second life creation

a guide to in- and offworld online resources, or:
avatar customization 101


A main factor contributing to the attractiveness of Second Life (SL) is the possibility to modify and create content—up to the never-seen-before. I have to confess that during my first weeks inworld I tremendously misunderestimated [neologism by George Walker ;-] the capacities of the built-in editors and the general potential—the interpretative flexibility SL-gamespace grants is huge. The environment allows creativity and innovation to bloom. Of course there are limitations, as SL is not to be confused with e.g. standalone professional 3D-visualization software like 3ds Max or Maya. The following should and can not be understood as a kind of technical documentation of SL—there are shortcomings and may be errors in it. This write-up is the result of my exploratory wanderings, sporting the fused gaze of a game modder and an anthropologist. But if your longing is to create content within SL, in one form or another, this heuristical guide will be of help. To avoid misunderstandings and grief I am trying to set all of it on a sound basis by starting with an appropriate vivisection of SL. By brachiation from branch to perch we will reach our goal—hands-on know-how about building in SL—as quickly as possible … or by scrolling down :-(

game modder’s anatomy of SL

Unless you are ‘playing’ SL by means of some freaky force-feedback device—and I never heard about that being supported—the triggers of your experience consist of information, delivered by your computer, streaming to your mind via two sensorial channells only: seeing and hearing. Pictures and sounds, nothing more. Allow me to mainly deal with the visual aspects, as I am not at all into sound or music—I can’t even read sheet music.

When you have your SL-client running and are logged in, your screen potentially displays a plethora of things. There are toolbars and menus, head-up displays (HUDs), text overlays, windows for chat, IM, pictures, written information (notecards), script code, and your inventory folders. Presumably the most important thing to you is the threedimensional view of SL-space. It shows you your avatar, other avatars, vehicles, furniture, buildings, landscapes, the sea, the sky … the ‘world of SL’. That sounds to be quite a lot, but technically there only are the sea and the skybox (things of their own), particle effects, and 3D-meshes.

We can neither tinker with the sea nor with the sky (grapevine has it that Linden will improve the sky soon), so let’s forget them. But we can tinker with particle effects and with 3D-meshes.

To my understanding there basically are thre classes of things in SL which technically are 3D-meshes: Terrain (landscape), Characters (Avatars), and Objects.

I do know close to nothing about terrain, as I do not own a single square meter of land in SL, and haven’t yet asked anyone about modifying terrain. But I know, that if you buy a whole island from Linden, you can furnish them with your own terrain file, and they will make your island out of it. So let us allow the terrain to join sea and sky in killfile oblivion, as only few of you, esteemed readers, will be owners of whole islands, and hence won’t be much interested in modifying terrain.

modifying the avatar

It’s a completely different thing with avatars, as everybody in SL has one—at least one. The avatar is a full-blown 3D-character-mesh as known from ‘real computer games’. It has a bone-rig and can be animated, it has several layers for textures on its surface, and a list of defined spots where objects can be attached. But, unlike to modding ‘real computer games’, you can not import your own character-mesh or even bone-rig (god forbid!) into SL. You have to deal with the avatar you were given—you can change its shape, its surface texture, you can attach things to it, and you can animate it. Let’s start from the inside out.

There is no direct access to the bone-rig possible, as far as I know. But you can modify the size and shape of your avatar to certain limitations by using the integrated appearance editor to run havoc with the mesh. Go “Edit”, and then “Appearance” and make yourself familiar with the 150 or so slider controls.

Once the shape is to your satisfaction, you will want to customize the looks of the surface of your avatar, give it human (or non-human) skin, and clothe it. You want to apply textures that means. For that end your avatar is equipped with a row of texture layers, from the inside out, and from top down: skin, skin tattoo, eyeball texture, undershirt, shirt, jacket, gloves, underpants, pants, skirt, socks, and shoes. Each of this layers you can texture independently from within the appearance menus. By default in the library folders of your inventory there already are some matching textures, which you can apply. Then of course you can grab free textures inworld, get some as presents, or buy some. Furthermore, and now we get close, you can make your textures yourself outside SL, preferably by using Photoshop (PS), and then import them.

By far the best way to learn to achieve this, is reading Robin “Sojourner” Wood’s tutorials, and to use the tools he provides. Besides of his website Robin also maintains an interactive inworld course on the topic (SLurl:) at his place.

Once you are familiar with the techniques, and if you are good at PS, you can achieve truly dazzling results. But mind, you are ‘just’ messing around with texture layers, that means, all the clothes and even shoes made that way, are painted flatly upon the shape of your avatar, you created. No fancy shawl flapping in the wind, no plushy, swaying skirts, no hat, and no cyborg arm possible that way. To get this, you have to create objects and attach them to your avatar.

creating objects—’building’

A cigarette, sunglasses, an airplane, or a house in SL are technically all the same: single or linked-together groups of 3D-meshes. The latter are called “prims” (short for “primitives”) in SL-jargon, meaning basic threedimensional geometrical shapes like e.g. a cube, a sphere, or a torus (which is the builder’s friend ;-). SL features a limited (compared to ‘real 3D-software’), yet powerful and quite intuitive interface for creating, manipulating, linking, and texturing those prims.

As a start I recommend Xah Lee’s Second Life 3D-Construction Tutorial. Once familiar with the interface you may proceed to the category Build [Tutorials, Techniques, etc] in Natalia Zelmanov’s Second Life Diary, which is a treasure trove of easy to follow step-by-step tutorials—not only leading to immediate results, but also gradually to an understanding of the how-it-works. A good pick for the beginning is her trilogy on creating ‘prim-shoes’: Creating Prim Shoes Part 1 (Sandals), Creating Prim Shoes Part 2 (Heels), and Creating Prim Shoes Part 3 (Texture and Sexy Walk). Mind that, as ‘everything is the same’, the principles you learn there do not only apply to avatar-modding, but also to to e.g. building houses or vehicles … with the exception of the ‘sexy walk’, maybe.

To get the full dose of how-it-works from scratch on, and of what-is-possible with SL’s building interface, you can go to the (SLurl:) Library of Primitives inworld and do the interactive tutorials.

With today’s client-release, a new feature has been implemented, so-called sculpted prims. I have no experience at all with those, didn’t ry on beta grid, and Detect just a second ago said to me “they’re crap Zeph lol,” which immediately sparked a lively discussion among those present, which is going on right now :-)

particle effects

In striving to emulate a ‘real computer game’, SL, like the ‘real games’, uses particle effects. Particles in this respect are two-dimensional animated images that always face the viewer. Smoke, explosions, rain, fire, or soap bubbles in SL are all particle effects. I guess all there is to know about particles in SL, you can learn interactively inworld at the (SLurl:) Particle Laboratory. There are also free particle-script samples you can grab for free, modify and use. E.g. the blue, irregularily pulsing light in my right cyborg eye is a modified script from there.