Saturday, July 9, 2011

A Matter of Scale

This article was originally posted to the official SL forums in early 2011. I posted an expanded version here with additional information and screenshots.

 As of late 2011, Linden Lab has increased the size limit on prims from 10m to 64m, so larger builds no longer eat up nearly as many extra prims. Larger structures such as skyscrapers and full sim builds can still wind up hitting that 64m size limit and with the introduction of mesh, larger mesh structures carry a higher Land Impact cost so scale still does affect resources.

 This article is intended an informative post about the practical and aesthetic implications of scale for content creators in SL. It is not a judgement against large avatars, only an objective assessment of the affects of scale on SL and how both content creators and Linden Lab would benefit from encouraging the trend towards properly scaled avatars.


A Matter of Scale
How scale affects content creation and land ownership in Second Life.

"SL content creators can craft a richer, larger and more detailed world in Second Life, simply by building smaller -- but Linden Lab has to help them by encouraging most avatars to shrink down to a much more realistic size."    

If you're new to SL you may not have realized it yet, but scale is really, incredibly "off" in SL.
If you're an experienced builder you probably realize it but aren't aware of all the ways in which it affects you.

How is Scale Broken in SL?

New users coming in to SL may notice that the Appearance Editor displays your avatar's height when you go to edit your shape. If so then you've seen that the starter avatars are shown to be around 6'3" for the women, and up to about 6'6"-6'7" (About 2m tall!) for the men.

Those are some exceptionally tall avatars!

But it's worse than that. The height displayed in the appearance editor is broken. It's actually giving you a height about six inches (0.15m) shorter than you actually are. So when it says you're 6'7", you are actually 7'1" (2.16m) tall!

To put that in perspective, the average man in North America is a miniscule 5'10"/ 1.78m and the average NBA basketball player only a mere 6'6"/1.98m.

  Case in point, here's my avatar next to the "average guy" in SL. My avatar is 5'7"/1.70m, which is tall for a North American woman.


That's just the difference of a couple of feet. The male mesh can get as tall as 8'10"/2.69m!

 So how does this affect you?


I. The Practical Issues: Land 

1. Land in SL is finite. - Yes, yes. Anything is possible in SL, but only if you can fit it on your land. Since land is a set size, when you make content and avatars larger you are effectively making land smaller. When you double the size of something you are increasing the amount of area it requires four times. Four 10x10m rooms can fit in the space of a single 20x20m room.

 It might help to think of it like Alice's experience in Wonderland. When Alice drank the potion that made her larger, to her it did not appear she was growing. From her perspective it was the house that was shrinking.

2. More land costs more money. - Your double sized house won't fit on a 512sq.m. parcel? You need to pay more money to incease your land until the house will fit. 512sq.m. is actually a lot of space. Chances are, if your house was not double sized it would fit easily into a 512sq.m. parcel and still have room for a comfortably spacious yard. You are effectively paying more money for less land when you up-scale.

3. Larger environments spread people out more. - People often complain SL feels like a ghost town, with many sims going empty a majority of the time. Reducing how spread out people are due to rampant over-scaling would reduce this issue by condensing?, on average, four sims' worth of content to a single sim.

II. The Practical Issues: Building
1. Larger builds require more prims - This, of course ,does not apply to small items like chairs, cars, hats, etcetera but you better believe it applies to environments and other large-scale creations.  If whatever you're building goes larger than 10m at any point up-scaling begins to waste prims. A 10x10m room that requires 6 prims jumps up to 16 prims if you scale it up to 20mx20m. When you're talking a whole house you are likely at least doubling the prim count.

2. Larger builds mean less detailed environments. - As you probably gathered from the above, since a larger build requires more prims this leaves you with fewer prims to work with in creating detail for your environment. Because of this you do not expierience the imaginary issue of "unused space" when working to scale, because you wind up having the prims free to fill that space with additional content and detail. Scale a house down to 1=1 scale and the prims you free up allow you to landscape a yard and add more furniture inside the house. If anything, scaling up leads to unused space as you don't have the prims available to flesh out the environment.

3. The default camera adds an additional metre or two that you need to compensate for in environments. - 8' tall avatars already require a lot of upscaling of the environment to compensate for, but SL has abysmally poor camera placement. The camera floats at least a metre over your head, looking at a downward angle on your avatar. That's extra height you need to compensate for when setting ceiling heights in a build. As a resident, this limits where you can go in SL without experience camera clipping issues that prevent you from being able to see inside a build without going into mouselook.

 Existing sims such as 1920's Berlin, Doomed Ship and others already recognize these scale issues and have made a point of working to a smaller scale. In doing so they have been able to create environments that would require, both in size and detail, 3-4 sims if created with SL's usual scale problems.

To illustrate the above points on a smaller scale, I was able to take Pre'Fabulous' "The Old Barn" and cut the prim count by about half when I shrunk it down to half size. I was able to do the same for my own shop's building in The Wastelands. This also helped me change my shop's build from a single building taking up the entire parcel, to a much more detailed landscape including two bombed out structures, an off-sim landscape, and allowed me to create and detail two additional rooms to my shop's scaled down building.


The above four pictures are all of a 2048qs.m. parcel, the build is a total of 463 prims. That's only twice the size of a 512sq.m. parcel! (remember, twice the size is four times the area.) The shop area (the last three pictures) make up only a small portion of the build. The landscape around the shop is fully fleshed out with burnt tree husks, bombed out structures, a water tower, a military tank, etceter.

Here's a top down view of said 2048sq.m. parcel. My avatar is the black dot in the middle of the red circle. The orange area is the off sim landscape. The blue rectangle marks the parcel area, the smaller green rectangle is a 512sq.m. area overlayed across the shop building, illustrating how the shop itself can fit easily inside that amount of land.

wasteland parcel top view.jpg

III. The Practical Issues: Vehicles
 As described above, building larger leaves you with less land to build in, less land for content, less land for visitors to explore. It also leaves vehicles with less area to drive/sail/fly through.

 Cubey Terra, owner of Abbott's Aerodome and one of SL's most successful vehicles makers once put on a presentation which demonstrated this. He created a race track with tiny aircraft that flew at scale speeds (compared with larger SL aircraft). This was done inside an 80m circular room yet felt absolutely enormous.

You still achieve this affect going from SL's typically oversized vehicles to realistic scale. From the perspective of someone driving a 1=1 scale car a sim is four times larger than the same person driving a car scaled up to double size. Again, it helps to think of the "Alice" example.
IV. The Practical Issues: Avatars
1. Larger avatars have more issues with proportions. - The appearance editor sliders are not made with thought given to how large avatars can be in SL. Because of this, some of the sliders cannot keep body proportions in check on oversized avatars. The arm legnth slider on women is the primarily culprit. Arms are skewed much, much shorter for the female avatar mesh than the male mesh. A properly sized male avatar can achieve a correct "wingspan" with the Arm Length slider set at around 60. A properly sized female avatar requires the slider to be set between 90-100 o the slider. Several sliders increase avatar height, arm length is not affected by any of them. So when you increase the size of a female avatar who already required an arm length of 100 to be proportional, it becomes entirely impossible for her arm legnth to be proportionate to her height.

Proportion Measuring
(For correct human proportions your "wingspan" should be equal to your height, your legs should make up only half your avatar's height. and you should be 7-8 heads tall.)
scale lineup.jpg
(When this topic comes up it is inevitable that some people express concern that it is not possible to create attractive, tall looking shapes at realistic sizes. That is simply not true. Here is a set of examples ranging from 5'3" to 6' tall. The problem is that to "scale down" a shape the appearance editor requires you to adjust every slider manually, basically recreating the shape from scratch.) 

2. Building attachments around large avatars limits who can use your attachments. - Most content creators build attachments to sell around their own personal avatar size. This is a bad habit. This limits your customer base, at least your satisfied customers, to avatars at least as large as your own. It is easy to scale an attachment up, but can be difficult, or impossible to scale an attachment down.  Create an "attachment building" shape that is around 4'5"-5' tall, as small as you can get it while retaining adult proportions. Build attachments around this shape, then scale them up to fit your own avatar when you box them up for sale. This will ensure that all avatars of at least the size of your "attachment building" shape are able to wear your attachments with ease.

V. The Practical Issues: Animations
1.  AO animations can be rendered unusable by scale disparities. - This is especially visible with "ground sit" animations but can also be observed with standing poses. Most SL users have seen ground sit poses sink their avatar well below the ground they're trying to sit upon and the more observant SL users will have seen certain standing poses put their feet through the ground or leave them floating above it.
2. Multi-person poses become impossible to align without a consistent sense of scale. - Many recall how Blue Mars does not allow for altering avatar height. Everyone there is the same size precisely for this reason, to allow content creators to create animations that will consistently and seamlessly work with multiple avatars.
I am not advocating the Blue Mars approach. I prefer the freedom of scale SL provides, however if LL provided a more persistent sense of scale (how they can do this is described further on) that would at least provide a baseline by which all animation creators could work with.

VI. The Aesthetic Issues
1. Coherent scale allows for better looking environments. -  Scale is a part of design and composition. Good design means better looking environments. Currently SL has no coherent scale. Things are not even consistently up-scaled. Avatars are scaled up to about 1 and 1/3 larger than realistic. Furniture is often created around individual avatars, meaning it can be made for avatars anywhere between 6' tall and 9' tall. Environments are often done to fully double scale. Vehicles tend to be a mess of scale, either too larger or too small for any given avatar or their surrounding environment. All of this contributes to SL just looking like a mess. Even the best of SL environments often suffer these flaws.
2. Cohesive scale makes more immersive/engaging environments. - Wiuth the mess of scale described above any sense of immersion is shattered, or at least greatly reduced. A small minority of RP sims recognize this issue and build accordingly, with amazing results. When everything (environment, vehicles, furniture, avatars) are all in scale together, consistently, it creates a much stronger sense of immersion, of "being there". This is one reason why videogames and other virtual worlds place far more restrictions on character size, or remove the ability to change size altogether.
3. Coherent scale allows you to use scale for deliberate effect. - "If everybody is tall, then nobody is tall." Height is relative. But when there's limits to size and everyone crowds one end of the scale, you wind up limiting options. In SL, most people tend to crowd the extreme tall end of the spectrum, 7' to 9' tall. This means it's impossible to create a giant avatar that towers over the average person without resorting to crude hacks.
Let's take a look at how this affects SL in the setting of a role-play environment by showing two characters from the sci-fi/horror sim "Doomed Ship". A gigantic demon beast and a human engineer. Here's how it looks if the "human" is the size of your average SL man.
demon meets giant.jpg
 That gigantic demon winds up being only about a head taller than our measly 7'5" human. Sure, the demon is bigger, but not by much. And that's not even a human with maxed out height.

Let's take a look at this same pair if the human engineer is only about 6' tall.

demon meets human.jpg
Now there's a huge difference! Without any hacks or cheats, we have a tremendously intimidating demon beast that literally towers over our hapless human engineer.

 Avatars can be anywhere from about 4' to nearly 9' tall while retaining adult proportions. In other words, making the majority of avatars unintentionally huge limits those who wish to be intentionally giant sized. Moving the size of the adult average avatar more to the middle of that scale, as opposed to the extremes, creates more freedom for us by allowing for a wider variety in sizes.

Why not scale avatars down even further? Why not scale our avatars down to 1m tall, or 50cm tall?
 There are several reasons that should be obvious with just a little thought. First, we can only scale down avatars so far before it becomes impossible to maintain correct adult proportions. You can get down to about 5' tall and then you need to start making concessions that will quickly leave you with childlike, dwarven shapes. Further still and the mesh just winds up a mess of pinched vertices and clipped polygons.
 Second, prims have minimum size restrictions as well as maximum size restrictions. Scale down much further than I've suggested and you no longer get additional benefits of prim efficiency, Further still and it becomes more and more difficult to get the desired detail out of prims because you can't make them small enough.
Finally, you begin to run into the same problem of everyone squeezing into one extreme of the spectrum. Just like when everyone is tall, nobody can be tall. When everybody is short, nobody can be short. You hit that wall where creativity and diversity becomes restricted.

Who are you hoping to convince with this article?
Next to LL themselves, it is SL's content creators who are most responsible for driving the trends that shape the virtual world. The trend in SL is already shifting towards smaller avatars. It's becoming more and more noticeable, but it is still a slow transition. As more content creators recognize how scale consciousness benefits them that will make it easier and more desirable for the average resident to scale down. But isn't it too late? Won't scaling down now break all kinds of content?No. Content is already broken due to scale, as illustrated above. An 8' tall avatar is not in scale to a double sized house, or to furniture created by a 6'5" builder. Most moddable items in SL can be scaled down with only a modest amount of effort. No-mod items are generally a bad idea in any case and should certainly not be an excuse against much needed improvement. Anyone who has been in SL over the years should realize that new, better content tends to lead to older content being phased out over time anyways.
Sure, old content may get phased out over time, but wouldn't we be stuck with content even more over-sized if we all scaled down right now? 
Anyone who has already scaled their avatar down can tell you it is not nearly as big an issue as people tend to think. Also, there is no way to scale down all SL avatars en masse anyways. Anything done, by the residents or by LL themselves, will only speed up a trend. Time will take care of the rest.
What could LL do to fix this problem?
LL can do a few key things that will, again, give the existing trend towards smaller avatars a much needed boost.
1) They can improve the camera placement. All it takes to vastly improve the SL camera placement is changing a few numbers in the debug menu. Anyone can do this easily, but only a very small minority tend to change defaults so it would be ideal if LL changed the defaults themselves. Instructions on how to do so are here.  Here are some screenshots illustrating what I mean about camera placement. On the left is the default SL camera placement. On the right are my custom settings, which are based on the "over the shoulder" view that has been the popular standard in third person videogames since 2005.
In an open air environment there's not too many issues with obscured vision, but you are more detached from your avatar. It's more like watching a character on a screen as opposed to seeing the world first hand. The lower camera angle brings you into the world with your avatar.

 Once you wander inside, the problems with SL's camera become more apparent. You can see that the camera is pushed close so most of your avatar is cut off, making it more difficult to navigate if the room is furnished or has other obstacles.
What can't be shown well in screenshots is that the default camera is continuously  "popping" through the wall or the support beams in the ceiling above. If you try to zoom in to compensate for the small room, you wind up with only the very tip of your avatar's head onscreen, and you still have issues with the ceiling.  These issues are entirely absent with the "over the shoulder camera. I was even able to create and navigate a fully furnished recreation of one of my previous real world apartments, where the main room was only about 6mx6m with a 2.5m high ceiling.Here is a link to a Jira entry requesting this change. 2) LL can provide properly scaled avatars to new residents. Seriously, the starter avatars need to be replaced anyways. LL needs to give new residents good looking, properly proportioned avatars if they want to shake SL's reputation for poor graphics, addressing the scale issue head on with new accounts would be a large step in that direction as well.3) They can make better use of scale and proportion in their public works projects. This does not mean making buildings and welcome areas too small for existing over-sized avatars. A theater or an auditorium isn't going to have 3m high ceilings and most Welcome Areas/Infohubs tend to be primarily open air environments at any rate. 4) They can fix AgentHeight so the appearance editor displays correct avatar height. Here is a Jira entry requesting this.

But why would LL want to address this problem? Wouldn't it reduce the amount of land people want to own?
Not in the slightest.You need to consider how value and cost impact demand.Have you ever actually heard of a resident saying, "Gee, I wish I had less land!"? Probably not. If anything, people always wish they could get more for the amount of land they do own. They are already paying what they are willing to pay based on both their ability to pay and the value they attribute to land.They would not tier down if they realized they could do more by reducing the scale of their avatar and build, they would continue to fill out the space they own, just with more content. That is how demand works. People are willing to pay X amount for a minum amount of perceived value. What they're willing to pay does not go down as perceived value rises. If anything, it will rise to meet their ability to pay.In addition, as the value of land skyrockets so does demand. People who previously wrote off smaller parcels of land because they believed they could not use it for anything worthwhile would be flocking to the land store once they were shown the possibilities.Encouraging better use of scale is win/win for everybody. Residents win with a larger, better looking SL with greater diversity and creativity possible with avatars. Content creators win with greater freedom and flexibility in creating content for SL, and a better understanding of scale helps them to create content that can be used by all avatars regardless of size.Land Barons win in that land has more value to customers so it is easier to sell/rent land due to higher demand.Linden Lab wins most of all in greater demand for land of all tier levels, and a greater influx/retention of new customers drawn in by a better looking and more engaging Second Life experience. 

When not spending far too much time playing with Second Life, Penny Patton is an illustrator, designer and visual arts consultant who has worked in social media, television animation and art education.


  1. Great!!! I hope you know I'll be linking to this on my blog. Of course you won't get any readers because of it... have you see my blog? Sad really... lol.


    1. I recommend that you use Dollify download and create your own images.

  2. that was a great post!
    That the hight in the appearance does not show the real hight bugged me a long time. After reading some of the comments on the jira, of which i didn't understand that much, since I have no idea about the tech-talk ;-) , i still have one question, that puzzles me: Why is it that showing the real hight of an avatar isn't a problem in phoenix viewer or firestorm viewer, but it seems to be a problem in the LL viewer. I didn't see anyone in that jira pointing that out, so i don't know if that is just a tech thing that i have no clue of.
    <3 Ancale Bellah

  3. I've preached this same sermon (just not quite as well) for a long time now. I've yet to make any converts, which is truly sad. I would suggest this post as required reading for anyone in SL.

  4. @Ancale

    Good point! Phoenix, Emerald, Ascent and all other TPVs actually read the same height information LL's viewer does, except they apply a math fudge to more or less fix the height. It's not 100% perfect, but it's within a few centimetres rather than off by half a foot.

    Nyx Linden has said he'd rather not apply a less than perfect math fix to fudge the height, he'd rather fix the actual problem (AgentHeight misreporting avatar height) which would be fantastic except for some reason this has yet to actually happen.

    Personally, I'd rather a slightly imperfect band-aid as stop-gap measure if it's going to take so long for a perfect fix.

    To everyone else, thanks you for the supporting comments!

  5. @Penny
    thanks for that explanation.
    And I agree, a slightly imperfect representation of the avatars height is definitely better than what we got now.
    And thanks for the camera ajustement tutorial. I tried it. That is soooo much better than the usual camera. I totally love it. I tweaked it a little bit, though.
    It's a much better SL experience that way. Thanks a lot!
    <3 Ancale

  6. @Ancale

    You should post your tweaks in the comments to the camera article, I'd love to try them out!

  7. Penny, I first read this information in your original posts in SL. It was great then, and great here. Though I am of the mind that avs should be whatever size and portion they choose for the day and best meets their needs, for me, this philosophy makes an incredible lot of sense. Thanks much for the effort to share the information. I also appreciated the post on perspective. My camera is now much more conveniently placed. Thanks much!

  8. @Om
    "Though I am of the mind that avs should be whatever size and portion they choose for the day and best meets their needs"

    That has always been my position as well, I even say as much in the article.

    The trend towards large avatars in SL has nothing to do with people choosing intentionally oversized avatars. It's poor avatar creation tools and badly made starting/default avatars which lead to unintentionally gigantic avatars.

  9. Very interesting!
    I'd like very much to have more accurate ways to control avatar shapes and camera views.

  10. Excellent article. I have been an advocate for accurate sizing in SL for years, because I come from an art/design background that requires at least understanding the standard scale we are working with. It's very difficult when we have a set numerical scale in game, which is the obvious rubric to use, and everyone making 8 foot avatars without realizing they've done so.

    It especially mattered when I had to choose a set size for the horse I created, due to how the animations work on the rider's hips. I made the horse sized to breed actual standards and the giant people told me I'd made a pony. There were plenty of people who loved that it was correct but when you have people unintentionally operating in different worlds specs, you can't create easily for them all.

    BTW, the second part of the blog post is spaced out letter by letter vertically in my IE page. I had to copy it to a notepad to read it.

  11. Yeah, it only seems to do that in IE and I can't figure out why.

    As far as producing content for SL. I usually recommend content creators provide properly scaled content by default. Leaving content moddable allows users to then take it upon themselves to scale things larger if they want them so.

    For content that cannot be easily scaled (ie: rescaling breaks animated prims) I generally recommend including two versions of the item. One properly scaled, the other large and a notecard explaining why there's two versions.

    It's a little more work, but this way you can encourage realistic scale without inconveniencing customers and potentially limiting your market.

  12. Basically I agree that properly scaled avatars are a good idea, and some time ago I created an avi shape that was scaled using prim measuring sticks to my modest RL height, but... Next to all my friends, I looked like a little kid wearing that shape, prim clothes didn't fit without massive adjustment, couple dance-balls were a joke, furniture, horses, vehicles were all too big, and so on and so on.

    At a certain point I just gave up on the "everyone is out of step but me" thing, and went with the flow. I have certainly observed no significant trend to more realistically-sized avatars. Even my current standard over-tall avi is shorter than almost everyone I know, and is an XS for nearly all the mesh clothes in my wardrobe. I think this is pretty much a lost cause.

    1. That all depends on what your goal is.

      Is your goal to get all of SL to scale down to more reasonable sizes? Then yeah, probably a lost cause. What can you do? LL still starts new users off as 7' tall giants.

      I simply want to get the most out of SL for myself and felt like sharing information on how to do that. I can, quite literally, fit four sim's worth of content into a single sim by keeping scale in mind. Mesh has made it even easier, so anyone can do it now with very little effort.

      That I'm able to get the most out of SL for myself makes it worthwhile. That other people are finding this information useful is fantastic.

      That is more than enough to consider this "cause" pretty successful rather than lost.

  13. I have been pondering on teh scale issue alot in teh last year and even tried at some point to scale down my avatar (which now is set to 2.03m, but looks like being of around 1.7 in comarison with others) ...
    The main problems I see with smaller avatars are:
    1. There is a problem stretching the heads, which becomes too tiny to be able to have them defined properly. Most tiny avatars I've met have a slightly larger heads compared with their overall size. Same goes with hands and feet.
    2. Most animations in use in SL now are set for "normal" avatar sizes as they are now in SL and won't play well for tiny avatars (even if their measured size seems to be normal in RL).
    3. Most furniture in SL now is also scaled for the medium size avatars have in SL now and not to those scaled down to match the "normal scale"

    But I have an idea .... Why won't we ask LL to adjust the scale instead of avatars, so that, for instance, when measured, my 2.03 avatar would be read as a 1.7 avatar ... that would give us the peace of mind :)

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