Why Second Life has not fulfilled its potential

Last November, Slate ran a piece on why Second Life failed; according to Dan and Chip Heath’s article, which compares Second Life to the Segway, SL is “like a job candidate with a fascinating résumé—fluent in Finnish, with stints in spelunking and trapeze—but no actual labor skills.” In my opinion, the Heaths, besides ignoring the fact that SL is still a profitable project, make the same mistake that many have made regarding SL – among them even Linden Lab: they don’t grasp what SL really is all about – it’s not a game, but an entire virtual reality platform with the potential for developing a strong social element, which could, under the right conditions (I’ll get to that later), provide excellent opportunities for everyone to take advantage of its abilities for various purposes. Such purposes are:

  • The creation of immersive worlds for various entertainment and educational uses.
  • The reinvention and reimagining of one’s own personality, which would enable them to express aspects of their own psyche with considerably reduced fear of stigma (thanks to a general anonymity and the fact that segregation of RL from SL is the accepted norm within the userbase of SL).
  • Creation and sale of virtual goods.
  • Creation of immersive 3D environments to showcase products, builds etc.

As for the social element of SL, I respect it much more than I would ever respect the brainchild of Mark Zuckerberg: very good to excellent privacy, no obnoxious ads littering my screen, and SL, unlike Facebook, doesn’t surrender activists and dissidents to the authorities of totalitarian regimes.

SL is an extremely promising and powerful platform, yet it has not fulfilled its potential; instead, it loses thousands of private regions annually (as documented by Tyche Shepherd) and seeing even large companies leave it, unable to justify the monthly $295 tier for a whole region, even though their top executives are paid several thousand times this money per month. And many regions in SL are usually emptier than gun-crazy crap-rocker Ted Nugent’s skull. OK, so what has gone wrong?

Contrary to what far too many people claim, I do not attribute LL’s failure solely to the (admittedly high) cost of tier. This is a cost that cannot be easily lowered, because of the high running costs of SL and its massive infrastructure. Instead, I’m going to look at a number of other reasons that make SL less attractive than it could (and deserves to) be.

The responsibility for SL’s failure to deliver as much as such a pioneering and innovative platform would have us expect lies almost exclusively with its management, and more specifically, its top management.

There are three categories of reasons:

  1. Marketing (product understanding, definition and marketing)
  2. Customer Service
  3. Technical Issues
Figure 1: The Failures of Linden Lab

Figure 1: The Failures of Linden Lab

First of all, Linden Lab itself has historically failed to understand what its main product (Second Life) is. When you yourself don’t know what you’re making and selling, you can’t hope to market it properly, because you won’t be in a position to get the message across to potential customers, you won’t be able to make the opinion leaders (such as leading journalists and bloggers) get behind you and influence others accordingly, and, of course, you won’t be able to determine and develop a market. What has happened so far is that LL has not led developments when it comes to marketing virtual worlds, but has rather been dragged behind them; LL has not created a market; it has stumbled upon some markets for its product, with several of them being unreliable simply because their buying power (and, thus, their ability to remain users/customers of LL) is “here today, gone tomorrow”.

Second, SL has been plagued with technical issues and shortcomings that have even limited the platform’s creative potential – from the “good ol’ days of 2006-2007 when two or three days a week the service was unavailable while the Lindens were “banging on things”, I can remember lots of problems, among them the dreaded and persistent (until now) region crossing problems, the klutzy “invisiprims” for shoes and the fact that, back in 2007, when you edited a prim that was already linked to other prims, it became phantom – oh, the times I fell through floors back then… Add to that the lack of any kind of coordination regarding the types of 3D objects that the platform can handle and its in-world creative tools can create, combined with the fact that some vociferous content creators, simply because they use external 3d graphics suites, exert pressure to prevent LL from strengthening its in-world build tools, and you have put shackles on the platform’s feet. With the in-world build tools, you can’t make chamfered prims, you can’t have extrusions, you can’t make sculpts, you can’t make mesh objects, you can’t make polygons and there’s no such facility that will do calculations for you in the case you want to place prims at odd angles (and don’t get me started on the horrible texture distortion you get when you try to make a pyramid or a trapeze).

Third, because LL doesn’t know what SL is, it doesn’t know what its customers (userbase) are, what services to offer them, how to handle their complaints and how to handle abuse. I could be wrong, but I get the impression that Philip Rosedale thought that SL would be some sort of extremely laissez-faire country, with minimal “governance” on behalf of LL. Normally, that would be a Randroid’s dream; but there are a few problems with this concept.

  • Second Life is NOT a country
  • Lack of governance leads to a Mad Max-style dystopia

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7 thoughts on “Why Second Life has not fulfilled its potential

  1. This is the most definitive State of the Platform/Company I have ever read. You really hit the nail on the head across the board. Every Linden and every customer ought to read it.

  2. I also feel you’ve hit a majority of issues, their causes and their aftermath squarely on the head. However I still hold strongly to my belief that many of the Lab’s technical decisions and released features were designed with an air of “because the users want A, we will purposely provide them with B.”

    Your strict description of Griefing, Extortion and the reasons the latter must be dealt with is again .. bang-on. Linden Lab does have a very real and crucial responsibility to uphold their own ToS. Sadly I do not think they ever will. But we can hope!

    1. I have some reservations regarding the “because the users want A, we will purposely provide them with B” notion, because adding features and fixing things in a platform as convoluted and complicated as SL is a very difficult process; to avoid breaking content, LL would need to take one step forward and one half-step backward, in order to ensure that scripts etc that people created in 2004 will still work (OK, the server-side avatar bake thing will finally – and thankfully – break all the crappy invisiprim-equipped shoes, forcing their creators to learn how to make alpha layers). Also, do note that the community in the forums is extremely vocal and usually not in a constructive, concise and meaningful way; when JIRA was still open and free-for-all, everytime someone filed a bug or defect report or a mere feature request, the whole thing would very soon turn into an outright flame war, in which filtering the noise (i.e. the idiotic posts) from the ones that actually had to do something with the issue at hand was a major accomplishment.

      What SL needs, in my strictly personal opinion, is a management that (a) understands the importance of earning and maintaining customer confidence, (b) understands the immense potential of this platform and (c) knows how to promote it to the right audiences.

  3. You’ve written a powerful argument. I found myself agreeing with virtual everything I read. Thanks for discussing the extortion attacks.

    I believe it is possible to understand what SL is, and it frustrates me to no end that these board members sit around in their boardrooms instead of going out into the vast world to discover things they never even imagined existed.

    Great work!

    1. Hello Yordie, and thank you for dropping by. I’m glad I managed to express through my post not only my own thoughts but also yours and others’ on such matters.

      There was no way around commenting on the extortion attacks, which I hope are over now. To be strict, since this is an RL criminal activity, LL should give the victims the RL information of the perpetrators so that charges can be pressed.

      Now, is it hard to understand what SL is? No. One needs only an open mind – and with this I don’t mean only the sexual aspect of it (SL has been getting an unfairly large amount of bad rap simply because various people use it to explore their sexual fantasies); I mean they should actually bother to get to know the product. They should talk to the tech people. They should talk to the user community. They should explore SL. They should – yes – try building stuff and even scripting, why not?

      Experience has told me that you can only hope to be successful at selling something you make when you yourself know your product inside-out, with all its advantages and disadvantages. Only then can you place it in the market properly and make it successful.

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