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Monday, June 30, 2014

The Big Country

The bleak splendors of these remote and lonely forests rather overwhelmed him with the sense of his own littleness. That stern quality of the tangled backwoods which can only be described as merciless and terrible, rose out of these far blue woods swimming upon the horizon, and revealed itself.
Algernon Blackwood, The Wendigo
               In the middle years of the 1800's, Europe was revolting. Tired of the old autocratic regimes, sick of an expensive, drama-filled existence where new technology threatened their way of life, many dreamed of a life with more freedom, autonomy, and the chance to make a place of their own. As the Old World lurched from one paroxysm of uncertainty to the next, many wondered: is there a better way?
           To leave home, however crowded and drama-filled it may be, is not easy. It takes courage to face the unknown, get rid of your stuff, leave behind the comfort of familiar surroundings. You have to be willing to adapt to new customs and circumstances, which may be good for the soul, but can be hard on those with a weaker constitution.
            And on the other side of the Atlantic, things weren't all only sweetness and light. The New World experience in Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit may be a caricature, but plenty of people made the trip, didn't like what they found, and returned to the devil they knew.
          But many stayed, and pushed beyond the cities by the sea  and went further West, out into the big wild empty places, not quite empty, inhabited but sparsely, where what you had was mostly what you made yourself, or shared with neighbors. The path less traveled can be rough going; self determination has its price, but also levels of satisfaction with which no amount of soft living or online shopping can compare.
        The expression 'open sim' means different things to different people. Some think of a standalone region, a sim on a stick, a boring private playground on your home computer. Others use it to mean any grid that rivals Second Life. Still others think it is the name of a specific grid, InWorldz, or ReactionGrid, or (more logically, but still wrongly) OSGrid. To those who have not been there much, or have not been there in a long while, 'open sim' means: no quality content, a lot of bugs, stability issues, and no people.
          Things have changed. It's not your grandfather's open sim any more. For example, JayR Cela's recent post on the subject reveals he knows as much about open sim as he does about the correct use of apostrophes. It is not a place standing still, far from it. Jumping from grid to grid, occasionally one comes across a region frozen in time, just as you do in SL, but on the whole it is a community project, moving ahead on the strength of imaginative believers committed to improving their chosen art form.
          And if you were wondering, all these pictures were taken in open sim.
          Open Sim is an archipelago of independent grids, not a monolithic corporation. There are more than 300 known worlds out there; I personally have visited 86. Each grid is as different and varied in character and appearance as the Louisiana swamps are different to the Cascade Mountains. Some are commercial, like Kitely or German Grid.
          Most don't use money except perhaps to pay rent, at a fraction of the cost of Second Life. Most people are there because they like to build, and they 'sell' their creations without charge. The idea is that you will find something you're good at, and donate that to the common good too.
           In the past two years, the quantity and quality of open sim content has gone through the roof, and while it doesn't have the same 'Search' feature we rely on in SL, there are plenty of people writing blogs who can point you toward shops and showrooms and interesting builds, for example Virtual Christine, Minethere, and the Hyperzette. And every grid has several teleport 'stations' which will take you to the goodies in a single leap.
You need a completely different mindset for this place. If you're into gossip and poker and preying on naive women, you may get bored. If you want to create, it is paradise. If you can't live without constant fawning praise, you'd die here.
The natives are friendly but cautious - many have been burned by SL and the wannabe crowd. The snob factor won't cut it here; don't look for committees or vendettas. The lack of commercial imperative means there is less drive to outdo other fashion houses, so if you're life's goal is to be runner-up in next year's Miss Uruguay competition, this is not the place for you, but for your average freak or geek, there's more than enough choice.
          With the latest version of the open sim software, variable size regions, improved physics and many other features have come online. Not all grids use the same version; there are no rules out here about that. Grids vary in size; they may be just a few sims, rather like a farmstead on the prairie, like Jamland or Miki Kiti Tiki, or they may be Great Grids like Metropolis, Craft, Francogrid, Kitely, and the greatest of all, OSGrid.
          Each has its own flavor, credo, level of reliability and respectability. Some are Dodge City, some are New Harmony. Depending on your smarts and people skills you can be as lonely or as busy as you want. Just like Second Life.
          The 'real' Open Sim is perhaps the 150 or more hypergrid enabled worlds. You can log on in one world and visit many others, picking up content, networking with new friends, visiting builds or going to concerts. Hypergridding is still hit and miss, which is why we have HG Safari, a club for hypergrid jumping. When it goes well, it's a hilarious romp, and when we can't jump, it's hilarious anyway. We of open sim are rough riders, used to a few challenges. Out in the wilds, we are free, free to make prims as big as a sim, free to make mistakes in textures without paying uploading charges, free to have as many avatars as we want, to control our creations without consulting LL's ToS, to be grown-ups and treat others as such. For those who know what they're doing, there's the delightful freedom of choosing not to upgrade if you don't want to. The latest is not always the best, despite what the iPhone lemmings believe.
           After the everything-on-a plate existence of SL this may seem the life of the backwoods, perhaps; the exultation of pioneering, foraging, learning and making do, and moving always onwards, aware that there are places too big and too far off, out there, potent, uneasy, exciting. But between home comforts and wild adventures, it's not an either or situation. There is no Atlantic between Open Sim and the fleshpots of Second Life.
          Scifi maven Lani Global describes it as a sort of 'Second lifeboat' - a place to keep your precious OARs and objects, should LL pull the plug, a summer home to escape drama, a workshop in which to perfect for free your mesh and textures (yes, there is NO CHARGE for uploading in open sim!). Having a foot in both SL and an independent grid - or many grids -  is very common, and probably one in three of the SL people you know already have at least one open sim account.
          You should try it. Join us on HG Safari, perhaps. You'll find details in Facebook and Google+.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Dream Girl: Kiana Writer

...that's about levels after levels after levels of puzzles and monsters
Kiana Writer
It's 2007. At La Cittadella, two newbs observe the line of people waiting to camp at the Discoteca.
Newb One: What this place needs is something to do, kinda like WoW-lite, an hour-long mini quest, along the lines of a disaster movie. Like The Poseidon Adventure. Look at all these people queuing to camp! Suppose 10 of them paid, idk, 20L to play. They'd be the cast of the story facing hazards and obstacles; along the way, 8 of them 'die'. The two who make it out alive get 50L. They meet new friends, have fun, and we make some money.
Newb Two: It's an idea. Do you know anyone who could script something like that? Or build it? Or find the land to do it on? Or deal with the complaints from disgruntled players?
Newb One: Um, no, no, no and no.
New Two: I thought not. Let's go dancing.
         He was right. I hadn't got any of those skills. But around the same time, across the grid and in Finland, Kiana Writer was taking a broadly similar notion and turning it into a dream come true. Not the Poseidon Adventure, but the Harvey Hunt.
Kiana Writer: It took me a while to figure out this place and what was possible here. I was a cop at a race track, then a host at Dance Island. It used to crash nonstop and you'd have to wait a long time to get back online but people would still do it and not whine so much. I started writing for magazines and exploring a lot, and I wondered why there weren't things to do that I enjoy. Point and click adventure games for example. I wanted to try something. A friend and I brought out Where the Hell is Harvey Wayne on Feb 22nd, 2008. I used the connections of the sim owners I had written about and placed a lot of posters around.
          They funded the cypher-driven hunt by charging the venues involved, so they didn't put RL money into the game at all. On the back of that success they then set up a Survivor-type game with two tribes competing for a prize. After a while, though, Kiana's partner got fed up with all the whining and quit, after ejecting all the members and flattening the land. Even that setback didn't dampen Kiana's spirit. She determined to carry on alone. Alone, up to a point. She set up a hunt by herself, but soon others were volunteering themselves and their friends to get involved. The Zodiac Killer was the next venture, and soon it was called MadPea, and Kiana found herself surrounded by a team, many of whom who have come to be like family. So many personalities, so many ideas. Does she have to be tough?
Kiana Writer: Well, there's only one 'Queen'! You could say I'm here for my people skills. There's no room for egos in our group, that includes mine too. We co-exist happily and have roles; everyone has enough creative freedom in their role that follows the concept idea. I have people coming to me all the time with ideas, and I'm like sure great thanks, but how would you actually make this happen? Come back when you have something concrete. We have a never-ending chest of ideas already.
          The Zodiac hunt was how she met builder/3D Artist/designer Waghorne Truss.
Waghorne Truss: Kiana showed up at my store one day asking to put up posters for her Zodiac Killer game. I was interested in what she was doing and eventually got involved with it myself. I worked on all the original games: Mad Mines, Swamp Hotel, Notes from the Voyage, Firefly, Reaction, Within. My favourite was The Kaaos Effect, mainly because its use of "holodecks"- it was pretty innovative at the time. Building all the different time periods was a lot of fun. There's always the element of surprise working with talented builders and scripters.  They come up with ideas and approaches that I would never have thought of working alone. Working as a freelance designer can be a bit lonely sometimes; this is exciting and interesting. Money would be nice but I'm more interested in helping Madpea expand to its full potential, maybe spreading to other platforms eventually.
          Not every working relationship goes as smoothly as that, and as with any long-term organization, Kiana has had her share of headaches; people with serious issues who have done everything from sabotage builds, to threatening blackmail, to arguing with themselves during team meetings. There's also the sadness of bring someone on board, showing them the ropes, getting friendly only to then have that person leave SL or move on to some other group. Just like the real world, then. With one huge exception: no big money.       As Harter Fall,  Creative Director at Mad Pea, puts it, "We put more into this than we get out. This is all about dedication and passion for me."
Harter Fall: Kiana and me accidentally ran into each other at a party  2 1/2 years ago. Back then my focus was mainly on art, working on my LEA Sim. I showed Kiana my work and she showed me hers and the rest is history. Together with Kiana I organize and plan our designers' work and much of the visual concepting. I do also a lot of 3D Modeling, 2D and Level Design, Video Editing and Audio Engineering. The most challenging aspect for me is to keep all we build performance and low lag. The most fun is to work with brilliant designers and scripters from all around the world.
At Unia - still a work in progress, hence the pink prim, part of the team's construction setup
            Kiana has a killer imagination. Almost all her games involve murder mysteries, and the biggest, baddest MadPea project is no exception. Called Unia (Finnish for 'Dream') is has been more than twelve months in the making, and promises to make every other so-called immersive installation you've ever seen seem small and shallow by comparison. In this preview there aren't going to be any plot points given away because the whole point is, it's a mystery, but a mystery on loads of levels.
             Even seen on the run, without grasping all the backstory, it was easy to tell that Unia is an ocean of thought-provoking adventures that will keep people coming back again and again, trying to get to the heart of the matter. Think Lost meets Inception meets Twin Peaks meets Stephen King. And they all run into the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
 Kiana Writer: I'm a lucid dreamer and most of my ideas come from my nightmares. It's like movies in my head so I thought that I will make my nightmares into a game.
In this case, the cream of SL artists like Fuschia Nightfire, Jaimy Hancroft, Bryn Oh and more have been brought in to turn Kiana's dreams into magnificent and wildly varied scenes. Other scenes  have been built by MadPea regulars like Fae Varriale and RAG Randt. Each one contains puzzles, dangers and clues to help you solve the overarching mystery of Unia.
          Kiana kindly allowed these exclusive photos to be published, and they aren't in the windlight you'll experience when the project opens, and they also show, here and there, prims that are part of the construction process. They reflect the fact this is still a work in progress, but more, they hint at the professional level of communication between team members. The vast size and number of different scenes is literally astonishing.
It's obvious this is going to be one of those build you will visit over and over, for days maybe weeks, trying to solve all the pieces, getting sucked in to the story, probably working with friends, or making new friends as you work your way around the different chapters of the story.
Kiana Writer: I am deep inside an optimist. I like to believe in the good of people, yet I kill them in my games :D
          Another member of the team is all round artist graphic designer and Blender buff, RAG Randt.
RAG Randt: I experienced a cool Madpea game a few years ago that took me to various really cool builds. I was impressed by the quality of the games and particularly of the builds. Fast forward a couple of years and Harter Fall and I shared a LEA sim. I knew Harter's work and liked it very much. as we were building, we became better acquainted and he said he was working for Madpea. I believe he asked me if i would be interested in working there as they needed builders for their new homebase, Carnival. At that time I was getting into Blender and mesh and I thought this would be a great opportunity. Harter introduced me to Kiana and then I was hired.
          His contribution to UNIA was in collaboration with Abramelin of Abranimations, and his wife Wildcat Snowpaw - the intense building experience, which included an actual RL injury! - comes through in the haunting, intriguing build. Normally, this scene alone would be considered a triumphant interactive installation that you'd be talking about for weeks - yet it's just a fraction of what Kiana and her team have in store for you at UNIA!
          It's a hud-driven adventure, and you're going to have to use all your ingenuity, observation and problem-solving skills. You will also have to walk. Or swim.
          It's not giving anything away to say that if you're at all afraid of old people, flying bugs, burning furniture, small spaces, drowning, acid, guns, or scary rabbits, this environment is going to frighten you to bits, in the best possible way. Fae Varriale agrees. She came on board around the time of Carnival, and also helped build the INCA hunt - her fave, since she loves caves; but Unia is special. So is working together.
Fae Varriale: Some people think it would be a glamorous job to work as part of the MadPea team,  but it is actually very hard work a lot of the time and real staying power is needed to see projects through with a high level of quality. I personally have been working on UNIA for a year, plus various other projects alongside that. Without the amazing multi talented team we have none of this would come together in the way it does, everybody plays an important part, and after all the hard work the sense of achievement when we see the finished project is amazing.
          She's not exaggerating, or just speaking as an interested party.
This is hands down the best build you've ever seen in SL, for the size and quality of the build, the behind-the-scenes technical magic, and the deeply complex and compelling story. And it's all for a nominal fee. Unlike my newbie idea of an hour long game, you'll be able to lose yourself in Unia for weeks.
Kiana Writer: Some come thinking that this is just fun and all we do is play and have no idea how much work it is some of the ppl do 12 hour days here that's clearly not expected but the workload is a lot for very little money in return it truly takes a person to believe in the concept and what we're doing and to understand that we're not going to be rich by doing this... and we're not doing this for money.
          Beyond the cost of the HUD, you can contribute, should you wish, by leaving a donation at The Green Mire. It's the least we can do. When you've seen it, you'll know what I mean. Kiana's dream - the dream to create an effective company in SL, the dream to bring people engaging entertainment, and the way she has taken bad dreams and turned them into something outstanding, while remaining a modest single mum,  just goes to show what an exceptional person she is. And Unia expresses it on a philosophically metaversal scale.
Kiana Writer: I strongly believe that there is so much wrong in the world at the moment and many things make people be so selfish and not give a shit about each other nothing feels like anything anymore. Each of my games has a little lesson no matter what, they make people feel. If I can make a person feel something during the game.. anger, hate, joy, happiness.. then I feel that's a success. There are too many zombies walking around without emotions to themselves or the people close to them. In this game for example, you have to figure out would you sacrifice someone, would you die for someone? Will you bring your friend in to rescue you?
I guess we're going to find out.
Check the MadPea blog and inworld group for announcements about the opening of Unia, and - see you there!