Can Second Life Be Saved?


Yes, this is an actual screenshot from Second Life.

Second Life is going through strange days.

Well, stranger than usual.

Second Life’s neo-Utopian post-hippie prefix-spawning founder, Philip Rosedale, apparently got tired of the grinding whining that accompanies pretty much every online game product ever, and stepped aside so that he could work on cool stuff and not have all those suits harsh his buzz, man. In his place, the Internet’s last best hope for Cybertopia was managed by Mark Kingdon, whose prior experience in online gaming and virtual communities involved… marketing.

Yeah, this’ll end well.

Mr Kingdon’s arrival at the company shows that the online world created by Linden Lab is growing up and getting real.

He began growing up and getting real by meeting the somewhat leery and only partially obscene residents of Second Life as “M Linden“, thus proving his mastery of digital marketing by refusing to take the time to actually type in a full name.

M’s master plan for saving Second Life? Simple – turn it into Facebook. No, wait, stop me if you’ve heard this before. Second Life’s users, only some of whom were overweight men pretending to be fashionista women, reacted about as strongly as you’d expect.

The first step in this cunning master plan was Linden Lab’s acquisition of Avatars United. With this strategic play, Second Life, a client/server application with its own virtual currency that allowed you to create avatars, now supported the ability to… create web-based avatars somewhere else, which may or may not be related to your Second Life identity, with its own virtual currency which had nothing to do with Second Life’s existing currency, with even less usability than Facebook, and in general was a poorly written hack job. After a few weeks, Linden’s response was essentially, “let us never speak of this again”.

Instead, Kingdon and Linden moved, full speed ahead, towards producing a new client for Second Life. The goal of course, was to produce an interface that was accessible beyond Second Life’s current hardcore niche of users who absolutely are not overweight men pretending to be fashionista women. Now, if you gave me, a designer of hardcore games aimed at a niche group of users who pretty much completely are overweight men pretending to be blood elf dancers, this task to spec out, I’d give you the following list of requirements:

  • Web-based, using Flash, Java or some other ubiquitous platform to minimize installation headaches
  • Very, very low system requirements, running comfortably on netbooks and older machines
  • Minimal download times
  • A very, very simple user interface that passes the “Mac user/grandmother” test
  • Searching and directory features that guide new users quickly and easily into Second Life’s already extant vast economy
  • Ability to opt into embedding into/connecting with Facebook and future social networks

So, Linden Lab, who clearly knows far more than me about this metaverse reality stuff, rolled out Viewer 2! Which featured:

  • A large client, identical to Second Life’s already existing client
  • Punishing system requirements, identical to Second Life’s already existing client
  • Essentially requiring a fast broadband connection, identical to Second Life’s already existing client
  • No ability to connect with any social network at all, including the one Linden Lab bought for some odd reason a few months earlier
  • A user interface which most users found more difficult to use and more intimidating than Second Life’s already existing client
  • A new search engine which didn’t actually list most of Second Life’s already existing event listings and advertisings, killing Second Life’s already extant vast economy. Or… it would have if anyone actually used Viewer 2.

Shortly thereafter, Linden Lab lost most of Linden Lab and Mark Kingdom lost his M, replaced by Philip “Aw man, do I have to do this stuff AGAIN” Rosedale.

So, that’s the background. The ship of Linden state is listing pretty heavily to starboard.

Wagner James Au today weighs in with his take on how to save Second Life. Most of his suggestions are fairly apt, if not obvious (and if Linden is actually looking for MMO veterans, Austin is still a smoking crater of lost dreams and forlorn hopes!). But he does miss a couple of important points.

First off, Linden Lab doesn’t appear to know what its core business is. Hint: it’s server hosting.

Second Life is, essentially, a protocol. Everything content-related – game-y things, world-y things, people-with-cat-heads-meowing-things-you-really-don’t-want-to-hear things – all of them come from the users themselves. Linden Lab just puts up the servers, and people pay Linden money to  run them. They then presumably make that money back from other users, or run them as an odd hobby, or whatever. Linden doesn’t care – and Linden shouldn’t care. Their business is as Pakleds. They make things. That make us go.

Second, after the server hosting is there and done, the second neglected feature that is killing Second Life – customer service. Or rather, the lack thereof. I’m sure it will surprise few MMO watchers that much of Linden Lab’s recent bloodletting was in customer service. After all, CS doesn’t make you money. You just pay for CS agents and they sit there and talk to users and don’t make any money and what the hell, we got new Facebook clients to write!

Yet – Linden is a service provider. Service providers have to have good customer service. It’s a requirement. Without good customer service, everything else is irrelevant, because your new user experience will consist of your new users leaving your hermetically sealed new user zone and experiencing something akin to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but with slightly more overweight men pretending to be female fashionistas.  This is something that all successful online service providers eventually learn (Blizzard’s customer service team numbers in the thousands), and if Linden wishes to join their number, they need to learn that lesson.

Third, and most importantly, and what has apparently kept Linden Lab drowning in the ocean this past year – know your audience. I have it on reasonably good authority that Linden Lab’s perception of its current customer base is, roughly, overweight men pretending to be hot fashionista women. Guess what – that’s your audience. You don’t get a redo unless you make an entirely new product. You got lots of investor capital and media coverage based on all those overweight men pretending to be fashionistas. If you want to continue running a business that is profitable – you had best keep them happy. If they hate your new viewer and instead use an alternate third party viewer en masse – maybe this is a problem! If your business model consists of joining with a social network that emphasizes real identity as opposed to avatar anonymity, and a good portion of your user base is patronizing you specifically because they want that avatar anonymity – maybe this is a problem!

Sure, it makes you the laughing stock of Joel Stein, Something Awful and 4Chan. Gee. Given 1 million unique users a month, I’ll take a bunch of internet nerds laughing at me, too. Hint: some of them really, really want to be hot fashionistas.

The Casual Gaming Market Goes Literally Insane

"Those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it."

Kongregate, the home of about 3 million flash games, gets bought by Gamestop after realizing that literally no one is buying games in stores any more except for nine year olds that want the old hackable version of GTA San Andreas.  Playdom (which some of you may know chiefly for acquiring Raph Koster’s company, because you never admit to playing any Facebook games ever) gets bought by Disney for almost eight hundred million dollars. Zynga is acquired by the European Community in exchange for Mark Pincus being granted Slovenia as a feudal overlord, its people now subject to his every mad whim and forced to wear YoVille-branded jester hats on “casual Fridays“.

I may have made one of those news entries up. I think.

Well, That's One Way To Fund Your Company

"Thanks for the shirt! I'm going to go run a game company now, or possibly become a Senator, in a state that may or may not be this one."

38 Studios moves a few miles down the road from Boston to Rhode Island thanks to a $75 million kickback.

Schilling said yesterday that his efforts to arrange assistance from Massachusetts met with seeming indifference. “It was very hard to get to anyone,’’ he said.

Keith Stokes, the executive director of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corp., told the Globe several weeks ago that his office was originally approached by Schilling’s company. “We weren’t pursuing 38,’’ Stokes said. “They came to us.’’

Yesterday, Stokes said the state would issue bonds to generate the $75 million, and Schilling’s company would receive the cash in stages as it added jobs and met predetermined goals.

Local developers react as if Curt Schilling signed with the Yankees.

Curt, we love our home state of Massachusetts. In the end, if you really move your company down to Pawtucket, it will be a loss for the Boston game community. If anyone on the talented 38 Studios team wants to stay in Massachusetts, where we play major-league ball, they’re more than welcome to join the team at Demiurge Studios, the state’s soon-to-be largest independent game studio.

And even local politicians got in the act.

A day after Schilling announced he was accepting a $75 million loan guarantee package to move his 38 Studios LLC to the Ocean State, politicians in Massachusetts and Rhode Island questioned whether the incentive deal was worth the price.

Former U.S. Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a candidate for governor in Rhode Island, even questioned the validity of Schilling’s famous “bloody sock” tale in the 2004 Red Sox march toward a championship. Chafee later backtracked from his fake bloody-sock crack.

But Massachusetts officials weren’t reversing their call that Schilling was off-base for accusing Massachusetts of not doing enough to keep his budding Maynard-based firm in the Bay State.

“I think in the end he was, I think, hoping we would get in a bit of a bidding war with Rhode Island, and we weren’t prepared to do that,” Greg Bialecki, Gov. Deval Patrick’s economic czar, told the State House News Service.

No word on how this straight-up corporate welfare grab for taxpayer dollars meshes with Schilling’s long-rumored conservative political ambitions. If you’re wondering why this is relevant to this blog, Curt Schilling is responsible for bringing Advanced Squad Leader back into print! There may also be something involving dark elves.

Everquest II Joins The Free-To-Play Brigade

…with a new service called Everquest II Extended – a free-to-play version that will run alongside their subscription servers.

Extended is not a replacement to the live subscription service and while the game content is the same, access and restrictions are different between the two. Extended is a gameplay option targeted towards certain players who are willing to play within a limited feature-set service with additional content purchase and upgrade options, rather than pay for the full service via a standard monthly subscription. The live $15 EQII subscription service is unrestricted full access to the game world for those accounts in good standing, a valuable service, just as it has always been. The EverQuest II Extended service has restrictions based on your membership level. Limited access to the EQII Extended world and certain content is free, while other content, access, and items are available only for purchase.

Definitely seems to be a bandwagon effect happening.

RealID: Blizzard Heard You

Really.

We’ve been constantly monitoring the feedback you’ve given us, as well as internally discussing your concerns about the use of real names on our forums. As a result of those discussions, we’ve decided at this time that real names will not be required for posting on official Blizzard forums.

Blizzard taught us how to come together as a community to slay internet dragons. Sometimes, Blizzard doesn’t like what internet dragons we choose to slay.

Lissanna, commenter, WoW.com

So, initial WOOHOO rush aside, some comments:

  • Yes, this blog has been all WoW RealID all the time the past few days. I think it’s justified. This has been a pretty big deal. World of Warcraft is, by most metrics, one of the if not the largest MMO in the world, and has the most active community. When Blizzard decides to change the paradigm of how people play its games, from avatar to actual (which I still believe the primary goal of the RealID push to be), it’s a big deal.
  • Does this announcement mean that Blizzard suddenly discovered religion on privacy issues? Of course not. There’s still some not so minor quibbles with the in-game RealID implementation, the lack of any ability to opt out of publishing in-game character data, and a game client that isn’t shy about searching your PC looking for signs of misbehavior. Blizzard is still one of the worst offenders in the gaming industry in terms of abusing its users’ expectations of privacy. However, they also now know that their customers do not have an infinite patience for having their privacy stripped away. This is an important, and necessary achievement, before further progress can be made.
  • The debate by those in favor of Blizzard’s actions have been largely to the degree of “well, I don’t mind if my real name is out there, so what’s the big deal?” As noted by the fact that these blog posts are authored by Scott Jennings and not Lum the Gnome Warlock, I don’t particularly mind, either. However, I made that choice. One should not deny others the ability to make choices regarding their privacy simply because you did not find them necessary.
  • One undercurrent that has been unspoken by many of us, and commented on by the mass media, is that the reason this is such a problem is that gamer culture in general is a mean, ugly, misogynist cesspool. Removing anonymity won’t fix this. Honestly, I’m not sure what would. Consequences for one’s actions? Self-awareness within a tighter, smaller community? Giving me a shotgun? I’m not sure which solution would work but the fallout from this week shows one is definitely needed. To quote Simond from F13:

We won. For now. And all it took was threadnoughts on the official forums, every single mmo blog bar about two saying “This is a fucking terrible idea”, the mass media, a Penny Arcade comic, and the destruction of one CS minion’s life.