Sansar Open Beta: Deserving to Succeed

I‘m writing this post in recognition of the efforts by Linden Lab, the creators of Second Life, to bring multi-user 3D environments to content authors in a form that is both accessible and scalable. They’re making this vision a reality through their new platform, Sansar. I also think it important to provide some context of what has come before in the genre. Along with how, despite barriers like technical literacy in the general population, non-standard hardware configurations and general skepticism, they have succeeded in carrying their vision forwards.

It’s very easy to sound like an authority on a subject when all one need do is cite the many examples of failure a particular endeavour has faced and laugh, wheezily, while predicting more of the same. The hard work comes with moving beyond setbacks and reminding oneself that anything worth doing is rarely easy. Especially so when it comes to contributing to our collective mental evolution and improving the human condition.

A video montage of my quick tour of Sansar beta day one


Where it’s all coming from

I grew up in a time when games didn’t look so great. They were mostly single player affairs and the social experiences people have access to now could only be dreamt of. One particular account of this era has been burned into my memory. There was a wheelchair-bound user in a multiplayer game. It was one of those MMORPGs, ‘Ultima Online’, and they wrote how, being confined to sitting, they loved the game because it gave them the opportunity to run.

The game was 2D and rendered from an isometric perspective. There was no way the graphical fidelity could begin to compare with some of the VR experiences available today. What made it so powerful was the attribution of worth in being able to connect with people through a freedom of expression that went beyond how we converse but also included how we interact with our environment. In Ultima Online, people built homes, explored lands and played together as part of an open-ended ludonarrative experience. Despite the limited technology of the time, the emotional bandwidth of the experiences one could have were enormous.

Second Life remains a familiar icon


Recent history

Second Life was the first release from Linen Lab and came many years after Ultima Online. It marketed itself as being a more general purpose 3D multi-user world. To be clear, it wasn’t a game. It was an expanse of space in which people could collaborate to both build and experience locales. They were created, entirely, by other users. It included everything from virtual settlements to larger than life cell biology in which you could move about to gain better appreciation for just how chaotic our internal worlds are. Despite all this, it was still referred to as a game. Mainly by uninformed individuals; many of who were academics, and carried a stigma that made uptake and adoption very difficult. It was breaking the norm and, for many, it was unforgivable.

As a social experiment, Second Life was interesting in that it made clear what it was people wanted to express. Sometimes, it came across as quite a dark place to be and at others, it was uplifting and thought-provoking. After spending some time inside, you learned how to navigate the world and keep away from the weird stuff. I owe a lot to Second Life, it’s what gave me some real exposure to academia and allowed me to explore the platform in an educational context. It gave me the opportunity to travel to different countries as a participant in projects focused on determining how real-time 3D could facilitate communication and learning. Until that time, I never knew how serious multi-user 3D environments could be.

I’ve since moved on from that time and space. While Second Life continues to remain incredibly active, with hundreds of thousands of users logging in every month, my interests lie elsewhere.


A Sansar preview video


Where we are

Fast forward to now and Linden Lab have moved their successor to Second Life, called “Sansar”, into open beta. With support for VR from day one, it’s going to be interesting.

Creating multi-user VR environments is difficult. There’s so much a developer needs to be aware of and adapt to. What we think constitutes best practice now, in terms of interface design, will change in a few years time. Making things compatible across multiple platforms like mobile and PC is also a nightmare but is something that Linden Lab need to figure out if they want Sansar to be an all inclusive experience. It is an extremely bold undertaking but the payoff is likely to be huge.

If the platform can simplify the process of authoring multi-user VR content, it stands to be both unique and empowering. Everything from bespoke experiences and simulations to rapid prototyping and experimentation. The tools available to content creators in Sansar will be a world apart from those in Second Life. They will allow for more industry standard practice, thereby facilitating the creation of higher fidelity experiences and appeal to a much broader range of artists and programmers alike. All the while converging the two disciplines in a social space.

There will, no doubt, be more to say on this subject in the future but, until then, familiarise yourself with what’s on offer and watch this space.

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  • Erik Mondrian

    Interesting article, but why oh why—especially if it gave you so much—do you write about Second Life entirely in the past tense, as though it no longer existed? Second Life (which just celebrated its 14th “birthday” back in June) is still very much around, still with a fairly sizable economy and enjoying far greater concurrency numbers than most of the other socially oriented virtual worlds out there, VR and otherwise.

    SL does, of course, have a long history of being forgotten or written off, by both journalists as well as mainstream Internet users; I think that does a huge disservice to the Residents who continue to socialize there, who continue to create there, and to whom SL and its communities have meant (and continue to mean) a great deal.

  • Andrew Marunchak

    Hi Erik, thanks for reading!

    Most of my work in Second Life was done about 8 years ago. For the most part, it involved improvising solutions for features it didn’t have back then. I remember myself, and many others, obsessing over graphics updates and technology integrations which were long overdue. I’ve always been focussed on accessible media rich content and, when I left SL, discussions of this sort were only just beginning to be had. Things like a browser-based client which never really manifest and support for more industry-standard authoring tools just came too late.

    By this time, many people were exploring completely different mediums like Unity, finding different ways to express themselves. Many of the constraints in Second Life are artificial and the land mass approach to building led to some very uncontrolled scenes. It just never did much to help itself in my eyes. It succeeded because of its user-base but that was in spite of the limitations of the software and the service (which for a first generation attempt at such a feat was fantastic).

    It’s at a point now where it is not scalable. While it continues to be profitable, I’ve no doubt it will continue to exist and there’s a serious concern many have over how to document the culture and creations that remain in that virtual scape. You’re entirely correct, the community is everything and how to preserve that is a question on many minds.

  • Erik Mondrian

    Thanks for taking the time to respond in so much detail. I’ve been in Second Life myself for almost 12 and a half years now, and have been personally and academically involved with “virtual worlds” in general for over 20, so I’m well aware of SL’s history and of its rather arbitrary limitations & constraints; I agree that (in its current form) it’s not scalable or even, in the long term, sustainable. As for Sansar, I have my doubts about its potential to really be an accessible, inclusive platform… though I’m *trying* to keep an open mind on that front.

    My concern here was more that the two paragraphs you devote to Second Life weren’t, to my eye, written in a way that would convey what might have been your intention: that the past tense is because your own work in SL was years ago and you’ve moved on. Instead, it sounds like you’re writing that the platform itself is a “was,” that it’s no longer around, which doesn’t do any favors to the community and its cultural accomplishments. Given the fact that you come across as quite knowledgeable and authoritative about all this, your readers who don’t know any better would likely be led to believe that Second Life is already gone, further diminishing the chance that people will look more deeply into that world—whether to preserve, study, or create, while they still can.

  • Andrew Marunchak

    Erik, thanks again for contributing to this. I do see your point and there’s certainly no harm in me making a few statements which reflect the sentiment you describe. I’ll make a small amendment and, in future posts, keep to the spirit of our discussion. : ]

  • Erik Mondrian

    Thanks, Andrew! I appreciate the addendum. And sorry if I sound like a complete stickler. I guess I’ve just seen this happen too often in other contexts, where the only attention SL usually gets is either negative, none at all, or a denial that it’s even relevant or running anymore. Given the incredible diversity I’ve seen there and how much I know having that world can mean to many people (myself included), it all gets a tad frustrating after a while.

    In your defense, I will say that you wrote very well and quite “broadly” about Second Life other than historicizing it. 😉 I like the way you described its multiplicity of uses and also that you pointed out that, no, it’s really not a game, despite the preconceptions many people have—especially, as you mentioned, in academia. o_O I’ve personally experienced a strange variation on that, actually… when the organizers of a conference on self-expression & diversity in games had a difficult time understanding the value of a talk about SL’s “identity exploration” tools (through, for example, changing your avatar and thereby your inworld gender, race, age, species, etc). One of those organizers had even equated (and I mean totally!) Second Life to The Sims in a paper he had written; I suppose, for the purposes of the conference, SL still wasn’t considered as “game” enough. ;D

    Since you brought up browser-based clients in your previous response, by the way, I’m wondering if you’ve heard of a web-based virtual world platform in development called JanusVR? There is a downloadable, standalone client, but they’ve also been working on a web viewer, and the platform itself “re-imagines webpages as collaborative 3D webspaces interconnected by portals.” I’m not involved in the project, but would still be curious to know what you think of it.

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