First look: There

There Inc. announces a new 3D virtual-world game, which is now in public beta. Hands-on impressions and screens inside.

There, a new online virtual world, was announced today at the Consumer Electronics Show, which is taking place in Las Vegas. An online game that stresses social elements and creation over rigid gameplay mechanics, There will be joining the ranks of other online virtual worlds like Electronic Arts' prominent The Sims Online and the recently announced Second Life from Linden Labs. As a part of the game's announcement, sign-ups for a public beta are now open.

There, as is typical of virtual worlds, gives you control of an online avatar character, which can be customized extensively. You can purchase new clothing, with options ranging from sandals, hats, and bowling shirts, to tribal martial arts pants. Many different pieces of clothing can be kept on hand to change looks and style on the fly. Interestingly, Nike apparel is prominently featured in the world and is available at in-game stores. Beyond clothing, there's plenty more to buy. You can visit "spas" to alter your character in a number of ways, changing body shape and facial features. Skin-color variations and many different hairstyles are also available. In addition, there are many activity items to purchase like paintball guns, dogs, and toy balls. It's also possible to buy buggies and jetpacks for fast travel and world exploration. But naturally, everything costs money.

There's economy has an element of reality. The currency, called Therebucks, can be used to buy items and services from in-game catalogs or stores. Getting Therebucks to spend is relatively easy, too. You can sell items, charge other players for services in-game, or get an in-game job like ambassador (where you work to welcome and assist new players). A certain amount of Therebucks will also be automatically given to you as part of your monthly subscription. But you can also purchase additional Therebucks using real-life money, directly with your credit card. The current exchange rate is approximately 1,787 Therebucks to $1. In past practice, it's been fairly common for players of online games to conduct real money transactions for in-game items or characters via eBay and other Internet auction sites, but here the process is being brought inside the game itself. There also has an extensive auction system.

There Inc. aims for its virtual world to be varied and full of activity. The world consists of four zones: Tiki, a tropical archipelago; Tyr, an environment of forests and glowing crystal formations; Saja, a cloud city; and, breaking the fantasy mold, Egypt. The game's Egyptian zone is intended to be a photo-realistic re-creation of Egypt's prime tourist locations, including the pyramids and the Sphinx. There are plenty of activity areas scattered across the zones. There are racetracks where you can compete in timed trials with your vehicles, podiums for conducting chat meetings, and arenas for games of paintball. There also lets you own and customize a house.

Since socializing is a central focus of the game, There includes a number of options for talking to friends, both new and old. There has built-in instant messaging, a chat feature that uses dialogue bubbles that appear over the characters' heads, and a gesturing and emotion system. You will be able to perform various physical gestures like smiling, yawning, laughing, and clapping. You can also signify your mood by selecting different "emoticons," which change facial expressions, and "moodicons," which convey deeper emotions through changing body language. One example is emitting floating hearts to signify love. To make it easier to meet up with friends inside the world, you can teleport to meet each other.

There is billed as an interactive platform that will let you add directly to the gameworld. The fact that the game is largely built on streaming content directly from a central server is said to make it more technically feasible for you to make larger additions to the world. More advanced players with skill in programming can create and modify items as well as locations. There are also tools to set up activities such as treasure hunts, scavenger hunts, poetry readings, game shows, and fashion shows. Although There only requires a 56k connection, those with broadband connections will get a few bonuses, notably the ability to use voice chat, to share music and videos, and to upload custom photos to decorate a house. Copyright issues aside, the game's designers expect that broadband users who live far away from each other in reality could watch a virtual drive-in movie together in-game or sit together in front of a virtual TV in a virtual house.

There has been in development for more than four years, and the beta shows that there's quite a bit of content and technology to show for that effort. There is not intended to be purely a game or a chat service, but rather something in between. It's possible to check it out now by registering for the public beta test that begins today. There is currently scheduled for a fall release.

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