“I’m bored”

BoredThis is what we sometimes hear from fellow residents in Second Life. It’s not exactly from new users, either — Second Life Insider’s Tateru Nino has been running a series of interviews on new users that have, indeed, found SL fascinating.

No, the comment is actually made by a very specific profile of user. They can stay in SL for as little as 15 minutes; sometimes a few days; often up to a month; some extreme cases don’t quit for years (although they log infrequently). Common to them all is the notion that, for them, the appeal of Second Life is very very low, way below their “attention threshold”.

So who are these people, and why are they bored — or, more precisely, is there a common reason for them to be “bored”? Since I’m personally part of that class of people where the word “bored” is meaningless (I never have time to be bored!), I tried to delve deep in those alien minds of thousands (or perhaps hundreds of thousands!) of people that log in to Second Life and find their time wasted while they’re in-world.

The Gamers

Second Life, at its very beginning, appealed strongly to the game-builders. The early promotion of Second Life (now buried in the mists of time) did mention that it was a “great platform for collaborative building of games”. And building games they did. Or at least tried. Then they saw that SL was too buggy and too laggy to do some serious programming, and started using it just for chat 🙂

Well, not really — things like City of Lost Angels, an-inworld RPG, shows that game building has never stopped. Or Combat Cards. In fact, if you stay tuned to Onder Skall’s blog, you’ll see that game design, in Second Life, is far from being dead. Rather the contrary — it just gets better and better.

Designing games in the SL environment is no easy task. One might get the illusion that it’s easy: after all, SL provides already all the elements for gaming: avatars, an easy way to deploy content, a physical engine, a motor engine (for vehicles), and it’s easy to do special effects with particles. Last but not least, scoring can be tracked by interfacing with external web servers. But it’s not so easy. Games require planning, detailed balancing of rules, and a lot of testing. And, of course, they’re subject to SL’s limitations: slow FPS and slow scripting speed, and just a few dozen of avatars that can be on the same place. Last but not least, buying sims to create your own large scenario is immensely expensive — and just building it takes a lot of time.

Still, this never stopped the creative game builders to remain faithful to the platform, and attract some hard-core gamers willing to try SL games. But there is more to it.

The attention span of an average gamer is about 6 months. This is a known metric from most game software houses, so to keep a game a success, they release often extra “packs” to add to the longevity of the game. Gamers get easily bored: there is a lot being offered, and they need to pick the game that most appeals to them — for a while. Sooner or later, they’ll find a link to SL and decide to give it a try.

Here begins the disappointment. You’re not starting as a level zero fighter or magic-user and have slowly to improve your skills by killing monsters, and earn money by doing simple tasks, so that you can buy better equipment, kill more monsters, join a guild, and level up.

Instead, there are no rules. Or, well, if you believe Lum the Mad (a well-known MMORPG commentator), there are levels and “climbing up the social pyramid”, but… the rules are so different that a common gamer will get baffled at them, since they’re not written anywhere and just seem to exist in people’s minds — and they look much more like RL anyway.

So what’s the fun in creating the Ultimate Destruction Weapon or the Doomsday Vehicle of Hell, if anyone who learns how to script can do exactly the same? After some time, fighting on the sandboxes becomes ever the same routine of trying-to-script-the-better-weapon, attack all passers-by until suddenly someone develops something better, go back and develop an even better weapon, shoot all people around, and so on… variants including developing some defence mechanisms and some auto-guided missiles, or vehicles to mount weapons on, etc.

Not much fun after a while, isn’t it? In the mean time, what are the women doing?

Find a Friend

The first reason for “staying in SL” has been reported (informally — this was not a research study) to simply having found enough friends to spend time with. Artists and programmers tend to go along alone for a while, as well as some explorer types, but sooner or later, no matter how shy you are in real life, you’ll find someone you like or that shares the same tastes and things you like. This often happens by chance: as early on the orientation areas, often when stumbling upon a sandbox, or a random teleport here and there. The sooner you find someone nice and interesting to talk a bit, you’ll login the next day, hoping to find your friend again. And possibly finding a few more.

I’ve informally asked on several small meetings — most of them impromptu and unplanned — what people would do if their friends would all go away and you had to start from scratch. Surprisingly, even veteran users answered that they would abandon SL and prefer to start somewhere else — where their friends have gone. So bonding with other people uses SL as a communication tool, but if the people go away, you’ll move towards another tool where your friends have gone. What was astonishing to me was to find out that even extroverted persons, with years of SL, would answer the same way. Women (well, at least female avatars) would also be more prone to put the “faithfulness” of their friends to SL as the top priority for staying in SL; men, although finding it also important, would often say that they’d go back to the beginning: building and scripting by themselves again. It would be not so fun as before, but a few would do so.

What does seem important for Linden Lab to understand is that “finding friends” is at the top of the priorities of most of the residents. Thus, making it easy to find friends very quickly on your beginning steps in SL is crucial. Once you leave the orientation area and begin exploring, you should be able to make friends very soon, and these areas (and the interface!) should be designed to allow that.

Older residents still remember the Welcome Areas well (they’re still used, although not as intensely as before): a place where you suddenly would get a lot of friendly people and would have your chance to meet them; and nearby, you’d have a sandbox, ready for you to figure out the experience of designing things on your own. Alas, the welcome areas are the most popular griefing areas these days, completely unsupervised, and they only have the purpose of getting veterans to laugh and scorn newbies. And it’s hard to find a sandbox without griefing tools around — objects that yell and jump at you, and emit clouds of offensive particles all the time. For a newbie, understanding that they quickly have to learn how to build a skybox to evade most of those attacks, is not easy. Many, obviously, leave the sandboxes to the griefers and try something else. Many never return.

So focusing on the first experience is the way to deal with user retention rates — these days, as low as 10%. Why have things changed? Notice that the issue of “people have too many alts” is a fallacy. Creating an alt means that you have to start from scratch building your own social network, and most people will never do that — they want their social network to grow, not to start from scratch again. The number of alts is always overestimated. In fact, beyond griefers, roleplayers, and builders/landowners who need alts to overcome the silly group limitations, most people do not have alts, or, if they do, they don’t use them as regularly as it’s popularly believed. The old notion of SL being a world populated by alts is no more than a myth — an urban legend of our virtual world — and contradicts what people are saying about friends being the reason to stay in SL.

Find a Group

On SL’s early days, hand-holding newbies was the first opportunity to get them in touch with the way the interface worked, but almost always your first “friend” would be picked between the friendly volunteers — either from the “official” Mentor group who had a “duty” to help people out, friendly passersby, or even  Linden Liaisons, who usually befriended the newbies that popped in. They would also be the first to point you to the right direction towards a group. Newbies would ask: “I’m interested in discussing literature, is there a group meeting on that?” and a nice helper would tell them how to find the literary circles in SL and tell them how to join the group.

Groups host events and tend to band together (except, well, for land-owning groups — again, another silly shortcoming of the SL interface). In the early days, picking a group according to your personal tastes was rather innocent and gave often good results. With millions of groups these days, however, the issue is: which one to pick? Similarly, with close to five hundred or more events per day, hosted at all hours and by as many different groups, which is the one that is “right” for you to join? It’s mind-boggling for the newbie — they’re oversaturated with data, but they have little information to help on their choices. Some groups, however, are community groups — like the so many groups for furries and BDSMers, or themed areas like Caledon or Suffugium — and these definitely make the difference.

Again, it’s a matter of luck. Some people are lucky enough to get pointed towards an interesting community that appeals to their tastes — be it roleplaying, purely social, intellectually stimulating, creative, or, obviously, sexual. Someone that “finds” by chance the “right” group will very soon meet a lot of similarly-aligned people with overlapping interests, and they are most certainly going to establish new friendships very quickly. Thus, someone logging in directly from the Luskwood portal will almost certainly find themselves in the middle of a very vibrant (and quite ancient!) furry community, who will welcome the newcomer in a very friendly way — and the new resident will feel comfortable and “at home” by being part of a group that they really like to hang around with.

Making sure people join a community very soon after the login process is the best way to get them “hooked” on SL and come back to it over and over again. Three years ago, there was “a” community of friendly residents, and a single entry point to “the” community. Nowadays, as people have wildly different tastes, there are dozens of thousands of vibrant communities around. However, it’s much harder for these to capture the attention of the newbies that have just arrived and are totally clueless on where to find these communities…

So what needs to be done? The whole login process has to clearly focus on bringing someone directly into a community that is most likely to attract the new user, and make them stay. Kaizen Games, with their “Second Life Brazil” setup — a series of themed sims for the huge Brazilian community — has got it right: they focus on language as being the uniting effort in SL. But they add so much more: a different viewer, a themed environment, giving out L$ for new users (and providing an easy way for Brazilians to exchange their own currency into L$!), having their own staff helping people out, a full portal showing where to go and what to visit… and lots of events, bringing people from the Brazilian media into SL, and so on. No wonder that Brazilians are one of the fastest growing communities in SL — and these, in turn, will also attract RL businesses that know where exactly they can find their potential customers. In effect, Kaizen took over what Linden Lab couldn’t or doesn’t do — forge strong community ties from the very first minute you join Second Life.

Kaizen and Luskwood are just two examples, but there are certainly more, and not all are related to “merely” sexual or mature content — another common misconception. To a degree, even Caledon provides an entry point for users who like steampunk and the Victorian era overall. However, when looking at a world that contains 8 million or more accounts — potential residents! — it’s quite clear that all these attempts at “community building” are not widespread: thousands live in communities, while millions are clueless about their existence, and will never find them — except by chance.

What could Linden Lab do? Right now, when you log in to SL, you have an option of selecting the “entry point”, which can be either the regular one from LL, or one from a third-party site. Allegedly, 15% of all new users already come from a third-party site, with a personalised orientation area. It would be interesting to see how high the retention rate is for the third-party sites, but I think it will be much higher than the “generalistic” approach taken by LL’s own. In fact, LL often commented that in the future they might shut down all their own orientation areas and help islands and welcome areas and simply rely on third parties to provide their own services of attracting new users, welcoming them, and making them at home.

I can only view that as a very positive step. It’s clear that Linden Lab is not good at encouraging communities to form — but just good enough to provide residents with some tools allowing them to create their communities. However, making sure that you get dropped right in the middle of a group or community that you like is fundamental towards a higher retention rate, and preventing boredom.

Find a Hobby

Let’s assume that you’ve found your community, and you’ve even made a few friends. Chatting is fun and very stimulating — it encourages the cementing of relationships — but your friends are not always online 24/7, and even if they were, they might be busy and have no time for you. So what do you do?

The answer obviously depends on your personal tastes. Artists, creative and talented people, will naturally try to spend some time building new objects; programmers will fall back to some scripting. For us that have neither artistic talent, nor programming skills, what is there for us to do?… Well, shopping, dancing, socialising, attending all sorts of events, and possibly exploring.

Now this narrows the focus even more. It’s not enough to say that Second Life needs to provide a good, fulfilling, enriching first contact that allows a new user to bond with fellow residents, bringing them inside a group, a community, a set of similarly-minded individuals that will engage in meaningful conversation. No, even inside the community, people will have different skills, talents, and ways to occupy their time in-world — in short, everybody needs a hobby.

Hobbies abound, and some are not so obvious. Torley Linden, for instance, seemed to have several hobbies: explore the whole world; talk to everybody; take pictures — many pictures! — of this fantastic new world. That will definitely fullfill Torley’s desire to “find art” in Second Life — what s/he says that makes them return over and over again to Second Life. People like Walker Spaight, Tony Walsh, Eric Rice/Spin Martin, even Prokofy Neva, and so many others, have as their “hobby” writing about Second Life. Others even, like Tateru Nino, Travis Lambert, Mera Pixel, or Angel Fluffy, will focus on building communities as a hobby. So many, starting with Anshe Chung, but encompassing thousands and thousands upon thousands of residents, create businesses as their hobby — even if they are just using management skills to “have fun in SL”, and not exactly creating things for doing business. And then there are the ones that provide services in SL as their “hobby” — the list is endless, and starts with people like Shaun Altman (stock exchanges), FlipperPA Peregrine (e-Commerce and video-on-demand), Nicholas Portocarrero (finance), and even Ashcroft Burnham (justice, mediation/arbitration). My list is obviously very, very incomplete — take a look at all sorts of things that are being offered in Second Life, and I’m sure you’d be able to add a few hundreds of thousands of people on these latter categories.

So, what is different about these users — many of which have gone beyond the three-year-barrier in Second Life? In three years, people come and go, friends change or simply disappear — never to return — and groups and communities form and re-form. What makes them stay? It’s definitely not a set of friends or a community, since these people have outlasted and outlived communities.

No Time

One thing seems to be common to all of them — they have lots of spare time to commit to Second Life. We envy some of them — rich enough and not needing to work (and thus able to enjoy so much spare time in SL), or students with nothing better to do with their time — and we pity the others, who are unemployed, ill, or otherwise unfit for work, and all they can do is stay in SL and have some fun. But there are a lot of people spending hours and hours in SL, and we don’t understand how they manage to have so much free time for SL!

The answer is actually simple. In this 21st century, so much competes for our attention: TV being at the top of the ‘leisure priorities’, but DVDs coming next, videogames, going out with friends, dancing or watching movies, and all the sorts of time-consuming hobbies: from painting to writing, from reading to collecting things, we all have our hobbies, and it’s hard to see where to fit SL in the middle of those!

Not surprisingly, what all these people have long decided to do is to commit time only to SL: it’s the ultimate hobby for them, even when that doesn’t mean staying in-world all the time. In fact, blogging, programming, catching up with the SL news, are “part” of the SL experience. And all these people effectively are replacing time ‘wasted’ with other hobbies — TV and videogames usually being the first to go! — with Second Life and the SLogosphere.

An average human being will probably spend 10 hours at work plus commuting, sleep 6-8 hours, have some dinner and take a bath every day. That still leaves about 4-6 hours per day — more during the weekend! — to ‘spend’ with SL. 6 hours is a lot. Open source projects, YouTube/MySpace, and things like the Wikipedia depend on people volunteering time, and Second Life is not different. According to LL’s official statistics, while the number of active users might be growing a tad slower than before, the number of hours spent in-world is growing and growing. So active users are getting… more active!

This is actually something that cannot be easily ‘promoted’, just explained. People will or not spend more time in SL, according to what they have to do and what hobbies they have. We can’t demand a time commitment. We obviously can explain that other residents seem hyperactive just because they do, indeed, spend so much time in-world. However, there is something we can do: make the SL experience simpler.

Too Complex

How many people have you met — friends, family, colleagues at work, acquaintances — that have read about SL in the media, downloaded the viewer, and then… gave up with the incredibly complex and irksome user interface? This sadly has become more and more frequent as SL grows more into the mainstream. The new users are not familiar with the plethora of menus and settings and the nightmares of graphic drivers and clearing the cache regularly for best results and… well, you have the idea. Why do you sometimes have a “Go Here” option on the pie menu, and sometimes not? (answer: you get this option only when clicking on ‘terraformed’ ground; rez some prims as ‘floor’, and the option goes away) Why isn’t Chat History on by default, and why has the Voice First Look Viewer completely broken the Chat History? Why does SL freeze when you change groups? And, of course, why will you get 4-5 FPS on a laptop from 2003, when ‘other games’ run smoothly? Last, but not least — why can’t you search for anything worthwhile??

Many of you have often stated that the learning curve of SL is tremendously high, specially for someone who doesn’t know (yet) if they’ll be really spending those 6 hours per day in-world, struggling with the interface every inch of the way. Well, let’s face it — the average DVD player has a billion options and we never manage them all (the same applies, say, to Word for Windows). However, if you place a DVD inside the tray, it’ll play with reasonable defaults (and you’ll be able to figure out pretty quickly how to type things in Word, and save the file, and possibly even get the odd italics or bold showing in the text). Regular applications assume that new users will require a ‘simple’ mode to navigate, and that after some time getting familiar with the basic options, people will slowly move towards a more advanced use, given enough time to ‘play’ around with the interface.

Not so with SL. You need to become an expert very quickly and master all the interface soon, or you won’t be able to have fun within SL. This is almost as complex as, say, Poser, Blender, or Maya; but unlike those applications, which are targeted towards professionals, SL is for amateurs. And amateurs can’t waste time with a too complex application. They simply give up, and spend their time elsewhere… like turning on the TV!

Well, the good news is that Linden Lab is dealing with this. We can only wonder how long it takes until SL is as easy to use, as, say, WordPress 🙂

What is in Second Life to see?

And finally, even assuming that you’ve managed to master the interface — hooray! — there comes the last issue: finding where the interesting bits of SL are! Assuming that you did find a few friends and joined a few groups, this means that now you’ve got someone to ask what to do. But for a new, friendless user, the big hurdle is finding where everybody (and everything) is.

A good example is one of the national groups that I’ve co-founded half an eternity ago. New users sometimes find the Search button. They might even notice that it does searches by keywords. They join a national group, and with luck, figure out where to send Group IM Chat. Then comes the challenge: “Hello, is anybody there? Where are you?”

This still gets laughter from the veterans, and sometimes a helpful hint or two. The issue is that new users sometimes find the group tools, but they don’t understand how they can talk to people there; and even if they see the replies, something still confuses them: where are all those people, anyway? How do I join them? What are they doing, and are they having fun at all? If so, where and what?

Sometimes the answer is misleading: “I’m here, I don’t see anybody, but I can talk to the others, is there anything to do in SL beyond chatting in Group IM Chat?” It takes a level of abtraction — or some luck with a friendly helper/veteran — to understand the whole concept of SL. It’s so unlike anything else — even for an experienced gamer! — that the options don’t make any sense. And, ultimately, this leads to frustration. Not being able to go where the fun is — not even figuring out what is fun, and where it is — is another major reason for people simply leaving. They get bored. They turn the TV back on, since it’s easy to zap across channels.

Having fun is a lot of work!

In conclusion, Second Life is perhaps the most demanding mainstream entertainment platform ever devised. For creative artists and programmers, it’s definitely the best thing invented since sliced bread… but not for the “TV generation” which demands instant gratification at a push of a button. The major reason that so any people still post articles and comments on popular things like Slashdot saying: “I don’t understand the hype behind Second Life… I’ve tried it out… it’s pretty boring, all you can see is sex, casinos and shops… there are almost no people online… I don’t ‘get’ it.” These comments are often from otherwise knowledgeable users of other applications. But they were completely frustrated due their lack of luck: SL requires tweaking to run smoothly; you need to figure out how the GUI works; you need to be lucky and fin friend or a group of friends that actually tell you what to do to have fun in SL.

If any of these things never happen, say, after an hour (or less!) of being in-world, well — you’ll be bored to death, and won’t ever understand why over half a million people log in faithfully every day.

“What’s the point? There is nothing to do!”

Alas, there is too much to do, but it’s too hard to know what, where or who.

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