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.