Survival of the Fittest: Will Second Life Be A Success?

While browsing for more information about Second Life®, I came across a plethora of web sites and blogs on MMOGs and MMORPGs, trying to understand what direction the online gaming industry is taking these days.

On the other hand, I have also been in touch with several residents inworld and ask them about their own ideas on the subject – namely, why they prefer playing SL instead of other games they tried. Most residents are quite indifferent about the “why” they like the game. I remember meeting with Chris Altman, another resident sharing Philip’s vision, and he sadly reported that I was the only person he met so far thinking along the same way 🙂 Fortunately, there are more – many more!

So, the question I asked myself was, what makes a MMOG/MMORPG successfull?

The media are quite clear on one point. “Winners” are certainly the games with more users for the longuest period of time. With this in mind, they seem to regard most MMORPGs as failures. And phenomena like City of Heroes – with 180,000 users in a few weeks since having been launched – are highly praised by the media, since they can’t really understand how these numbers “exploded” so suddenly. And we’re talking about a very simple game here – pick an avatar, choose your superpowers, choose one of the 10 available cities, go there to have fun blasting other people’s avatars out of the sky. Pure fun! Immediate success!

On the other hand, they laugh at Electronic Arts because they had promised “over 2 million users” in The Sims Online and peaked out at about 80,000 (there has been a decrease in the past weeks, of course). So things seem not be going very well. Overall feeling is that MMOGs/MMORPGs are too expensive to design and mantain, and that they are not economically viable over a long term period. The main reason for that is “lack of interest” by the players. After a few weeks “visiting the views”, everything is simply not “new” anymore, and it’s time to change to another game – or have the game’s creative staff throw in more content. Of course, that’s one of the reasons why the games are so expensive to maintain! The company needs to fill up the game with content, and more content, and even more content, just to keep players happily paying their monthly fees…

There and The Sims Online seem to encourage players to create their own content in a way. This would mean a longer longevity. However, neither of these games have a realistic “virtual economy”, it looks much more like a way for the company behing those games to make money, than something which “emerges” from the game itself. Still, they are around, and There seems to make money for reselling their technology to the US military. TSO, of course, has the multi-billion EA corporation behind it to sustain the financing. A few dollars lost here or there are always good for taxes 😉

Here is the reason why the media doesn’t “like” Second Life®”. If you list game features and corporate identity side by side, you’ll see that Second Life/Linden Lab hardly fits on any classification. So, the media don’t know what to do about them! Read the MMOG/MMORPG reviews, when coming to SL, there is usually something like “I shoudn’t be reviewing SL, since this is hardly a game” written down. And they are right! SL is hard to review. Why?

A few examples. All major online games boast about the number of players the have online – the more, the bigger the income, and the more solid the company running the game. But Philip boasts about “a solid economy“. Well, many online games don’t have an economy at all, so how you can compare them?

Many also boast about the incredible amount of different avatars and clothing combinations that can be created. Second Life®, besides having 200+ options to fine-tune your avatar, simply allows you to upload the clothing you wish (or the “skin” you desire). Even if you boast a game with a zillion different avatar combinations… in SL, you have infinite combinations. That’s a number which makes the media shudder.

Online games are also very proud of telling their public how many “skills” are available, or how many different “technology trees”, or how many objects are for sale. Second Life does not have any “skills” at all. As for objects, you can build whatever you want – so the question is irrelevant again.

Some gaming companies like to tell their gamers how many programmers and creative art designers they have to do produce content. Again, this shows the level of commitment the company shows into designing new content and “recreating the game afresh”. While most reviewers are appalled at the ugly, chaotic state of affairs on SL – absolutely random design, with varying degrees of “quality” – the truth is, LL-created content has decreased from 90% or so after Beta finished, to – what? – 1%? 0.1%? Just to give you an idea, “Linden textures” are about 36 MBytes (you download them with the software). The current texture & data database is over 100 GBytes in size. So, 0.3% is Linden content? 🙂 And, as the grid expands, Linden content will be less and less. So how can you measure the success of SL based on how much new content Linden Lab produces? In terms of SL, the less they produce, the more it comes from creative and talented people – the residents. So the media can’t handle this paradigm shift very well…

What do the media and the reviewers “compare” then? It’s easy: they compare frame rates and degree of realism on rendering the virtual world. Since the technology behind SL is so different – it has to be, for a fully dynamic world with collaborative building – I feel it’s unfair to compare “apples” with “oranges”. One open-source 3D game I played for a while, featuring Python programming for all its objects (you can script whole universes with AIs if you wished), fully allowing everybody to upload “objects” created with their 3D tools, often featured 80 fps (!) using OpenGL (either under Windows, Mac OS X or Linux). Ok, sustained rate was perhaps much lower, perhaps 40-50 🙂 Compare that to the average 10 fps in SL. Yeah, you guessed it – this game is not a dynamically changing multi-player environment 🙂 The team behind it are still figuring how to get the multi-player part working well, and sure thing, no collaborative working or changing the world dynamically by uploading textures in real time. No, Second Life® is truly unique on that approach, and the net result is: bad reviews because the frame rate is low!

Slightly changing the subject, and trying to “define” success in another way besides getting a table of features and checking off what does not apply to SL, another fascinating insight by Philip “Linden” Rosedale which I found on the interview he gave to the The Second Life Herald is that he believes that Second Life® will have around one million users in three years. This is a very optimistic view. Why does he think that so many people will join? Well, his theory is that SL is a collaborative creative environment where you have more freedoms than in RL, and, in a way, you can accelerate the time scale in SL to do rapid prototyping – not only on computer-related stuff (like games or so), but on a social scale. This means that SL society, after a few months, attained a level of stability which usually takes several years in RL (just think about all those countries emerging as new democracies with new societies from beyond the Iron Curtain, 15 years ago – they’re now free, and after 15 years, their own societies aren’t stable yet…).

Now all this combined makes SL attractive to the residents. I love to quote Philip, and one idea he has is that SL is not a game, but a place. So you “travel” to this place instead of “joining a game” – it’s like having vacations on another country. Things are similar – since SL models itself upon RL – but still different. This is quite different from the notion of “pure entertainment” provided by most online games, or “virtual 3D rooms” like TSO or There. SL is all about a growing community, gently guided by Linden Lab, but which shows the first signs of self-rule. Something appealing to us is logging in over and over again, and having a notion that things have changed, but stayed the same. This means your friends are online, there are still sandboxes in Morris and Cordova, the L$ is stil worth about the same, and Elite is still the biggest club in SL – but probably new stuff has also been brought in: new content (new clubs, new shops), new ideas (like SimHorror), new people, new ways of doing old stuff.

So, where does all of this leads us to? Recent talks with Andrew Linden – which seem to reflect much of what has been said – shows that LL is worried about “exponential growth”, just to please the media and give us a warm, cozy feeling that everything is going well in the right direction. SL as a “gaming platform” simply does not attract a large number of people by “word of mouth” – currently, still the biggest way to attract people to this “virtual environment”, in a steady way with which LL is able to keep up the growth. Meaning that unlike other games, people at LL seem to think that they should throttle growth, not encourage it – until the platform is ready to handle it.

Since the completely unexpected funding by Benchmark Capital, LL has found a way to speed up their growth. They seem to want to concentrate on stability and speed of the technical side of Second Life® – instead of making more money with a large marketing campaign that would attract millions of users. Now this is something very unexpected coming from an US company – relying on quality instead of quantity. Being an European and educated under those principles, I really appreciate the way Linden Lab seems to be running their own approach to become” successful”: stay small, grow in a sustained way, focus on quality, improve the platform and the experience of current residents, make them spend more on SL instead of attracting new people that would just log in, see that the frame rate is around 10 and that vehicles get lost across sim boundaries, and never return to SL again.

While this approach certainly will find fully acceptance on my side of the Atlantic, I expect that the quantity-based US business approach will always “rate SL negatively”. LL should have 100,000 residents by now – like other games with the same “age” – and not a “mere” 15,000. So, from an US business perspective, LL is supposed to be a flop. More than that, this also means that their Return On Investment will take ages, and not just one or two years. Again, the fast-paced US economy will scorn that type of medium to long-term approach on online gaming, since the “usual” way of doing business on online games is launch a new platform, get 100,000 users after one year or so, launch another new platform based on the first one’s success, and so on, and so on. But if you read Philip’s interviews you’ll read things like “in 2007 we will have one million users”. Linden Lab plans ahead. This also means that thousands of residents will simply not understand this model of thinking, and give up on SL since things “do not happen fast enough”. I also believe that this is one of the reasons why the number of non-US residents is growing much faster – we simply have a different approach. We prefer (and expect) quality, and are willing to wait for better quality, and support companies focusing on quality instead of quantity.

Worse – the media seems to believe that most online games are flattening out or decreasing their customer base. Some talk about “the end of the MMOG/MMORPGs – they were a nice experiment, but they are not financially sustainable”. So how can a company talk about “quality of service on a sustained growth basis” when the media don’t believe in virtual online platforms any more?

Last but not least, and despite all limitations, one of the amazing things about SL is it’s customer support. Most (but not all) Internet-related businesses usually have a 500-to-1 or 1000-to-1 ratio of clients vs. tech support personnel. With the introduction of Live Help, plus the Mentor group and the in-world universities doing classes on SL-related stuff, you have around 300 people or so doing some sort of “customer support” (of course there are different levels of customer support, but this is precisely what all companies of the world do). Since there are about 15,000 residents, this means that 2% of the SL population is engaged in some sort of “organized” customer support – or, if you wish, it’s a 50-to-1 ratio. No business I ever saw on the Internet has been able to have that level of customer support when you have a customer base of a few thousand users. You may argue that Live Help/Mentors/University courses are not really “Linden Lab”-based customer support, but you would be wrong. Creating an environment where people actually are willing to volunteer their own time to help other customers is the trick, and it’s incredible hard to encourage spontaneously. The closest thing to this is, of course, the open source community (even the one having a company behind it, like MySQL).

Residents live Second Life®, and they are willing to go to extremes to help and work with Linden Lab?, for free, just to make sure we will all reach those ambitious goals set for the future. Several of us – and I would think there are a few thousands thinking like that – already think of Second Life® our “common” project with the Lindens and “act” like it were like that – even if we are fully aware that LL is “just another company wanting to make money”.

Now how on Earth is the media able to measure that and call it a success?

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