A Tall Dark Stranger

Wed 16 September 2020 by Jim Purbrick


Over the past few years I’ve spent a lot of time helping people new to virtual worlds understand how they work. Over the next few weeks I’m going to share a series of short posts on some of the high level concepts I covered which will hopefully be useful to other people new to virtual worlds. The previous post talked about ways in which you can fill an entire world with things to keep everyone interested forever. This post talks about how you can make sure everyone can create an avatar that allows them to fully express themselves within a virtual world.

Professor Richard Bartle, the co-creator of MUD1 and networked multi-user virtual worlds in 1977 is fond of saying that he prefers text-based virtual worlds because the graphics are better. Just as a good book can conjure vivid images in the mind, text can conjure images of worlds which would be hard or impossible to render with triangles. Another huge advantage of text-based worlds is that it is far more common for people to author text than to create 3D art assets. If I want to be a tall dark stranger in a text based world it is as simple as setting my description to those words. If I want to be a tall dark stranger in a VR environment it is much harder.

Where a virtual world has a clearly defined setting such as high fantasy, space opera or tropical pirates it can be feasible to supply a wide enough variety of faces, bodies, clothing, accessories and hair styles. This is the approach taken successfully by EVE or Rare with the infinite pirate generator and results in a wide variety of avatars which are all thematically consistent with the world. If you are building a Metaverse which connects every possible virtual world how do you start? How do you please the person who wants to have the perfect tall dark stranger avatar rendered in 3D as well as everyone else?

This was the challenge facing Linden Lab when building the avatars for Second Life at the turn of the millennium. While the default avatars could be manipulated into a huge variety of shapes and sizes using the available parameters, the results were often crude and the available wardrobe never strayed far from geeky teen hangout chic. Luckily for Linden Lab the inability of the avatar system to satisfy every whim was a huge opportunity for the entrepreneurs of Second Life.

Builders quickly realized that they could fashion shoes, hair, clothes and accessories from primitive 3D objects which could be attached to avatars to dramatically increase the gamut of styles that could be realised. Linden Lab enabled another wave of innovation by allowing animations to be uploaded which as well as allowing every conceivable dance move to fill the nightclubs of Second Life also enabled tiny avatars which either folded up the default avatar geometry inside cutely sculpted animal models or moved the default avatar under the floor so it was completely hidden and just served as a platform for a tiny replacement avatar standing on its head. Many years later Linden Lab finally allowed people to entirely replace the default geometry and textures so now it is common for not a single triangle or texel in a Second Life avatar to have been defined by Linden Lab.

People were welcome to build their own clothes and avatars from textures and geometry, but the vast majority instead chose to buy and combine pieces from the vast array of builders who were paying their real life rent by selling virtual goods and so were more than happy to cater to their every desire. If you wanted to be a tall dark stranger there were a huge number of them to choose from. If you wanted to combine a punk jacket with a tutu to create a unique and look you could do that without ever opening photoshop.

People chose to be robots, punks, steampunks, wizards, astronauts and chose looks from across every conceivable genre of art, fiction and real life fashion scene. Conversations about where people found clothes or accessories became common, people went shopping for clothes together, attended and hosted fashion shows or reported on them in social media, just like in real life. Avatars and fashion became important content around which conversation would form.

Second Life in general accepted this riot of self expression with open arms. IBMers attended a company all hands talk by their CEO in Second Life as aliens in suits among a variety of other things. While a few areas enforced dress codes or handed out attire which would match the theme of their experience, most of the time this was optional. Avatars were seen as a very personal form of expression which people building experiences would respect and not constrain. Some people would revel in this freedom by changing between avatars and identities frequently and on a whim, but in general the more well known someone became in Second Life, the more useful having an immediately recognizable avatar became, the less frequently they would tend to change their avatar and the more onerous being asked to change their appearance in order to fit in with an experience became.

We should bear these lessons in mind as we think about avatars for the virtual worlds of the future. While default avatar styles should be comfortable for a wide audience of people and acceptable for developers building a wide range of experiences, we likely also need to allow people to easily create everything from clothes and virtual personal electronics to blend shapes and eye movement simulation models and the services to allow people to buy, sell and police virtual goods and take them wherever they go across the Metaverse. Ultimately the developers of a successful Metaverse shouldn’t need to define avatar styles: the virtual fashion industry they enable will.

(Second Life screenshot: Ella Pinellapin)