Recently someone sent me a link to this video, where the author takes us on a tour through my old stomping grounds: Active Worlds: The 27-Year-Old Virtual World You Haven’t Heard Of
What a blast from the past. This software was my life for about 16 years, from 1994 to ~2011-ish.I don’t remember what the end date was. For the last 6 months I was working part-time on again / off again. So my job sort of fizzled out rather than ending abruptly. I was pretty checked out by the time it was over, much more concerned with this website and the work I was doing at the Escapist. In the 90s I did a little of everything: I made 3d models, created texture maps, built environments, provided tech support, and authored tools. I even maintained the website for a bit. Then in 2001 I was moved to the programming staff and I began working on the software itself.
I made some of the stuff you’ll see in this video. At the 1:20 mark, the author jumps to Metatropolis. That was my baby. Like Facebook’s Metaverse, I named the place after the virtual world in Neal Stephenson‘s book Snow Crash. In my defense, the book was a lot more relevant in 1997 than it is today. I realize the Metaverse is a bit cringe and out-of-touch today, but I made Metatropolis in 1997 when this stuff was still sort of hip and forward-looking. I talked about some of the Metatropolis rendering tricks back in 2009 during my procgen city project.
At 1:44, you can see a streetlamp on a corner. Today, that would be easy to create. You just make a lamp and stick a light source under it. But real-time lighting and shadows were not feasible on the consumer hardware of 1997, so I had to fake the light. That pool of light on the ground is a custom texture with a hand-drawn shadow. Ridiculous. Most kids in 2022 would look at this and see how primitive it all looks, but in 1997 it looked like I’d pulled off some Carmack-level sorcery and jumped ahead a couple of graphics generations. But no. It was all smoke and mirrors. The illusion was broken the moment you placed another object under the light and saw it didn’t cast any sort of shadow.
Let me end this with a comment I left on the video:
I was a developer on AW from 1994 to 2010. I know from the outside it felt like the company had no plan. Internally, it was because most of our income came from corporate clients. Those outrageously priced universe servers? Lots of companies would buy those, and then pay us to make content for them. They wanted a platform for training, remote meetings, distance learning, etc.
Those corporate clients kept the lights on for years, but they also took a ton of our time. We had to take those jobs to pay the bills, but those jobs also greatly slowed down our progress on the software.
Thanks for such an in-depth video. It was great to see those garish old polygons again.
This thing was a big part of my career. It looks old and janky now, but I’m still happy I got to be a part of it. This was a fun way to spend my 20s and 30s.