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By now you know that Avatar Reality is scaling back development on Blue Mars, abandoning the PC as a platform for it and has laid off a bunch of staff including CEO Jim Sink.

What you’re probably wondering now is why.

If what I’ve been reading is right, basically Avatar Reality ran out of money. There’s still a little bit left to run with, so what is left of the farm is being bet on mobile devices.

Okay, so here’s the thing.

Blue Mars started with the notion of a somewhat more controlled kind of Second Life virtual environment, but with considerably more awesome graphics, and some first-party engaging digital experiences.

Problem one: The graphics engine.

I don’t know about you, but on my configuration, the best that the Blue Mars client could offer me was like treacle soaking into a sponge. It makes the Second Life viewer feel like NASCAR by comparison. Even though Blue Mars frame-rates weren’t actually awful for me, just moving around felt like my environment was pushing back at me at every turn. It would have been nice to twiddle some settings to figure out if I could make things feel faster, but the client never offered any useful options for that. At least, none that made any visible difference. That brings me to …

Problem two: The interface.

I don’t know about you, but I got pretty tired of trying to work the interface. Also of right clicking and getting popups from what appeared to be Adobe Flash Player. What the hell? That was more confusing than getting no response at all.

The interface definitely seemed to be going somewhere but it felt like nobody was really very interested in finishing it off or making it really usable.

Problem three: Engaging digital experiences.

Could not be built and updated faster than even a comparatively modest user-base burned their way through that content, and did little to generate any individual profits. Not cost effective.

Problem four: Rendering costs.

Here’s where things get ugly.

Blue Mars, like Second Life, is a client/server system. The client (or viewer, if you prefer) and the server share the load of making everything go. In practical terms, the system offloads many costly tasks onto the client. They’re called costly tasks, because it costs a lot of money to buy the hardware to do it all yourself for any reasonable number of people. Bandwidth is also a major issue, as bandwidth for highly-detailed meshes does not grow on trees – no, not even mesh trees.

However the engine (prob 1) is actually really bloody demanding and doesn’t seem to be doing that at all that well. Also, the servers don’t seem to be keeping up really well either. Blue Mars has a scaling problem, in that it cannot get enough return for the investment of hardware and bandwidth costs required to run their end of the resource-sharing. At least they’re not paying for the processing being done at the client end, on the PC.

Then we wind up with Avatar Reality’s second most boneheaded decision: Cloud rendering, with OTOY. No offense to OTOY, because its not a problem with OTOY.

What’s wrong with this? Basically, it moves pretty much all the zero-cost processing that the client’s PC is doing and moves it off to a cloud that Avatar Reality pours money into.

If the whole thing with OTOY had gone ahead as planned, the costs of running Blue Mars would have skyrocketed – on the relatively slim hope that pouring oodles of bandwidth at customer PCs to generate a smooth, high-framerate experiences would attract a whole lot of paying customers. Social media integration was supposed to bring the mass market in. It didn’t do that.

So, already running in the red on server-side costs, Avatar Reality decided to shoulder the whole burden of processing costs, rather than just a portion of it.

Wow.

Just think about that for a moment. Wow.

Now we get to the most boneheaded decision…

The mobile market – presumably to go ahead with the OTOY streaming system that Avatar Reality is working on (that has not yet borne consumer-ready fruit) which will stream something like a gigabyte per hour onto mobile devices.

Do you know what a mobile operator does when a user starts streaming a gigabyte per hour through their device from an Internet service – or even a half of that?

They cut it off. They block whichever end will make it stop most effectively, and they point at the terms of use and acceptable use policies if anyone should complain about it.

[EDIT: As it happens – and thanks to the commenters who pointed it out, the iOS product appears to involve neither a world, nor server-side rendering, but is more sort of like Google Lively on an iPhone, as it were]

I’m sorry to see Blue Mars go. I know it isn’t actually gone yet, but I’m just waiting for that shoe to drop.

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