Metaplace is a browser-based community of user-created virtual worlds that also serves as an online games platform. Metaplace gives you the tools you need to create just about anything your twisted head can conjure — from casual social lounges to games both basic and complex — all with an extremely flexible set of building tools. If you can surf the web, you can use Metaplace, and this level of powerful simplicity makes it one of the most attractive virtual world communities around.
Browsing through the hundreds of worlds on Metaplace, you'll see all kinds of sights. Dreams, for example, is a beautiful realm built around the concept of exploring a woman's dreams. White Chapel 1888, on the other hand, is a murder mystery game where you investigate crimes in 1888 London during the reign of Jack the Ripper. Oh, and then there's Altar of Saget, so, yeah, you can see just about anything in Metaplace.
After creating your profile and logging in, Metaplace drops you in your home world, a sandbox-like area where you can create whatever pops in your head. The first thing you'll want to do is get familiar with the building tools, as you'll be spending a lot of time here customizing your worlds. Just click on "build mode" at the top center of the screen and a few new toolbars will appear. Don't be afraid to try things out, as your curiosity is the best way to learn how to use Metaplace.
The tools you'll be using most are the terrain shapers/painters and the object toolbar. Your world doesn't have to be flat, you can have hills, valleys, sharp cliffs, plateaus, and everything in-between. Each square on the grid can be painted with ground tiles to complete the look, and you can even create water, walls, and impassable tiles to keep visitors on a set path.
Here's where the fun begins: adding and customizing decorative, solid, and interactive objects. Metaplace has its own marketplace where other users have created and shared dozens upon dozens of items, objects, tools, scripts, plugins and more. To access them, all you need to do is click on "Add Objects" followed by "From Marketplace", then search for what you need and drop it in your world. You can also pull objects from Google 3D, though they almost never work as smoothly as marketplace items do. And if that's not enough, Metaplace allows you to create objects using any image you can find, whether it's on the internet or on your computer. Just click the "+" button on the objects toolbar, name your item, choose the image and you're good to go!
Once an object is in place, feel free to rotate, resize and slide it anywhere on the grid. Clicking on "behaviors" opens up another bucket of customization tools where you can program your object using a browsable, searchable set of behaviors. Want a waffle that follows players and occasionally dispenses Marcus Aurelius quotes? That's easy! Again, the best way to learn how to use behaviors is by letting your curiosity get the best of you. It isn't complicated, but there are a lot of options at your disposal.
If you want to get some dirt under your nails, Metaplace gives you access to a scripting language that lets you do some really interesting things. Your average user can do a lot with the point-and-click graphical tools, but programmers (even amateur ones) can accomplish strange and wondrous things in Metaplace.
Analysis: I've never been one for virtual worlds, massively multiplayer titles, or most games that emphasize content creation over actual gameplay. During my first tour of Metaplace, however, I was floored by how easy the creation process was and impressed by many of the worlds people had already designed. And none of them were programmers, just Metaplace folk with an artistic eye. I sat down, learned the building tools and began crafting. It was more fun than I initially thought, and I was especially fond of the old-style isometric layout. At the helm of Metaplace (and lending some serious cred to the project) is Raph Koster, lead designer of Ultima Online, creative director behind Star Wars Galaxies, and author of A Theory of Fun for Game Design.
Part of what makes Metaplace so attractive is its simplicity, both in terms of building/creating worlds as well as exploring them. The learning curve is small, and within half an hour you'll feel at home in build mode. The toolbar at the bottom of the screen gives you access to more information about the world you're in and lets you browse more areas as well. Add friends, favorite cool worlds, or "meep" other users just to poke them and let them know you know they're around.
Because Metaplace tries to be a true... erm... meta... place, allowing users to pull content from any source, some things end up being a bit quirky in practice. I can't even begin to tell you how long I spent messing with a custom-built couch, trying to get Metaplace to recognize which direction it was facing so sitting users weren't facing the wrong direction. Also be prepared to invent creative workarounds, especially for content imported from Google 3D. Metaplace does a good job handling such a wide variety of content, but as the service ages and prepares to leave beta, I would like to see this improved, along with a more reliable interface.
Now for some practical information: cost. Metaplace is free to join, free to explore, and free to play. When you sign up you get your very own world to play with, also for free. If you want to create new worlds, however, you'll need to purchase them. At the time of publication the pricing structure was still being finalized, but casual Metaplace visitors/builders need not worry about forking over any cash. Just join it and have some fun.
Update: Unfortunately, Metaplace is no longer available to play.
Interested in giving Metaplace a try? We've spent a few weeks working on our very own lounge, a place where everyone can come in, sit on the swings, gawk at the fenced-in writers, watch the Kraken swim, and explore some of our favorite casual gaming content. It's a great introduction to Metaplace and will show you some of the things people have done with the platform. After creating your account, simply head over to the JIG CasualGameplay Lounge and say hi!
Pictured in the banner above are the builders of our Metaplace lounge along with a few other members of the JIG crew. From left to right: Marcus, Jay, Stacey (main lounge work, co-built room escape), Pam (main lounge work), Psychotronic, JohnB (project coordinator, built the simulation, puzzle, downloads, and point-and-click worlds, co-built strategy and room escape), Jess (co-built room escape), Grimmrook (built the action and adventure worlds, co-built strategy). Also pictured: our pet waffle, hiding behind Pam.