Home: No Place Like SL?

AN ESSAY BY EXTROPIA DaSILVA.

Extropia’s back with more delightful reading — Gwyn

It is a fair bet that any company releasing a 3D social space to be inhabited by customisable avatars, who shop for virtual furniture with which to furnish their similarly virtual houses is going to find itself compared to Second Life. And that is what has happened to Sony’s new online service for the PlayStation3, which it calls ‘Home’. Not everybody agrees that such comparisons are applicable, and among those who think they are not is Sony’s Phil Harrison: “The approach that Second Life takes is that they provide the tools, and they are entirely server-based. It’s a very different approach, and it’s really inappropriate to make any direct comparison”.

Wise words. After all, in Home, you can customise your avatar and place whatever furniture you deem desirable wherever you want in your virtual private living space, but you cannot make your own furniture in the way that SL allows you to. The fact that SL is continually created by the collaborative efforts of its residents is, strange though it may seem, simultaneously its greatest strength and biggest weakness. The strength obviously lies in the fact that it never stands still and seems to be beyond easy classification. Is SL a ‘game’? Yes, if you want it to be. Is SL a 3D MySpace? Again, if that is what you want, that is what it is. In fact, Linden Lab have done user-generated content so brilliantly well that SL is both nothing and everything. It is almost as flexible as your imagination. A few limitations aside, it is a metaverse that adapts itself to be what you want it to be.
It all sounds good, so what is its weakness? For one thing, it is beyond simple classification. Edge Magazine is probably the most respectable voice on E-Entertainment there is, but this is their attempt at describing SL: “A special place that’s not really a game, only it sort of is.” Somehow that seems a bit hopeless, doesn’t it? The main article actually summed up the problem with “it’s nominally a MMOG but so far in advance of the genre that the term feels like a millstone”. Any attempt to encapsulate SL in a bite-sized synopsis is doomed to be quite inadequate, and that makes it incredibly hard to do justice in the space afforded a typical news report. It is in marked contrast to most videogames (something else to which SL bares superficial similarity). A videogame typically has a goal-oriented structure; you quickly establish your pre-determined destiny and set about manipulating the environment in order to reach it. But perhaps one of the most frustrating things about SL (for newbies at least) is that new arrivals to our world are faced with a situation a bit like “being dropped from a helicopter into New York City, and all you have is a sort of tattered bus map”. Those are Philip Rosedale’s words, not mine, and they conjure up an image of a person quite bewildered. It is widely acknowledged that many people are so put off by the sheer ambiguity that meets the question “What do I do now?” that they never return.

I have occasionally wondered if making SL slightly less open-ended might actually be to its advantage. I don’t mean turning it into an MMORPG with a pre-defined goal you cannot deviate from, but something more focused and so easier to catagorise. Phil Harrison: “The unifying theme of Home is entertainment, and the fact that users are connected together in a 3D world; and they can co-operate and communicate together”. You can simplify further. Take the kinds of entertainment that PS3 makes possible and place it in a 3D social space. Provided you know what kinds of entertainment PS3 is built for, and also know what the purpose of a 3D social space is (and you should, considering the fact you live your life in one) you have a very good idea regarding what ‘Home’ is.

“But that just sounds like a poor-man’s SL”, would probably be the retort of a person familiar with Linden Lab’s baby. “Whatever entertainment and co-operation is available in Home will obviously pale in comparison to what SL offers, because Home does not allow user-generated content and SL does. You can do anything in SL!” But can you? Can you really? I do not think that is the case at all. Saying ‘give them prims to build with and they will all be content creators’ is a bit like saying ‘give somebody a canvas, paint and a brush and they will be an artist’. Is that true? In a superficial sense I suppose it is, but inevitably one would compare one’s own efforts with the likes of Turner, Monet, Picasso, Dali, and guess what? Compared to these exceptional people the ‘art’ most of us are capable of is rubbish. Some people are gifted artists but the majority are not, and so we prefer to decorate our homes with professional artwork as opposed to hanging our own efforts on the wall. Exactly the same thing applies to the artistic medium of Prims. Very few SL residents have what it takes to be content creators in any meaningful way and so, just like RL, a minority makes stuff and the majority purchase this professionally-produced content, and are happy with the limited activity of arranging it to their tastes.

So, suddenly, one of the main objections to Home is pretty much invalidated. Why on Earth should it matter to the vast majority of SL residents if Sony are only allowing content that is purchased or freely downloaded from their store? After all, isn’t buying pre-made homes, furniture and clothes from professional content providers precisely what most of us do in SL?

A big influencing factor, one would think, would be the quality of the items being purchased. It is quite likely that the content and entertainment available in Home will have higher production values than SL. Not all PCs are equal and Linden Lab have to ensure that SL works on the minimum spec possible. But Sony can rest assured that every person connecting to Home has an extremely capable computing platform, designed from day one to handle the sort of grid computing that Linden Labs can only dream of. Sony can aim for the highest possible production values, safe in the knowledge that they are not alienating a proportion of the community whose machines cannot handle the complexity.

There can be little doubt that Home will have sharper graphics than SL, but one might argue the latter has something more interesting than photo realism: Unbridled imagination. Just look at the variety of avatars that inhabit the space. SL is about as far from the aesthetic uniformity of ‘The Matrix’ as it’s possible to get. I wonder, though, if the more wacky avatars and surreal environments require a suspension of disbelief that an immersionist would be comfortable with, but an augmentist rather less so? After all, the former mindset sees SL as a self-contained world; a parallel universe. The latter prefers to think of it as a continuation of real life and that requires a physical presence that is human. Prior to June 07, SL could comfortably accommodate both perspectives, but if Gwyn’s thoughtful analysis of the impact of intergrated voice is correct, after June 07 immersionists will be a dying breed. Admittedly it is hard to determine what kinds of roleplay will not be permissible with voice. Gender roleplay is obviously going to be impossible (assuming effective voice-altering technologies are unavailable), but what about Furries? Nobody can say how Furries vocalise and so presumably any voice is appropriate. But, still, the whole point of augmentism is that it is YOU, the real YOU in SL. And nobody is really a Furry, are they?

Actually, saying it is the ‘real’ you is not quite accurate. The goal is, after all, to AUGMENT, which implies an improvement; the modified self. Ourselves redesigned to reflect an ideal. And we all know what the ideal man and woman should look like because the media and the fashion industry are all to eager to show us. If SL ‘ought’ to be seen as a continuation of RL as opposed to a separate world, will that continuation extend to following the fashion dictates of the high street? If so, we should see the gradual disapearence of surreal creations like Furries and a rise in shops selling the designer clothes of a typical fashion outlet. But can the SL shops really hope to match the production values that Sony’s Home will allow? With immersionists all but ejected from SL, and augmentists setting about making SL as close to RL as they can get it, would it not be a simpler and quicker option to simply head for Home, which was built to cater exclusively for the consumerist-augmentist from day one, rather than tearing down the old ‘immersionist’ SL and rebuilding it?

Social networking. Web 2.0 has shown us what kinds of activities people enjoy partaking of in a networking space, and just look at the way Sony tick the boxes. ‘Your private apartment is where you can invite your friends and family’. MySpacers of the world, rejoice. ‘Pictures and movies can be imported from the hard drive or memory stick and put into virtual television sets or picture frames in a matter of seconds’. Flickr and YouTube fans, sing Sony’s praises.

Obviously SL allows all that and a whole lot more besides, but if there is a phrase that is actually quite good at describing SL it would be ‘Jack Of All Trades; Master Of None’. SL allows you to do almost anything, it just doesn’t allow you to do any one thing particularly well. Conversly, Home does not allow you to do ‘anything’ but it does seem to provide the kinds of social networking that Web 2.0 has proven popular: Sharing photos, movies and music. Moreover, it places all that in a 3D world built to cater for the majority taste of SL residents. A physical space in which to enjoy the company of friends, or make new ones based on shared interests rather than geographical location. The opportunity to personalise your space with professional content. It is certain to be more limited in its scope than SL, but that means Sony can focus and ensure what it does, it does WELL.

One thing they are almost certain to get more ‘right’ than Linden Labs is the control interface. After all, the PlayStation platform is a games console first and foremost, and that is a technology for which an intuitive control system is paramount. You should be able to hold the controller, and after a very brief period of familiarising yourself with the control scheme, it should effectively disappear. Console game designers have been perfecting that kind of intuitive control for decades. You can bet that a person who has been in Home for ten minutes will be navigating their way around the virtual space with a grace even the most senior of SL resident’s could not achieve.

All of what I said could be quite wrong. After all, I have not had an opportunity to try out Home and see for myself what it really is like. But I think it is a safe assumption to say it is going to provide customisable avatars navigating a 3D social space with ease, buying content to wear or decorate their personal living space with, and that it will cater for the Flickr, iTunes, YouTube and XboxLive in all of us. It will be way more limited in its ambition than SL, but at least it won’t have bitten off more than it can chew.

If you want a good indication that SL is a bit overambitious, surely the fact that it is in a perpetual state of near collapse is as good as any? I do not wish to criticise the Lindens for this. It is, after all, a price you must pay for pushing technology right to the edge of possibility. Let us not forget that SL is actually doing what many people told Philip Rosedale could not be done. It is a metaverse light-years ahead of Sony’s Home. Let us also not forget that Home will be Sony’s property for quite some time to come (they intend to allow user-generated content eventually, but when and to what extent is not known). But SL belongs to us. It is a bit rough around the edges, but it is infinitely malleable. Home, in contrast, will have high production values and a shiny gloss, but it will have limited flexibility. Both have had to make sacrifices, then, and now we must wait and see if it was Sony, or Linden Lab, that made the right choices.

About Extropia DaSilva

Taking today's technological proof-of-principles and theoretically expanding their potentials to imagine Sl-meets-The-Matrix is my bag, baby!

  • Extropia, from the point of view of the consumer/entertainment market, I think you might be hitting the mark with your essay. After all, if people want pure entertainment, they turn on the TV, which has high-quality content targeted to the mass market. They don’t hang around on YouTube and the amateur videos, which are boring to everybody except the ones doing them 🙂

    Sony Home is, however, not being creative. They’re just replicating what There.com or IMVU (among many others, like Kaneva) have been offering for ages (and with at least half a million users together): visually appealing content in 3D chatrooms. So will Sony Home be more successful than the rest? Very likely. Sony is Sony — we can’t ever forget what’s behind that, a huge megacorp with unlimited marketing resources. I can very well imagine that Sony Home, the ultimate 3D chatroom for the PS3, will grow to have dozens of millions of users very, very quickly.

    The trick for success on virtual 3D chatrooms is actually simple:

    1) Make it insanely easy to use;
    2) Make content as high-quality as you can;
    3) Allow people to “personalise” (not create!) their “virtual space” as much as possible;
    4) Market it aggressively.

    Sony can do all the above, far better than There.com, IMVU, or any of the tiny startups. The only big contender would be Google Virtual Worlds (which very likely be something similar) and the yet-inexisting-and-who-knows-if-it-ever-would-be -developed Microsoft Metaverse or Apple’s iWorld; they would be the only ones to be able to “threaten” Sony, since they can also develop similar products. Microsoft and Apple, of course, since they control their own OSes, would have an advantage over Google; but we all know our history lessons, and Google, in spite of that apparent disadvantage, did manage incredibly well 🙂 (iWorld, of course, would be much cooler!)

    And then what? Second Life is not “only” a “virtual 3D chatroom”. The huge step in understanding that the key building block of a “metaverse” – as opposed to a chatroom — is user-generated content. Yes, obviously, only 10% of the people will generate content for the remaining 90% — but that’s the ratio you have for producers and consumers iRL anyway!

    User-generated content is far more important in defining the metaverse than most people think. The Web would not exist if we wouldn’t be able to create our own websites if we wished. We all know what happened to “controlled content” (ie. in the hands of a company that controls the environment): look at Microsoft Network (which survived for 6 months in 1995, and then clever Bill simply joined the Internet bandwagon). AOL took some more time to understand that, but eventually they went the same route — as did CompuServe.

    All of these companies/services thought that they would reap more benefits if they could only use high-quality licensed content in a closed environment, tightly controlled with high licensing costs.

    And all those business models ultimately failed. Who pays this day for a proprietary browser to Microsoft Encarta, if you can use the Wikipedia instead? Oh, well, the usual argument is that Encarta is a professional encyclopedia, and Wikipedia isn’t — but is that really so? How many people still buy Encarta, anyway? On the other hand, in spite of internal troubles, Wikimedia did raise a million dollars from donations, in four weeks, by the end of last year.

    In the battle of closed content versus user-created content, the lesson is called Web 2.0. Web 2.0 is a nice buzzword, and perhaps nobody really knows how to profit from it (except through Google AdSense), but the truth is that it’s dethroning every other “proprietary” and “closely controlled” models around. If you can’t read it on subscription-paid Wall Street Journal, you can get the same information from a blog of a business analyst somewhere in New York, London or Tokyo.

    User-created content goes even further. It’s the basis of an open economy — good old market forces at play. We can watch it as we see content and services being sold by the millions in SL, every day (and these days, these millions are US$). Oh, I’m sure that Sony will get millions from Sony Home as well (if they didn’t, why are they launching it anyway), by selling licensed, closely controlled content. But… who will set the prices? Sony will. By contrast, in SL, it’s the market that dictates the prices. And these are tied to quality — and advertising, of course (advertising, in return, will provide a new service).

    Think of the whole chain of value inside SL. If you wish to launch a new product, you need to hire someone who is knowledgeable in SL — ie. has the required skills and talent to develop your product. Then you need to promote it. Simply placing it on Search > Places is not enough; you need advertising. So, people started creating magazines, and living from the ads there (and not only Google AdSense). In return, they would need to hire people to write for them — virtual journalism was born! Those journalists, in return, need to interview people in-world. For that, they have to “look good” — and that means buying nice skins and clothes — and do some socialising to get good contacts for news leads. All this is an incredibly dynamic economy which is perpetually in motion and with lots of positive feedback loops: it grows and grows, and it grows faster than SL grows in users, because it grows in complexity.

    That’s why we have real media companies in SL (Reuters, Axel Springer Verlag) and real real estate businesses advising people on how to buy land in SL. They don’t pay Linden Lab nothing, they don’t need special tools, they don’t need licenses, or agreements. All they need is an avatar, a few L$, and skills and talents to work in-world — or hire those skilled people.

    Now imagine what happens with Sony Home. Sony is one of the largest content producers in the world (think about Sony BMG — which are already in SL — and their games division). They can produce high-quality content for Sony Home and don’t need anyone to do it for them. At some point, however, they’ll open up the licensing to create content for Sony Home — and charge huge fees or demand that all content gets pre-approved (like There.com or IMVU do). The small companies have no chance to compete with Sony, the giant content producer. Only the huge content producers — who already work with Sony anyway — will be able to afford to “be there” as well. But… how will they market their content? Using Sony, of course — that’ll be another source of revenues for Sony Home, in-world advertising. Again, you just have one supplier, one monopoly — no market economy. You won’t see e-zines and blogs popping up very quickly, and live from advertising there — since that would cut directly into Sony’s revenue stream. More likely, Sony will pay Reuters (for example) to create a channel for Sony Home, too, and give them an exclusive license to write about Sony Home. And then they’ll tell other content producers: “look, you can place ads at Reuters, since it’s a Sony-approved news channel — if you place your ad anywhere else, we’ll sue you”.

    Why should they react differently? Sony is huge, has a monopoly on Sony Home, controls the servers, the content, the application, and, ultimately, the users. They have invested on this technology and need to reap benefits out of it. They couldn’t care less about “metaverses” – having a nice virtual economy going on doesn’t help them to sell more games, which is what they care about. Also, they want people “locked” to Sony content — by viewing things in Sony Home, and staying there, they want that a message goes around their users: “look how cool our content is! Why do you need to try anything else? Look how things like Second Life are crude or plain ugly — at Sony, we only employ highly trained professionals for deploying the best content ever

    And their users won’t care about low-quality content, either — they’re used to Sony’s quality, easy of use, and addictive entertainment. That’s what Sony Home will provide, too — in the form of a chatroom.

    So, while it’s obvious that Sony Home will be a success in terms of number of users, I’m rather sceptical that it’ll be “a competitor” in building the metaverse. They will fight for users, of course — who will come from people interested in the kind of content that Sony develops. I’m not claiming that they won’t have millions, or even hundreds of millions users. They will have those very likely.

    The difference here is just one. In a battle between a closed, “state-controlled” economy, and an open free market, who will ultimately win?

    So the issue won’t be “who has more users in 3 years, SL or Sony Home?” Because Sony might very well win that race — perhaps very easily, if they can stay abreast of Google, Yahoo, Microsoft or perhaps Apple and Nintendo.

    No, the question is: between the two models, which one will become the Metaverse?

    Just take a look at all “closed content” sites on the Web these days and see how many users they have. You’ll see they’ll fall in two major categories: academic research papers, and sex. These are the only ones that people are willing to pay for.

    I can safely bet that Sony isn’t going to enter either of those markets.

    But Second Life already does both — just like the Web 🙂

    And at the end of the day, I can very well imagine a SL for the Sony PS3 (released at the same time for the Xbox and the Wii, of course), simply because the client is open source and you can naturally change it and distribute it to be installed on your PS3 — while Sony Home will remain forever stuck inside the PS3 (and successors). So while SL can move from the desktop (or laptop) into mobile phones and consoles (all brands), Sony Home can’t move outside Sony.

    A much more cleverer approach, of course, would have been to simply get SL’s open source client, get a few thousands of servers, rewrite the client completely to give it a huge improvement in performance and usability, and log all Sony users into “Sony’s Second Life”, with Sony’s beautifully created content — but inside SL. If Sony went that route, I could predict that they’d buy out Linden Lab in a few years 🙂 Remember, people would buy PS3 just to log in to SL! (yay, no crashes, no lag, no crappy graphics, no cranky interface!)

    But the “not invented here” syndrome will always be in the minds of the corporate structures that hold monopolies; even Microsoft Metaverse, if it were part of the plans for MS, would never be SL-compatible…

  • Compared to these exceptional people the ‘art’ most of us are capable of is rubbish. Some people are gifted artists but the majority are not…

    Very true, but we should learn a whole lot more from eastern approach to life. There is not only art that is exceptional – the art in museums and on walls, there is also art of doing art for art’s sake. People are performing art no matter if it is going to be hanged anywhere but in their own bedrooms. And that is not some second grade art which is to be neglected. That is one of the most important activities in our lives.

    Humankind has not invented art for the sake of exceptional pieces. Art is there to be performed massively. Masters of art and great pieces does exist, that is for sure, but they exist in cohabitation with a huge amount of people making something that will never reach immortality nor even 15 minutes popularity. Those two are unseparable. One cannot live without other.

    But, let’s get back to the second life and Sony’s Home. Sure that most of the residents are buying stuff, but take a look on sandboxes – they are full most of the time. And those people there are not professional builders. Maybe some of them will become, but most of them are just having fun, building and socializing. Some people are going out in sandboxes just like some other go to the clubs or staying home with friends.

    Creativity is part of each of us, and it does not matter which form it takes or if we are particularly good at it. Creative process is something that affects both the object (in broadest possible sense) we create and ourselves. That is why art is with us through the whole history. And that is also the reason of web2.0’s success. We want not only to read the news, we want to blog. We want not only to go to the movies, we want to show our own vids on YouTube. And more important than uploading it is that we want to make them.

    Sony did took a peek into what is popular and found out that nice world of web2.0. But web2.0 is not only sharing files and information on YouTube, MySpace and del.icio.us. After all, Sony and other publishing companies are fighting a war against filesharing. This way they want to secure positions in the new media. There is something much more important in it that is known to Lindens.

    That brings us to the beginning of the essay:

    Is SL a ‘game’? Yes, if you want it to be. Is SL a 3D MySpace? Again, if that is what you want, that is what it is. In fact, Linden Lab have done user-generated content so brilliantly well that SL is both nothing and everything.

    Trying to define second life that way is first move made wrong. Second life is a platform. It is a tool box, material and place to work. It would be complete kit if there were plans inside, but there are not any. Platforms doesn’t have plans inside. That is the point.

    What does that mean? One can build Home or World of Warcraft or any other game or 3d social network in second life. Maybe graphics will not be as cute and sharp but with time passed even that will not be problem. But one cannot do other way round. There is no way to make second life out of a game.

  • Dandellion, I totally agree with you 🙂 There is a huge world of difference between “art” and allowing “creative content”. People will obviously pick high-quality content when they have the choice, as pure consumers they are; but, given the more broader choice of being creative on their own, they will prefer an alternative that does, indeed, allow them to be creative no matter what.

    That is the lesson indeed of Web 2.0, and Sony Home is missing the point — because, well, they’re a megacorp with their own view of what the universe should look like — they are content producers, the rest of the world are simply consumers…

    Still, that doesn’t mean that Sony Home won’t have millions and millions of users. Of course they will! But the Metaverse will be built elsewhere, and not at Sony.

  • Extropia DaSilva

    But Sony are not claiming anything so bold as ‘creating a metaverse’. All they claim HOME is, is a social cyberspacespace in which to enjoy the entertainment PS3 makes possible, with limited options for customising appearance/ private apartment.

    For me, personally, My activities in Sl consist of very occasionally shopping for clothes, and mostly chatting with people about what interests me. Assuming HOME is a more stable platform, would I not be better off there, rather than SL? On the other hand, is it not the sheer inventiveness of the content in Sl that gives me so much to talk about in the first place?

    Ultimately, for all the reasons Gwyn defined in her first reply, HOME really is no competition for SL as a metaverse-building platform (and, as Sony have made clear, was not conceptualised as such). But oh for a future in which the flexibility of SL is combined with the plug-and-play simplicity of a games-console!

  • well, they’re a megacorp with their own view of what the universe should look like — they are content producers, the rest of the world are simply consumers…

    who said corporate capitalism?
    I was about to touch this but my post is too long already and this is a topic for itself: how estetics turns to politics…..

  • There is something to top-down content; not everyone wishes to enter an environment where they aspire to create, some wish to passively absorb or immediately be told where to go and what to do next in a social climate. Warcraft handily demonstrates this.

    It would be a mistake to look at SL as it is now and treat it as a static thing, however. SL is very conducive to running other businesses within SL. It’s entirely possible that the next WoW phenomenon happens entirely inside of SL. Linden Lab are in the process of opening orientation islands to third-party operation. Between that and the open source client allowing companies like Electric Sheep to distribute customized clients, the barrier to such an endeavor is again lowered.

    Other things to think about:

    Some SL brands are rapidly maturing. (DE:Design, Tokyo Rose, XCite, …) As search and clothing management receive better interfaces, Sony may lose their “Home advantage” in the professional content. (Did I formulate properly an idiomatic pun? I looked forward to typing this from one sentence ahead.)

    It’s a mistake to look at a small percentage of users creating content and lose sight of the value of clothing created by a friend. Many of us make friends with scripters, builders, tailors and so on, and hand-made items from these friends carry special value. If each creator has just a few people he or she shares with, the percentage benefiting from the paint set is multiplied.

    The current generation is extremely skeptical of most kinds of marketing. The demos of Sony Home I saw pushed Sony product after Sony product. Sony may rapidly jump the shark on this one and lose credibility. Here, SL’s community content is in a way an advantage, as corporate presence is a peer presence. It may continue to be cool when companies come in and do what SL members are proud to have been doing before the companies.

    Lastly, Sony will never allow people to be many, many thing. The Sony name is tied to too many other business lines that would stand to suffer if the Sony name is tarnished. It is doubtful that Home members will have the lasting desperate emotional involvement of the typical furry, Gorean, or what have you, who believes he or she has found the only environment on the planet where a desired personality can be fully free.