Body Snatchers: Second Life's New Mesh Avatars May Do More Harm Than Good to New Players
Second Life's new fitted mesh starter avatars are here, and they're the talk of the community. The avatars appeared in users' Library folders and in the Avatar Selector yesterday, and they're intended to give new players a few quick, appealing, and up-to-date choices when they first log in.
In reality, however, these all-mesh characters might actually be setting new users up for a very rude awakening. Here's how:
Let's Talk About Compatibility
No, that lovely white hair and that lovely white dress aren't part of these mesh avatar bundles. My goal from the instant I started trying these avatars on was to make them work with my own virtual wardrobe. That's what a new player will eventually want to do, after all; they will want to try new things, change up their look, and slowly transition to something else, one piece at a time.
Unfortunately, these avatars fail tremendously on this front for a couple reasons. First, they are fitted mesh but only allow a handful of actual shape adjustments, which undercuts a key part of the early customization experience compared to past starter avatars which were, with a few exceptions, all based on the standard Second Life shape. Second, unlike just about every mesh body available on the virtual market now there is no way to hide certain parts of the body to make it more compatible with mesh clothing. This means that if you want to avoid any clipping you'll be wearing items several sizes higher than usual, and even then it still might not work.
Furthermore, although Linden Lab met with designers and asked them to make clothing for the new avatars, they have not made a dev kit (with models, UV maps and so on) available to them. This means that any designers who who may actually be interested will be working almost entirely in the dark, and that demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of how the mesh avatar enhancement business works. If you want people to support your product and increase its appeal, you need to give them access. I can't paint your kitchen for you if you won't even let me into your house.
Let's Talk About Intent
On the other hand, it's important to realize that these avatars aren't intended to compete (or even really compare) to mesh bodies, heads and so on like WowMeh or SLink Visage, so maybe that choice is understandable. Some users have also been disappointed about their lack of nipples or genitalia, but considering that these are being deposited freely in everyone's inventory (including younger players and student accounts) that's pretty understandable too. This isn't supposed to be a free high-quality mesh augmentation, but rather a quick and easy way to look almost as good as everyone else does.
Let's Talk About Quality
... Except most of them don't look that good at all. Many of the supernatural avatars are remarkable and have already become player favorites (the zombies in particular) but the plain old humans really just aren't that great. In a vacuum they would be absolutely fine. Totally passable. But in a world that takes avatars as seriously as SL does, they just don't hold up. The texturing on the bodies themselves is lackluster and frankly reminds me of the quality level that Second Life skins were at when I first joined back in 2006.
The hair and clothing are also substandard -- just about every piece is ill-fitting and (to put it in layman's terms) isn't "double-sided". That means it only has a textured surface (a "face") on the outside of the item and not the inside, and when you catch a piece of mesh with no inside faces from an inside angle you'll see right through it. It looks bad, and that's why it's a problem most of SL's mesh clothing brands learned to avoid a long time ago.
And then there's the feet, the hideous flipper feet nearly as gruesome as those on the standard SL avatar, designed purely to fit into their shoes and likely to be one of the first obstacles new players need to wrap their heads around. They will probably not be able to just buy new shoes and put them on, and they will not understand why everyone else's "mesh feet" look so much better than theirs.
Oddly enough the vampire hunter avatars do at least have individual toes, but they also have much roomier boots to match. I want to be sympathetic, because making a foot fit into a shoe without any alpha layers can't be easy... Except that's exactly what Second Life's most popular mesh feet do. SLink's mesh feet are also designed to fit into shoes perfectly and still manage to look phenomenal on their own. It's a missed opportunity. Why make mesh avatars in the first place if you're just going to replicate one of the most visible and hated flaws in the original SL avatar?
Let's Talk About Reality
You know what? Let's rewind a bit and put ourselves in that new player's place right now. Imagine we've just joined this MMO we've heard a lot about. It seems kind of weird (wasn't there an episode of CSI about it or something?) but maybe we've seen pictures of peoples' avatars on Flickr or Tumblr and we're impressed with how flexible the world seems to be. So we join.
We pick out a starter avatar we like. We fiddle with our shape until it better suits our tastes, though most of the sliders don't seem to actually do anything. Weird. Oh well! We decide to go shopping. We see clothes and accessories and skins and all manner of things, and maybe we start buying. Maybe we have no idea what a demo is, because very few new players do. In most other virtual worlds, games, MMOs, etc you simply don't have to worry about things fitting or not fitting your avatar. Short of being the right level or class, adjusting yourself to fit an item or vice versa is inconceivable. Things just work. Not in Second Life. In Second Life, we can't wear most of what we buy. Nothing looks right because of out avatar... But we don't even know that much. To us, everything probably just seems broken and buggy. Things ask us to wear "alpha layers" to hide our body and improve the fit, but they don't seem to do anything. Skins, eyes, tattoo layers... Nothing seems to affect our avatar at all.
Eventually an irritated but helpful store owner tells us that to wear or change just about anything about our avatar in this highly customized world, we have to completely remove the avatar we know, peeling it away to reveal a far uglier one beneath... One that's probably an absolute mess thanks to all those "broken" sliders we were trying out earlier.
What a ride.
Let's Talk About Compatibility (Again)
Here's the cherry on top: None of these avatars work in SL Go, OnLive's Second Life viewer developed with LL's help and designed for mobile platforms and low-end PCs. Here's everybody's favourite zombie girl in the official viewer:
And here she is on SL Go:
SL Go currently doesn't seem to have support for fitted mesh, which causes these avatars to break spectacularly. Fitted mesh still provides very little actual customization in regards to these starter avatars, so for something that dramatically limits viewer compatibility in exchange for so little, I have to wonder if these really needed to be fitted mesh in the first place.
It comes down to this: While established residents might have the experience to look at these prepackaged sets more as complete costumes than as foundational avatars, most new user don't, and they are going to be incredibly confused. Compare it to character creation/selection in any other MMO and that confusion seems very understandable. At best it will prime them for the idea of mesh augmentations and avatar enhancements (a rather small piece of the puzzle all said) and I can't say that it would even do that very well. They'll certainly learn the hard way to pay attention to who or what every individual item is for in the increasingly complicated add-on oriented landscape of avatar customization... If they even stick around that long.
I'm not sure I would.Tweet
Iris Ophelia (@bleatingheart, Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times, and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.</