“Twinity” — my initial experience

My customized avatar in the welcome areaThis evening, I decided to try out Twinity — a new virtual world which is in public beta at the moment. I’m still learning my way round, but it’s looking quite interesting so far… albeit running a tad slowly on my PC! Here’s a review of my first couple of hours playing with it, but be warned, this is pretty long! 🙂

Upon Arrival…

I started in a Welcome Area, which consisted of wide open spaces with information displays and tutorials around. Large texture-based signs load in from fuzzy blobs, but they are remarkably legible, giving all the basic pointers. As an introduction to the world, it definitely needs work though — I think I was only comfortable because I have been using virtual worlds for a while. Total newbies would likely get dazed and confused rather quickly.

Identity

When you first sign-up, you provide your first and last names, and it doesn’t seem to suggest anything other than real names (although I assume you could use anything quite happily). By default, your first name will appear above your avatar in-world, but you can make your last name visible too. I am not sure how wise it is to go by first-names only in a virtual world, given the scope for confusion, but things may change.

Graphics

I can’t say I’m impressed with the graphics in general at this stage, as the system requirements are fairly huge for (quite frankly) not a lot. It’s possible that the system automatically scaled-down the graphics level to suit my lower-end processor, but unlikely, and the only 2 graphics detail settings I’ve found are resolution, and anti-aliasing level.

Interface

The visual element of the user interface is fairly nice and clean, with that rounded-corner web-2.0-feel that everybody loves… or at least, that’s what designers tell us we’re supposed to love. The basic UI is fairly unobtrusive, primarily occupying a small panel at the bottom-middle, with some important buttons. (There’s also some important but small buttons at the top-right.) Everything appears in various windows, which can be moved and closed, but not resized or minimized. It looks like they’ve implemented a totally bespoke interface system, which is impressive, but was probably an unnecessary use of their development time (how many times can the wheel be re-invented?), and it’s not as responsive as I would like, but it certainly does the job admirably.

Regarding control scheme, I think it’s a little unintuitive, and it feels restrictive after being used to Second Life (although SL has unusually good controls) — you walk around with arrow keys or WASD, but your camera keeps a fixed angle/distance as you do that, even if you double-back on yourself. You rotate the camera around your avatar by clicking and holding the right-mouse button, and moving the mouse. You can zoom in/out using the scroll wheel, but I haven’t found a way to change the camera’s centre of focus though, so it seems that you actually have to walk right up to a sign in order to read it… although I could be wrong.

You can also run, by holding the shift key or toggling with Caps Lock, but I don’t think you can fly. Interacting with items occurs mostly by left-clicking on them, and right-clicking can bring up some other information/options. When you are near a seat, a nifty little ‘seat’ 3d icon appears over it, which you click to sit down. It means you can’t just sit anywhere, but it’s more reliable where you can.

Appearance

Plenty of avatar customization is possible, and it seems you can even upload your own photographs to create your virtual face. Besides that, it’s the usual maniacally large number of slider controls in various categories, and a certain degree of control over your skin tone. It’s also possible to buy various attachments to wear, including different hair, hats, jackets, trousers, and so on. The selection is not huge yet, but I am sure it will increase as the virtual world matures. (I did notice the somewhat risky “Third Life” T-shirt, although chose not to wear it!)

One thing I will say is that it was unclear exactly whom I was buying the items from, as the menu of items just appeared as part of the process of altering my avatar. I was definitely using my starting supply of “Globals” (the in-world currency) to do it though, and I assume I was just buying them from ‘the game’, so the currency didn’t actually go anywhere… it just got deducted from my account. The great thing though is that you can preview items on your avatar before attaching them, although no customization of the items seems possible (e.g. colour changes).

Currency

Since we’re on the topic, the in-world currency (“Globals”) is intended to work as part of an actual economy, and you can buy more Globals through the website apparently. It seems that you can’t trade Globals back for real-world money, although I have seen job adverts around, suggesting that you can ‘earn’ money in the virtual world, as with MMORPGs. Quite what such jobs entail is a mystery to me, but I shall endeavour to find out.

Animation

The default animations look fairly nice… nothing to write home about, but fairly smooth. Clicking a button on the interface brings up the neat little animations window, which has one particularly nifty feature to check out: moods. You can pick from: Confident, Default, Depress, Drunken, and Relaxed. This will affect the basic way your avatar stands and walks, which is great, although I would like to see a broader range of moods, and/or the ability to explicitly change the animations used (maybe those will come in a later version).

You can also create a custom set of animation buttons (up to 10 viewable at a time) which you push to perform a certain animation/gesture on-demand. As with editing your own appearance, you populate these slots by purchasing stuff with your Globals. There’s already a fairly huge number available, with plenty of dance moves, of course! The animations certainly seem fairly detailed, with facial expressions included in many, which is very nice.

User-Content

There is differing information regarding user-content — some of the support information on the website says it’s not yet possible, and yet there is an interface for it in-world. The interface indicates “you must be a premium member to upload content”, and since I am on a student-budget, I am not even considering paying them anything just now! If/when user-content is enabled though, it seems to support at least avatar attachments and animations, and perhaps other stuff will come along too, such as separate objects. There does not appear to be any facility for in-world creation though, a la Second Life, so it looks like everything would need to be created off-line, potentially with proprietary tools.

Membership

Basic membership is free, and as mentioned above, you can pay to get more “Globals” to spend in-world. There is also a premium membership level, which seems to be free during the public beta period, but which will cost more money later on. What does premium membership get you? Aside from being able to upload custom content (if/when that is implemented), it lets you buy a virtual apartment, which you seem to pay for with real-world money. From what I have picked-up, you can customize your apartment to some degree, and even designate ‘flatmates’ who can customize it too. Eventually, I think people will be able to buy and sell virtual apartments from/to each other, creating an in-world real-estate market.

Communication

There’s not a whole lot of people with whom to communicate at the moment (I should have tried this out with a friend!). However, I’ve experimented with text-chat a little, and it seems to appear as chat bubbles over avatars’ heads. That’s an option I’ve tried in Second Life, but which I didn’t like, because it makes it very hard to follow a line of conversation unless you can negotiate your camera to view all the other avatars. It apparently supports voice-chat though, which is very important. No idea how reliable it is! There seems to be an asynchronous messaging system too.

Conclusion

It’s got a lot of promise, and it seems fairly well-made so far. From the point-of-view of education, I am not hopeful at all, since it looks like custom content creation will require a substantial outlay, and potentially expertise with offline tools (which are often very hard to learn, in my experience). Having said that, though, I have got used to the remarkable affordances of Second Life, so perhaps I am being pessimistic, and teachers could work with far less customization, with more ready-made education packs.

That aside, the text chat system being based on chat-bubbles, combined with the lack of camera freedom, would make discussions of more than a few avatars very difficult to do in text… but perhaps the aim is to encourage voice chat in Twinity anyway. The camera issues would also make it hard to present information to a group of people, or for multiple avatars to use a single resource, since they all need to be close to it ‘physically’ in order to see it.

Attempting a modicum of objectivity (since I have undoubtedly glossed-over many important differences between this and other such platforms), the tag-line of Twinity is “Powered by real life”. They seem to be aiming for a much more real-life-based experience, which means all the above issues of chat bubbles, camera freedom, and even lack of content creation tools, are entirely in-line with the philosophy. They want the virtual world to mimic the real-world in layout, too, with Berlin being their first virtual city. The aim seems to be a good deal of integration with other media forms too, as I have seen in the form of much “Quantum of Solace” advertising! (Consider: how often do you see advertisements for real-world stuff when you’re just out-and-about in Second Life?)

I am looking forward to seeing where Twinity goes. Nobody can predict these things, so I won’t even guess how popular it is likely to be, but it has plenty of potential. Granted, the transition will likely be uncomfortable at first for folks used to other platforms, as it seems to do things in very much its own way, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. A little originality and character in a sometimes-saturated market is well worth the plunge.

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