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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.
As for the business model, Koster anticipates that the emerging market for digital goods in Metaplace worlds eventually will represent a source of income from object designers and for his company. He also says the company may offer certain premium services to world builders in the future. At present, the items in the marketplace -- creatures, vehicles, natural objects, furniture, architecture, and plug-ins -- are free.

Free too is most of the software upon which Metaplace is built. The company relies on the open source LAMP stack -- Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP. The server is written in C++ and uses Lua as an embedded scripting language. It runs on a few dozen Linux servers.

To avoid the technical challenge of running a virtual world simulation across multiple machines as Second Life does, Metaplace has been designed so that each process manages a virtual world of up to several thousand people. Koster says he's confident the system will be able to scale to handle popular worlds with thousands of active people, but the expected use case at the moment is thousands of worlds with hundreds of people.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Metaplace's openness is its terms-of-service agreement. Virtual worlds tend to be among the most restrictive in terms of the rights granted to their users. But Koster is breaking the mold. "We actually adopted the declaration of the rights of avatars that I did years ago," he explains.

In plain language without the usual legalese, the terms of service spell out user rights and responsibilities in a way that conveys respect rather than the desire to restrict. So long as users obey applicable laws and respect the end-user licensing agreement, they can look forward to controlling their own intellectual property, to the right to earn and extract economic value from created worlds, and to the right to establish new rules that apply to their worlds, for instance.

It would be a mistake to see Metaplace exclusively as a game environment. The platform also has a strong social component, even at this early stage with its limited audience of testers. When the doors open, Metaplace may end up competing not with the likes of Second Life or Habbo but with Facebook. To imagine how that might happen, consider how some Metaplace testers have been streaming music into their personal worlds using programming hooks to Last.fm. Others are trying to implement music composition in their virtual spaces. Really, if data is available online, there's probably a way to access it and present it on Metaplace. That means that worlds can duplicate many of the functions of Web sites, albeit with a different user interface.

According to the Metaplace documentation, "Every object has a URL [that can be queried] from outside, every object can post to a Web page or browse the Web." Not only that, but Metaplace worlds can be embedded on any Web site through a Flash client using JavaScript embed code. Metaplace, thus, is likely to appear in many places, on many Web sites.

Betting on the masses, as opposed to the technically proficient, to produce compelling virtual worlds might seem like a risky decision. There are still people who can't accept that an army of amateurs has produced something as useful as Wikipedia.

But Koster is undaunted by such concerns. "If we give people access and freedom, we're pretty sure they're going to surprise, shock, and astonish us with what they go do," he said. "Honestly, it's been happening to us on a regular basis."