Why play someone else's virtual world when you can build your own?
That's the major premise behind Metaplace, a new browser-based virtual-world platform from, among others, former Sony Online Entertainment chief creative officer Raph Koster.
Built to run inside the browser on any Internet-connected machine, Metaplace employs a simple, 2D, Flash-based graphics system that fronts for a fairly sophisticated set of content creation tools and what may one day be a complex open-ended economy built around user-created content.
In fact, because of the 2D and Flash nature of Metaplace, it's easy to miss that the platform offers users some of the easiest virtual-world building tools that have ever been made available. And while Metaplace has been in closed beta since October, it is expected to emerge into a public and open beta period sometime later this year. See below for an invite to the closed beta.
Rising to the top
Metaplace has a little something for everyone. For the casual users, it has any number of user-created worlds to play, and there's a basic central Metaplace world that is an easy gathering place. Each can be rated, and the highest-rated rise to the top, allowing users to skip messing around with the system's chaff and instead concentrate on the wheat. But for those who are interested in creating their own virtual world, Metaplace offers a cornucopia of tools and choices that make it quick and easy to get a brand new world up and running.
Of course, as with any user-generated content system, the good creations are far outweighed by the bad. As Koster himself put it, "There are more than 25,000 Metaplace worlds, most of them are empty and most of them are crap."
But if it sounds like Koster is bashing his own system, he's not. Rather, he's touting how easy it is for anyone to start a virtual world that itself can be accessed by anyone on the Internet in mere seconds. Indeed, it's not an exaggeration to say that just about anyone could have a rudimentary Metaplace world up and running in less than five minutes.
For now, the roster of compelling Metaplace worlds is necessarily limited, since the platform still isn't publicly available. Yet despite Metaplace's 2D Flash look-and-feel the scope of what's possible using the building tools is somewhat akin to a well-known, sophisticated, 3D, virtual-world environment.
"We might look like (the popular 2D kids virtual world) 'Habbo,'" said Koster, "but I'd say we're more like 'Second Life.'"
To be sure, Metaplace and "Second Life" are only distant cousins. In Metaplace's worlds, for example, the very look and feel is limited by the 2D Flash nature of the system. Yet anyone building a world has tools at their disposal that allow them to quickly terraform terrain, to import a wide array of textures and items--including millions from Google Warehouse--to script just about any object with a wide variety of actions and more.
Perhaps, in fact, the "Second Life" DNA Metaplace most inherited was the dual concepts of almost total open-endedness and user control and ownership over what they create. For example, Koster explained, users can package up the basics of a virtual world they've created and either give it away or sell it on Metaplace's open marketplace.
Other examples of user control over their creations include the ability to set any kind of desired permissions for a new world, and to modify the standard terms of service in any way a creator wants.
For now, Metaplace's economy has yet to develop. But over time, Koster acknowledged, users will be able to buy and sell any kind of Metaplace object--from a texture to an entire world--for a currency that should be convertible to U.S. dollars. And that means, if one extrapolates, that over time, as more and more worlds are created using the system and users get more and more sophisticated in their content creation, that some people could find it possible to make significant amounts of money in the Metaplace economy.
Interestingly, almost everything you can encounter in Metaplace was built using the system's own creation tools. For example, Koster pointed out, even the system's ubiquitous chat tool was added to the world with the system's scripting language, Lua. But because the system allows users to do just about anything--as much or as little as--they want, what's possible in Metaplace is left entirely up to users' imaginations.
For example, Koster showed me one world, called Educhat, which was nothing more than a blank space with two chat windows. The builder had hooked the two chat windows together and had rigged the world so that any text entered into one chat window was filtered through Babel Fish and translated into a chosen language in the other.
And, because anything in Metaplace can be copied and reused--assuming the creator's consent is given--the Educhat system could be taken and modified by anyone else for their own Metaplace world.
That's one reason, Koster said, that many educators are interested in Metaplace.
Creatures of the Web
Koster explained that because Metaplace is built so that every object works like the Web--every object has a distinct URL--everything in-world can interact with the Web. That means, for example, that a palm tree in a Metaplace world could be scripted to feed data on what's going on around it to a separate Web site. Or to Twitter. Similarly, a Twitter feed could be used to direct objects in a Metaplace world to do things. The possibilities are endless, Koster suggested, and are limited only by users' skills.
Even as Metaplace is slowly ramping up, another browser-based virtual-world platform, known as Small Worlds, is getting going. Launched last December, Small Worlds has many similarities to Metaplace, though, as co-founder Mitch Olson put it, it's much more about a quick, casual user experience than Metaplace.
Like Metaplace, Small Worlds is a browser-based Flash virtual-world system in which each world--and the objects they contain--have their own URLs, allowing them to be instantly accessed anywhere on the Web.
Olson said that Small Worlds was built with an open API, so that users and developers would find it easy to create additional spaces, objects and experiences and to integrate other Web-based services.
Much of what users come across in Small Worlds was created by the company's own developers, which is why users joining today can choose from more than 400 casual games to play at any time. Those games range from standard single-player titles to the kinds of social gaming found on platforms like Facebook. Further, it is possible to pipe in multimedia from sites like YouTube, or streaming audio stations.
One central objective in Small Worlds is to complete missions. These may be simple tasks designed to help you figure out how the system works, or they could be more complicated things. Still, because half of Small Worlds' users are under the age of 18, most of the missions are fairly simple. Nearly all the missions are designed by the users.
Adding them up
Like Metaplace, there are thousands of user-created spaces in Small Worlds. Olson said that to date, there were at least 375,000. The best of those are clubs, schools, hospitals and desert islands, though like Metaplace, most are surely bereft of any actual people. In user-created environments, after all, most of what is built is quickly abandoned.
One place Small Worlds and Metaplace differ is in the origin of the many objects found in individual worlds. In the latter, almost everything is user-created. In the former, objects are all built by the company, though users can import certain things like art.
Olson said that while Small Worlds has many similarities to Metaplace, it is ultimately about a social-gaming experience, not about designing virtual spaces, despite Small Worlds' set of building tools.
Koster, too, sees the differences that way.
"They don't really have any (user-generated content) to speak of," Koster said. "A neat custom mission tool, but not artwork, scripting (and) all that. It is quite nicely done, but at least right now, they seem like a fairly different play from what we are doing. They feel more like a 'Habbo Hotel' with (role-playing game) elements."
Koster added that the goal of Metaplace is "empowering users with an easy-to-use end-user platform, letting anyone have a virtual world of their own."
Further, Metaplace has one very big advantage over anyone else in its space: Koster himself. As the creative lead for the original 'Ultima Online' and later the creative director for Sony Online's 'Star Wars Galaxies,' Koster is one of the most respected people in the business.
While Metaplace is still in closed beta, CNET News readers can jump the line by heading to the company's Web site and entering the code MPCNET. The first 250 readers to do will gain instant entry.
Update: It looks like the invites have all been used up. If we get more, we'll let you know.