The email arrived in my inbox without a lot of fanfare. My eye passed over it at first, thinking that it was some unsolicited, “Congratulations” spam. Then I recalled, signing up for a beta several weeks ago. I opened the email, tentatively, then found some good news.
I was approved for There’s public beta.
There had received some media attention from the post, so it piqued my interest. While the idea of spending real money on virtual objects didn’t really appeal to me, I’ve always been interested in large virtual worlds. So I decided to sign up for the beta.
The email provided a link so that I could downloaded the software and install it. Registering my Avatar, (PraxisLoki, natch) was simple. Within fifteen minutes, There was installed and I was logging on to the public beta.
I was greeted with the usual tutorial about how to get around, chat, which my housemates advised me to ignore. It was moving at a glacial pace, so I decided that I was going to figure things out on my own and depend on the kindness of strangers.
That was, of course, dependent on finding strangers.
Fortunately, There’s interface features a tab that allows you to find out where everyone is. Once you find out where all the cool kids are hanging out, you can teleport yourself there, provided it’s a public area. I found myself on a tropical island, with about two dozen avatars roaming about. Palm trees swayed, houses with thatched roofs beckoned, attention loving dogs romped about, and everywhere, as far as the 3D engine could handle–word balloons and avatar names.
I walked around for a bit, then I decided I was going to ask a few questions about the world. One of the avatars (Airi) had a headset that appeared and disappeared periodically. Of course, that grabbed my attention, so I called Airi’s name, only to get sucked into a different conversation with other people. There has two modes–navigation, and communication. I realized that I switched to “conversation mode” after I started to type. While in conversation mode, you remain motionless and the camera pans out to show you all of the participants in the chat. This is important because There has a feature that allows your avatar to express emotions in a physical sense. When you start to talk, another bar appears at the bottom of the There window. This bar features tabs like “Banter,” and “Gesture.”
Much to my disappointment, no, you cannot give people the finger.
After fiddling with the arrow keys and mouse, I finally disengaged myself from them and got into a conversation with Airi. She explained a few things about the world, and before long, I was getting the hang of everything. The headset was indicating that she was in private message mode with someone. All the people with Virtual Reality goggles in front of them were set to “away.”
Airi had her own unique set of clothing on, which differentiated her from other avatars. (Nascent avatars are given a pair of cargo khakis and white t-shirts.) She also mentioned that she had also altered her height and facial appearance.
There allows people to design their own clothing. One of There’s selling points is its high level of avatar customization. The character models can be adjusted to the point where you can determine the distance between eyes. There’s character models are well rendered. They had enough detail and accurate animation to keep me watching other people’s avatars when they were talking. Eventually, another beta tester, Khokron, joined the conversation and offered to show me around the various locales. In order to get traverse There’s huge worlds, he loaned me a jetpack and a hoverboard.
The hoverboard, quite simply, rules. I swear, there’s a stripped down version of a pro skater game in there, except it’s hoverboards. Hoverboards! I visited another island, and a fantasy based floating world above There’s reality based beaches called Saja.
The graphics are fairly simple. There’s art team wisely chose a pseudo-realistic cartoon theme for their art style. Everything, from the locations to the items, is recognizable for what it is. A Mexican Ziggurat looks like a Mexican Ziggurat, a Tiki Lounge looks like a Tiki Lounge, and a hoverboard looks like, well–a hoverboard.
What really impressed me was how big it actually was. I didn’t really have an idea of how large an online world could actually be. Eventually, I was taken to a “skypad,” which was a ramp and a couch which, at first glance, appeared to be in the middle of the sky. Looking down, however, I was greeted by a bird’s eye view of something resembling the island that I was just on.
My tour guide, Khokron then proceeded to run up the ramp and jump off. I followed him. I looked down. Slowly, the island grew larger. I noticed that there were small squares beginning to form on the beach. Eventually, I expected the game to fade to black and show me the loading screen. It didn’t. The squares continued to grow, until I could see that they were bungalows.
I neglected to look at my watch, but I would guess that there was a good three minutes of freefall. (Khokron later tells me that that was a “short” skydive!)
When I got closer to the beach, I found out that the houses were scaling in detail in real time. Shingles on the roof became apparent, the palm tree fronds started to come into focus. Then I hit the water, bounced a couple of times, and walked over to see that the tiny brown squares I had seen from miles above (virtually) were these same three beach houses. It really was rather impressive, from a technical standpoint.
What did I think of There? It seemed much more like a sociological experiment rather than a “game,” so to speak.
But I had a really good time. Before I knew it, 2am rolled around and I was scrambling to get into bed so I could get some sleep.
It’s interesting how Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, like Everquest and Ultima Online, were initially created for the adventure and fantasy, but grew into social communities.
There has been created from the ground up as a community. As a result, the social interface and representation of your virtual “self” has been tweaked and polished to create a very solid experience that’s not quite a game, but not just a three dimensional chat program. I’ll continue to log on to There and check it out during the public beta.
If socializing and virtual worlds interest you at all, I’d recommend you give it a shot.