You’ve been to Facebook, and MySpace and hundreds of other sites to make new friends and chat on the subjects that interest you. You’ve seen great innovations in voice and video chat across the internet. You’ve done it all and seen it all in the social networking world of the Internet. You’re bored.
Well, I???ve got good news for you. The Virtual Island of Entertainment is now open to visitors! Take a vacation in a magical realm of chatting and visual exploration with VIE, and you’ll meet some new friends while being entertained at the same time.
Currently in a late BETA phase of development, VIE offers a lush, vivid game world to escape to and enjoy for what will probably be a long time to come. VIE is, to my eyes, an interesting hybrid of game and chat program that offers a fresh take on the concepts. Described by its developers as a “social experience” VIE is a 3D virtual realm that offers a new interface for chatting with people across the world. The program, first of all, requires registration via an email address and costs nothing to download or use. Within its structure, users can discover new friends all across the world, and interact with them using the program’s social tools and chat functions.
The concept of a 3D visual chat program is not a new one. Programs like IMVU and Second Life have been around for a long while now, in Internet years, and have been fairly successful. Both of those programs offer a robust 3D engine, a user driven ‘virtual economy’ and highly customizable ‘avatars’ within their respective programs. VIE shares those qualities while adding a somewhat new twist on the 3D chat experience. That twist is: games. While there are many games out there that offer a chat function and there are many social pages and programs out there that offer some kind of visual gaming (usually flash), VIE offers fare on the next level and finds itself walking a thin line between Massive Multiplayer gaming and social networking.
In addition to constantly staging and hosting events like Trivia nights, contests of various kinds like customizing portions of the 3D virtual world, and other creative events, VIE also offers a grand arc of a storyline for the users to explore and experience, either in groups or alone. The overall idea or game concept is that you are a VIP at an exclusive island resort. You must create and play an ‘avatar’ to represent yourself within this virtual world. Once you have registered and created your avatar, you are then led through a short tutorial that teaches you how to navigate the virtual realm much like a game’s tutorial. However, this particular tutorial is geared toward those who don’t play a lot of PC games. In other words, it caters to folks who don’t automatically rest the fingers of their left hand on the WSAD keys on a keyboard any time they touch one. Even so, the tutorial is short enough that it didn’t bother me and then it moves on to teach you more about the world of VIE and how to use the program.
There are various ‘locations’ in the 3D world, like a gorgeously rendered virtual casino, and each of them offers a new part of the story for the user to experience. You can bring your friends with you or explore alone and in any order you choose. At any time in the ‘game’, you can approach one of the helpful ‘staff members’ at the resort and ask for help. Some of these staff members are controlled by the computer and can answer basic questions in the form of a chat. Some of them are live human beings that offer more specific help. The overall online atmosphere is very welcoming in the game world, which is a nice change if you’ve been overwhelmed by cliques and elitists in other chat-worlds or games. No one called me a newb for asking questions (or a n00b, for that matter). Within the first thirty minutes or so, I found myself immersed in the game/chat and was losing track of time. This, to me, is the mark of any good diversion doing its job. If I am not aware of time passing, it’s a good sign that I am enjoying it. After I explored some of the avatar customization options, I then found myself getting sucked into the game mechanics of the program. Movement is accomplished through a pretty standard mouse/keyboard combo, and first or third person shooter fans will feel right at home. Those who are more comfortable with a simplified click-to-[action] interface will find themselves seamlessly being taught how to move around.
The story itself unfolds as you learn how to use the program and being making friends. The modular nature of the ‘story’ and the 3D world is such that there’s no linear progression to be forced into. You go where you want and do what you want when you want. Various game-like activities abound throughout the 3D world and offer rewards like new ‘items’ for your avatar to wear or interact with. I won’t offer any spoilers here, but suffice to say I didn’t find myself bored with this program at all.
There’s tons to learn, yes, but most of it comes easily, at least to me. Strict non-gamers will have some trouble with it, and folks who like gaming but hate socializing aren’t going to be thrilled either. What that means is that most of the folks using the program are over 18 and just looking to relax online and socialize in a new way. As you learn about the program and the story, you will see other avatars doing this too and you can interact or chat with them by means of the same type of chat system you’d find in games like World of Warcraft. One of the nicer things about VIE, however, is that it is designed and presented for a more mature audience than the general WoW crowd. While WoW and other games of its kind are designed to be family friendly, VIE is shaping up to be far more about adults than kids or the whole family unit. I didn’t find any supremely risqué or offensive content but who knows what will be added as customizations later on? That being said, I would recommend VIE for adults, but it’s questionable if it might be appropriate for kids. I would at least suggest that the parents look it over before deciding whether to allow their kids to use it. Within the world of VIE, you can go on quests just like in games like WoW but these quests have rewards that don’t make your avatar more ‘powerful’. As the website says, “Shop, gamble, dance with friends, decorate your suite or be seduced by the mystery of the island… your opportunities to play like an adult are endless.”
Some of the great features of VIE include: Sending postcards of your avatar’s adventures to email from within the game/program, your own virtual ‘home’ that you can decorate and personalize to your heart’s content, gorgeous graphics and a fairly simple, user-friendly interface. There’s already a pretty dedicated user community and there’s also an official newsletter than is in the form of a virtual webzine that keeps the users aware of what’s going on in on the island resort. Considering that the program is free to download and use, and that it’s a custom built 3D engine, this is an impressive amount of support. VIE is young, yet, but still offers a whole lot of experience for no money. The customization options are pretty robust, even for a BETA release, and I look forward to what they are going to offer in the future.
As with many programs of this type, there are some extra features that one can purchase with real world cash, but none of these are required in any way, and they certainly aren’t a pre-requisite for having a good time in the world of VIE. The FAQ on the support page says, “VIE is free to play. However, subscribers who choose a membership plan will receive exclusive benefits that are not available to free players.” This is becoming more and more the norm with MMOs and other games on the PC and it’s my personal opinion that it’s going to be the revival of PC gaming, or at least its valiant attempt to rally against death. It’s a great way to make gaming (and in this case chatting) more accessible to every user of the internet, and not just those that want to dump a lot of money into it. That, however, is the subject for another post.
The only other downside to VIE that I found was that it can be pretty demanding on your computer’s resources so make sure you at least meet the minimum requirements. Older computers will probably have a tough time getting a decent frame rate but midrange and newer computers should run it just fine. Until next time, my friends!
Recommended specifications (from the VIE Support page): Internet connection: High-speed (Cable or DSL broadband). Operating System: Windows XP, Vista or Windows 7. Processor: 2 GHz CPU. Computer Memory: 2 GB RAM. Video Card: 512 MB of display memory (e.g. GeForce 7600, ATI Radeon x1600)