May 9, 2005 4:00 AM PDT
A virtual world with peer-to-peer style
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each individual computer's node. A separate chat room allows visitors to a node to interact. Graphics production and features like voice chat in future versions are being called for by developers.
A few other projects, such as the Open Source Metaverse Project, are a little further along. That effort aims to let developers create their own 3D worlds, which can be hyperlinked together to provide bridges for server-hopping visitors. That project is drawing on modeling technology from the developers of the "Quake" video game.
However, even some larger commercial projects are moving in the grassroots direction, and they could show a path to the future.
Take "Second Life," the virtual world created by Linden Labs. Rather than offer a traditional game environment like "EverQuest," it provides a growing world in which inhabitants can build their own homes, create their own "in-game" games, run businesses or do pretty much anything else that strikes their fancy.
"Second Life" has 28,000 people online today, and some inhabitants are already making more than $100,000 a year in real-world money by selling digital wares constructed inside the world or running full-fledged role-playing games.
"Second Life" is built on a distributed model, in which numerous servers are connected together, each one representing about 16 acres of land in the digital world. Those patches of digital space are seamlessly connected together to create the world as experienced by visitors.
Today, all of those servers are run by Linden Labs, but the world was built to ultimately support a peer-to-peer model, where players might add their own 16-acre plot into the world from their own computer, said Linden Labs' chief executive officer, Philip Rosedale. For security reasons--including the fact that a real currency is traded inside the world--the company hasn't taken that step yet, however.
"Interesting virtual worlds are ultimately going to be so huge that they couldn't possibly take the centralized approach," Rosedale said. "But pragmatically, we run all the servers today, since it gives you reliability."
Some analysts say it's exactly that fear of giving way to the total anarchy of user-created content that may keep commercial ventures from going all the way to peer to peer. User-created environments will naturally be rough around the edges, and they might infringe on copyrights here and there and even be dangerous, after all.
But they'll never fail to be interesting, backers say. And that's the point.
"P2P virtual worlds are not for the faint of heart," said Crosbie Fitch, a developer who has written on the subject for several years. "But where would you rather play? In an expensive Utopia indistinguishable from an online creche? Or a collection of interactive universes that make the Web look like a quaint old tool, like Gopher does to Web surfers today? "
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