A lot of people have asked me why we didn’t use Second Life to create our Remembering 7th Street virtual world and video game (if you aren’t familiar with Second Life, Mark Glaser, who helped set up this weblog for the Knight Challenge Grant winners, did a recent story for MediaShift on Second Life and other online virtual worlds).

When we started our project about two years ago, we took a long look at Second Life and discussed hosting our project there with some of their executives. Second Life offered a number of advantages, such as a relatively easy tool set for building things and an existing community of users, many of whom might be interested in helping with or joining our effort.

But Second Life also had some limitations for our particular project:

— While the avatars players create in Second Life are very sophisticated, the tools for creating buildings aren’t that advanced. The Architecture students who model the buildings for our project use the 3D Studio Max computer assisted design program, and those models couldn’t be imported into Second Life.

— Automated 3D characters (non-player characters in video game jargon) can’t be created in Second Life, and we wanted to populate our game world with re-creations of many of the characters of 7th Street, especially some of the famous jazz and blues musicians.

— Young people are not allowed into the same version of Second Life as adults, and we wanted young and old players to have the opportunity to explore the 7th Street virtual world and play the game together.

— Hosting on Second Life could get expensive, because we’d have to buy an “island” in the game world and server space.

— Finally, when we were considering Second Life in the summer of 2005, it had only been public for about two years, and we were concerned about having our game locked up in what amounted to a start-up at the time. If the company failed, our game could vanish with it.

None of this is a knock on Second Life. It’s obviously now very popular and its feature set keeps improving. We just had particular needs that weren’t a good fit. So we instead went with the Torque game engine, which the Architecture students can customize to add the features we want. When we go public with the game, planned for Summer 2008, we’ll host it on a server here at UC Berkeley.

But others who want to re-create historic communities like Oakland’s 7th Street as virtual worlds may find Second Life a good choice. We’re still discussing the possibility of doing another version of our game in Second Life. And the lessons we’re learning about video game storytelling, both technical and conceptual, can be applied to many different virtual world platforms.

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