Friday, September 23, 2011

Digging in the Digital Dirt

Congratulations! You’ve bought a parcel of land. Now you are standing there, looking around and wondering what to do with it. In all likelihood, the contours of the land aren’t exactly what you’d like…maybe it’s a pancake-flat square of sand on a private island, or maybe there is a steep hill right where you’d like to put a house.

Don’t worry! You have the power to make your land look pretty much the way you want it to…through the power of terraforming.

“Terraforming” means, literally, “earth shaping”. It’s a term invented by science fiction writers to describe the process of making an inhospitable planet more earthlike…but in Second Life, it refers to the Land Tools that give you the ability to reshape the land. If you live on the Mainland, this ability is generally limited…you can raise or lower the land by 4 meters, starting from the reference design created by Linden Lab when they first made the region. Private estates can be terraformed over a much wider range, +/- 100m, but the estate owner may have restricted your ability as a tenant to some smaller value, or even zero. Even if you aren’t permitted to terraform your estate parcel yourself, many estate owners are willing to terraform it for you, within reason.

Your land’s texture depends on its elevation. Land is assigned four textures by Linden Lab or the estate owner. Unless you own your own private island, you can’t change these…but you can ask your estate owner to do so. A typical texture progression might be:
  • Below sea level to 2m above sea level – sand
  • 2m to 20m – grass
  • 20m to 40m – rock
  • 40m and up – snow and ice
The texture does not change abruptly at the boundary. There is a random variation built in, to produce a more realistic looking terrain. This is why, if you have a very mild slope, the sand-to-grass boundary may appear to change a little between your visits to your land. This can result in problems with making your lawn borders look neat, which some people overcome by using “landscaping prims”…large flat prims with a grass texture to create a lawn with definite boundaries.

I love water features on my land, and it’s fun to create a creek or a pond. Here’s how:
  1. Right click the ground. Select Edit Terrain. You’ll see the land tools window appear.
  2. You can set the size of your “digging tool” and the strength of the terraforming effect with the "bulldozer" sliders. In some cases, you want the effect applied uniformly to a large area. In that case, check the “selection” check box, then select the area to be affected.  Then select your tool and hit Apply.
  3. You can choose from several effects. To dig our hole, we’ll use Lower.
  4. Move your cursor to where you want to start digging and press the left mouse button. For a stream bed, move your cursor along the path you want your creek to follow.
  5. You will probably need to make several passes to deepen the cut.
  6. You can flatten out irregularities with the Flatten and Smooth tools. Play with them to see how they differ.
The results are not “precise”. You can’t make, for example, a hole with vertical sides or sharp corners. You can almost always get approximately the result you want, with a little careful tweaking around the edges, but you may need to use prims here and there to create sharper divisions or to hide an unwanted bump or depression.

If you are close to sea level, you might be able to dig down far enough to “hit water” and let the natural Linden water fill your stream or pond. Otherwise, you’ll have to use “prim water”, which is just one or more prims with a water texture applied to them. The water can be made to ripple or flow by dropping a texture movement script into the prim. A nice touch is to add a water sound clip and another little script to play the sound in a continuous loop.

Next, decorate the banks of your water feature with some prim rocks, driftwood, and/or tall waving grasses. Don’t forget to add a bench or two where people can sit and admire your landscaping!

Creating a mountain is very similar, except we use Raise to lift the land up. You can add features to your mountain like boulders or waterfalls. If you can’t get as rugged a look as you want with the terraforming tools, think about getting some of the giant megaprim boulders and pre-made crags available at landscaping stores or the Marketplace.

Caves present a special problem. The problem is that Second Life land is one-sided. You can raise or lower the surface, but you can’t get “underneath” it. The only way to make a cave is to build it at least partially out of prims…either a “hollow mountain”, or a hole in the ground (like your pond), roofed over with a disguising prim. I once visited a very well-hidden home dug into the ocean floor and roofed over in this manner. If it hasn’t been moved, there is a large hidden cavern in the Chakryn Forest region…go traipsing about the tops of the mountains until you find the soft spot and fall through.

Go ahead, try out the Terraforming tools. I’ll bet you’ll agree that it’s the most fun you’ve had digging in the dirt since you were a little kid with a sandbox!

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