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Sun rises in 'Second Life'

Chris Melissinos, the company's chief gaming officer, teleports across the virtual world to talk about Sun's strategy for helping online game developers.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read
For months, big-name companies including Wells Fargo Bank, Toyota and Coca-Cola have been putting down roots in the virtual world "Second Life" as a way to reach hundreds of thousands of tech-savvy early adopters.

On Tuesday, Sun Microsystems used the opening of its own "Second Life" space to announce its "Project Darkstar," which is designed to help developers of online games with server-side technology.

At an in-world event, Sun's chief researcher, John Gage, and Chief Gaming Officer Chris Melissinos, as well as "Second Life" publisher Linden Lab CEO Philip Rosedale, talked about "Second Life," Project Darkstar and the future of game technologies.

Afterward, Melissinos teleported across the metaverse for a wide-ranging interview with CNET News.com. An audience of around 50 "Second Life" residents attended the event in CNET's own new space in the popular virtual world.

And take note readers: The interview with Melissinos is just the first in what will be a series of talks with notable technology-industry newsmakers to be held in CNET's "Second Life" space.

Q: This interview comes just an hour after Sun launched its "Second Life" space with a press conference. What was that event like for you?
Melissinos: It was really cool to see a big turnout. I have been playing around with "Second Life" for more than one and a half years and it's great to see more traditional corporations taking notice. The event was a little difficult to control, since we had several people at once onstage and (interacting) remotely. But you get into the flow after awhile.

Were you and John Gage and Rosedale all in the same physical location?
Melissinos: No. John was in the office in California, I sat in my home in northern Virginia and Phillip was at his office in San Francisco. We used Skype to coordinate audio. It was really good.

It seems like there were some technological limitations: lag and delay. Was that a problem for getting your points across?
Melissinos: The good thing is that this audience understands the current limitations of the technology. So they are much more forgiving of the issues.

Sun in

How long do you think that can still be true? Do you think there's a point where the "Second Life" population will be so big that newcomers won't have that patience?
Melissinos: I do believe that will be an issue. In fact, it's something I speak about often at game conferences. It's more than just an issue with "Second Life." It's an issue with online games overall. The majority of the "popular gamers" are those of us who grew up with computers in the home. My first significant code was hacking machine (language) on a Commodore VIC-20. You were real if you could do it in 3,192 bytes of memory, not those "rich" Commodore 64 owners.

Now, as a parent of three kids, I really understand why they want to play. The barriers for them to enter and engage in computers and games is much lower than ever before. For the first time in history you have gamers raising gamers. And that's exciting. What it also means is that they won't put up with quite as much pain as we do.

Is that where Sun can come in?
Melissinos: Correct. When I started focusing on games for Sun six years ago, the question was, "How do we address all of the places people can play games?" So we looked to Java technology on its various devices. I pulled together a summit and had 14 companies join a "discussion." They included Sega, Sony, Electronic Arts, Universal, GameSpy, etc. In two days we walked away with a blueprint for how Java technologies should be changed to make it better for game developers. Today, we have several technologies out there in commercial games. But more importantly we needed to look at how we make online games easier for developers.

Some people would be surprised that Sun even has a chief gaming officer. How did that come about?
Melissinos: Sure, but why is that really surprising? Video games are a $40 billion market. Online games will reach $11 billion in subscription revenues by 2011. At Sun, we believe that we can help. This was the reason behind starting Project Darkstar. And the engineers behind Project Darkstar are people from the games industry.

Tell us about Project Darkstar.
Melissinos: What we have created in Project Darkstar is the first game-agnostic and platform-agnostic server technology. The idea being that we should have a single flexible server technology that is the same, regardless of the kind of game you are using it for. At the Game Developers Conference this year, we demonstrated a racing game, a turn-based game and a massively multiplayer online game engine built using the Aurora toolset, all running at the same time on the same server and serving devices from Windows XP PCs to Sony PSPs.

So, here is an example: You are a small developer, 10 people big, with a $6 million budget. Building an online game, you have to burn that first $1 million--$2 million on infrastructure and building tools and features into the server, etc. Why not write to a common set of APIs, keep that initial up-front cost and make a better game? You then take the game code and dump it on to a Project Darkstar service and you get charged for what you use, not for the whole infrastructure. Because the server can handle many games, of various kinds, at the same time. You are not building expensive, exotic solutions for each game.

(Audience member) Jaguar Everett: How would you push the envelope on gaming if everyone is writing from the same set of tools? Wouldn't that actually limit game development more than grow it?
Melissinos: Project Darkstar does not dictate which tools you use to make your game. We believe that the utility model for online gaming will emerge, and we have a great deal of experience in building such beasts. That means that online game companies may not own their infrastructure in the near future. Many companies we have spoken to don't want to own machine rooms anymore. And why should they? No one here owns their personal power plant in their back yard to power their home, right? It's built on utility.

I believe that worlds like "Second Life" are going to continue to emerge. And we think that Project Darkstar will help those worlds get built.

Switching gears, Sun typically tries to appeal to sysadmins and CIOs. So why did you decide to come and create a big presence in "Second Life" where the hipsters are?
Melissinos: Because, at the end of the day, it is users of services and content that drive companies. Period. Let's face it, without all of us here meeting in "Second Life," Linden Lab can't purchase and build their infrastructure, right? And that is the same for almost every service on the planet. Having a presence here allows us to communicate directly with the people who drive all of these big companies. Plus, as a gamer, I now have an excuse to be in "Second Life" for "work."

So you're hoping that by being here, and being here relatively early, you can communicate directly with the movers and shakers behind some of the big projects?
Melissinos: Sure, but as importantly, we are believers in the community around computer culture. Look back to the beginning of Sun and why the company was started. Bill Joy, John Gage, Vinod Khosla, etc., were frustrated with the university computer systems. The goal was to build a low-cost system so anyone could join the network from their dorm room. The company was founded on the principles of community. And "Second Life" is the first, viable example of the next "leap." I believe that worlds like "Second Life" are going to continue to emerge. And we think that Project Darkstar will help those worlds get built.

Are Sun and Linden Lab officially working together?
Melissinos: Let's just say that we know the fine folks over at Linden Lab and are talking to them.

Should we expect some sort of partnership in the future?
Melissinos: I'm not at liberty to say, but I think a partnership between the two companies would make a lot of sense.

(Audience member) Jaguar Everett: How does security play into this? If everyone runs the same platform, it seems more people will try to exploit games (your servers). How do you make it safe for online game consumers?
Melissinos: The idea behind the server side is an object/container model while the information the server processes looks identical to the server platform, the objects and events are dictated by the database and client communications. In this way, we segment/separate the identity of the transaction from the server that is actually performing the operation. We can offer an extremely high degree of security under this model. Think about it this way: Wall Street does not use a different system for every brokerage firm.

(Audience member) ScoobeeSnac Stringfellow: What about the Sony PlayStation 3 and Java?
Melissinos: Java technology is in the PS3 as is defined in the the Blu-ray specification. We are determining just how much you will be able to do with it beyond the Blu-ray stack.

You talked briefly about Java on the PS3. But does Sun still have hopes that Java will be a major player in the game marketplace beyond mobile devices?
Melissinos: I do believe that Java will continue to make inroads beyond mobile. Games like "Tribal Trouble," "Puzzle Pirates" and "Bang Howdy?" They are 100 percent Java games. More and more companies use Java from full development to scripting and that continues to grow.