Blue Mars – first looks

Few can be unaware of Blue Mars – it has been the source for speculation for a while now, and the hype machine has been working overtime to promote it on all fronts – Youtube included. For various reasons, I signed up for a Beta account (as well as applying for Content Creation info!) and – to my surprise, and after a very sh***y couple of days (my computer did a “parrot” from the Monty Python sketch of that name – no need to say any more), I found I’d been…..accepted!

Now…the thing to remember is that Blue Mars is still Beta. A lot is still being worked on. And for those familiar with Second Life and the overall ease of use of the UI (despite all the complaints) are going to find BM a little challenging.

Blue Mars UI
Blue Mars UI

For a start, the UI in BM is …. bare…. There are no visible menu options, no buttons, just a few small icons and a chat box(private instant messaging is not available as yet).

Chat appears in the chat window, which automatically appears above the chat box in the lower left corner of the screen. Scrolling on this did appear a little iffy at times, and I found myself frequently manually scrolling down to keep up with conversations. Chat also appears as a bubble above the avatar’s head…which currently cannot be turned off and is, frankly, a little annoying.

For those used to using SL, the other difference is that avatars don’t have name tags over their heads – this actually makes keeping track of who-is-who a little difficult.

The interface is clearly in a state of flux – some of the tutorial videos refer to elements of the UI that have been removed / replaced, which does make it somewhat harder to get to grips with things, given there is no actual orientation centre. Video tutorials are also potentially going to be available in-world as a picture-in-picture type thing: you click on a question mark icon in the top right of the screen and you get to see video tutorials in a new window. Currently, however, these are restricted to just one, which deals with walking.

However, while the UI is rather bare, it is also somewhat context-sensitive. Click on another avatar, for example, and you can interact with them (kiss, cuddle, shake hands, etc.), add them as a friend, and so on, click on yourself, and you’ll get a menu pertinent to your own avatar.

Movement in BM takes a little getting used to. Rather than using the cursor keys, BM uses two different approaches. In the first you rotate the camera view, a slightly clunky right-click and drag of the mouse (trackballs rule in BM!), then click on the ground were you want to go. Your avatar then moves to that point. Click far enough away, and your avatar will run. Or you can use a combination of letter keys – W(alk) with a,s,d to manoeuvre around. for those used to SL, this is going to take some getting used to as it feels uncomfortable.

Perhaps the biggest critique is that the camera doesn’t track with your avatar when in 3rd person view (or at least, I’ve not found out a way of doing so) – so if you are walking with the camera behind your avatar and make a turn left or right, you’ll end up with the camera looking at your avatar’s right or left side, requiring the camera view to be scrolled around to a more appropriate view. And if you’re used to zooming around to look at things  – you’re going to miss that in the current iteration of the BM UI.

Exploring an appartment
Exploring an apartment

Things like sitting are relatively straightforward, simply click on a chair and your avatar will walk to it and gracefully sit down. Again, with animations built into the UI, there is no need for the object itself to be heavily scripted (I assume, at least, as objects aren’t “editable” in the SL sense), and there are no poseballs or silly “sit”, “relax” or other signs hanging over cushions and chairs.

Exactly how doors work, however, is still a mystery to me….

Movement in a wider context in BM is via a familiar teleporting effect, and is initiated either via teleport devices – not all of which are obvious; coming in various forms as garden gazebos, old-style UK red telephone boxes, even objects set into stree lamps or apartment floors – or by clicking on “advertising” images for the various available regions that are displayed in the “welcome” area everyone currently appears to have to log in to. Movement between regions, however, appears to require a return to the welcome area before hopping off again to your required destination – I’ve yet to find a means of going direct from, say, the golf course to New Venice, although teleporting within a region – from a garden to an apartment, say – is possible.

As you can see from the images, the avatar is also somewhat basic – you actually set your avatar’s face from a series of presets prior to entering BM, and once set, you are largely “locked in” to the face for 3 weeks. Whether this is purely for beta purposes or whether it will be the same for the full release remains to be seen. There is a certain degree of “customisation” available, your inventory comes with a few changes of clothing and footwear, and a small range of flex-type hairstyles. Apparently, more will be added as content creators role in – we’ll have to see.

While there is currently little you can do about your avatar’s shape – the bodies all seem to be generic – or do much to alter the shape of your avatar’s head and face once in-world, there is a pallette system rather like those on graphics programs  that allows you to add make-up, although I have to admit, I’m no graphics artist, and I find that approach daunting / confusing, so quickly gave up.

Again, one of the things quickly noticeable about Blue Mars is that given bodies are customisable and faces have only limited manipulation, is that the male and female genders (no exotic lifeforms or furries as yet) looks more-or-less identical to one another. Even though racial attributes can be selected at start-up – the fact remains that all the women look to be related to one another, and the guys to one another. With the current limit of clothing, this can give the place a slightly Stepford-esque feel….

Dynamic shadows!
Dynamic shadows!

Where Blue Mars immediately impresses is in texturing and detailing. Here it is already easily on a par with SL – and in some areas exceeds it: a very nice touch, dynamic shadows are working. While you cannot tell from the still here, my shadow is moving fluidly in time with my avatar as I stand on this bridge in New Venice.

And “fluid” is the word – BM appears to be largely rendered at the “back end”, unlike SL, where all the rendering talks place on your computer. This means that once connected, everything in BM runs at much higher frame rates than SL, rezzes a lot faster and is on the whole smoother and more life-like when it comes to general movement – although there are occasional glitches and exaggerations in some movements  – but for a beta tool, it’s clear effort has gone into making things as smooth and life-like as possible.

The fluidity extends to the avatars – and while they may lack the degree of customisation one is used to seeing in SL, aside from the slightly dorky / gawky default “AO” style animations, I must say that the general animations are astounding. No crimped arms or pretzelled legs; no shoving a hand through one’s own boob to do something and no messy torso folding / twisting. Animations can be loaded by right-clicking your avatar and selecting the required animation from your “personal” menu. And they really are gorgeous (with thanks to Ravenelle for the video link).

Ambeient sounds are far superior to SL as well. You wonn’t find that awful default keening wind blowing in Blue Mars. Enter a garden and you can hear birds singing, perhaps a little music playing, water bubbling in a fountain or brook….wall on a sidewalk and your footfalls echo faintly (and nowhere near as intrusively as scripted footsteps in SL (could someone PLEASE outlaw those bloody scripts?); move onto grass an the footfall alters to something softer, and changes again when you walk on sand, where your feet leave very brief shadow-like marks, almost like indentations in the sand. Walk in water and your steps fall silent, but the water ripples around your legs with each step….and angle your camera under water, and the entire soundscape changes, almosts as if you are underwater in a swimming pool, listening to the world above.

Little Venice
New Venice

I’m not entirely certain how Blue Mars is going to develop, or quite what is going to come out of the Beta. There are huge question marks around content creation, cost, commerce, viability, etc. Exactly how it is going to be operated is interesting as well – major developers will be encouraged to create their own “platforms” (cities) to which users can teleport, each city themed according to the developer’s wishes (and potentially incorporating fees for visiting).

How user content will work is still open to debate, although Jim sink of  Avatar Reality, and the VP of business Development for BM is on record as saying:

We wholeheartedly embrace user-generated content. All of our tools are free to use and anyone can become a Blue Mars developer. But user generated content on its own won’t make Blue Mars a success. The real trick is to create a system where the very best user generated content can bubble to the top and to provide a platform where developers who create excellent content can be rewarded for their work and can be confident that piracy will be effectively managed. Managing security issues and improving our promotional features like search, ratings, and recommendations will be an ongoing focus of Avatar Reality.

Exactly how this works out could be interesting.

Right now it is a very quiet place….there are several locations available to visit, but no overall city environment, from what I can see; I’m assuming the developers are waiting for 3rd party developers to come in to develop the “city” hubs around which BM is going to operate. But what is there – after an admittedly shaky start – did impress. I’ll be hading back and looking around some more in the coming days, and may well put more thoughts down here on my findings.