PostHeaderIcon A Blue Moon Rising


The blogoshpere is flooded with opinions and apparent excitement that Blue Mars is finally going into public beta. I'm on the beta list and have run around the place for a time (Look for Ari Blackthorne on Blue Mars - except you'll have a hard time finding me - see below).

I came.

I saw.

I left.

Gwyneth Llewelyn wrote a wonderful piece, probably the most accurate on the subject thus far. But most of what I'm seeing appears to be the drooling excitement that an alternative to Second Life is finally at-hand. Ummm — no.

As Gwyneth mentions, the developers of Blue Mars are really targeting content creators right now. And, as a content creator myself, I can relate to the excitement this brings. However, as I step back and look at the larger picture, I see problems.

Big ones.

Before I jump up onto my soapbox, allow me to be absolutely clear:
  • Yes. I know Blue Mars is in beta right now and much of what I speak of will be changed; fixed; tweaked; made "better".
  • Yes. I know that comparing Blue Mars to Second Life really isn't very fair - they are two completely different beasts. However, the developer admits Second Life is a model with heavy influence. But much of that influence has yet to be seen. Perhaps later when the platform matures more.
  • I want to be clear that my comparison isn't with the software, the world, the animation, the builds, the... anything. My comparison is with regard to my user experience.
  • No. I am not dissing on, slamming, or in any way attempting to put a negative spin on anything Blue Mars or Second Life or their respective creators or even those who've blogged about them.
  • This is not a review of Blue Mars. It is simply a reflection on my initial experience.

The first issue I have with Blue Mars, (Mars for short; "BM" sounds too much like "Bowel Movement" to me - sorry for that mental picture,) is with the marketing and how they describe the system requirements. It is unethically misleading to say Blue Mars will run on Microsoft Windows and "Macintosh with bootcamp installed".

Okay, ummm... sorry. But that's a flat-out lie, the way I see it. The system requirements for Operating System is MS Windows, full stop. A Macintosh with bootcamp installed only means there is a DOS partition. Mac users still must spend $250 or more for a copy of....

Wait for it....

Wait for it...

Microsoft Windows to install onto that bootcamp partition! I will not hold my breath on ever seeing an OS-X native version of Blue Mars any time soon. I'll explain later. Meaning that the first statement ('requires MS Windows') is still the case. I believe it's their way of saying "screw you Macintosh. You want-in? Then run MS Windows!" - but in a covert, underhanded way.

The next stunner is the sheer size of the download. It is a 1.3 GB - (GIGA-BYTE!!!) beast. Yes I have broadband. Yes I have enough bandwidth allotment to download it, though I know there are those with tighter bandwidth caps than I have.

Okay, so the download is massive (read: bloated). It's because most, if not all the content I will see in-world is included in that download. This provides for a 'better' user experience by allowing the entire world ("city" - or "sim" in SL terms, albeit much larger each) without any 'rezzing' issues.

Why is this a problem (in my own perspective, remember)? Because it's a lot of wasted stuff. I will not see it all. I am downloading a lot of content I will never see or use. Or, if I do see it all so easily, I suspect the world will become redundant and boring rather quickly. America Online was sued (and lost) over the downloading of extraneous content - because it is wasted and simply sucks-up resources (file size-bloat; bandwidth to download it, etc.)

In this case, all that extraneous content is being force-fed to me in the guise of a bloated initial download.

The first cringing, tooth-grinding, hair-standing on the back of my neck moment occurred when I went to install the viewer. I was told I must install Adobe Flash Active-X.

I won't bore you with a long-winded rant about Flash or anything Adobe for that matter. But I will briefly say why I personally don't like it. First, Flash is bloated. It used to be lean and mean. Now it's bloatware, poorly-written and sucks-up a lot of computing resources. Adobe is trying hard to make Flash all things to all people for all purposes.

This makes poorly-written software into bloatware. The majority of every single thing I see in Flash format is advertising. Which is annoying. Standard advertising using regular image formats are fine.

The only other thing I see Flash used for is video. Which is a bastardization of the video-viewing experience. The Quality to file size to resource consumption ratio is abysmal. It's one of the reasons why YouTube now offers viewing via standard H.264 and foregoing Flash altogether (though you have to manually set your preferences to fore-go Flash.)

The only other reason to use Flash is web-application, most often games. And there is your answer. Eventually, I'm sure, they will make the viewer embeddable into a web page - because it's Flash. It even looks like a Flash The reason I won't hold my breath for an OS-X (Macintosh for all you Windows-heads out there) native version is the Active-X aspect.

Most web developers whose circles I find myself in do not like Active-X because it is too limiting (platform-wise). They don't despise it, but rather it's just that anything created with Active-X can only be run on MS Windows (and for a time Internet Explorer-only.)

I don't usually like Active-X tools installed on my machine, but I'll go with it if there is not other way or alternative. So the Blue Mars view is based on Active-X and Adobe Flash.

I thought it odd that after installing the Active-X Flash tools, the 'installer' became an "assembler'. At the end of it I received a message that the "Setup" has been successfully "assembled".

Only after launching the viewer did I realize "setup" means the avatar set-up. Moving through this process was pretty simple and straight forward. The interface was smooth and slick. In fact, it had a very "Flash"-like feel to it (go figure.)

Once 'in-world' I discovered I was at a "home" screen. Apparently the permanent starting 'location' for everyone. I kept waiting for the floor to rez. it never did. It took me a while to realize there is no floor. The swooshing water fly-over was the intended design. My, my, my all those times of teleporting into a new sim in SL and waiting for the floor to rez had caught me in the habit of waiting... for the floor to rez. (/me laughs.)

To keep my rhetoric short, I'll just bullet my main first impressions here - and remember, this is beta software so all this will likely change for the better:
  • Feels like a FLash-based, enbedded web game. Like those the little kiddies like to frequent, albeit with far better-looking art.
  • Even though all the content is already on my hard disk drive, entering a city (sim) still draws piece-by-piece the way Second Life does (building the scene), though more quickly. Perhaps twice to four-times faster (yes, that's it - I expected almost instantaneous drawing because the content is already on my hard disk. But, it's "Flash" /me groans.)
  • I have a nagging feeling the majority of the content included in that bloated download is completely wasted. I don't see it and I'm not so sure I could find it if I wanted to. I much prefer the à la carte way Second Life (or any other virtual world) serves the content to me as I need to see it in a predictive way, rather than the pig-in-a-poke method (providing everything whether you need it or not, want it or not is what I really mean. "Pig in a poke" is just a fun term that comes close.) :P
  • Movement is elementary - by left-clicking. Everything. Left-click the side of a building and you will (try) to go there. I found it rather juvenile-feeling and limiting.
  • Right-click to interact with anything and everything. This was a bit awkward, though not an uncommon interface paradigm. I just haven't used it recently. But it also means everything must be done via a context menu.
  • Who is who? No names on anyone. Everyone is anonymous. As I have mentioned above: I am Ari Blackthorne on Blue Mars, but you'd never know it unless you found me and I told you. Even right-clicking on an avatar (which can be a little tricky to do correctly) doesn't show their name. I know: it's beta software, this will be corrected in time.
  • On the right-click paradigm - it also is how you move your camera - move your mouse while right-clicking and the camera moves around. However you leave your camera is how you remain, even when you begin to move around. The camera remains fixed according to the world, not your avatar. Again, not an uncommon paradigm.
  • There does not seem to be any easy way to zoom the camera in and out to change your field of view. For instance, there was a large billboard sign at the home location. I found it difficult to read. I had to walk to the correct position in order to see it clearly. Then it began spinning. (/me rolls eyes)
  • "Eye candy" (the actual look of the place) is okay. It looks good, but for some reason I had the impression of a Hollywood movie set: pretty textures on cardboard. The quality of the art in Blue Mars is marginally better than Second Life. But the look of the place isn't the draw, it will be the social aspect. The look of the environment only adds atmosphere, so the actual quality (as long as it's not garish) doesn't matter as much. We all know Second Life has more garish environments than not. But that doesn't stop people from congregating in those places.

In short, Blue Mars is a good place to explore. Unfortunately, there isn't much in there yet to make exploring a compelling option. An empty city is just that. In short, it's still an empty suit.

Am I impressed with what I saw? No. Now, I don't mean to say it's bad. It's not. Actually it has huge potential, but it's nothing like Second Life. Not in terms of the viewer (/me shivers at the requirement for Adobe Flash,) not in terms of the interface and how it operates, not in the 'look' of the art (environment), and certainly not in the interaction.

As Gwyneth mentioned (paraphrased), it is indeed "Second Life circa 2003" in terms of where it is now with features and function, it has a long way to go. Unfortunately, with a minimum requirement of a video card with 512MB of RAM, 4GB of hard disk space and so on, the target audience will be the 'technologically leading-edge' crowd.

Well, people like the ones who frequent Second Life. Except those people in Second Life like Second Life on so many different levels they aren't even aware of yet. Until they experiment with other worlds like Blue Mars.

In short, I think a lot of the hoopla in the SLogosphere, the excitement being expressed and all that stuff, though certainly justified, is a bit over-the-top from where I sit as Mars is a bit underwhelming at this particular point in time in my perspective. Will that improve? Most certainly. So for now, Blue Mars, to me, is just a blue moon .

I came.

I saw.

I wasn't impressed.

Rather, I was amused and bemused.

But I haven't uninstalled it yet. And that's a damned good sign.

art: Aberrant Corpses
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