Linden Lab's Second Life is the sort of experience that gets soundly mocked by people who have never indulged in its peculiar pleasures, but I always found it a fascinating experience.
The basic concept of Second Life was that there was no set concept beyond it being a virtual world -- Linden provided the basic landmasses upon which people could build, along with a detailed toolset with which to create things, and then left the majority of the worldbuilding up to the players.
The result was -- and still is, for that matter -- impressive, despite its technological limitations. Vast player-constructed cities sprang up, with shops selling new clothing, items and even body parts for avatars. A "game-within-a-game" industry thrived and flourished as content creators figured out how to use Second Life's built-in scripting language to make interactive objects that were full games in their own right. Certain parts of the simulation were set aside to house their own mini-MMOs; others became environments in which competitive multiplayer action games could be played; others still became role-playing environments in which inhabitants chose to live their "second life" as a character from fictional societies or mythologies, or one of the many subcultures that was born and thrived on "the Grid."
And among all this, the people: a diverse array of people from all walks of life, each with the opportunity to represent themselves to the virtual world any way they wished, transcending boundaries of gender, race, sexuality and even species. "Players" of Second Life would chat, dance, work, cooperate, compete and even, yes, have sex -- but none of it would have been possible without Linden's original toolset being in place. Without these tools, Second Life would be little more than another 3D chat room; with them, there's a huge amount of potential.
It's fair to say that Linden Lab has a very firm grasp of how to make a creative "sandbox" in which people can play, then. Which is why its in-development game Patterns is such an exciting prospect.
You can see Second Life's influence in Patterns almost immediately, though it's also clear that Patterns has been designed from the outset to be more of a "game" than a social space.
Beginning by manipulating simple shapes such as triangles, Patterns allows its players to gradually build up their creativity in a 3D space. Simple flat shapes can be stuck together to make 3D shapes; 3D shapes can be stuck together to make more complex objects, and so on. In this sense, it's very similar to Second Life's construction tools, which are based around the manipulation of "prims" -- basic 3D shapes that can be stretched, skewed, distorted, twisted and otherwise manipulated then combined together to make complex objects.
Patterns' abstract, primitive-looking 3D world may call to mind comparisons to Minecraft, but there are a few key differences from Mojang's classic: firstly, and most obviously, Patterns isn't limited to cube-shaped blocks, allowing the world to have a somewhat more "organic" look while still being highly angular and stylized. Secondly, while Minecraft's physics model is somewhere between "functional" and "non-existent" depending on what type of material you're working with -- a conscious choice to allow for the building of beautiful but physically impossible structures -- Patterns has been designed from the start to support a physics model. This means that objects can be moved, rolled around, propelled, knocked over and destroyed -- including the basic environment. Hit something with sufficient force and it will collapse or shatter, for example, potentially causing damage to everything around it.
Linden's grand plan for Patterns' is to build up a shared, creative universe for all players to explore and enjoy, and that means ensuring that the toolset available to players is as good as it possibly can be. With that in mind, although the game is very early in development, you can already buy a copy and start participating immediately. Linden anticipates that the game's development will center around a rapid iteration process, with new features being added to the mix regularly based on a combination of feedback from "Founders" -- players who jump in to the experience now -- and observation of what works and what doesn't. Already scheduled for inclusion in subsequent versions are reliable Internet multiplayer, avatar creation, liquids and enhanced procedural world generation, with more features to come in the future.
If Patterns lives up to its potential and manages to build a solid community, then it's possible Minecraft could have a very strong rival on its hands. This is one that fans of creative sandbox games will probably want to keep a close eye on in the coming months. You can sign up and be one of the first people to play the game over at the official website.