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Virtual World Exchange Language
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Virtual World Exchange Language

I've been reading about virtual worlds lately, partly because I'm writing an artificial life game & partly because ...I don't know, just because virtual worlds happen to be on my mind. Maybe .hack has something to do with it. Anyway, I've been reading about virtual worlds & thinking about multi-participant virtual worlds.

A multi-participant virtual world, while I'm writing this bit today at least, is effectively synonymous with ``multiplayer online game'', but it might include not-quite-games, like There.com & any other forthcoming online places to hang-out. Maybe a more precise term than multi-participant virtual world would be ``persistent, multi-participant virtual environment''. Whatever. You know what I mean, or you don't.

Currently, nearly every multi-player virtual world is a pay-to-play online game. Examples are Everquest, Ultima Online, Asheron's Call, The Sims Online, My Street Online, & lots & lots of others.

One common thread between those currently existing online worlds is that each is owned & operated by a single entity (a corporation). Though the players can have a voice in some of the workings of the world if they make enough fuss about it or vote with their dollars, the worlds were created by someone other than the players. The players aren't programmers.

But anyone who has written a simulation, or a game with a sufficiently complex world inside it, or a program to solve a physics problem in calculus knows that what's even more fun than playing a game in a virtual world is creating your own world.

What's more, an online article I've been reading about real-world law & how it will interact with virtual worlds has me convinced that there will be significant complaints from online game customers about things that happen in online games. They might complain about policies or that their character died unfairly or that some other players are monopolizing the best hunting grounds or pissing in the virtual Jacuzzi, & a lot of rational people might reasonably conclude that the complainers are just complaining, but they'll still complain. Some of those complaints will find their way to court, & some of those court decisions will go against the players, & some of those players will leave those virtual worlds.

So some people won't like the current crop of virtual worlds, & some people will know that it's more fun to roll your own. What this means is that, sooner or later, people will be running their own virtual worlds. There will be free software2.1 for creating & running your own virtual worlds. The programming challenges to virtual world construction kits aren't much more difficult than creating a modern game. Hell, many modern games are created with tools which probably contain the functionality that a virtual world construction kit will need. If you melded the toolkit from a game company together & made it easier to use, you'd have a virtual world construction kit for one type of virtual world.

This will be cool. I'll be running a virtual world. Hopefully, I will have contributed to a construction kit, but what's the point of a virtual world if you are the only person who visits it?

So people will want other people to visit their virtual worlds, but if everyone is busy creating & running their own virtual worlds, why would they want to visit someone else's (other than to steal their good ideas)? So you know what will happen? People will network their virtual worlds, creating larger worlds. You'll see peer-to-peer virtual worlds.

Hopefully, there will be many types so that you can create the kind you want. By ``type'', I don't mean hack-&-slash vs. online hang-out. Any large virtual world can accommodate both of those, plus many of the variations in between, at the same time. I mean the rules of the rules of the virtual world. For example, in some virtual worlds, the physics will be constant throughout, but in others, maybe the physics will change from one server to another depending on what the whim of the world-designer running that server (or peer, I guess). Different types of worlds might have different types of actions. Maybe in some, avatars can kill avatars, but in others, avatars are immortal. There are billions & billions of variations on the virtual world theme.

People will traverse the servers in a virtual world that's built on a peer-to-peer network with virtual world client programs. Maybe they'll be plug-ins to our existing browsers, or maybe there will be a new crop of Virtual World Web browsers which will repeat the World Wide Web browser wars of the mid-1990s.

Which finally leads me to virtual world markup language, the title of this bit. The clients will need to understand the data the servers send, & the servers will need to communicate with each other. So there will be virtual world markup languages. There will probably be some standards, but I hope that each network of servers will have the freedom (& ingenuity) to experiment.

I had a couple of friends who were interested in a Virtual Reality Markup Language years ago (must have been about 1993). I remember that they were frustrated because enthusiasm in VRML waned, & VRML followed. I thought they had been excited about nothing. Now I see they & others like them were fifteen or twenty years ahead of their time.

Speaking of people & ideas that have been ahead of their time, the enthusiast of multiplayer online games might have some fun by looking into Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs). They have a long & ancient history. They never were very popular outside of the techie crowd because they weren't graphical. When graphical games went online & became popular, they effectively closed the circle. MUDs have become popular, but because graphical games caught up with them, not because the MUDs turned graphical.

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