Beta Testing the Beautiful and Troubled “Blue Mars”

You may recall we
knocked Blue Mars
in the past for cozying up to corporations by restricting
content creation rights to big business. It was surprising, then, that our
number came up for an opportunity to beta test Avatar’s well-promoted baby.

Never one to waste a good opportunity, we jumped into Blue
Mars with a palpable excitement.

The character
creation screen is necessarily slim.
I don’t hold this against Avatar,
since the important point was to get players out into the world. For its slim
selection of faces and hair, though, Blue Mars provides an impressive rendering
of the human form. The level of customizability – a slim eyebrow here, pouting
lips there – provides depth while not feeling overwhelming.

This is a major point in Blue Mars’s corner, as Second Life
has perhaps the most user-unfriendly interface for a player new to online
gaming.

You’ll find an
endless ocean in the “Landing Zone.”
This vast expanse of nothingness is a
simple way of introducing the player to the movement and interaction modules. A
dutifully assigned Avatar intern greets you upon arrival, and you’re likely to
see five or ten other avatars milling about, learning the controls, exploring
nothing in particular.

Desiree

             
Click to enlarge

This was where the beauty of Blue Mars’s characters really
stands out. I met an avatar named Desiree Bisiani, pictured at right, and she
was, without a doubt, pretty. The avatar is leagues ahead of anything available
on a free-to-play MMORPG, no doubt thanks to the all-consuming CryEngine2 and its graphics
pumping ability.

You encounter a major
gameplay hurdle
at this point. While Blue Mars is certainly beautiful, it’s
demanding on an older computer. Even my GeForce 8600 GT struggled to run the
game at anything near the default high-graphics setting to which it’s locked.
Blue Mars staffers in the Landing Zone readily admit it that running the game
without debilitating graphics stutter requires a GeForce 8800.

That’s a big investment for a casual player, and cutting out
a wide swath of your potential user base at the outset is hardly a wise idea. Avatar
insists it is running Blue Mars at high settings for testing, but will soon
allow the player to downscale the graphics. But in a world built so wholly on
beauty, this kills one of the game’s major selling points.

There is also a shocking lack of direct-chat and instant
messaging features
, and this was a complaint many players came back to in the
Landing Zone. Aside from complaints over graphical demands, a lack of utility
for the friends list was the most common one I heard.

Staggered graphics
aside, it feels empty in Blue Mars
, and not because there are only a few
people there. Sure, you can sail a ship along a photorealistic ocean; you can
golf and take in idyllic views; you can explore New Venice, pictured to the
left, and go on an orb-hunting adventure. But these games won’t hold players
for long. This leads to one of Blue Mars’s major let-downs:

 
Venicejg
                  
Click to enlarge.

Content creation is a
no-go unless you’re corporate.
Unlike Second Life, players can’t produce
content and expand the game beyond its original parameters.

That right belongs
to large landholders, mostly corporations, which found themselves shut out of
Second Life due to their inability to compete with the native content
producers. It really is a shame, because content creation would put Blue Mars
in a league of its own.

Blue Mars will
succeed in its own right regardless of content creation, because Blue Mars
caters to a different kind of gamer. There are countless players to whom
learning content creation and scripting skills reminds them of homework. I’ve
yet to create anything in Second
Life. For those players, Blue Mars will succeed so long as it continues producing
engaging, immersive activities and fascinating landscapes like the one pictured
at right.

Blue Mars may not be
a Second Life killer, but it won’t matter.
These two games, it is clear,
are not competing for the same fan base. With increasing numbers of online
gamers logging on for the first time every week, there is an expanding and
heterogeneous group of new recruits from which to choose. Blue Mars simply
pulls from a different group.

Venice 2p

                            
Click to enlarge

Its graphical benchmark aside, Blue Mars has potential. It
will be interesting to see how the corporate-friendly model works, and it would
be wrong to condemn it too harshly.

The Metaverse is a place of infinite
experimentation, where worlds like Blue Mars and Second Life can exist
side-by-side, trying out opposed market ideas and viewing the results of their
experiment in real-time.

Now if only Blue Mars let you fly.