Fast, Easy & Fun!

Search for “Fast Easy Fun Second Life” in Google, and you get two million results. By now, it’s quite hard to believe that anyone vaguely familiar with Second Life hasn’t heard the new motto, launched by Philip Linden during his Town Hall meeting last Friday (July 30, 2010).

If you missed all the fun, you can still watch the archived video stream from Treet.TV. If, like me, you’re too lazy to spend an hour watching videos while you should be doing something more productive, you might be more comfortable reading the full transcript. If you just want the highlights, you can get them from SLOG, Daniel Voyager, or Adric Antfarm. For thorough analysis, well… you pretty much can get them from any blog on the SLogosphere I guess; there’s hardly anybody who did not write on the subject.

Overall, what I can say is that this was, strangely enough, the most informative Town Hall meeting ever held by Philip (co-starring with BK Linden, and moderated by Wallace Linden). Usually, Philip is vague and avoids the tough questions. This Friday, however, he was way more specific, at least on most points. If that’s just trying to deal with the insanely high expectations that so many have put on his shoulders, or really a change in the Lab’s attitude towards the SL residents, I don’t know. But it was rather refreshing to listen to a different Philip!

Let me be honest and state, from the beginning, that I’m not part of the hyper-enthusiastic, mega-optimistic crowd that believes that all problems in SL will be over by the end of the year. I’m carefully optimistic. My major issue is that I really do not understand what really happened at Linden Lab. There have been so many conjectures and wild theories floating around that it’s pretty much impossible to figure out which one is right. Most of them explain a few of the issues but quickly lead to contradictions.

Recent history and the contradictions

For instance, let’s assume that M Linden, two years ago, defined a strategy for two years, and saw what the major problems were: users register like crazy (we still get 10,000 new ones every day, and this number has been consistent since 2006 when LL introduced free basic accounts; we’ve reached 20 million registered accounts by the time Philip was on stage. No, they’re not all alts) but they don’t remain in-world — the retention rate is so low that the number of simultaneous logins is diminishing over time. Then the economy was not growing exponentially, and that meant that LL needed to figure out a new source of revenue. A lot of projects were semi-abandoned or incomplete. Most users continue to come from outside the US. Education and business were growing in number, but finding a lot of problems to install SL behind their firewalls.

M Linden successfully assembled a strategy to deal with all the above. We don’t know what he has promised the board, but it was clear that his focus was on SL Enterprise (a new market for LL, with a completely new source of revenues), getting a bigger slice from the content creation business via SL Marketplace (since the SL economy is worth 0.6 US$ billions but LL doesn’t get much from that), and making sure newbies wouldn’t go away so quickly, by giving them an “easier” browser and revamping the first hour experience.

All excellent goals! (from LL’s perspective, of course)

Now, we don’t really know what happened. LL hired like crazy in those two years, mostly to create its Enterprise division, and expanding and enhancing Marketing & PR (the new Amsterdam offices, for instance, allegedly never had any developers — just marketing, PR, and sales). They hired Big Spaceship to redevelop the SL websites’ look & feel, and to provide input on the upcoming SL 2 Viewer. Since LL was and remains a rather profitable company, with plenty of available cash, they could afford all of that, and I’m sure that LL’s Board was fine with the strategy.

Then two things happened. First, I have no idea how many SL Enterprise boxes were sold, but I’m quite sure that the answer is “not many”. Education, for instance, is more eager than ever to enter Second Life, but as soon as they hear about the prices, they move quickly out to OpenSim (or, sadly, Unity3D, just because it has meshes, a Web-based viewer, and runs on the iPhone and Android too. I say “sadly” because OpenSim, for me, is just the younger brother of Second Life, but not really a different platform). Corporations have a mixed attitude. The ones more willing to use virtual worlds are the ones with the less money to invest. Over these two years, being in the business myself, I have seen multi-billion corporations just willing to shell out a handful of US$ to do some work on virtual worlds — and soon figuring out that there was no way they could do it in SL. Universities, more than ever, are engaged on very-long-term projects — after the “experimenting” phase in the early days (when Pathfinder did the hand-holding for them), they’re now entering the mature research stage, which means that research using SL will now unfold in the next decade or so, as projects start to take 2, 3, 5 or more years, like all other long-term academic projects. But… they might, at some stage, expend all their little funding and just switch to ReactionGrid or any other cheap OpenSim grid operator.

And, of course, nobody could predict how badly the overall reaction to the SL 2.0 Viewer was. I have to say I’ve been quite disappointed with the reaction. It was perhaps the first time in my six years in SL that I heard so many praises of the 1.23 user interface, when for the rest of my (virtual) life, I just heard the worst possible comments about it. It’s true that people resist change. But I never felt such a strong resistance before! I imagine that it was at the level that LL experienced when moving from a “prim tax” economy to a “land tier” economy, with the difference that we are now millions of residents and not hundreds.

Nevertheless, SL 2.0 also failed to capture new residents (who wouldn’t be biased by an ugly, old interface). Clearly there is absolutely no difference in terms of the retention rate. It’s not just the UI. Something else is wrong.

At this point, something changed at LL. Some speculate that the Board had given M a free hand (after all, Philip went to work on his new company, continuing to develop his beloved Love Machine) and just saw at the figures earlier this year and entered into a panic — the huge investment in everything was not paying off, and, while LL remained lucrative, it certainly was becoming far more dependent on the quirky fluctuations of the income from residential users, while the company was supposed to be 100% engaged on the corporate and academic markets. M Linden might have panicked and just fired a third of the employees. Even this is incredibly strange — the firings seem to be arbitrary, random. Team leaders of the most crucial elements in SL’s technology have been kicked out, while corporate marketeers remain on board. People engaged in addressing the community to hope to make the first hour experience better were the first to leave. And of course, some had already left LL, like Robin and Pathfinder; neither left to immediately get a new position on a competing business, but remained unemployed for a while, so we have to imagine that they were invited to leave.

And then, the final stroke: M leaves, too.

Hmm. Looking at the scenario, a lot doesn’t make sense. Can we seriously believe that the Board didn’t look at M’s numbers for two years? No. Is there an explanation for why certain key Linden employees were kicked out, crippling LL’s development and community management abilities very seriously? No. These things simply don’t make sense to us outsiders.

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