The Wisdom of Pavig Lok

The Second Rise of The Mainland

So what does all this have to do with Linden Lab dropping OpenSpace sims out of their portfolio? The major reason is very likely what M Linden reported, and it’s purely a business decision: the cost of maintenance of those OpenSpace sims was cutting deeply into LL’s tight margins, and the reason being that although from a hardware perspective things are pretty much the same, from a networking perspective they’re not — more interconnected sims require more bandwidth, but the progression is not linear, but polynomial, as each new sim needs at least to be connected to their 4 neighbours (some claim that each sim is directly connected to 8 neighbours, although technically that might not be necessary). My maths are rusty, but this mostly means that twice the sims require 16 times the bandwidth to connect among themselves (16 is 2 to the power of 4). Please correct me if I’m wrong on the comments — but in any case, Gwyn’s maths can be wrong, but the result is the same: too many OpenSpace sims will consume the same bandwidth as regular sims (and all sorts of resources to keep the networking pipes flowing, e.g. memory buffers at all stages), but they will earn LL just a fourth of their income. So they were slowly coming to a huge financial problem, as the income for the OpenSpace sims was not enough to pay for the bandwidth costs. Why exactly they couldn’t foresee this in March this year, when they announced the “improved” OpenSims, is beyond my abilities to explain.

But OpenSpace sims are (or were!) just one of the problems. The other one is that too many private islands, outside of the mainland, would destroy the sense of contiguity. Even if technically it’s there, down below, at the conceptual stage, residents, in effect, would just teleport to each other’s private islands and totally ignore the spaces, distances, and sims in-between. This effectively means that for all purposes a private island is just “a large room”, but it makes comparing Google Lively with Second Life so much easier. If the vast majority of SL residents totally ignore the existence of the mainland — still the largest contiguous area in SL — the vast majority of SL residents is basically “forgetting” that contiguity is one of the key elements in SL. And once that’s gone, moving to a different virtual world — one that does not have contiguity — is much easier.

For philosophical reasons, Linden Lab cannot crush the contiguity paradigm and adopt the one that their competitors prefer — sharded worlds, or isolated rooms. If you start chopping at the key differentiating factors of SL, it becomes “just another virtual world”. In effect, plugging the analogue hole — that is, getting rid of CopyBot — is easily done by forbidding user-generated content, and that could be another serious blow to SL. Remove that as well, and people will possibly start demanding peer-to-peer grids next (because one can assume that at least you’d be allowed to generate your own content on your own computer), thus destroying persistence.

And this would simply mean that SL, as we know it, would simply disappear. It would be a poor man’s version of Sony Home, with ugly graphics and low FPS. While right now we endure the pain of low performance because of those three unique factors.

So here is the big dilemma:

Second Life, because of its unique aspects of user-generated content, persistence of content, and contiguity of the virtual space, attracts a niche market of geeks that find those three aspects immensely appealing, albeit just a tiny minority of them are willing to pay for all the others to enjoy a common virtual world.

But if you start chopping at those unique aspects, the geeks will leave — there will be more interesting alternatives — and LL loses their tiny paying customer base.

So… while persistence is probably guaranteed, and the lack of enthusiasm with which LL enforces content theft shows that they still believe in “User-Generated Content Über Alles”, losing too many customers to private islands is a Bad Idea, even if it’s (short-term) financially solid.

The question then is simple: how do you get people back to the mainland?

Consider the usual problems: the first one, it’s ugly. It’s pure anarchist urban chaos. The solution? Get some volunteers to make it look nicer, and launch new “planned communities”. We saw the big effort to create the nice new roads by the Public Works team. And then LL launched Bay Area and more recently Nautilus (a boon to land barons, who have finally managed to raise prices to stratospheric values on that continent), coming back into the content-creation business, and who knows, even community management. Honestly, Nautilus is not that good — it still looks like LL’s content in 2004, which was pretty good for those times, but residents have honed their skills and can do much better. Still, it’s a start. Is it successful?

Well, not totally. Because the second problem are, of course, griefers — or, at the very least, “lack of privacy”. Whereas on private islands you have tools at your disposal to deal efficiently with that. And finally, unlike what LL hoped to achieve, communities in SL do not really “grow organically” from scratch — some do, but they take years. No, the best communities are planned and are brought to life by a strong charismatic leader who attracts people, makes them talk to each other, manages the land, keeps griefers away, maintains urban chaos at a minimum, gives good technical support, and manages events to keep people interested and happy about living in that space.

To efficiently manage all that, LL has given private island owners a fantastic advantage: Estate Tools. And since you can now buy land anywhere on private islands “like on the mainland”, there are no differences between ownership on the mainland or on private islands.

Well. There are.

The most important one is that an island owner can always reclaim land — and thus, “ownership” is somewhat “shared” between the parcel owner (on a private island) and the Estate Owner. Ultimately, private islands are glorified rental systems which give the parcel owners more tools than on the mainland — but where the private island owner even has more tools than that. On the mainland, you can own a sim, but… once you sell parcels of it, they’re lost to your control.

“Ownership” on private islands has also lead to another change: there is no need to be Premium any more to be able to hold land. Since private islands grow so much more than mainland sims, the “need to be Premium” has become irrelevant — and Premium users continue to downgrade to Basic Accounts, since the extra benefit — customer support and a handful of L$ per month — is really not so important any more. LL knows this and T Linden has launched the debate around Premium users. Clearly they understand that the need to be Premium is not important if you don’t plan to ever live on the mainland again.

Sooo what do I think that Linden Lab will do?

Easy. The new generation of Class 6 Super-Servers could be an excellent pretext to revamp the whole pricing structure and revamp the mainland to make it more attractive. This is hardly “Old News”, people like Prokofy Neva have asked for this since at least 2005:

  1. Introduce Estate Tools on new sims on the mainland
  2. Raise the avatar limit to 100, just like on private islands
  3. Keep the US$195/month price on mainland sims
  4. Get rid of Premium accounts altogether

Number of developer hours to deploy this: zero.

So this would truly be a win-win situation. People angry about the high prices of the new “Homestead” sims would flock to the mainland, where for a little extra they’d get the full glory of 15,000 prims and 100 avatars and no restrictions — and Estate Tools. Mainland sims are auctioned, so, again, LL might start making some serious money there (private islands are sold second-hand, but not on the LL auctions, so the market for private islands is not so “visible”). Communities might fight to get back to the mainland, where prices could be slightly slower than on the US$295/month private islands — but, of course, they’d be limited to the available sims that they could buy wholesale, so large communities like Azure Islands, Dreamland, or even Caledon might still remain on private islands. However, most private islands out there are isolated sims in the middle of the ocean — and they could come back to the mainland with everything in place. If this is well planned by LL, they might even allow existing communities on private islands to “come back” to the mainland at no extra charge — or allow OpenSpace customers to “migrate” to the mainland without setup fees (just think on how many would happily do that!).

Sure, there is the problem of fitting the pieces of the puzzle together — after all, there is some terraforming that gives mainland sims some unique look, specially on the coastal areas. This would just be a question of adapting. Many, many communities on private islands just cover the whole sim — they could be simply dropped in the middle of the mainland, and remain there without a problem. Others are “coastal areas” which might require some adaptation — meaning patiently going on a case-by-case basis, putting some water sims to adapt, and they’d be “islands connected to the mainland” instead of “private islands isolated in the ocean”.

I think this could work. After all, most private islands are well-planned and look much nicer than the mainland — even the worst-looking community on private islands is not as ugly as the mainland. And, of course, the best-looking communities already on the mainland (Lusk, Ravenglass Rentals…) are at par with the private islands’ own rental facilities, but they just lack tools to enforce a better environment and keep griefers away from their community in an efficient way.

This would probably mean that from the 13,000 or so OpenSpace sims, perhaps half could be converted into mainland sims, with a little effort from LL. Many thousands of regular, isolated private islands would certainly move back into the mainland just for the lower tier. A few multiple-island communities would also do the same, providing that Linden Lab would “adapt” the landscape on the mainland to adapt to their requirements. And only very special projects — or the largest private island communities with hundreds of islands — would have no reason to “come back” to the mainland.

What is the biggest disadvantage of this model? Growth. On the ocean, you can easily grow to all sides, and even if you come in contact with other residents’ own expansion efforts, for a small fee you can move elsewhere and grow from there. On the mainland, space is restricted: you might be unable to grow beyond your original one-sim-community, if all land around you is bought and their owners have no intention to sell. Also, there is a problem with the existing, non-Estate-Tool-enabled sims — Governor Linden would still have to be the Estate Owner for them. However, things change — and many furious owners of plots on the mainland might simply move to neighbouring sims where a charming Estate Owner is providing a friendly environment for about the same price and go to live there instead. There would be a lot of reshuffling of parcels, which also means a lot of L$ changing hands (again) — specially if LL makes sure that the Class 6 sims with Estate Tools have better performance and allow more avatars for the same price.

I personally think this would work. The important thing to announce is that prices would not change — neither go up or down! — but that the newest technology would be available on the mainland only (at least for now) under the new model, and that people willing to drop their private islands and come back to the mainland would have special arrangements (either forfeiting the setup costs, or giving them first pick on the auctions, or something creative like that).

That way, 2009 might reveal a different landscape for Second Life — literally so — as the contiguity of Second Life is once more restored. As it always should have been.

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