Rod Humble, CEO of Linden Lab, is proud that his company doesn’t create content.
Most games are stories. There’s a beginning, middle, and an end. Link begins as a powerless boy and, over the course of many hours and dungeons, he gains abilities, overcomes challenges, and saves the world. So does Kratos. So does Snake.
Linden Lab does it differently. The developer, known best for Second Life, builds sandboxes not unlike the Metaverse in author Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. There’s an architecture to the online world, and a set of rules governing the digital reality. Everything else that happens there is up to its inhabitants.
"We don't make the content."
Linden Lab has poured it’s creative energies into Second Life and little else for many years. When Humble became Linden Lab's CEO in late 2010, he set out to diversify the company’s portfolio but keep its sandbox-styled DNA.
"I joined the company about a year and a half ago," he told Polygon in a recent interview. "And what I wanted to do was — one of the things I love about Second Life is that it’s a creativity tool, a creative space. We don’t make the content. So I wanted to continue to invest in Second Life as we’ve done … but also diversify the company through multiple products that have that shared creative space."
Humble was sick when we spoke, and he stuck around to share his and Linden Lab’s story as long as he could. With sweet apologies, he turned the interview over to two members of the development team to walk us through two of the four new products the developer will be launching before the end of the year, Patterns and Creatorverse. Both diversify the company’s portfolio and remain true to its mantra of creating "shared creative spaces."
Patterns is available now for PC and Mac. Its conceit is a combination of Myst and Minecraft. Players assume the role of an unnamed polygonal protagonist set free in a world begging to be deconstructed and manipulated.
That’s the sandbox. What any player does with it is entirely up to them. In the demo we watched, Linden Lab poked and prodded, scavenging for items and using the material they’d acquired to affect change in the world.
The game begins on a blocky island floating in space, surrounded by other, disconnected islands. Using a combination of mouse and WASD controls, the protagonist began to explore. There was no direction, no right and wrong, no great quest to set him on his journey. The world calls out to be explored and dismantled.
By clicking on the geometrical building blocks of a structure on the island, he harvested its polygonal forms and added them to his inventory, piece by piece. Once he’d acquired enough matter, he used it to construct a bridge to another island. As he stood over the vortex between the islands and underneath the bridge, the clay matter began to buckle under its own weight, as subtly indicated by a colored outline on the block anchored to the first island. He went back to the beginning of the bridge, added another block to fortify the anchor, and resumed construction.
That blocky bridge is the essence of Patterns. Players poke the box, and patterns emerge.
Players poke the box, and patterns emerge.
As with Minecraft, it’s difficult to apply the "game" label to the experience. Although the fundamental interaction between the player and the sandbox will seem familiar to gamers, Patterns eschews the hero’s journey. There is no story except the one that the player creates while playing. There are no goals except those that the player sets for himself.
There is, however, progression. The very act of poking compels more poking. More poking leads to more material. More material leads to more options. And more options leads to more gameplay, and deeper, more complex experiences. To inhabit this shared creative space is to understand Linden Lab on a philosophical level. It creates the rules, not the experience. That’s up to you.
Linden Lab released Patterns earlier this year in what it calls a Genesis release — a way to expand its sharing philosophy to its first users. Think of Genesis as a pre-alpha. Patterns is far from finished, but it exists in a perfectly usable state. Rather than wait until the code is polished to a display case sheen, Linden Lab invited players in to learn about the sandbox from early adopters as they create it. When users break it, Linden Lab fixes it. When they make suggestions, Linden Lab often implements it.
The shared creative space philosophy applies even to development. As Linden Lab adds new features — for example, true multiplayer by the end of the year, so that players can share their spaces in real time without having to swap save files — its players will reap the benefit.
Linden Lab’s diversity applies not only to games but to operating systems, and the second product they showed us, Creatorverse, is headed soon to iOS.
Like Patterns before it, Creatorverse is a blank canvas into which its users can paint whatever they like. The user interface provides little more than a gridded canvas surrounded by drawing tools. The rest is up to you.
They began the demo by drawing a simple maze with a line tool. They added a circle and assigned it a color. They tapped a few times to tell the app to use the device’s accelerometer, and suddenly the lines and the ball became an homage to Labyrinth. The ball rolled around the screen, bouncing off the lines they’d created. They added two portals, joined by a simple arrow UI element that connected the portal on the bottom of the screen to the one at the start of the maze. It took no more than a few minutes.
They wipe it all out and create a car from two circles, two lines, and a rectangle. They change gravity so that it pulls down on the device rather than obeying the accelerometer. They draw a sloping horizontal line, and with a nudge the car coasts down the path like Line Rider.
Every one of these creations is designed to be shared. They’ll live in the cloud with their creator’s permission, there for anyone to download, play, and change in the shared creative space.
It’s hard to say where the line between Linden Lab and its creations ends. Regardless of the manifestation, they all share the same building blocks. Whether polygons on a PC or shapes on a 2D iPad, the DNA is the same. Linden Lab gives you a sandbox. All its developers ask you to do is poke it.