Metaplace: tiny personal virtual worlds like homepages

The Technology Review has a great feature on Metaplace, a virtual world startup that aims to allow users to create tiny, individual multiplayer worlds that they can link together like homepages. I'm a huge fan of the founder, Raph Koster, who previously created Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies, and I love the idea of letting players shape their worlds in simple, easy-to-understand ways.

With Metaplace, designers can build worlds using a markup language, style sheets, modules, and a scripting language. Every world acts like a Web server, Koster says, and every object in a world has a URL. What this means for users of these worlds is that they can move seamlessly from the rest of the Web into the virtual world and back again, he says. A user can browse to any object in a Metaplace world from outside, and every object can be linked to the rest of the Web and exchange information with Web services. With this architecture, Koster says, he plans for users to be able to build worlds with games as simple as a two-dimensional Tetris game, or as complex as the World of Warcraft, a massive, multiplayer, online role-playing game. Users might also build widgets, such as a virtual weatherman who could deliver the latest news from, or a Coke machine that gives them a real-world coupon whenever they drink a virtual Coke. Koster says that users should be able to stage up a basic world with chat functionality and a map within about five minutes.

Koster envisions users coming to a Metaplace world by clicking on a link in a Web page. That link launches a page where the user finds herself inside a world, perhaps using a default avatar, but no log-in or registration is immediately required. "They don't make you log in to play a YouTube video," Koster points out.

The Metaplace client is basically a Flash application, he says, and, consequently, is available to nearly everyone who uses the Internet. Currently, Metaplace does not allow users to build 3-D worlds, but Koster says that he expects Flash to add 3-D capabilities in the near future. The client will work anywhere on the Web, and Koster adds that he hopes to see user-generated clients built for mobile devices such as iPhones.

Link (via Wonderland)

(Disclosure: I'm a proud member of the advisory board for Areae, Inc, the company that makes Metaplace)

See also: Metaplace: open DIY virtual worlds for everyone


  1. Took a look. It sounded interesting. Not a lot of demo available, but what is there looks… questionable at best.

    What they are talking about is essentially supplanting the standard Internet with a 3D metaphor. Integrating all the standard social networking site stuff with the other basic stuff that your browser or another application handles now.

    Instead of an RSS reader or Live Bookmark or whatever, you walk your little avatar over to the RSS terminal in your private clubhouse. Instead of opening a chat window to talk with a friend, you go visit them in their personalized little room. All the other usual suspects are here. The virtual arcade machine for playing games, the virtual photo album that you store your photos in.

    I have seen versions of this idea since the 90s. It is right out of 80s SF movies where everyone puts on VR goggles and explores a mediated version of cyberspace.

    The problem always comes down to the fact that the new metaphor adds no value to the things it is building on. Having to walk a little 3D person to a console does not make my RSS feeds magically contain more information. And while the gimmick is cute for a few minutes, once you have it set up you never want to see it again. Watching your avatar stand around has no value in and of itself. The value in the metaphor is how seamless and invisible it is.

    I suspect this will be a big, revolving hit with the less connected 6-10 year old set. Sort of a walled garden introductory Internet for those who don’t want to dive right in. However, it doesn’t seem to add anything for those who are already making use of these tools.

    Now, I could be completely off base. They have not released much info or many examples. But unless there is an entire dimension that has gotten no press so far, I don’t see a bright future.

  2. I agree with RyanH in that a 3d version of the web wont work. But I don’t think it sounds like that’s what their trying to do.

    I have no idea what their really offering though. Sounds like a developer framework for flash, really. And dont believe the hype, you will not be playing anything like world of warcraft inside your flash player for a long long time.

  3. WRT RyanH, I agree that on principal a straight-up replacement of existing web technologies with 3D-world versions adds only gimmicky “neato” value, and nothing more sustained. To expand a little bit. I’m not a UI expert, but imho a good interface is about creating the right metaphor for the medium. A good interface should enable you to use the full power of a medium as easily as possible. With communication tech, the ideal is that a user should be able to do something as quickly as the desire is formed. The fewest steps to doing it in as unambiguous a way as possible is the best approximation to that ideal.

    A 3D world inherently adds barriers to getting most communications done – because to sustain the VR metaphor you add constraints to action (you have to move to a particular location, and perform the right physical actions). This is desirable in a game like situation because it is the interaction with the world which is itself the desired objective. As a UI onto some communications app, it is inherently bad, because it makes that layer less easy to use (more steps to accomplish the same goal). Furthermore, by allowing every user to change the UI metaphor in his/her own world, you make it even harder in that a visitor must learn the particular semantics of every new world they browse.

    However, this doesn’t mean that a tight VR-web integration is a bad thing. What any easy-to-use VR dev. kit type environment (whether it’s game modding, 2nd life or metaplace) should aim to be is a platform for new types of interaction – not a replacement or front-end for existing ones. Many commentators poo-pooed the web in the mid ’90s as gimmicky and pointless – I don’t think they ever foresaw googlemaps, wikipedia and boing-boing. We should be cautious of dismissing platforms like this just because they are as-yet immature. I believe there are whole new ranges of social interaction being organically developed online right now in VR worlds (who would have foreseen the rising popularity of machinema?). The thing we need to look for is some way of formalizing these new modes of interaction into something like a design philosophy and embodying that in something like a toolkit. Who knows – ten years from now we may all be building sites with the VR equivalent of AJAX!

  4. I’ll second the ‘when is it out of alpha’ call, I’ve been waiting patiently on the sign-up list for awhile now. I am starting to wonder if Spore is going to get released first, which I can guarantee is going to take up ALL of my gaming time :)

  5. I hate to rain on parade, but..

    Ralph “Theory of Fun” Koster?

    Have you ever played SWG or Ultima Online?
    I think I’d need a large cash payment and a strong sedative before I’d be willing to go near another Ralph Koster design.


  6. Wrenling, assuming you’re not just trolling… which SWG did you play? Early SWG was lots of fun. It was the corporate, post-Raph game that was lame. Sony has zero concept what an MMO really is, and was trying to turn SWG into another World of Warcrap. The UI changes and the Combat Upgrade, which I witnessed, were part of that. I left before the NGE, but from what I’ve read, it’s more of the same.

  7. Is there a demo yet? Because right now, I don’t see anything more than what was linked the first time on BB. It’s still vaporware and technobabble.

  8. Believe me, we aren’t believers in the whole “web gets swallowed by 3d” thing either. :)

    No demo yet, we’re still in active closed alpha testing.

  9. My idea was to make a Neopets type site for young kids where the parents could work with their kids to create their own creatures and activities, with no advertising and merchandising. I already setup such a work for my 7 year old, and she shares it with her friends. I’ve been too busy to flesh out the “business plan” site, but for what it’s worth, it’s:

    One aspect my kid really likes is that she can draw her own creatures, invent their attributes, etc. (reminds me of making my own Monster Manual entries back in my D&D days).

  10. I think its odd that so many people think because something has been seen in sci-fi movies, it won’t happen in real life. When someone makes a 3-D environment that’s easy to use and runs well on current technology, it will be popular. You think a generation raised on videogames prefers to stick with the flat internet? The reason we keep putting virtual reality in all our books and movies is because that’s what we want, but only when it works as well as what we use now. That said, somethings will probably always be 2-D. Movies didn’t replace books, TV didn’t replace radio and noone wants to navigate a 3-D wikipedia.

  11. It seems to me (as a distant and only casual observer) that Metaplace is more about offering a web-enabled gaming/social platform than a game-enabled web interface.

    I’ve had an alpha invite sitting in my inbox for a few weeks, but work has been keeping me too busy to register. I’ve been reading “My Tiny Life” since the free PDF was referenced here on BB recently, and the story of LambdaMOO is making me want to make the time to check out Metaplace.

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