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A Story of Virtual Creation

'LindenWorld' breaks away from other online multiplayer environments by focusing on construction, not destruction.

In a small, converted warehouse in San Francisco, a tiny start-up called Linden Lab is busy building a virtual Garden of Eden. It's called "LindenWorld," an interactive, 3D, simulated environment created and controlled entirely by its users.

"'LindenWorld' is fundamentally a place," said Philip Rosedale, CEO and founder of Linden Lab. "It's an organic, online world. It is built by the people who participate in it, who live there." "LindenWorld" is actually a virtual environment that lives on a network of servers housed elsewhere in San Francisco. To access "LindenWorld," users with broadband connections log on to the network. Proprietary technology developed by Linden Lab allows the simulation to stream textured, realistic 3D images to users in real time. Unlike most interactive online games -- such as "EverQuest," which is based in a fantasy realm -- "LindenWorld" has no predetermined setting.

Instead, the environment supplies a set of tools, including geometric shapes, colors, and textures, which can be used to build realistic 3D objects. Everything in "LindenWorld," from the trees that dot the landscape to the bar where players down virtual beers, is created using these tools. "They can use those to create structures, buildings, tables, chairs, arenas, pretty much anything their imagination can take them to," said Cory Ondrejka, director of engineering at Linden Lab. "LindenWorld" users are represented by online characters, or avatars, that can interact with each other in real time. Users can upload files to the simulation to make their avatars resemble them. The user can, for example, blend a digital photo over the avatar's face for a realistic effect. Those who travel through the virtual environment aren't called players, because "LindenWorld" isn't exactly a game, Rosedale said.

"Games have beginnings, middles, and ends," he said. "Our world has no end." It has no violence, either. Ondrejka said characters in the simulation can't kill each other. Ondrejka said Linden Lab designers purposefully choose to focus on creativity and eschew the destruction that marks other online games. Rosedale believes this focus will help attract a broader audience beyond the typical teenage gamer.

"The idea of building things -- be they social relationships or objects or just building the world around yourself -- is pretty broadly appealing, in particular to soccer moms or teenage girls or people you might not think of conventionally as videogamers," Rosedale said. Right now, "LindenWorld" is just a prototype world. Few people beyond the 15 Linden Lab staffers who helped create the simulation have ventured into it thus far. But that will soon change. The Linden Lab website is accepting applications from broadband-connected PC users who want to be among the first Early Creators to build up the "LindenWorld" landscape. "It's going to be exciting and interesting because, unlike the standard test process, we're actually combining testing with building the things that you'll find in 'LindenWorld,'" Rosedale says.

After the initial testing phase, Rosedale plans to offer "LindenWorld" as an online service with a monthly subscription fee. The fee hasn't yet been set.

Posted February 19, 2002 on TechTV:

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The World Builder

Philip Rosedale is ready to create a whole new kind of universe. And he wants you to help him

By DON CLARK

In the beginning, there were computers and networks. People used them to chat, publish information and play games.

Philip Rosedale saw that it was good, but he wanted much more.

"If you had a way to jump through your computer screen, there was nowhere to jump to," he says of interactive entertainment in the 1990s. "There was no environment, no culture, no society."

That gap was an inspiration for Mr. Rosedale, founder of a tiny San Francisco start-up called Linden Labs (www.lindenlab.com). The 33-year-old entrepreneur and software buff hopes to enlist users in an ambitious form of electronic world-building.

Philip Rosedale

His idea is to create an open-ended alternative to games such as Sony Corp.'s EverQuest, in which people assume roles like ogres and gnomes and carry out predefined objectives, or Electronic Arts Inc.'s "The Sims," where users create a neighborhood of simulated people and control their lives. For all their popularity, those games largely operate according to patterns set by paid programmers.

Mr. Rosedale, by contrast, envisions a virtual space and society that evolve every day through the creativity of their users. People are expected to roam through a three-dimensional landscape in cartoon-style bodies, design homes and artwork, chat with other users and customize their clothes and appearances. Above all, they are expected to invent the games, social relationships and mock financial enterprises that will shape what is tentatively called Linden World.

Linden Labs, named for the alley it started on, plans to market a new online service late this year for users with fast computers and Internet connections. At that time, customers will begin paying an undetermined monthly fee.

Steller's Pants

For the moment, the world's genesis is being shaped by the company's 15 staffers and 25 invited test users who are experimenting with the system's tools and designing a variety of objects. In a recent demonstration, Mr. Rosedale encountered and conversed with several of them while guiding his character -- sometimes walking, sometimes flying -- over simulated green hills, dotted with spidery trees and the occasional structure.

One of his favorite stops is a chalet-style house constructed by Steller, the handle for a tester who appears as an attractive, athletic-looking female sporting a bare midriff. At the moment, she is standing looking at a fireplace.

"Hi Steller," Mr. Rosedale types.

"Happy Friday," she types back.

"Killer pants," he continues, referring to her clothing. "Did you make them?"

"I made the shirt. Not the pants, though," she responds.

Moving around the house, which features a large fireplace and rustic-looking wooden textures, Mr. Rosedale steers through a door into Steller's closet, examining garments and what look like swatches of fabric for use in assembling clothes.

The sensation is strangely voyeuristic. "It's a very weird sort of experience," Mr. Rosedale admits. "I feel like I should not be in her closet."

Linden World's developers care as much about such matters of etiquette and sensitivity as they do about technology. In this case, the company is working on a way to let users lock up their private spaces, or give them password protection so that only friends can enter.

For the moment, Mr. Rosedale keeps roving. Outside Steller's home, there's a green beanstalk-looking creation that recalls the one Jack climbed. Mr. Rosedale goes up. When he gets to the top, he jumps off. The ground comes up quickly with a thud.

3-D for Dummies

Making three-dimensional objects in Linden World is unusually easy, compared with the process in other simulation worlds. Mr. Rosedale calls up a menu of commands and draws the outline of a ball. With the click of a mouse, the surface of the ball is rendered in what appears to be stone. Mr. Rosedale grabs it with his cursor and drops it onto simulated grass, where it automatically gives off a muffled thump. He then turns it to simulated wood with another command, and slides what appears to be a wooden panel under it; when it drops, the sound is now hollow, a bit like a croquet mallet hitting a ball.

"I'm very impressed by the physics of the system, and the quality of the graphics," says Char Broersma, a Yucaipa, Calif., graphic designer who is the real-life person behind Steller. "I think it will get more people interested in 3-D creation."

In large part, Mr. Rosedale and his team are refining what has come before, rather than inventing brand-new concepts. Users of early networks created text-based interactive fiction, sometimes called MUDS, for multi-user dimensions or dungeons. When the Web took off, some companies offered three-dimensional chat rooms, with each user represented by an image called an avatar. Most such efforts failed, in part because of the poor quality of graphics and herky-jerky motion, caused by balky networks.

Ms. Broersma for years has designed what are called "worlds" on a site operated by Activeworlds Corp. The Newbury, Mass., company was among the first to operate a subscription-based online environment that lets people construct objects and control pieces of virtual territory.

Paul Selvey, another tester who has used Activeworlds, also praises the graphical advances of the Linden system, and the way it integrates tools for creating objects into the online environment, rather requiring a separate piece of software. "It's quite a lot of bother" to use separate tools, says Mr. Selvey, a resident of Hamilton, Ontario.

Fast Learner

Pushing the envelope is nothing new for Mr. Rosedale, who was raised in a Navy family in San Diego and built his first computer in the fourth grade. He started a company in high school writing database software for businesses; it helped him pay for college, where he earned a degree in physics.

In 1994, Mr. Rosedale landed in San Francisco, coincidentally moving in next door to one of the city's first Internet service providers. They "threw a wire over the wall," he recalls, and soon hooked him on high-speed access to the Web. He formed FreeVue, a videoconferencing company that was purchased in 1996 by RealNetworks Inc.

That Seattle-based company was then primarily known for sending audio over the Web, using a concept called streaming. Mr. Rosedale helped RealNetworks expand into video, holding titles there that included chief technology officer. He left in 1999 and became a partner at the venture-capital firm Accel Partners, where he began the research that would lead to the start of Linden Labs later that year.

"He had a strikingly original way of looking at things," says Mitch Kapor, the software pioneer who co-founded Lotus Development Corp. Also a former Accel partner, and now a private investor, Mr. Kapor is one of Linden Labs' primary financial backers.

Mr. Rosedale's originality is apparent in his quest for what he calls a truly real-time world, addressing shortcomings in earlier online environments.

The Internet is composed of many routing devices and servers that pass data along, and different segments of the Internet operate at different speeds. As a result, games based on sending graphic scenes across the Net tend to experience unacceptable delays.

Most online games try to get around this problem by storing graphics on users' hard drives. Users get that data when they buy a shrink-wrapped disk or download scenes from the Web. To manage the action that takes place online, companies use large servers that essentially have one copy of the game and control the interaction of characters logged onto that machine. EverQuest, for example, has 43 servers, each of which can manage the play of up to 10,000 users, though it tries to limit the traffic to around 2,000 per machine, a Sony spokeswoman says.

The action is appealing enough for many people. But it seems stifling and static to Mr. Rosedale.

For one thing, the environment doesn't change or grow until the company creates some new software and users install it. And, though Sony claims more than 400,000 registered users, only the few thousand typically logged onto the same server can see or play with each other.

Linden World is built differently. None of the data about objects or the environment reside on a user's PC. But the action still seems fast, because the company developed an efficient way to compress graphic data and transfer it from servers -- a novel application of the streaming technique that RealNetworks and others use to broadcast audio and video over the Internet.

Instead of assigning big machines to manage a particular number of users, Linden's servers each simulate the objects and movements inside a piece of virtual geography, corresponding to the equivalent of about 16 city blocks. That means that any person in Linden World, in theory, can see and interact with any other. A user can create objects with the built-in tools -- in a matter of seconds in some cases -- and they are instantly visible to other people. Increasing the geographic territory is essentially a matter of plugging in another server rather doing new programming; since each system passes data to those simulating nearby scenes, users' characters are simply passed from one server's territory to the next.

The actual machines don't have to be located next to each other. In fact, Linden Labs hopes to enlist outside companies or volunteers to operate servers as its world expands, though how revenue will be shared has not been worked out yet, Mr. Rosedale admits.

'Horrifying' Emotions

There are downsides to the real-time approach. The microprocessor in each PC, as well as its graphics circuitry, turns the mathematical models sent from the servers into objects with realistic-looking textures. Consequently, those components have to be powerful; Mr. Rosedale estimates that users will need a processor operating at at least one gigahertz. They also will need a fast Internet connection, on the order of digital subscriber line, or DSL, services.

And, even with that power, characters in the game fall well short of photo-realism. In one trade-off, Linden Lab programmers have made the eyes of people appear to be gazing, somewhat attentively, at people who approach or speak to them.

"Do they smile or wink? No," Mr. Rosedale says. At the current state of the art of PC graphics, "if we try to make the faces communicate emotions or intent, it's horrifying."

Movement is another tricky issue. Users can make their characters walk, jump or fly, but Linden's founders thought it would be important for social reasons to let them dance. One option was programming in a flashy sequence of Michael Jackson-style moves, but that wouldn't result in much individuality, Mr. Rosedale says. So they settled on small gestures that are each controlled by a key on the computer; as each user could tap the keys in a distinct speed and sequence, the result is some pretty original dance styles.

"Overall, our goal is to let people be expressive but always let them look good," Mr. Rosedale says.

Other questions abound about the intersection of technology, identity and aesthetics. Could a user, for example, assume a different sex? The system certainly lets people experiment with different facial shapes, complexions and costumes. And when they type out chat on the system, they can easily disguise their gender. But keeping one's sex private could be tougher as Linden Labs adds the ability to speak through microphones, Mr. Rosedale acknowledges.

Could a user create a body with five heads? The Linden Lab founders decided they would prefer a world of recognizable humans.

Could someone walk around all the time in simulated nudity? Yes, and Mr. Rosedale expects some will do just that. Yet he expects groups of users will opt to require clothing in certain parts of the environment, just as there are family movies and X-rated ones.

To be sure, identity issues have been pondered since early computer bulletin boards emerged in the 1970s. Early online communities such as the Well, for example, went through fierce debates over whether users should be allowed to post anonymously, which tended to encourage offensive or libelous personal attacks. Today, most Internet users take some degree of anonymity for granted, while recognizing the ability of law-enforcement officials to find out identifying information if a crime is committed.

Like other online services, Linden will have credit-card information of users, so it can identify or expel users found guilty of unsociable acts on the system, like harassing others. But there are other tools that will tend to foster sociability.

Before approaching someone and engaging in conversation, users will be able to click the right button on their mouse and find out a few things. For example, they will be able to see other people's ratings of that person, a bit like a potential buyer on eBay Inc. can check the reputation of a seller. Mr. Rosedale says they also will be able to check for friends in common, based on an unusual kind of calling card system.

My Card ...

A person who becomes acquainted with another may exchange the equivalent of an electronic card. This confers the ability to know where the other person is inside the environment, and to send that person instant messages even when they are not within sight. Either party can delete a card that was given to him or her, an action that simultaneously revokes the card held by the other person. So if anyone harasses or bothers another user, that user has a way of limiting additional unwanted contact, Mr. Rosedale says.

Economics are another vital dimension of Linden World. Users will get accounts that come with an allotment of three-dimensional territory they can build on and an initial sum of artificial currency. They might develop a game or some other attraction, and charge people a few Linden bucks to enjoy it. That way, they can build their financial resources to have more fun or buy more services from others.

Linden Labs could, of course, simply choose to let customers pay an extra amount of real-world currency to have more resources in the virtual environment. Mr. Rosedale will have none of that.

"If users can just pay us more to have more credits on the system, it allows a Bill Gates to create a very large, boring place that he just paid for," Mr. Rosedale says.

The company won't be alone in letting users play with money, of course. Electronic Arts' Maxis unit is working on an online version of "The Sims" that will also let people build their own homes and customize them, as well as charge money for some services. Maxis starts out with a huge marketing advantage; the existing offline version of "The Sims" recently became the best-selling PC game of all time.

But a confident air persists at Linden Labs, where Mr. Rosedale and his team toil in a crowded, nondescript building that shares its alley with houses and a kinky corset shop. A white board in the stairwell is crowded with cocky messages, summing up the company's mission to create what one describes as "not your father's virtual space."

"I dream about this place I'm trying to build," Mr. Rosedale admits. "I can see it."

-- Mr. Clark is deputy bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal's San Francisco bureau.

Posted May 13, 2002 on The Wall Street Journal Online: http://webreprints.djreprints.com/00000000000000000025354001.html,00.html


Playing God

In LindenWorld, you are the creator.

Staring at your computer screen, you see green 3D hills that stretch for miles into a sienna sunset. With a few mouse clicks, you start building a chateau on the nearest hillside. The construction will cost you some play money--and several hours of real time. If people visit your chateau often, you'll recoup the cash. But your reward for the hours spent building is simply your own entertainment.


Is that your idea of fun? Linden Lab is betting it is--for the 10 million people the company considers to be potential players of its game, LindenWorld. Founders of the three-year-old startup believe consumers will pay a monthly subscription fee (fees for similar games are around $10) to undertake something usually left to professional developers: creating characters and settings. Other startups, including There and PersistentWorldz, are making the same wager.

Ever since the text-based fantasy games of the early '80s, virtual worlds have fascinated computer gamers. But, as business ventures, most of them have failed. In the mid-'90s, the online-world startups Electric Communities and The Palace burned through a combined $75 million before folding.

Technology and consumer behavior have come a long way since then. The spread of broadband Internet connections and PCs with graphics chips has enabled a realism that earlier online worlds lacked. And as people spend more time on the Internet, they are increasingly living fantasy lives online.

Those advances spurred Philip Rosedale to start Linden Lab in 1999, after he resigned as chief technical officer of the streaming-media software maker RealNetworks. His notions inspired Linden investor Mitch Kapor, a RealNetworks board member and founder of Lotus Development. "There's something about Philip's idea of being able to live another life or live in another universe that just personally struck a chord," says Mr. Kapor, who, along with Catamount Ventures, provided an undisclosed amount of seed funding to Linden Lab.

The idea has struck a chord with major game publishers, too. By year-end, Electronic Arts will introduce an online version of its best-selling PC game, The Sims, which lets players create a neighborhood of simulated people. Mr. Rosedale says the 2D game will whet people's appetites for the 3D graphics of LindenWorld.

Another highly anticipated release is Star Wars Galaxies. Players will explore a world created and continuously updated by Sony Online Entertainment. Mr. Rosedale says LindenWorld's advantage over such games is its user-created content, which frees Linden Lab from ongoing development costs. "We can't get into the content rat race," he says.

But will players prefer their own content to professionals'? Linden Lab designed LindenWorld's economic system to encourage high-quality creations. Players earn play money for creating popular characters and buildings, and they pay taxes on the land that their structures occupy.

Still, the number of people who enjoy creating content is limited. "If you're talking mass market, I don't think your average user would want to do that kind of thing," says Mike Wallace, a video game analyst at UBS Warburg. Online-world enthusiasts will surely flock to LindenWorld. Getting mainstream consumers to follow will be a tougher game to master.

Posted October 17, 2002 on RedHerring: http://www.redherring.com/Home/10022