"HiPiHi could go far if it deconstructs the SL user experience and reinvents it so that those of us who don't want to spend our hours messing with polygons can actually create something of interest," says Beijing tech maven and Silicon Hutong denizen David Wolf of Wolf Group Asia, in response to an earlier post on the Chinese
clone version of Second Life.
That's exactly what they've done, David. I've just come back from their office in Haidian, where the 60-person team (minus most of the women today, as they have a half-day holiday in observance of Women's Day - happy 3/8, women!) is hard at work. Imagethief's colleague Xinhua--no relation to the Chinese newswire--is one of the early investors in HiPiHi and was good enough to invite me along with Net Jacobsson, a partner and senior vice president at Maxthon, to visit.
Getting anywhere in Second Life--being able to create things that don't suck--really does require patience, technical proficiency, and even a good measure of design sense. Many people I've spoken to about SL simply give up, frustrated at not being able to participate in the economy because they can't make anything anyone would want to spend their Lindens on.
HiPiHi will make it simple for neophytes, with tons of pre-fab stuff and even whole areas of the world that are preconstructed public spaces. For those who want to move beyond that, as many inevitably will, CEO Xu Hui told us that he's planning on rolling out in four phases, with names drawn from traditional Chinese creation mythology: Kai Tian Pi Di (开天辟地), or "Sundering the Heavens and Splitting the Earth," will introduce tools for rendering terrain: hills, fields, terraces, water, flora. Nv Wa Zao Ren (女娲造人), "Nu Wa Creates Humankind," will be about tools for more detailed avatar creation. Tian Gong Zao Wu (天公造物), "The Heavenly Duke Creates the Things") will introduce object creation, and so on.
It's still far from perfect of course, but I like what I see so far. I don't just mean the look and the playability, but I like some of the thinking behind it. They've thought through many of the potential pitfalls--like problems they might encounter from officialdom over the coin of the realm. Xinhua (the angel investor, not the news agency) tells me one of their investors is a high-ranking banker, and they've assembled a pretty formidable rules committee including major academics and other banking types to keep the virtual economy from rankling regulators, who've recently cracked down on "virtual money," according to Joe McDonald from the AP.
Joe McDonald, by the way, was my high school classmate at University High School in Tucson, and was born on the same day as me--March 7, 1966. What an odd coincidence that we both ended up in Beijing. We once camped out for tickets to see Rush, the Canadian power trio, on their "Grace Under Pressure" tour I believe it was, and ended up getting front row seats. Okay, back to virtual lives, which as you can see aren't necessarily more lame than real ones, at least when you're in high school.
HiPiHi is counting on multiple revenue streams, including sale of virtual property and in-game ad placement. (Ads! Cool! I work for Ogilvy, remember?). They've got interactive ads that brand advertisers or plain old users can rent, mostly in the public areas: click on them, and they show additional info as well as hyperlinks to the "world outside." They are, however, going after a younger demographic than SL--sensible, given they'll want to keep the whole thing very G-rated.
What about bandwidth issues? They're making the client relatively large to reduce load on the servers. The client weighs in at about 20 megs right now, and might get bigger, but with the thing distributed as it surely will be on P2P servers (Xunlei et. al.) it won't be a heavy lift to download.
Default avatars are Chinese-looking, which is what I expected. Nudity isn't possible that I could tell. Other neat stuff: Time changes, and the atmospherics of day-to-night are quite pretty. Behold:
HiPiHi is actually in a "closed Alpha" at this stage, and not in Beta as I had earlier been told. They're opening it up to a thousand Beta testers in about a week, ramping up in four phases to 100K users by June or July. They don't actually plan a hard launch until fall.
A good friend who knows this area well had some good questions that he emailed me, alas, after I'd already gone to HiPiHi -- including whether they intend to make their world "shardless" the way that Linden Labs has made SL, and how they intend to actually prevent people from doing naughty things that the government might not like.
I'll follow up with those and other questions in the next couple of days. If you've got questions you'd like me to put to Xu Hui about his new virtual world, fire 'em at me. (I doubt I'll have many Beta invites, unfortunately, so unless we're good friends and your Chinese rocks, please refrain from asking).