Crash Dot Com Part 5: It’s in the Can

By Shamus Posted Thursday Dec 8, 2016

Filed under: Personal 75 comments

It’s early in the year 2000, and I am trying to build a virtual shopping mall because of the dot-com boom.

Like I said, our company isn’t the typical dot-com startup. Our company is small. There are less than a dozen of us. We’ve been around since the early 90’s, and while we’re not taking over the world we have been self-sufficient for several years.

This is one of the reasons I haven’t run away from this project screaming. The place where I work isn’t some soulless corporate meatgrinder. I don’t work for Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss. I’m not a cog in the machine. I’m a valued member of a small team of friends who have built something valuable together. This team-up with the virtual mall guys has thrown the company off-kilter, but right now this feels like something temporary. I’m not going to quit over one bad project. I’m thinking that someday this project will end and things can go back to the way they were.

Hi. Me-from-2016 again to remind you that the above is how I was thinking at the time. I’m not suggesting my company was perfect. Obviously SOMETHING had gone wrong that we went into business with this other outfit. They didn’t storm the building and point guns at us to make us join them for the virtual mall project. But I didn’t really understand the thinking that drove this decision, and at the time I wasn’t really curious. So let’s just leave it at that, rather than speculating about events I barely remember that involved information I wasn’t privy too in an area of business I didn’t understand.


The Can

Like this, except without the central column, made entirely of glass, and without any people or objects to create a sense of scale.
Like this, except without the central column, made entirely of glass, and without any people or objects to create a sense of scale.

After the meeting I was second-guessing myself. Maybe I was just being overly negative because I didn’t see the big picture. Maybe this was workable and I was just nervous because it was something that had never been done before. It’s pretty hard to stay negative when everyone else in the room is older, more experienced, richer, and sure it’s all going to work.

But now I’ve been sent more of the detailed specs and I’m back to thinking it’s a dreadful idea. Every aspect of it seems to be fundamentally flawed. This is a shame, since it’s my job to make it workWell, the environment, anyway..

Usually when a client wants us to build a virtual world for them, they tell us what they want the world to do or what they want the user experience to be like, and leave the design up to our art team. But these guys have handed us a blueprint for exactly how they want the mall to look.

They’ve paid a fancy architect to design the “ultimate mall”. This design was created without anyone involved understanding what modern consumer computers are capable of, much less our graphics engine in particular. The architect built the structure in 3D Studio and emailed me the high-resolution renders. It’s really quite pretty, futuristic, and fantastical, and also completely inappropriate.

The mall is a cylinder, roughly the proportions of a soup can. Internally we jokingly refer to it as the “Can of Beans Design”. It consists of several stacked levels, each with shops along the outer wall. The interior is made entirely of glass. Glass floors. Glass ceilings. Glass support columns. Glass roof. In the very center is an open shaft, allowing visitors to move between levels. The renders give us a spectacular view of sunlight streaming diagonally though the building, creating captivating patterns of shadows as the light is tinted and refracted through the layers of impossible glass.

How wrong is this? Let me count the ways.

The Most Wrongest Possible

Your job is to create THIS effect, using basically the engine that was used to make GTA III.
Your job is to create THIS effect, using basically the engine that was used to make GTA III.

1. Everything that makes this interesting to look at comes from the way light interacts with the glass structure, which is an effect that’s impossible to achieve in realtime on home computers.

This mall is supposed to be targeted at the general public, not hardcore gamers. Most of those folks still don’t have dedicated graphics hardware.

Our lead programmers are a couple of really smart guys, but they aren’t top-tier engine programmers like you find at Epic Games or id Software. And even those geniuses couldn’t pull this off. In four years John Carmack will devise id Tech 4, the engine behind Doom 3. That engine will finally give the ability to create one of the effects used in this scene. (Real time shadows.) And that effect will only work for simple geometry, for limited indoor scenes, and only work on dedicated gaming hardware.

Even a decade and a half from now, high-end graphics hardware still won’t be powerful enough to pull off the complex effects we see here. And without that complex lighting, this place is dreary. In a 2000-era graphics engine like ours, colored glass does nothing more than tint things on the other side of it. It doesn’t cast shadows, refract light, or tint the light passing through it. It certainly doesn’t create dazzling reflections or volumetric rays of sunshine.

Without surface reflections, glass has no surface detail. Without surface detail, you have no sense of distance or scale. Everywhere you turn you just see a jumble of slightly blue triangles. You can’t even tell when you’ve run face-first into a wall. It just feels like you’ve stopped moving for no reason.

2. Enormous structures are breathtaking in real life, but tedious when explored via a 15-inch CRT.

If you’ve ever messed around with a game level editor, or if you’ve ever messed with some of the enormous open maps in Garry’s Mod, then you’ve probably encountered this. Large spaces make you feel like an insect crawling across a room. You feel so slow. You start holding down the W key harder in the hopes you can somehow close this impossible distance.

This can of beans is humongous. Someday in the future we’ll be able to make games that have big structures like this that will appear impressive instead of boring. They’ll accomplish this by filling the space with detail that gives the user a sense of scale. Trees. Benches. Signage. Planters. Walkways. Railings. Fountains. Archways. Low walls. Grass. Trash cans. The submitted design contains none of these elements. Moreover, today’s computers aren’t nearly fast enough to render enough fine detail to fill this space in. In the end, it feels like navigating an empty warehouse.

3. The size of the building does not interact well with our draw distance.

When you’re outside the building, the shops on the far side of the structure will pop into view as you approach. Since the building is basically one giant window, you get a really nice view of this happening. And since the building fills your entire screen, the pop-in is brutal to the point of being confusing.

Moreover, the towering multi-floor design creates a worst-case scenario for polygon count. Our software’s view distance is based on a 2D overhead view, which means distant things are removed from the horizon, but not directly above you. When you’re on the first floor, all of the contents of the other dozen or so floors will also be in memory, since they’re directly overhead. If the building had a more flat design, then some of this stuff could be hidden behind the draw distance. And when it popped in, it wouldn’t be as abrupt because the new objects would be small things in the distance instead of large things looming directly over you.

4. The central shaft requires vertical movement.

Don't blame me. I built it to spec.
Don't blame me. I built it to spec.

The designer just put an open circular shaft in the middle of the structure and left it to us to figure out how people should change floors. Users can fly up and down at will, so I guess that’s how you get around?

If anyone had thought to ask me beforehand, I would have told them that vertical movement should be avoided at all costs. Barring that, vertical movement should be mediated by familiar things like ramps or staircases. Using an elevator is a terrible idea in a shared space for numerous reasons, from animation problems to griefing. Above all, under no circumstances should you ask anyone to FLY.

This is supposedly a product for internet newbies. This is supposed to introduce non-gaming folk to the concept of moving around with the arrow keys and turning your head with the mouseAt this point we didn’t have WASD movement or proper mouselook. A year later I added those things when I became a full member of the coding team, but here in 2000 we’re still using a control scheme devised in 1994.. That alone is going to be too much of a hassle for a lot of people, and adding flight is just asking for trouble.

5. The round floorplan will make construction a nightmare.

Round surfaces require more polygons than flat ones, which will exacerbate all of the performance issues caused by all the other stuff that’s wrong with this design. But on top of that, this sort of design will create endless headaches for the people who have to build and maintain it.

Even cutting-edge games have trouble with curved surfaces, and we are not a cutting edge game nor are our intended users equipped with cutting-edge hardware. Our client and server are built around a system of placing objects with 1-centimeter accuracy and snapping their rotation to the closest tenth of a degreeBoth numbers are actually stored as integers, so an object rotated 180 degrees would store its angle as 1800.. It’s easy enough to build straight walls that run directly North/South or East/West, parallel to the world axis. And if you’re careful you can reliably build 45° off the world axis. But building out from a central hub at arbitrary angles will lead to z-fighting, collision irregularities, and infuriating seams between wall panels.

Sure, we could solve this by overhauling our client, the server, how the two of them communicate, all of the various files they use for storing world data, and the building interface itself. That’s a project that would take weeks, and the shakeout period would be even longer. It could be done, but why spend all that precious time just so we can adopt this design, when there are countless other designs that wouldn’t incur such a massive cost? Moreover, there’s no time in the schedule for this kind of ambitious work. What will end up happening is that the client will remain as it is, and instead the art team will be doomed to spend hours trying to hide countless 1-pixel seams and get objects to line up properly.

Art First

Sure, it doesn't work. But it looks SO GOOD!
Sure, it doesn't work. But it looks SO GOOD!

I can sort of understand how we got here. I’m pretty sure John Business is in the retail business, because in the meeting he knew a lot about the expectations and preferences of real-world shoppers. More than once he used the phrase “full of light and air” to describe how shopping spaces need to feel. And yeah, I guess that does seem to embody the design philosophy of the typical upscale mall. This glass cylinder seems to be an attempt to take that idea to its logical extreme. Someone heard that virtual reality frees you from the limits of the physical world, and so they decided to make a shopper’s paradise. But what they needed to realize is that while virtual worlds remove the limits of the physical world with regards to support columns, floor space, and building materials, they impose a bunch of new limits that are just as restrictive as the old ones. These limits need to be understood before you can build anything worthwhile.

The worst part of this is: Once you walk across the vast open space to the mall, navigate the dizzying circular design and fly up to the shop you’re interested in, squeeze through the realistically-spaced (thus incredibly narrow by “VR” standards) aisles to find your goods, and click on the cash register to pay, it pops up a webpage to handle the financial end of the transaction. We came all this way, and we end up with just another style shopping website.

Which means all of that expensively-produced virtual stuff is just a really inconvenient way of searching for products. What we have here is the worst of all worlds. We’ve combined the hassles and inconvenience of physical shopping with the uncertainty, learning curve, and security concernsBack then, many people were very nervous about typing their credit card information into a computer. of shopping online, and on top of that we’ve added the hardware requirements and navigation challenges of a first-person videogame.

To be fair, there are some neat ideas here. It’s kind of cool to be able to pick up a camera, turn it over in your hands, open up the panel in the back, and otherwise get a sense of how the genuine article might feel in your hands. But those models are brutally time-consuming (and thus expensive) to produce. It makes sense to do this for cameras and other expensive gadgets, but the vast majority of things in a mall don’t fit that description. This means the vast majority of things in the store will be displayed to the consumer via static images, which is something webpages are already doing for a lot less hassle, expense, and complexity. We’re building this immense structure and all of these interior spaces, when there will be perhaps a dozen items in the entire complex that could possibly benefit from being showcased in this place.



[1] Well, the environment, anyway.

[2] At this point we didn’t have WASD movement or proper mouselook. A year later I added those things when I became a full member of the coding team, but here in 2000 we’re still using a control scheme devised in 1994.

[3] Both numbers are actually stored as integers, so an object rotated 180 degrees would store its angle as 1800.

[4] Back then, many people were very nervous about typing their credit card information into a computer.

From The Archives:

75 thoughts on “Crash Dot Com Part 5: It’s in the Can

  1. Da Mage says:

    I’m just sitting here, waiting for the hammer to drop on this story….It’s like a horror show you just can’t stop watching.

    1. silver Harloe says:

      Well, there’s a hint in one of the footnotes (“a year later…”) that this story is either going to take a long time, or contain a severe time jump. Or maybe both.

      1. Sleeping Dragon says:

        Technically Shamus didn’t say he added those features for the benefit of this particular project, they might have been just added to the engine. On the other hand I can barely imagine what a mess this would be after a year in development… it’s perfectly possible we’ll learn.

    2. It’s coming soon… we’re all just waiting. The title Crash Dot Com gives it away.

  2. MichaelGC says:

    I thought z-fighting was a solved problem?:

    1. Kylroy says:

      Joking aside, even *that* solution involves using additional objects that I’m guessing this circa-2000 team couldn’t afford to put in the memory hog of a virtual mall.

    2. Daemian Lucifer says:

      Yes,but this was back in the olden days,when such fancy computing techniques werent invented yet.

  3. tmtvl says:

    Everywhere you turn you just see a jumble of slightly blue triangles. You can't even tell when you've run face-first into a wall. It just feels like you've stopped moving for no reason.

    Perfect, ship it as-is.

    1. Ivan says:

      Warner Bros might, at least on PC.

  4. mewse says:

    As a junior programmer/team member, I found that I have two modes. Every time I join a company and/or project within a company, I start in mode number 1. At some point, I usually transition into mode number 2. Not consciously or intentionally; I’ll just notice one day that I’ve done it at some point during the previous weeks.

    Mode 1: “Let’s make an awesome project” mode. I believe in this project, and feel that my input is valued. I will make suggestions regarding the project design where I feel they’re necessary or warranted or useful, given my understanding of the project’s goals.

    Mode 2: “Damage-control” mode. I feel that my input is not valued. In this mode, I have been given a set of requirements to fulfill, and I will not question those requirements. I will make suggestions regarding how to meet those requirements, or how to trim them back if they’re unrealistic and aren’t going to get done on time. But otherwise I’ll just work through my task list without comment, because I do not fundamentally care about the outcome of the project.

    Mode 1 is the best. Mode 2 is sometimes necessary to protect yourself (and if you’re in a leadership role, to protect your team) in bad projects. Sometimes you’ll find yourself in Mode 2 during the final stressful weeks of a project that you’ve mostly been handling in Mode 1, and that’s totally normal. Push through those last weeks and you’ll be okay once you’re past it.

    If you find that you’re in Mode 2 during the early stages of a project, though, as Shamus describes here, that’s much more of a worry.

    After about two decades in the industry, my advice about figuring out what to do when you find yourself in a “I must now protect myself rather than trying to make an awesome product” mode is to look at your company’s financial situation.

    If the company is making money from several different avenues right now, then it’s probably fine; you’ll survive one unpleasant project. (Back-of-the-napkin, assume the company needs to spend $100k per year per employee. If you can see a way they might be earning at least that amount from other projects, then they’re probably fine)

    But if they’ve not been making much money for a while and they’ve taken on a bad project in order to make ends meet, then it’s probably time to run away; or at least start exploring other employment options.

    1. Nessus says:

      The big red flag to me in Shamus’s story was how the VR Mall people weren’t just clients, but shareholders. More than that: they didn’t just buy stock that was already available, they pressured a private company to go public specifically so they could acquire shareholder powers.

      The shareholder thing really makes it so the two companies are now conjoined. If the Mall thing fails (as it very predictably would) it’ll either take out both businesses, or the VC company will be in a position to gut Shamus’s company and throw it under the bus. Which they WILL do, because A) that’s just how companies work, and B) They’ve already extended a massive amount of Dunning-Kruger belief in the rightness and feasibility of their ideas, which makes blaming the hapless contractor for “botching the execution” very, very, very likely.

      Without the shareholder thing, I’d just keep it simple in the meeting, tell my boss about my reservations after, and then quietly do the work while hoping that by this time next year we’d be working for an actually sane client. WITH the shareholder thing, I’d leave that meeting with every bone in my body singing to me about sending out my resume.

      1. Lanthanide says:

        “More than that: they didn't just buy stock that was already available, they pressured a private company to go public specifically so they could acquire shareholder powers.”

        Nothing about being a ‘shareholder’ means the company is public.

        1. Nessus says:

          Go back and read part 3 again. It explicitly says they went public, and it’s strongly implied they did so at the behest of this VC group so they could buy enough shares to have a controlling stake.

  5. Lame Duck says:

    “Back then, many people will very nervous about typing their credit card information into a computer.”

    Unlike today, when we’ve had multiple very high profile security breaches to teach everyone that they should be nervous about giving away their information.

    1. Lazlo says:

      The good news is, your irrational fear of putting your information into a computer is now gone. It has been replaced by a very rational fact-based fear of putting your information into a computer.

      1. Ninety-Three says:

        Being afraid of online shopping is as rational as being afraid of airplane crashes: it’s safer than the alternative. Plus, the credit card company will give you your money back if it does happen.

        1. Ivan says:

          Wait, I get your point, but at the same time I’m compelled to ask, what is the alternative, that the Aeroplane crashing is safer than?

          1. Echo Tango says:

            Cars. More of them on the road, plus longer trip durations, plus non-professionals at the wheel means you’ve got a higher chance of serious injury or death from going somewhere by car, than the same trip by plane.

          2. Leocruta says:

            Flying on your own, obviously. You don’t even get an autopilot.

          3. lazybratsche says:

            Driving. In terms of deaths per passenger-mile, driving is much more dangerous than flying.

            (Though you can quibble about the direct comparison: if you’re choosing between driving and flying, most of the trip will probably be safer interstate driving, rather than dangerous city driving.)

            1. krellen says:

              I’d been hoping to be able to find or build per-trip accident rates (which is a better comparison than per-mile), but alas that does not seem to be a statistic recorded.

              1. Kylroy says:

                Maybe you could find it for charter buses and similar professional car travel, but there’s no way to get statistics for personal car trips (which is probably the #1 alternative to flying in the U.S.).

              2. Bloodsquirrel says:

                Why would that be a better comparison than per-mile? A longer trip means more exposure to hazards on the road. Comparing a flight across the country to a trip around the block is absurd; you need to compare actual alternatives. The alternative to flying from Orlando to Seattle is driving from Orlando to Seattle, not driving from your house to the nearest grocery store. The latter might be safer, but it doesn’t accomplish the same thing.

                1. King Marth says:

                  In terms of deaths per passenger-kilometer, the space shuttle is by far the safest form of transportation.

                2. krellen says:

                  If 1 in every 10,000 plane trips ends in an accident, and 1 in every 20,000 car trips ends in an accident, is plane travel really “the safest way to travel”?

                  Most car trips are short. Also, most car accidents happen on short trips.

                  1. Mistwraithe says:

                    I think per hour would be the fairest comparison.

                3. Elemental Alchemist says:

                  Distance metrics are a poor safety indicator for airline travel. The most dangerous elements of flight are takeoff and landing, and statistically around half of all aircraft accidents and fatalities occur in the final approach/landing phase. Generally speaking the length of the trip is fairly inconsequential. You are most likely to end up smeared across the runway at your destination regardless of whether it is a short-hop trip or an international longhaul.

                  1. Taellosse says:

                    They’re not a great metric for car travel, either. Most accidents happen near the driver’s home, because they’re not paying attention in familiar territory. The average driver is much more likely to be careful far from home because they don’t recognize anything.

        2. MadTinkerer says:

          Remember: Earth is by far the most dangerous planet. No one has ever died on another planet, or moon, but hundreds of thousands of humans die on Earth every day, many from natural causes.

          According to statistics, all you need to be immortal is to leave Earth and stay away.

    2. Daemian Lucifer says:

      To be fair,using your credit card over a home computer is actually safer than using it in the physical world.

      1. Lazlo says:

        I’d argue this point, depending on the definition of “safer”. When it comes to IRL shopping, there’s the additional risk of card skimmers on the POS system, but that’s balanced out by the risk of keylogging malware on your home PC. And both are completely dwarfed by the likelihood that whatever merchant you’re buying from will suffer a breach. So I’d call it even odds either way.

        However, if you mean “safer” in a broader sense, not just accounting for credit card fraud, but also robbery, aggressive sales tactics, and the general bucket labeled “all-cause mortality”, then yeah, shopping at home on your computer is definitely safer.

        1. Echo Tango says:

          I’ve never broken a bone in my body, and it’s all because I stay in a dimly-lit basement or cubicle all day. :P

          1. Elemental Alchemist says:

            Have you seen the statistics for falling down stairs fatalities? Basements are a death trap.

  6. kdansky says:

    Reading about this once a week is like watching a slow-motion video of a train derailing and crashing through a station. You can tell it’s going to be a gigantic trainwreck, which is fascinating, but also very uncomfortable because you know someone got hurt.

    What they wanted to build would be possible about now. We have rounded surfaces, we can do neat lighting, we can do glass, we can do reflections, and we can do large architecture. We can even do it with VR. I still have the feeling that to look truly impressive it would require some serious hardware, but it is at least feasible at the high-end consumer grade. An engine like UE4 on a $600 GPU can probably do most of it, if you don’t overdo the transparent glass. Fifteen years ago, that’s laughable. Even on last-gen console hardware (PS3) this would have been very difficult.

    Did nobody show a screenshot or a video of a game to Johnny Business and tell him that this is the state of the art?

    1. boota says:

      I think the kicker here would be whether the lighting would be good enough. real-time raytracing is a far way off, and the question is whether that much glass would cause problems. (as i understand it game graphics is more about “smoke and mirrors” rather than actually simulating the physics causing the light effects even today).

      i suspect that this is a potential case of those “yes we could get it to work, but don’t have a user go to the bathroom area because shit will break loose there” technological marvels we see when developers are pushing hardware to the brink of their existence. also we are probably looking at the gtx 1080 in SLI end of the spectrum of graphics cards in order to make it look great.

    2. Richard says:

      Nope, this still isn’t possible now.

      Modern live lighting simulation programs like Capture Atlas, Cast WYSIWYG and Vectorworks Spotlight are really good.

      They can do pretty realistic beams of light through fog.
      They can do good massive LED videowalls – including illuminating the virtual cast and set with the video that’s actually playing.

      But glass?
      Rendering realistic glass is still effectively impossible.
      Yes, you can have individual glass objects that you can look through, and beautifully deform the background…

      As long as there’s no other glass behind them.

      And the light does not play in them. There is no refraction or internal reflection, they don’t focus light into beams and patterns that play on the floor.
      There’s no sparkle!

      We know the maths – raytracing is not ‘hard’ as such – but even modern top-of-the-line hardware can’t do it in real time.

      Pre-rendered is still the state of the art for glass.

      1. Exasperation says:

        We’ve actually just gotten to the point in the last few years where real-time raytracing is starting to be possible on consumer hardware.

        “A Really Real-time Raytracer” presentation (2014)
        Blog post on real-time raytracing by the presenter from the previous link, including a real-time raytracing demo video from 2013 (with lots of glass).

    3. Sleeping Dragon says:

      I have a very serious case of the trainwreck feelings. This is abstract enough for me that a part of my mind immediately goes to tropes and expects there is some kind of “evil management (or marketing)” guy who ignores the programmers and makes ridiculous promises to a client and the story is going to be about how his lies are revealed and the company gets back on its feet… except this is a real life story and like seconds after I get into that state of mind I realise that we’re probably about to hit a period where a bunch of real people (including Shamus, which gives a face to the whole situation) actually experienced insane stress and anguish over ridiculous expectations, being held responsible for not achieving things beyond physical (and digital) possibility, the very real possibility of loosing their jobs, in the market that is, unknown to them, about to start crashing hard. Just reading and thinking about it makes me a little bit queasy.

  7. Joshua says:

    Spelling issue:

    “Back then, many people will very nervous”

    I think you meant “*were* very nervous”

    1. Echo Tango says:

      Typo: “new limits that are just as restrictive as the old once.”

  8. thak says:

    “just as restrictive as the old once”….should probably be “old ones”.

    BTW, I love the series, although it brings back painful memories of way too many stupid projects in my 20+ year corporate career…

  9. krellen says:

    Did you tell a shortened version of this story in the Autoblogography? Some parts of it are sounding really familiar to me.

    1. Echo Tango says:

      Nah, you’re just experiencing a glitch in the Matrix. Watch out for Hugo Weaving!

    2. Taellosse says:

      I don’t think it was in the autoblography, but he’s alluded to this period of his life a number of times over the years, and spoken of parts of it here and there while discussing other topics.

  10. Daemian Lucifer says:

    So when you first opened that hi res file of the mall,did you laugh or weep?

  11. Genericide says:

    This is a morbidly fascinating series and I’m happy to see each entry. Maybe it’s because I’ve always played games, or that internet use was pretty widespread by the time I was a teenager, but the whole situation seems absurd. Hard to believe so much money, planning and deadlines from multiple people went without the most cursory research into current technology. And yes, it’d be hard to imagine a worse possible design for a digital space to manage beyond deliberate sabotage.

    1. evilmrhenry says:

      One other aspect of the can-shaped design: difficulty navigating as a user.
      If you do a loop around a level while window-shopping, there’s no landmarks to tell you when you’ve completed the loop.
      Any minimap or quest arrow type navigation aides need to be elevation aware, and if your existing software expects single-level design, that seems unlikely to already be present.
      Imagine a person standing in front of a store, who wants a second person to join them, but can only communicate using a text box.

      1. Skyrim: Shopping Mall Edition

      2. Abnaxis says:

        Bear in mind, this is before Oblivion started using quest markers.

        Man, 16 years is A LONG time in computer-years. I never realize until I look back on it.

    2. Echo Tango says:

      The lack of research into available tech is part of the bubble – nobody wants to get left behind being slow and methodical, so people are throwing investment money around as fast as they can.

    3. Nentuaby says:

      You’d be amazed how prevalent the issue of “artist who can make pretty pictures but don’t understand the medium their picture is supposed to be a design for” still is in one form or another. Last year I was handed a design for a web page which relied entirely on having two layers blend by color multiplication. Photoshop does that; web technology Does Not.

      1. Richard says:

        And I got a series of semi-transparent icons for a modern GUI.

        As GIFs…

        (He did send the PNGs when I asked)

    4. Survivorship bias: you only see the projects successful enough to release. Institutions spend huge amounts of money on doomed projects all the time. One of the first hits for “IT project disasters”:

  12. Decius says:

    Would it have been unfeasible to have the lighting effects of the glass be baked in, along with shadows of the structural elements? If you can’t do it right, cheat.

    1. Echo Tango says:

      If you did that, you wouldn’t have any of the humans or objects from the mall in the shadows or reflections, and it’d look pretty weird.

    2. Matt Downie says:

      Realistic glass has reflections that change as you move.

  13. Alex Broadhead says:

    Meanwhile, they’re completely missing the bits of ‘virtual reality’ that they could really leverage, if they insisted on having a ‘real-world-like’ 3D physical space. In VR, shops can move, and thus every shop is located next to every other shop. There shouldn’t be a need to render _anything_ other than the current shop, and maybe some sort of ‘lobby’ space where your shopping group can assemble/chat. When you want to ‘walk’ somewhere else, you decide what’s on the other side of the door.

    Each shop can be assembled from a variety of basic layout templates and ‘skins’. Ones with high-end merch that is worth fully rendering can be smaller or use other techniques to hopefully load-balance them against less complex shops.

    Of course, that probably _still_ won’t make this a good idea. There’s a reason no one does this in 2016, while Amazon rules the world. But it could at least be done and have a chance of being usable.

    1. Kylroy says:

      It might be doable with 2016 technology, but that doesn’t mean there’s a market for it that would remotely justify the cost of developing it.

      An earlier commenter had pointed out that Amazon made it’s fortune by effectively using the internet to provide a quicker version of the Sears Wish Book, which had been around in some form since the *1890s*. When dealing with new technology, it really helps to see what existing system it most clearly resembles, and internet commerce clearly has much in common with mail order; trying to make it mimic physical shopping needs a reason beyond “because we can”, and nobody here bothered to think of one. Hell, nobody managed to even verify that they *could*.

  14. Ander says:

    I don’t know what the PC game market was like at this time. I just remember that you said Everquest hasn’t come out yet. What games had you already experienced that gave you an idea of what should(n’t) be done in this kind of shared space?

    1. MelTorefas says:

      EverQuest was released in 1999, actually.

      1. Ander says:

        From the beginning of Part 3…

        The year is 1999, and my company has just been hired by some sexy new dot-com venture.

        I was thinking of a comment, not the article itself, apparently. I could argue that this is earlier than Everquest’s release, but I don’t know that and is beside my point. Really, I know nothing about MMO Land prior to Everquest. I’m curious how those games displayed the flaws in the VR Mall plan.
        Edit: In case it wasn’t clear: Yes, I was mistaken. Thanks for pointing that out.

  15. howdoilogin says:

    Oh boy howdy, I sure hope things turn out well for Shamus in 2000. All these innovative ideas sound difficult on potato-level computers but I’m sure his team can pull through this.

    1. DerJüngerLudendorff says:

      If they throw enough man-hours at the project, i’m sure they will manage to make their deadlines.

  16. wswordsmen says:

    This project is fractally wrong. Every step of it seems flawed on every conceivable level.

    That said I am sure you are tired of the same rando criticizing you for decisions you know were wrong in hindsight from 16 years ago, so feel free to skip the rest this comment.

    Least charitable translation of Shamus (2016)’s paragraph. “I know it was stupid and never going to work but the bias of being human and having worked with the people in my company so long, along with normal human deference to authority caused me to ignore all that.”

    You are right just because you are seeing a bunch of problems doesn’t mean the project is doomed, but you are/were the tech guy. Everyone else in the room didn’t have your knowledge of what could or couldn’t be done with computers. They knew they were asking you to do something no one had ever done before, but only you knew that it wasn’t just a single thing you would have to overcome but that every step was problems that could take years to solve on their own.

    1. Kylroy says:

      Problem is, nobody would have listened to him. Speaking up would have cost him his job and done nothing to salvage this trainwreck – all the contracts were signed and commitments made before the fateful meeting that started this story.

    2. DerJüngerLudendorff says:

      Also, remember that he was a junior programmer, and that all the senior technical and business people on both sides were very enthusiastic about it.

      So you would be asking a junior IT guy to try and smash all those hopes and enthusiasm by torpedoing a project that was make-or-break for both companies, that already had already been heavily invested in, while going straight against basically all of his higher management and every experienced IT guy in the company,most of whom were also his personal friends and colleagues.

      That is a very hard and dangerous thing to do, and it’s very easy to just go along with it and hope for the best.

  17. Rayen says:

    Who green-lit this partnership? Didnt you have a (somewhat) tech-savy boss? How does this project get started? Somebody needed to reel in these people. I know hindsight is 20-20 but even still there are problems that I (an non-programmer consumer) can see with this.

    1. krellen says:

      Projects like this get greenlit by people in desperate need of money who have large piles of money shoved at them.

    2. Taellosse says:

      Do not underestimate the power of mass psychosis. The late 90s and early 2000s were a literally insane period for the internet-based technology sector. As Shamus has described, there was a LOT of money being thrown around. Even sensible people get stupid when large enough numbers get shoved at them, and when “everyone” around them is “getting rich” too, it gets even harder to avoid running with the herd.

      This is how economic bubbles work. We saw it again in the real estate/finance sector just a few years ago, on an even grander scale. People acting in large groups can do VERY dumb things when the wrong pressures are applied to them collectively.

      1. Ingvar says:

        “Let us make an online clothes shop, where you can build a tailored avatar, by carefully typing in measurements for your virtual mannequin and the clothes will be draped realistically over it, in real-time”.

        Actual business venture, ca 1999 (maybe 1998). Crashed and burned spectacularly, says my memory. May also still exist, in some form.

      2. Sleeping Dragon says:

        Like Shamus said in the beginning, it’s important to remember that everyone was torn between the panic about being “left behind” and “missing out” and a kind of “huzzah optimism”. And sure, a lot of the problem were clueless business people who had no idea about the technology, but even many people who were in on it were sure that any difficulty could be overcome. Heck, I remember gaming magazines from the 90s being all “VR is happening tomorrow! Virtual touch interfaces and simulated smells! Graphics that will looks like reality!” Clearly if someone said that The Lawnmover Man VR was not possible they weren’t tech savvy, they were a naysayer. We do not hire people who say no, we hire people who make the impossible possible. At worst anything that couldn’t be done was just one breakthrough away and a breakthrough in the field was happening every other day.

  18. HiEv says:

    I was thinking, “Wow, how did a project this poorly thought out get this far with nobody saying anything?” Then I nearly kicked myself when I remembered I was the lead programmer for a “virtual 3D art gallery on CD-ROM” back in 1995 that went nowhere. I worked there for a year and we made a pre-rendered virtual museum that people could navigate through “The 7th Guest”-style to see the art there, or there was also a sortable search engine that would show you a grid of the various pieces of art, and then view them individually. (Guess which worked better?)

    Our boss was an artist, and we actually had three 3D designers on our team, so the boss was a lot more open to suggestions about how to make it work. However, sometimes we had to explain to him things like, that it would take 8 hours to re-render the whole museum every time he wanted to move the trim in the hallways up or down an inch.

    I worked there for a full year before I realized it was never going to be profitable and left to work elsewhere. The company folded shortly after I left. An interesting project to work on, but now that I think about it, it has a lot in common with your project.

  19. Linda S says:

    De-lurking to say that I’m really enjoying this series. One question that kept coming up after the tech bubble burst was, “What were they thinking?” This report gives some of the answers, at least for one company.

  20. Daniil Adamov says:

    “We want a virtual mall that accurately reproduces the experience of going to a real mall, but also people can fly.” Did I get this right?

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