Thursday, May 17, 2007

Entropia Universe: A Better Second Life?

notice the exchange of value into and out of the game - Augustine

entropia.png Depending on who you listen to, virtual worlds are the new black. Second Life needs no introduction and yesterday rumors surfaced that Sony was in talks to acquire Club Penguin for $500+ million.

To date there are two leading online spaces. World of Warcraft has been an unrivaled success, bringing Dungeon and Dragons style fantasy role playing to an audience in excess of 8 million. At the opposing end is Second Life with its embrace of capitalism and intellectual property rights.

What happened if you combined both?

Enter Entropia Universe

Set in a Sci-Fi future players assume the roles of colonists who must develop the untamed planet of Calypso. Game play is open across a number of different fields. Players who prefer a World of Warcraft style experience can undertake quests and join in groups to hunt and fight monsters. Mining is an option for those who don't like swinging a sword. Moving towards a more Second Life experience, players are able to own and run shops, manufacture goods, own land and build on that land, as well as being able to trade, buy, sell and create goods and services.

The addition that makes Entropia Universe a direct competitor to Second Life though is money. Like Second Life, the in-world currency in Entropia Universe can be converted to US dollars. Unlike the Linden dollar that continues to decline in value, the Entropia Universe PED can be traded at a fixed exchange rate of 10 PED to $1 USD.

Players are able to buy PED's to use in-world or can transfer PED's made in-world, out.

But there's more to Entropia Universe than just the ability to transfer cash in and out. A MasterCard branded ATM Cash Card is available to players which allow direct withdrawal of funds earned in-world. Banking is also taken seriously, unlike the unregulated wild west of Second Life with it's various in-world ponzi schemes. Entropia Universe recently sold 5 banking licenses for the amazing sum of $404,000 USD.

It all sounds great on paper, but how does it actually play?

Signing up is free, though personal details are not optional. Whilst you could probably enter false information, Entropia Universe does want to know who you are.

If Entropia Universe was to be judged alone on its installation procedures, there would be a lot less than the over 500,000 registered users. It's awful. The Windows only client is over 1GB in size and can only be downloaded from the one server using FTP. If you eventually mange to connect to the server, and it took me a several hours, you then have to wait an awfully long time for the download. Best I could get initially on a 2mb Cable connection was 20kbs download speed with an estimated time to download of 17 hours! In part it could have been a timing issue. I tried to download during the middle of the day European time (where the company is located). TechCrunch writer Nick Gonzalez reported a 4 hour download from the US during the European night.

A full sleep later I finally had it.

Login is simple although settings should be watched. I had regular issues staying connected until I dropped by internet speed settings to a much lower figure than my actual internet speed.

Users/ players must setup an avatar with a bewildering array of options. Entropia Universe claims that they have the best avatars in the business and it's a fair claim. Much nicer looking than Second Life with more customization options than you'll probably ever want to use.

In-world is good. I wouldn't call it excellent but it's definitely a slicker look and feel than Second Life. Moving around is easy enough, and once short-cuts and mouse options are learnt it's a pleasurable interface to use.

I took a tour of Calypso Island and teleported to a number of other locations as well. The non-user created areas look professional, but in some ways, compared to Second Life, it felt a little boring. Second Life would have to be 99% ugly but it's the raw passion of the user generated buildings that give it appeal.

The graphics engine behind Entropia Universe purrs. Even with relatively low settings the experience was seamless, and despite entering areas with large gatherings of people there were zero lag issues, a constant negative in Second Life.

I'd need to spend more time in-world to get a better feeling for all the possibilities Entropia Universe provides. You can't fly around and teleport at will in Entropia Universe like you can in Second Life so things do take a bit longer, and yet flying is not a feature you come to expect in virtual worlds if you're not an existing Second Life user.

Is Entropia Universe a better Second Life?

It depends on what you like. With a retention rate of 16% for Second Life amongst US users, it's clear that many don't enjoy what Second Life has to offer, despite the hype. One criticism I hear regularly about Second Life is that it's aimless; it's not a game so there is nothing really to do other than enjoy virtual sex and play Tringo. Now before I am shouted down by a legion of Second Life groupies, I do see Second Life's appeal as a creative and social space, but not everyone wants to get online and build virtual strip clubs or interrupt interviews with flying penises.

Entropia Universe offers the best of both Second Life and World of Warcraft style virtual worlds. The creativity and capitalism of Second Life can be experienced along with solid game play and decent graphics. If they can fix the issues with downloading the client (hint: bittorrent) and you don't mind downloading a 1gb file it's definitely worth a look. If it builds members so the social aspect becomes stronger, we could well be looking at a better Second Life, and already one that will appeal to a much more broader audience.