The “SL Killer”

Gwyn's Meez

The quest for the ultimate “SL Killer” continues. I made a few comments on yet another “ultimate virtual world” on SLOG, but the reality is, there are more, and more, and more… and every week there is a new one popping up next door 🙂

As part of my curiousity — and to a degree my professional work as well — I tend to keep abreast of what Linden Lab’s “competition” is currently doing. Yes, I’ve put quotation marks around this word, deliberately so. You’ll soon understand why.

It’s hard to believe that Second Life has reached 4 million accounts, a third of which have logged in the past two months, and not believe that the rest of the world is silently ignoring Linden Lab, and simply waiting for something for making an appearance. The strong-willed naysayers of Second Life both try to push their arguments claiming that all those numbers are fake and that “social games” without goals nor purposes have no real long-term success — it’s all hype.

I have to confess — I’m actually not a regular forum/blog reader. Unlike any normal netizen (when was the last time you’ve heard that word…? Probably back in 1997), I don’t really have the habit of reading all about the Internet, its culture, and its development. People assume I’m aware of all the net.celebrities around the world and that I keep in touch with what they write. I “know” only one net.celebrity, Eric Rice, who, in his incarnation in SL as Spin Martin, is an avid enthusiast and unofficial evangelist — besides being both cool, open-minded, intelligent, witty, and a pleasure to read (which I sadly can’t say about most of the other net.celebrities). So, I mostly ignore what is going on at 3PointD, Terra Nova, or any other major gaming/virtual world sites/forums, as well as what all the world is talking about these days. I happen just to read once in a while a few interesting articles, here and there, that friends and colleagues send to me.

It’s clear that 2006/7 would be the turning point of SL: becoming mainstream. In this age and era, this mostly means having perhaps a few dozens of millions of users — hopefully, hundred or hundred fifty million. Without that, you’re just a grain of sand in the whole desert — a tiny blip on the radar that doesn’t register at all. Second Life, however, managed to get the media and the press to focus on “business in Second Life” since the summer of 2006 — after just briefly registering “sex” in 2005, and “games” in 2004 — and this has been the driving force behind the whole movement. You see, “sex” attracts the media, but “business” will draw the crowd’s attention: if you want to go mainstream, and not appeal just to a tiny majority of technological gurus, early adopters, and lonely people, you need to talk to them about business. And Linden Lab has been very successful in doing that.

Obviously, this also means that it starts catching the attention of their possible competitors. During 2005 and most of 2006, the most obvious target for competition was on the computer games industry — since they have the 3D technology, the content designers, and the knowledge to run multi-million environments. In early 2005, Second Life had barely twenty or thirty thousand users, while World of Warcraft had 6 millions — 0.5%. In early 2007, SL has 4 million and WoW has 8. Before the end of this year, SL will have more accounts than WoW, even counting that Blizzard will add extra packs and levels, and new and improved content, etc. So, something strange is going on. An “inferior product” — low frame rates and inferior technology, bad content (designed by users), a weak business model, almost no advertising (except for press releases and word of mouth advertising) is beating a giant in the sheer amount of created accounts. What is going on?

In late 2005, everybody was writing at the “popular” videogame/virtual reality boards and blogs that “social games would never catch on”. The statistics were not lying: over 90% of all online games were fantasy (mostly due to phenomena like WoW), and the social games like The Sims Online or There.com peaked at hundred or hundred fifty thousand accounts, then dropped to sub-20,000, like any other “social online game”. There are many of those around. They still survive, they still make a profit (probably — who knows! — even more than Linden Lab!) and that’s why they’re still around. Purely social environments like IMVU continue to grow: they have about half a million or more users, and 25,000 online at the same time (not unlike Second Life these days). Kaneva has the weirdest (but most interesting!) concept so far: although it is claimed to be a social environment with high-quality content — at par with the best of what SL is able to provide — the avatars, to reduce lag, are very low-prim and as ugly as There.com’s offerings. However — and this is the catch! — when you sign up for it you can’t login immediately. First, you have to prove your social skills and the ability to generate huge amounts of traffic on their MySpace.com, 2D environment. This means contributing and participating in “communities” (the equivalent of SL groups) on forums, shared picture/video spaces, and upload media, write a blog, and do all sort of “Web 2.0” things in order to get rated high enough to get an invite from one of the company’s employees. How long does that take? I have no idea. I had looked thoroughly at Kaneva half a year ago, but never registered; I did so today, and after a few minutes, I had 5 friends, all begging for ratings. After a few hours, my mailbox was full with a hundred or so requests for more “friendship”. And now I’m uploading a huge amount of images and some crude machinimas; I expect that my mailbox at Gmail will be positively overflowing with rating requests tomorrow 🙂 All that from what I can only classify as a teeming community, overeager to join a 3D virtual world for free (it’s ad-sponsored; but see ahead…) which, for all purposes… I don’t even know if it exists at all!

I actually got bored looking at the MySpace-cloned environment and went to Meez to create a cute avatar instead. At least Meez is honest: you spend a few dollars, buy a few outfits, and can create cute animated pictures like the one at the beginning of this blog, which are supposed to be used inside your blogs or your forums. Yes, there is a “community” of teens writing at their official forums as well. A much cuter approach than Gravatar 🙂

So what is happening? Apparently, it’s not only Linden Lab that is tying together three ‘new’ elements: 3D, social, and business. All the above sites work on the same principles: they’re ad-sponsored, they’re free to join but you pay to get content (in some cases, it’s user-generated — like on IMVU or There.com — although in most case, the content is provided by the company running the servers), and they’re 3D. In some cases, they’re full-blown virtual environments; in others, like Meez, they don’t even pretend to be an “environment” at all — they’re just copying Yahoo Avatars or Microsoft’s more sophisticated Ms. Dewey (which some claim it’s just linkbait, and not ready yet). Microsoft is hardly a newcomer to “social 3D environments”; they did quite a lot of those around the turn of the century (notice the dates on that article!), and one can only wonder what they’re up to on their Microsoft island in Second Life.

We can only conclude that the “gamer” culture is not catching on this new technology. The focus is not the technology or the rather low-quality avatars and 3D environments (with the exception of IMVU’s avatars, who are extraordinarily good). The focus is people interconnecting, and the way they establish social environments with 3D avatars that can be personalised — for a fee. There are lots and lots of examples, and that’s why the “SL Killer” is now scheduled to appear from the “social companies” (Google, Yahoo, AOL, Microsoft) and not the “games companies”, who still stick to the old model of providing fantasy MMORPGs (one or two new ones are announced every week on MMORPG.com). The recent announcements of “rumours” of a Google Virtual World is very likely to be exactly that: an ad-sponsored Google Earth with cute 3D avatars, which you might be able to personalise for a fee. Thus, Google will compete with IMVU, Meez, Yahoo Avatars and similar technologies, not necessarily with Second Life.

We are back on square one. So where will the competition come from, then? The game companies will prefer to explore the non-social games, since they have “proved” that the low retention rates of “virtual chatrooms” is indeed uninteresting from the business point of view; killing Orcs, as usual, makes people pay for their accounts, while talking over the weather and the fashion doesn’t. From the social side, we see people including 3D avatars inside the existing Web 2.0 social spaces, and it’s the “web content” group that are offering these things. After all, Linden Lab is also going to launch my.secondlife.com — thus, in effect, GOMming the popular SLProfiles, with the advantage of being able to give people things like a SL blog or SL email addresses, or tying up your avatar name as a single sign-on solution for a Web 2.0 social environment “outside” of SL. Hopefully they’ve learned the lesson this time and will start selling ads there!

But Second Life is not really either of those. It’s not high-quality enough to meet the demands of gamers — too much lag, not enough people in the same sim, it takes too long to develop an exciting game inside Second Life, it’s too expensive to rent hundreds of sims, which also would require a solid business model to make all this game development worthwhile — but it’s far more than a simple “hey-I-can-personalise-an-avatar” type of social environment. It’s obvious that the social aspects of Second Life are important, and one of its major attractions. The other one is business. And finally, creative self-expression by allowing you to twek your avatar on your own (instead of relying on things to buy) as well as building all the virtual world from scratch, and getting a set of in-world tools. All are closely tied together.

Take Meez for an example. For 5 US$, I managed to buy perhaps 3 dresses among a selection of a thousand or so. On IMVU, I would have half a million items, since they’re user-created (and company-approved). On SL… we’re talking about dozens of millions. It’s several orders of magnitude higher. I don’t know if anyone ever managed to roam all “3D content” sites in the world — like Renderosity, Daz, etc., but also the hundreds of sites offering content for There.com, IMVU, The Sims Online, or Yahoo Avatars. If we put them all together, how many dozens of millions of choices do they give to the user? I would claim — not having done any research — that, in 2007, Second Life might be the richest source of digital 3D content available in the whole world for sale, and that one single platform has as much to offer in terms of content as all the others put together. I haven’t done my research here, and so I apologise in advance if I’m making a false statement. It has been quite a long while since I last checked (a couple years actually), but while it’s safe to assume that most sites you can find through a search in Google for “digital 3D content” will certainly have “dozens of thousands” of items for sale, and a few (like IMVU…) “hundreds of thousands”, none have “dozens of millions”; remember, just SL Exchange has 120,000 or more items announced for sale — but just 48,000 registered users!

So, I rather believe that the “competition” is not lurking at every corner, happy to jump on SL’s bandwagon at any moment. I think I’ve discussed this over and over again — SL is not about “technology” but about people. But it’s not only about people wanting to chat. They want to do way more than that: they want to build their own world, and, by doing so, engage in business. Now I’m pretty sure this is neither on the “games companies” minds, nor on the “social sites” people. Neither views Second Life — or a SL-styled metaverse — as “good business” for them. It’s a jump in the dark. Games companies are making money out of fantasy MMORPGs, and not social MMOGs. Social sites are making money having people uploading pictures and writing comments. It takes someone crazy enough to be innovative and able to handle the risk of being the first to announce something new and unproven as a business model. SL is like Amazon — a new model of doing business over the Web, that took a decade to become mature and turn into a very profitable business indeed. Huge companies with an insane amount of resources — money to spend, developers, content creators, advertising — are very, very reluctant of jumping into a completely unknown and unchartered territory. One might argue that Google, the Cool Company of the Decade, might “just do it” because they can afford it. But remember that Google didn’t really invent web crawling, indexing, and searching. They didn’t invent website analytical tools. They didn’t invent Instant Messaging. They didn’t invent webmail systems. Not even Google Docs or Google Spreadsheet are new inventions (the Application Software Providing model was the rage of 1999-2001, and everybody was doing it at the time, from Oracle to Microsoft). Not even Google Earth is original — anyone remembers Microsoft Terraserver? What Google did was to do all those things better, faster, with cooler technology, and supporting many millions of users, on a simple business model (ads!) which actually works. They are not “huge innovators”; but rather “awesome engineers”, grabbing cool ideas that did not work 5 or 10 years ago and making them work now. The same lack of innovation comes from the games companies as well — the major innovation was 3D first-person-shooters with id Software’s Doom, and, at the turn of the century, The Sims. Well, guess what? It was Linden Lab’s own Robin Harper that helped to promote The Sims at EA as “the next generation of games” — and it became the most sold game ever.

EA might have Will Wright — but have you seen how reluctant they are in launching Spore? The delivery date seems now to be sometime in the fall of 2007. It used to be last summer, and people were trembling in fear because Spore could very well wipe out Second Life out of the media’s attention. Well, I don’t believe that EA, who has the technology for launching amazing games, and the right people working for them, have any financial issues to do whatever game they please. No, as always, they are afraid of lanching anything “too different”. Like the movie industry rarely launches a different kind of blockbuster — except for the independent producers — the games industry prefers to do “old things better” than “create new things from scratch”.

Well, we might see a new Philip Rosedale, coming from nowhere (but with a good reputation as a visionary) suddenly raising some capital and starting something from scratch. As I mentioned on SLOG, all it takes is two weeks of work from a developer with a copy of Torque, a content designer with huge talent in 3D modelling, a web designer who knows flash, and an excellent communicator to make a showy presentation to a VC company. As said, technology is easy to demonstrate, so I can very well imagine that there are teams like that all over the world, with nice slideshow presentations and a full portfolio of press releases and articles on Second Life, knocking at the investors’ doors, and trying to raise capital for their own version of the “SL killer”.

What do you think the VC foreperson’s first question will be?

You guessed it — “Why do you think your product will beat Second Life’s number of accounts in a few months and be a bigger success?” I would imagine most of them won’t have a good enough answer for that. Things like “because I’m cooler than Philip, and have better developers” simply don’t stick any more; the times of the Internet Bubble, when you could “sell ideas”, are over. Philip had to start his own company with money out of his pocket, and it wasn’t cheap. He only got funding later. So, the scenario of having a millionnaire around there with nothing better to invest their money on does not convince me. One can pick one of those people — say, Paul Allen, or even Steve Wozniak, who are both crazy enough to sponsor such an effort — and their second question would be: “I’m convinced that the Metaverse is the Next Best Thing™. Now tell me why I shouldn’t invest in Philip instead of you?” And I’m afraid that this question would be even harder to answer.

I remain a sceptic. Obviously, competition is good, when it appears, since it will totally focus on SL’s weakest point: unscalable and outdated technology. LL knows that and are improving it — but they would have to do it at a much faster rate. The First Look Viewer is an example on how LL can, indeed, develop pretty quickly, but it’s not fast enough: they will have to do much better in much less time. When they feel the “threat” of their competitors, they’ll move to emulate their technology as quickly as possible, fearing to “lose the race”.

But this is not happening now. What is Linden Lab doing? They’re trying to understand what make things like There.com, IMVU, or even Kaneva or Meez or MySpace so popular. And it’s the social aspects of it outside the immersive, 3D, virtual world. And their answer is: “we want to have that as well”. Will my.secondlife.com make any difference? Again, it will raise up the ante — competitors will need to fight on that arena as well. Another thing where they will need to be good at — creating 2D social environments as well as 3D ones. LL has nothing to lose — nobody is leaving SL if my.secondlife.com does not work like IMVU or Kaneva — but they will have “something else” for the competition to excel and surpass. And, again, it won’t be the technology — just the people will matter.

And they’re already in Second Life, although, admittedly, they’re not paying a lot for that privilege, and not making Linden Lab filthy rich, but just interesting enough to have full support from their investors.

Meanwhile, people addicted to technology will still be playing WoW or any other MMORPG. Second Life will not even attempt to make a dent in their market; effectively, as SL becomes more and more mainstream, the MMORPG market will become less and less important to LL. There are estimates that the world-wide MMORPG market is perhaps some 15 or so million users. Even if they were 30 million, that would not be enough. To be able to be around in 2010, Second Life needs 150 million users — and these will come from the social sites like MySpace, who are well pleased with “low-tech” which runs quickly enough on their computers. But… by 2010, LL will certainly have had time to deploy a much smoother experience in SL 🙂 Nobody will be using 2002/3 “vintage” computers in 2010 any more, and LL can go as aggressive as they want on the rendering engine…

About Gwyneth Llewelyn

I'm just a virtual girl in a virtual world...

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  • Ashcroft Burnham

    Maybe some of SL’s would-be competitors should arrange a meeting with Vijay… 😉

  • Hehe 🙂 The trouble is, their would-be competitors are all headed by the Pointed-Hair Boss, even if they have developers as good as Dilbert…

    On a side note, I completely left out the discussion on Raph Koster’s upcoming Areae virtual world. It deserves perhaps more attention than the short paragraphs I wrote about it on SLOG.

  • Ashcroft Burnham

    Ahh – is that because all the Garbage Men are, well, collecting garbage?

  • Pingback: Breve historia de los mundo virtuales « SecondLife & Vindi()

  • Nine years later, meez.com is still around — and looks precisely the same! (and, yes, it still has enough users to make a small profit I guess…).

    People are still playing WoW. Blizzard still makes close to a billion a year in subscriptions.

    And SL is around. It looks gorgeous — all that we dreamed that it ought to be in 2007 when everybody would have much faster computers. We have them now. SL definitely does not look (nor feel) like anything we were using back in 2007… even though all content is still compatible, of course.

  • Of course, nine years later, Areae has gone, like so many thousands of others.

    Ironically, the domain name now belongs to Disney Corporation. Hmm. I guess Raph Koster made some money out of it after all…