Today I am making a really long post about design decisions made by the makers of a Second Life Gorean role-play sim. I hope you’re up for that.
Kingdom of Sand/Purgatorio/1001 Nights is, as is often the case when a Westerner devises a fantasy culture incorporating slavery, based loosely on the Middle East. Yeah, okay, fellow white people. (That’s you I’m looking at funny, Jane Yolen. Frank Herbert. Jennifer Roberson. C. S. Lewis.)
Second Life has a lot of Gorean areas, and visually, most of them are kind of a mish-mash of medieval Western European and Middle Eastern elements, with the European predominating. My understanding is that the books leaned more the other way, but there’s a lot of cross-pollination between the Gorean areas and the (obviously Europe-inspired) Elven ones – enough that some of the more conservative Elven-themed sims, like Avilion, will often warn you immediately upon entry that you better not go practicing any slavery in here.
You’ll also find branches of the same clothing and weapons sellers in both types of areas, and when Goreans and elves build prefab, they buy from the same people. (Julia Hathor, Baron Grayson, and Kriss Lehmann probably account for 25% of the Elvish and Gorean landscape.) The Gorean sims tend to read a little like NC-17-rated versions of the Elven ones.
Kingdom of Sands sticks to genre convention:
Cobras are the shorthand. Carpet sellers are also good.
And here I’m going to stop being snarky and get to the point, which is this – this place is extremely well-designed. If the creators don’t already work for a video game company somewhere, someone needs to hire them right away. This place’s level of environmental design sophistication is really impressive, considering Second Life’s technical limitations.
The texturing’s excellent, the modelling’s good but not prim-heavy, with light, appropriate use of sculpted prims – very important given that this is a role-play area, and people need to be able to move around freely – and the city-area strikes just the right balance space-wise. It manages to feel twisty and crowded without being rendered unnavigable by SL’s controls, something that very few builds achieve.
Most SL designers who need more space than what the ground-level supplies start building vertically – if they want their work to be visible from below, they tend to use airships or “floating islands,” and let people fly up. If they don’t want anything visibly floating up in the sky, they use a sort of invisible box, with some kind of teleport item letting people reach it. Amateur builders have trouble making these boxes look natural. Also, sometimes you fall through them.
The purple globe teleports you up to the Djinn Realm, an invisible skybox a kajillion feet above the gazebo. (I feel it’s a good idea to keep your skybox directly above the teleport point, if at all possible. Because I’m skilled at finding new and unexpected ways to fall out of the sky.)
I like the Djinn realm for several reasons. One, it looks like it is up in the sky. The user already knows that it is, according to Second Life’s spatial metaphor, and it strains that metaphor when skyboxes are made to look no different from the ground. This way has a more natural feel.
Two, the shade of gray used in the background. That’s the shade that shows up when a texture hasn’t finished loading yet – if something stays gray persistently, it usually means something’s wrong with the servers, or your connection. For this reason, most designers try really hard to avoid using it.
In this sort of setting, though, it serves a nice meta-duty. We’re supposed to buy that we’re in another world where things don’t work the same way they do in the real one. Obviously, the sky should be an error message.
This seems a little obvious, but some of that mist there is part of the background texture – a lot of designers just stick a bunch of particle emitters spraying little gray specks or big undulating boxes around out when they want to create mist, which, you know, in addition to slowing the client down, doesn’t really work visually. If you want a large region to look misty, some of that needs to be baked into the textures. (Yeah, I’m aware that in a proper rendering engine that’s not really necessary – but we’re talking about the Second Life environment here, and this is something Second Life designers should be doing.)
Let’s break some more play-mechanic metaphors. The ground texture down there is the same as the ground texture you’re standing on. This continuity naturally leads the player to assume that that other green stuff is also solid ground.
The metaphor has deceived me.
The reason this works here is that, outside of this area, Kingdom of Sands doesn’t fool around with the controls much – things that look solid are solid. If the area had been designed by, say, DB Bailey, who appreciates insubstantial chairs, and feels that trees really ought to turn invisible when looked at at the right angle, you wouldn’t buy that the ground was solid. But since Kingdom of Sands has never broken the rules before, you figure it won’t do it now.
The lava layer is right under the water. And underneath the lava:
At this point I remind you that the region is called “Purgatorio.” (You land right next to the gazebo again.)
The design of the place isn’t exactly unified – Second Life doesn’t have staging servers or anything, so you can’t make massive organizational changes to a sim without physically closing it off and kicking everyone out for a while. People who don’t want to do that generally just sort pick a section of the sim players don’t go into much, put some barriers in place, and cram whatever new idea they had in there.
This shot here is of a sort of labyrinth stuck underneath the hill the city’s on, with an Egyptian theme. Skeletons pop out of the walls sometimes. Last time I came here it just led up into the city, but this time they’d stuck in a passageway into another section of corridors, with yet another entirely different visual theme.
According to the blog (and the girl on the slab), there are “undead” down here. There are also big spiders, though I don’t think I managed to get any shots of them.
Here I’ve changed the screenshot settings to show the user interface. (You can click on the image to zoom in and read the text.) The woman on the slab has a script attached to her to show her in-game status – this being, you know, a Gorean game, you can basically be either a slave or a slave-owner. You collect money by engaging in various activities in-game, like, uhhh, lying on a slab and “sleeping the sleep of the dead.” You get $3 a minute for this, it’s highly skilled labor.
Players spend the money on food (including, apparently, “rat brains stew”), which improves their character’s health. When the character’s in good health, he or she’s more likely to escape the slave-trader/capture the slave. (I read the manual, I’m very smart.) Though not all the players have these scripts attached – I think a lot of people just role-play everything straight.
That’s a bot. It goes “You shall not pass!” Judging from slab girl’s explanation of the situation, I’m assuming the undead come out of that place he’s guarding sometimes.
(The thing floating over my head that says “Explorer” is something you’re required to wear if you’re not role-playing, to explain that you’re not a suitable target for violence/sexy talk. Though apparently players are allowed to be ominous at you when you’re wearing it.)
One of the things that Second Life does very poorly is lighting. Lighting is set globally for an entire sim, so if most of your sim is outdoors, it’s not easy to get a single indoors, darkly-lit spot to look right. It can take a lot of texture-baking, and even then a lot of the effect can depend on whether the user’s got area-lighting enabled. The lighting in this area’s very good, given these limitations.
And we emerge from the catacombs into the inevitable slave-auction market. Seems like an issue for the zoning commission to address.
Judging by the floating labels, there is a special “being auctioned” pose set into that post.
Gladiator ring. Can’t do without those, either. (I appreciate the decision to leave out seating to keep the place light on prims.)
Sitting in a cage will earn you $5 per 10 minutes. There are a lot of the cages around.
(I am not sure that it is wise to wear a metal bra in the desert. It seems like it would get very hot.)
The city. It has good texturing.
I’m going to run out of things to say about this.
Okay, got one. Second Life doesn’t really render shadows or glare right for most materials – they need to be baked into your textures. A lot of people don’t bother to do that, but Kingdom of Sands does it, and this makes me happy.
If you lack the necessary skills to be dead or in a cage, you might consider blacksmithing.
I appreciate the sort of economy that pays strippers as much as it does blacksmiths.
Market stalls, very pretty. But look at that doorway! It uses a semi-transparent insubstantial prim in the doorway to make it look shadowed inside! Shadows!
You can’t really see it, but there are some girls hanging in cages down there. One of them doesn’t have her script attached, so she’s not earning any money for it.
Gardens. No one’s up here, as there aren’t any cages, smithies, or strip clubs.
Orrery. I’m not sure whether it moves or not. It wasn’t doing so visibly, anyway.
This is the inside of the tower with those giant glowing cobras.
The bottom floor. It had four or five stories, I won’t show them all here.
Another thing you can do with your game money – rent apartments.
Machinery! Though I am unsure what it is doing (it appears to be a crane), it looks very cool. I appreciate how the texturing includes dirt and wear. Texturing in 3D modelling generally tends towards the too-clean and too-perfect. For some reason convincing flaws are very tricky.
The inside of the bathhouse I showed at the beginning.
I came in a side-gate – this is the front gate of the city. You can see two women in cages, and a blue one standing there waiting for stuff to load. Her skin-texture hadn’t finished loading yet in this picture, but she was blue. I’m assuming she was playing a djinn.
The outside of the city.
(Role-play dialog heard here:
“r they teaching u ther ways”
There’s a camel over there, but it doesn’t look very good, so you don’t really need to zoom in on it. The camel is chained to a post, which, given what is usually chained to posts in this sim, confused me badly for a second.
I like this cave because the sand actually creeps up the walls, like sand tends to do to walls. It is something often forgotten.
A “slaver” boat with a large and surely historically accurate cage out beside it.
And there was an underwater area where pirate ghosts yell stuff at you down there, but I was too tired for more screenshots by this point. The rest of my screenshots of the sim are here.
And if anyone spent this entire thing wondering what my outfit looks like from the front, it looks like this: