While I was away: Project Bento, the game changer?

Both latest Lab Chats had it as one of their central subjects of duscussions. Beta testing is underway, content creators experiment with it, find unusual solitions to its limitations. Content creators long for it. Linden Labs take care of implementing it without breaking the existing system. At the third LabChat, it has been mentioned that “some people said [it] could be as much as a game changer”.

Project Bento is coming to town.

Long story short, this is the new bones system intended to allow better animations to be incorporated in Second Life. The ability to get every finger animated, wouldn’t we like that! Along with human avatar bones, there will be some bones for body parts typical for unreal creatures, such as wings, horns, tails. A great deal of bones will be added to the face (although it seems that some of the “bones” will play the role of muscles) – better facial expressions are on their way. And many more.

Project Bento had been announced in Featured News as long ago as the end of the last year, and the interest to it has not seized since. The level of attention it draws is almost comparable with the level of attention to Project Sansar. A lot of questions have been asked and answered, a lot more will be asked and answered.

Some of the questions I’m trying to figure out the answer to are going to be answered no sooner than the release of Project Bento to the public. The speculations are flowing around already, generally taking the form of poorly thought through excitement over the new feature. Indeed, Project Bento is proclaimed to be the game changer – but what game? Why Project Bento and not something else? What direction is it taking Second Life to?

Let us begin with the “Why project Bento?” question.

We will inspect an arbitrary MMOG, where the world, the assets and the gameplay are created by a certain team of developers. Along with necessary patching of bugs and other back-end works, the regular type of updating there is adding new locations, characters, items, quests, events. This makes sense, because after a while everything already existing in the game turns into the routine and players need something fresh to not lose interest to the game. Due to the fact that only developers can add new content into the game, and they, obviously, cannot create newness on a daily basis, every new addition to the game, even if it does not change the gameplay fundamentally, becomes an event.

Metaverses are different. Because everybody has the opportunity to contribute to the virtual world’s development, to say that every day something new is created is to largely underestimate the daily dose of newness an active metaverse receives. Items, locations, events, activities, lifestyles, you name it. Pretty much everything the developer does is the back-end job, that is, ensuring that the metaverse is running smoothly, and leaving the front-end development to its users. As a consequence, whenever the developers of the metaverse themselves add a new location, a new quest or such… well, it does raise an interest among the metaverse’s residents, but far from as much as it does in the MMOG where only a certain group of people develops all the content in the game. After all, residents add new locations and new events every day, and yet another location or event is just that – yet another location or event. Perhaps with some more publicity.

So the real event for the metaverse is the new tool for developing new and/or better content. That’s what sparks the interest of the residents, that’s what becomes the real deal both for creators and the users of the content they create. Project Bento definitely falls into this category, and yes, everything must be upgraded with time, and if we are given new opportunities with that upgrade, it gets perfect!

Moving on. What direction Project Bento is taking Second Life to?

No new direction. When we are talking about Project Bento, we are talking about the tool that will mainly interest two groups of creators: animation and avatar. Not that either of them had not take place in Second Life before Project Bento…

The improvement in full body animation will be of interest to those who creates animations and/or poses. That means better basic animations (standing, sitting, etc.), better quality in dancing and other dynamic animations, better quality static poses for photography. We have got all three of those already in Second Life. Only the quality will be improved.

At the LabChat #3, it had been mentioned that there will be the possibility to animate separate bones instead of full body. Fantastic, we are getting improved items holding animations. But they had been around as well.

What about horns and tails and other fun body parts? Here, we are talking about the replacements for attachable body parts, which will now become actual body parts. Here, I can see and appreciate the actual improvement, not in the gameplay, but in the functionality – Second Life system avatars are operated from within the viewer (client-side), and this means that the inherent body parts, which will take a load on the client side, will take off the load from the server, from where Second Life clients load the discrete body parts (and the scripts) today. Less bandwidth usage totally counts as an improvement! The gameplay, however… we do have unreal creatures today, and better animations will, perhaps, raise more interest in roleplaying as those, and even make possible the creation of a larger variety of creatures, but will doubtfully add something fundamentally new into the gameplay.

Finally, the facial expressions. I already imagine the fans of roleplaying and overall immersive interactions pouring their savings into Second Life to purchase new HUDs with dozens of facial expressions, and maybe even an expression synthesizer. I myself, as a Second Life theatre lover, can hardly stand the actors during the culmination of the play acting with poker faces, so I count on directors and producers to make use of new facial expressions when they come around, too. Yet again, roleplaying, immersive interactions, theatre, it all does take place in Second Life today (at times it requires some imagination from the participants, but that is what we have human brains for).

New bones will be added solely to avatars, and there will be no way to apply scripting to them. As such, we are not moving forward from passive animating (when the resident does not have influence on the animation components themselves, other than starting and stopping the entire animation), nor we obtain a possibility to apply those in creating, say, house pets (as independent objects).

I love my pessimistic outlooks being proved wrong, even though it happens less often than I wish it did. There may be that one possible application I have happened to miss that will sweep the Grid off its feet and will turn our second lives around. For now, though, I do not see it. The quality improvement is always appreciated, but this cannot be enough for “the game changer”. So my verdict for Project Bento will be calling it “the game enhancer”. Not a bad thing either, by the way.

Stay digitized and be safe!

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