I think any one that has been around Second Life™ for any time and taken a look at the engine driving SL realizes the current batch of game engines in the gaming world far exceed the capabilities of Second Life. To get an idea of where the art of games engine design is take a look at Game Thirst’s Count Down of the top 5 game engines.
If you are not that into the tech of game engines you may be wondering if Second Life will ever catch up. Well, probably not, which begets the question: why not?
SL tech is improving. The visual quality took several steps forward with the release of the Materials System. Performance is improving with the advancements Monty Linden is adding to the HTTP communication channels. Rez times are dropping as Andrew Linden changes the Interest List. Game controls are changing, which we will see when the Advanced Experience Tools get released. Even with all we have recently seen released and the things the Lindens hint are in the works, SL is never going to be as technically impressive as the Unreal game engine. They serve different purposes.
There is a reason for my saying SL will never catch up to Unreal. The reason is: us. We are not professional game designers. Well, most of us aren’t. Some professional game designers do come into play and design things. Professionals other than game designers do use SL, for instance architects and educators. So, some of us are professionals, but the majority of SL users are not game design professionals.
New users to SL are said to be intimidated by the user interface, 3,000+ controls (has anyone counted lately?). If we started adding in the features included in Unreal… can you spell ‘overwhelming’? I doubt anyone has even attempted to count the number of controls and settings in the Unreal development environment. I’ve played with it when I was thinking we might move the Myst games to that platform. It is impressive. The need to serve amateur designers is one philosophical reason that SL will never have all the features of Unreal. SL is intended for use of non-professionals that need a simplified interface.
In SL we have had the ability to use most of the tools professional game designers use; 3DS, Blender, Maya, and others for over a year. So, we could build pretty much everything one sees in games designed with the Unreal engine, like; Infiltrator. See the video below. (March 2013) But, we don’t… yet.
Making something like Infiltrator in SL is currently not possible. We can make the buildings, the characters… mostly, the clothes, and most of what you see in the demo video. We can even make most of the particle effects. What we can’t do is have the action displayed in the video; fast moving characters and massive explosions with shrapnel flying everywhere amid great balls of flame.
The reason is the demo is made on a game console using an engine designed and optimized for it. Game consoles are designed solely for game play. Everything in the computer is optimized and designed with game play in mind. Also, everything in the game is designed for the console; the game engine, textures, models… everything. All of that is optimized by professionals working to circumvent the limitations of the system. The demo is made by artists that avoid anything that might not show perfection. The demo is somewhat a slight-of-hand magic trick… you don’t get to look behind the curtain.
In SL many of the clothing designers are still working on how to get clothes to fit well, I am. Most haven’t even considered how their clothes may affect SL performance, I have… but I haven’t decided how well I’m doing.
It seems the Lab gives us what they believe the majority of SL users can handle without overloading the system. We like to design stuff. Game play is secondary. For those using Unreal, game play is primary. Different philosophies and criteria with different end results.
I think that means we never will see SL at the level of a game running on a console using the Unreal engine.
Oculus Rift or Oculus VR
We believe and have many good reasons to think Second Life is getting an interface for the Oculus Rift. After all the CEO is telling us they are working on it and we have seen images of him using an OR headset… pretty sure bet.
Bloggers in the community are divided on how that will or won’t affect SL and how it will or won’t affect games in general. In most of the rest of the gaming world designers have realized what the Rift is going to do for the immersive quality of their games. They are excited. Gaming bloggers and journalists in those communities lag behind the designers in realizing what the Oculus Rift headsets will provide. Thus the general gaming community is also divided as what the affect will be.
The Oculus Rift is not going to add load to the SL servers. At least I’m pretty sure it won’t. As far as I know this is solely a viewer side tech. Your video card is going to have to work harder. But, there is no extra geometry or textures to download nor any additional updates on what other avatars are doing. You viewer already has all that information. It just has to generate twice as many images. So, it looks like a performance issue for the ones using the Rift and no one else.
I don’t see where the Rift is going to provide any new tech to Linden Lab. It is after all just another display device. But, the thought needed to figure out how to implement it may lead to new ideas and ways of doing things. Only time will tell. But, I don’t see the Rift pushing the Lab’s tech forward.
I do see it pushing the SL users forward. That is a large community with a lot of inertia. Penny Patton has been stressing building with artistic proportion and correct/realistic scale for some time. I and others have been supporting the idea. Almost exactly 2 years ago I published: Second Life Camera Position Tips a Patton concept for improving SL. Only now are we starting to see more and more people pick up on the ideas Penny has been and still expresses. Also see: #SL Crusade for Good Looks.
It isn’t the Lab that has to catch up with the Unreal Engine. We, the users, are the ones that need to catch up first. Using a 1024×1024 texture on an ear ring is a total amateur’s mistake. Making a pair of boots using 15,000 polygons is another. The whole avatar only uses about 7,000 polygons. Unfortunately we all pay for such people’s learning mistakes. But, that is the cost of freedom and free market principals will solve the problem. But, it takes time.
The Lab is struggling to build a system that delivers over 200 terabytes of content. Most of it created by amateurs and for all practical purposes none of it is optimized. I would be willing to bet some small sum that if we took one or nine of the typically poorly built SL regions and moved them into the Unreal game engine, we would get horrible performance. SL might actually outperform it… or not. Of course if we optimized the content for Unreal then the Unreal engine would blow the SL engine away. But, if we optimized it, SL would perform way better too.
Then there is the user interface, which the Lab struggles to make usable for total noobs to 3D modeling while providing most of the tools a professional 3D modeler would want. Plus we have a mix of ‘players’ and ‘game designers’ using SL at the same time. Their user interface requirements are different. The Lab has to balance those needs too.
My point is: that for the content in SL, the constraints of the delivery system (the Internet), and the user demographics the SL system and engine is likely the best possible… and yes everything can be improved with time, which the Lab is doing. But, don’t expect the Lab to catch up to Unreal 4’s development environment or engine performance. At least not until we users catch up to the level of the Unreal developers.
If you are a designer of anything in Second Life, watch or read some tutorials and improve your skills. We are the ones that can advance the appearance and performance of Second Life the most. As we grow we remove unnecessary load from the servers and viewers.