OpenSimulator: The Choice for 2010

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With Google Lively out of the picture, and an uncertain future for “new” virtual worlds to be launched in a world gone insane with the perceived financial crisis, it’s natural to ask over and over again, if there is an alternative to the Second Life® virtual world platform, what it will be.

Since early 2008 I have been very skeptic about “alternatives” to Second Life. In my mind, and specially after talking to several gurus and enlightened residents like Pavig Lok, any “competitor” to Second Life will require those mandatory features to succeed:

  • Collaboration and user-generated content. This mostly means being in a shared environment being able to work together. It goes way beyond simply being in the same place and chat together (either in voice or text), but being able to do things together, be it simply playing the same game, driving the same vehicle, using the same object, or, well, building the same building. And there can’t be a restriction on how you work together: it has to be both synchronously in real time (everybody seeing the changes being reflected immediately in the environment) or asynchronously (you might work on something, log off, and your friend comes in and finds things exactly as you left them and can continue working on it). Finally, user-generated content is not simply having an off-world Web site where you can buy clothes and furniture (like on IMVU or Moove): it means dealing with intellectual property rights; it means permissions; it means group ownership; it means an economy based on buying and selling digital content.
  • Persistence. This is a much more subtle feature: the notion that you can rez a prim, and it will be still around after five years. You might take this for granted, since in SL this is the way things happen. Many platforms might have user-generated content but rely on peer-to-peer networks to show that content to other users: OpenCroquet is the best example of that model. Under those models, either you save your work “somewhere” or it is lost once computers get disconnected from the P2P network (sure, you can upload them again once you connect).
  • Contiguity. Most virtual-worlds out there have a model where worlds are  sharded (the same copy of the content is replicated among several servers; a set of users connects to one local copy of the content, and although they can talk to users on other shards, they’re not in the “same” virtual world at the same time. World of Warcraft is a typical example) or roomed. Under this model, each server just holds a part of the world — from a single room, to a single region, to a “game level”. When moving to another room/region/level, you are actually changing your environment and point of view, by connecting to a different virtual world. Granted, tricks like “portals” and the ability to chat across rooms/regions/levels will provide you with the illusion of contiguity. Second Life uses a single world with the “tiled” paradigm (the world is divided into many regions, all side-by-side, but it’s a single world — at least on the mainland you can walk from one point to the other without going through “portals” or “teleports”).

And of course they require a valid business model to be still around after a few decades. Some virtual worlds have all the above requirements, but they are simply venture capital burners until Google/AOL/Yahoo/Microsoft buys them. 3D content hosting works for Linden Lab, and one might imagine that there are other possible models (e.g. advertising or sponsorship), but we have seen few of that happening. Subscription payments to get access to user-created virtual worlds seems, however, to be a dead end — probably the reasoning behind it is that if users create the content anyway, why should they pay a third party to see it?

(Movie available on the next pages, do read on! 😉 — Gwyn)

Second Life’s closest competitor is Second Life itself

Virtual Worlds, it seems, come and go. Over the years, I’ve added to my skepticism a certain amount of cynicism as well. The Silicon Valley hip culture has brought Geekdom the ultimate playground: just implement your crazy idea, and sooner or later someone will pay you for that. A lot of money. Don’t worry about long-term goals: worry instead on applying your skills to develop an awesome product, and you’ll be fine. Sooner or later, it’ll work out. Forget business plans — start with something, develop it to the full extent of your abilities, and you’ll succeed. Trust us. We’re business angels and venture capitalists, and we know how it works: for every ten good ideas, no matter how crazy, one will succeed (and pay off for 8 worthless business ventures and one which is so-so).

Well, the cycle seems to be always the same, even after the dot-com era. Companies are still launching impossible-to-sell virtual worlds (not to mention Web 2.0 websites). The whole messiness of the way these “new products” are launched is appalling. They have no business models. They have no idea what they’re selling. Granted, they often have awesome technology, excellent designers, programming experts, and good evangelists. They have talented teams with experience.

But they have absolutely no idea if they have a good business model or not.

Why the stress on business and not on technology? Mostly because Second Life is not an “awesome technological breakthrough”, although it certainly has quite good ideas. The renderer is by far not the best renderer in the world. The user interface was already obsolete in 2001, years before launch. And as we soon will see, not even communication protocols and server implementation are great. Not when compared to other, more sophisticated solutions.

Linden Lab was actually very lucky. They started with the wrong business model, and, even worse, the wrong market. They tried to sell a subscription-based system to games developers, when clearly Second Life was not at the stage where games could be developed on it (and some claim it will never be). Even worse, they started with all the wrong assumptions. Looking at ActiveWorlds, where almost all content is user-created, they tried to push for a similar model — kick-starting with some content (Linden trees, Welcome areas, roads, bridges, and some decorative elements), they hoped that users would do the rest.

They struck gold. It just barely happened to work. But to make money out of it, Linden Lab had to switch markets (from targeting SL to game developers to digital content creators and now to businesses and education for quite different reasons). They did, however, make some bold decisions: listening to Lawrence Lessig and implementing intellectual property protection on user-submitted content (“the user owns the copyright”), allowing the licensing of that content to others through SL’s interface, is dramatic — not even Facebook allows that!

When you add all that up — a combination of technology; innovation; user-generated content where users retain their copyrights and can sell licenses to it; novel business models (3D content hosting!); and luck — you’ll see that launching a new virtual world is anything but a piece of cake!

As a matter of fact, right now, and unless someone is working in a deep, hidden cave on the Next Best Thing, there is really just a competitor to Second Life that has all its features and characteristics, and adds a few more. Yes, it’s Second Life itself — but not the variety that Linden Lab developed, but, of course, OpenSimulator.

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