Versu: Regency England with murder, ghosts and romance

Update January 3rd, 2012: following posts on the Versu FAQ from myself and Ciaran Laval, the FAQ has been removed from the Versu website.  The Dio Help page still remains available for that product – at least for the present!
ALL logofter my brief look at the Versu and Dio websites on New Year’s Eve, I poked a little deeper into the Versu site, taking time to paw over the FAQ, which sheds a little more light on things than I’d initially realised.

As has already been indicated by Rod Humble, Versu is an interactive storytelling medium which relies on strong character interaction, with the plot and character behaviours driven by the actions and reactions of the player through their character.

The Versu website placeholder from Linden Research, December 2012
The Versu website placeholder from Linden Research, December 2012

Versu will initially be browser-based only, although there are expectations at the Lab that a tablet version will be available in the future. Access will apparently be – initially, at least – via Facebook, with the FAQ stating that there is a “limited number” of development accounts available for those wishing to access the game without going via Facebook. The game is largely text-based, again has already been indicated, but will include images of the other non-player characters in the immediate vicinity of the player’s character.

Versu's stories will initially be set in Regency England (1811-1820)
Versu’s stories will initially be set in Regency England (1811-1820)

The initial story appears to be a murder mystery, and features a choice of principal characters – “Lucy” or “Miss Bates”. The FAQ indicates that two additional stories are in development, “A ghost story and a romance story in the same time period (Regency England [1811-1820]) are already partially drafted and will be presented at launch.” It goes on to say that, “In the future, we will also include episodes from other settings — anything from spy thrillers to comedy to noir detective stories. Anything that involves strong character interaction is a good fit for the Versu engine.”

Progress through the story is up to the player. For example, a player can select from a list of available scenes, then chose to interact or not. How they interact with the other non-player characters will shape how those characters react to the player in the future (so flinging a bread roll at Mr. Quinn may not endear you to him). If a player chooses not to interact, the story will still progress, making for interesting variations in gameplay – particularly on the “what if” department (“What if I’d left dinner before X, and gone to Y?”; “what if I’d selected A instead of B?” and so on).

Interestingly, some progress through the story is down to what amounts to random chance. To quote the FAQ again, “Whether a character spills something by accident, or selects one conversation gambit or another, might be the result of randomization.”

Progress through gameplay is also marked by the player’s character completing assigned tasks, which doubtless help guide the player through the story to one of several potential conclusions. Progress through tasks can be reviewed via an “Achievements” page.

Games will be entirely self-contained, such that while there are several potential ways to reach the denouement to a story, and the story itself has a number of different endings depending on choices made and actions taken, the cast list will remain the same for each. Thus, any characters previously “killed off” will be brought “back to life” at the start of the next game.

There are also some limitations with the game:

  • The initial release will be single-player only; multiplayer capabilities (such as playing together in different roles or working with other players to resolve a story) are planned for the future
  • There will be no option to save gameplay with the initial release.

Also, players will not initially be able to generate their own characters. However, the FAQ indicates that this is again planned for the future and will include the ability for players to, “Define your own character, complete with appearance and expressions, personal preferences and unique dialogue options”.

An interesting note with Versu is that the Terms of Service refers to user-generated content (section 4.4). This may simply be because the ToS has been largely boilerplated from Second Life, and thus may not be indicative of how the ToS will appear one it has been fully edited. However, the linked DMCA page is similarly “Versu’d”, so it does raise a question as to what user-generated content might be applicable, particularly if Versu is to fit under the Lab’s umbrella of “Makers of Shared Creative Spaces”.

Is section 4.4 of the ToS simply a reference to a player’s ability to generate their own character and character image, or is it something more?  Again, could the FAQ reference that, “Anything that involves strong character interaction is a good fit for the Versu engine”, mean that the engine might be opened to third-party developers for future stories?

The Facebook access is also interesting, as mirrors what appears to be Dio’s preferred access mechanism (at least initially). As such, it would seem that both Versu and Dio are an attempt by LL to tap-into the large, potentially ready-made Facebook audience. Currently, there is no real indication as to how either will be leveraged from the point of view of generating revenue, although a few thoughts have sprung to mind on that subject.

All told, the website give more information on Versu than I’d initially given it credit, as does the “Help” option on Dio provides a little more information there. Hopefully, and depending on access, I’ll have more information on both in the near future.

So, what about SL in 2013?

So, 2012 is done, reviews are written and the New Year has arrived. Now it must be time to stop looking back, and look a little ahead.

The Platform

The Lab has given some indication of what to expect for 2013. Some items of note, together with some of the things not mentioned, are:

  • We have the upcoming deployment of server-side avatar baking – which the Lab calls Project Sunshine – bringing with it the promise of no more avatar bake fail issues
  • We should see the roll-out of initial improvements to interest lists and object caching
  • Further work on platform performance and stability
  • We’ll also see the deployment of what is hoped will be the “first phase” of normal and specular maps which, over time, could revolutionise the physical look of in-world objects be they made from prims, sculpts or mesh – but not for avatar skins or system layer clothing

Doubtless more will be announced during the course of the year.

For the Company

  • LL’s new products, Dio and Versu will arrive
  • The company will continue to develop their ideas for “new virtual worlds”  – and will hopefully share more information with users
  • Patterns will progress towards a full release, currently scheduled for the end of the year, and will introduce several features requested by users
One of the options ("albums"?) within the Dio website
One of the options (“albums”?) within the Dio website
  • It would appear likely the Lab will announce further new products.

For the Community

  • 2013 marks SL’s “official” tenth anniversary, a such, and building on the success of SL9B, the community is doubtless going to come together with it own celebrations to mark SL10B whether or not LL try to involve themselves
  • Bay City also marks its 5th birthday and will be hosting a wide range of events and activities
  • RFL SL 2013 promises to continue a long and stunning tradition in which the community comes together to raise funds to help in the fight to eradicate cancer. The focal weekend for events will be the 13th / 14th July 2013
  • BURN2 will again return.

What Would be Nice to See

I’m not that into making predictions for a New Year (as the old joke goes, I’m a peripheral visionary – I see into the future, but only way off to one side…). Instead, there are some of the things I’d like to see in 2013:

  • The Lab finally make a concerted and persistent effort to use all the channels at their disposal to communicate with and inform their users
  • The public JIRA closure amended so that everyone can at least see JIRA items (comments don’t have to be re-opened)
  • Someone finally takes the Commerce Team firmly in hand and takes responsibility for:
      • Ensuring Marketplace issues are dealt with
      • Merchants are actually kept informed more fully on matters
      • Direct dialogue between the commerce team and merchants is resumed – such as through in-world user group meetings
  • is better leveraged, both as a communications platform by the Lab and, more particularly, to enable better and more in-depth communications and interaction between users, such as suggested by Estelle Pienaar
  • Rather than gearing the attractiveness of Premium accounts purely towards new users, LL seek to increase their appear for existing users. For example by:
      • Offering more flexible options (e.g. offer a larger stipend or a Linden Home stipend / free land tier; or offer a Linden Home or 1024 sq m land tier)
      • Allowing the tier allowance to be donated towards private estate holdings
  •  Linden Lab re-engaging with the community as a who in a concerted and constructive attempt to address the core issue of new user retention- which still remains a major issue where growth within the platform is concerned.

What Is Likely to Remain a Concern

This can most probably be summarised in for words: tier and declining revenue. While it is not the sole issue facing SL (see matters such as user retention, for example), this has dominated conversations about SL’s future, fuelled most recently by the news that around 12% percent of private estates have been lost to the grid in 2012. However, calls for tier cuts need to be tempered by the fact that, like it or not, they are not so easy for the Lab to make.

Certainly, given that the current decline is unlikely to reverse itself in the medium term, this is liable to be a subject we’ll be returning to during 2013, and it would be nice to see the Lab give some comment / assurances on the matter.