Google's Lively is barely cold and another virtual world rises to take its place. What comes, however, is almost certain to be more lively that Lively.

Metaplace, a platform for user-generated virtual worlds, is getting ready for open beta testing. The company isn't yet ready to say when that might be, but it has offered InformationWeek 200 invitations to the closed beta test and agreed to lift the nondisclosure agreement I signed as an alpha tester so I could write this story.

To claim a closed beta invitation, visit Metaplace and enter IWEEK in the box labeled "Redeem your invite key!"

If you're among the first 200 readers of this article to click through and sign up for a closed beta account, welcome aboard. If not, you shouldn't have to wait too much longer before the site opens to the general public.

Metaplace is the brainchild of veteran game developer Raph Koster, once the lead designer of Ultima Online and now the company's president. Its ancestry is immediately apparent: Many of the virtual worlds built on the Metaplace platform use the isometric perspective that was popular in games before technology advanced enough to make mass-market 3-D representation feasible.

Metaplace worlds aren't limited to an isometric view. The prevalence of this view in user-generated worlds is a consequence not of an affinity for the past but of the limits of current browser technology and the complexity of 3-D design. Rather than requiring users to download a dedicated client more capable of advanced rendering -- a design choice what would have meant fewer potential users -- Koster and his company are trying to create a platform for making graphically rich interactive worlds that requires only a Web browser and Adobe's ubiquitous Flash technology.

The isometric view "is approachable, looks 3-Dish without being 3-D, allows greater scope for people to build without being too complicated, and it will scale nicely to 3-D someday when there's a good Web-embedded solution for 3-D rendering," he said.

Koster said that while Metaplace does indeed anticipate a day when browsers will render 3-D graphics better, he's satisfied with the state of the technology at present. "Of course, we're always looking ahead," he said. "But I would say that the browser trade-off -- it's certainly a trade-off because you don't have the same amount of rendering fidelity that you would with a standalone 3-D engine or even a plug-in -- the trade-off has been spectacular. It looks pretty good for something running in a browser, and Flash appears to be on a trajectory to do pretty well."

While Google's late Lively may make a convenient touchstone, Koster doesn't see many points of comparison. "There's common underlying technology, but I don't really see us and them as having a lot in common," he said. "I don't think you can draw conclusions [from Lively's fate] about the virtual world space as a whole."

Koster sees Metaplace more as a medium, like blogging, that enables new forms of expression rather than a product that's easily compared to the competition. That's a view that appears to be informed by his ambition to let anyone create his or her own virtual world.

When text-based worlds were popular in the 1980s and early 1990s, the technical barriers for virtual world creation weren't excessive, and many people did run their own text-based multiuser dungeons, as some continue to do. But as 3-D massively multiplayer games like Everquest and World of Warcraft became the standard, it became more expensive and more complicated for individuals or small groups to create or manage virtual worlds.

But the technology necessary to make virtual worlds and serve them is becoming commoditized. Game authoring systems like Unity are allowing individuals and small teams to produce gaming content that a few years ago would have required more rarefied technical expertise.

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