I recently wrote about Second Life's current New User Experience -- the process that one goes through to register for Second Life and get into the Second Life world. But that post is already out of date, because LL has just released 24 new "starter avatars." Twelve of them are normal humans, and twelve are vampires or lycans (werewolves.)
These new starter avatars have caused a lot of fuss and bother in the Second Life user community, especially among those of us who spend time helping newcomers. You would think that we'd be happy about it...after all, a lot of us, including me, have complained that the starter avatars had not kept up with improvements like Mesh and alpha layers. But no...instead, we're all bitching to each other about the new Mesh avatars. Read on to find out why!
The new avatars are Mesh. That is to say, the avatar bodies are not the standard avatar mesh. They are No Modify, and can't be affected by the Appearance sliders. This is sure to lead to a tremendous amount of confusion. The very first thing that most people do when getting in to Second Life is to start playing with their appearance. Often, I see people rez in and immediately spread their arms and legs in Appearance mode. Imagine their frustration when nothing works!
Linden Lab has, very Politically Correctly, created the new avatars with a wide range of ethnic features. Some are black, some Asian, etc. That's great, but because they are not modifiable, it actually limits the user's choices. Pick an avatar, and you are stuck with those facial features, that skin tone.
The proportions of the New Batch are markedly different from most SL avatars. They are, generally speaking, shorter. The hands are bigger, the arms longer. Now, this may seem to some to be a good thing...LL apparently took note of the fact that most SL avatars are not well proportioned. We tend to be a lot taller than average, compared to Real Life. We're thinner, our figures are, um...exaggerated...and our arms are often too short. In fact, most of us are closer to the proportions you find in superhero comics, rather than real life people. The New Batch is closer to human norms. But, aside from the arm length, I think most Second Life folks are going to think that's just...ugly. We're used to looking like centerfolds and superheros. "Normal" people look dumpy in comparison.
Because they are Mesh, the facial morphs that animate (however crudely) our facial expressions...blinks, smiles, and so on...don't work. The face is frozen in a single expression. And a lot of those expressions appear upset or angry. Well, at least LL got one thing right, because I think the users are going to feel like their avatars look!
You can use the Fitted Mesh clothing items from one avatar with other avatars and shapes...in some cases. The permissions and the fit of clothing is not consistent, even among the new avatars. Plus, the clothes on some of the avatars don't even fit them correctly, allowing skin to show through when the arms or legs are moved well away from the rest position.
There have also been a lot of complaints about the skins of the new avatars being very poorly done. Some say that they are reminded of the flat shaded, ugly skins of the avatars we had back in 2007. I think these comments are coming from people who aren't wearing (or possibly, aren't seeing) the alpha masks that are a part of these new avatars...because the skin that covers the "stock" shape IS that awful flat orange stuff. If you wear the alpha mask, though, that doesn't matter because neither the stock shape or skin will be seen.
And there are complaints that wearing one of these new avatars messes up your natural shape. I have, in fact, seen that. And another new (to me) shape bug, in which the shape of the Mesh avatar becomes corrupted. The corruption will persist if a new avatar is put on, or if the user reverts to another shape and outfit. This corruption is not permanent, but requires a re-log to fix. If your arms look pulled in tight to your sides, or your shoulders stretch waaaay out too far, hit CTRL+Q and log in again.
Here is the basic, underlying problem: The Second Life avatar's appearance is determined by a lot of factors and features, many of which have been added on to Second Life over the years. This started way back with prim hair, which rapidly replaced the ugly system hair in popularity. It continued with the introduction of sculpties, and sculpted shoes and other attachments. Mesh clothing can look great...but you also have to wear an alpha mask to hide the parts of your body under the clothing. Prim attachments look great...but they can also penetrate your body (or your body can stick out through them.) Mesh shapes offer more flexibility, can go places where the Appearance sliders can't...but things designed for the normal avatar body like facial expressions and the Appearance sliders don't affect them. In short, avatar appearance is a minefield of patchwork fixes that presents a hugely confusing landscape to the newcomer. This is why we don't need new Mesh starter avatars...we need a whole makeover of the Second Life basic avatar, an Avatar 2.0.