A Modest Proposal to Linden Lab, Part 1: Set a Proper Foundation

A few days ago, I decided to revisit a topic I had touched upon in January: Second Life, despite the fact that it is a ground-breaking, hugely innovative concept, has not enjoyed the  levels of success it deserves and is even in a slow, agonising decline, as Tyche Shepherd’s Grid Survey so methodically documents.

So, this series of posts that will have the general title “A Modest Proposal to Linden Lab” will be the series that will address the topic of how Linden Lab could turn Second Life around.

Whether we like it or not, whenever a company whose business does not depend too much on global politics (for instance, small makers of exotic cars are always the first casualties of all fuel crises) or on national and international cronyism and briberylobbying (the execs of “honourable” corporations like Daimler AG, Elsevier, Lockheed Martin, Microsoft, Monsanto and Siemens please step forward) repeatedly and systematically makes crucial mistakes that hurt its business, its image and its profits, it has no one else to blame but its own management – and yes, by management I mean the top levels and the investors, because they are the ones that set the tone and the pace for the rest of the company to follow. They are the ones who make all the strategic decisions, after all.

While the above paragraph may sound “aggressive”, it is necessary, because I very often see managers blame their own screw-ups on their subordinates – and, even worse, demand that those who didn’t make the wrong decisions pay the price. It must have something to do with the narcissism and antisocial personality disorder that are cultivated in Business School students the world over.

Now that this is out of the way, it’s time to discuss what a proper foundation for a company that develops, provides, markets and maintains a product like Second Life could be. The spark for this whole post was a comment that Penny Patton had made in the discussion of the third part of her “A Critical Look at Second Life” series. She wrote, and I quote:

The core problem is that LL relies on programmers and engineers to the exclusion of all else.

They need someone who specializes in creating content and experiences, not a programmer themselves but one who can provide internal communication and feedback to LL’s management who would then be able to make educated decisions on how to assign prioritize to their development teams.

They have a very similar experience gap when it comes to community tools and the new user experience.

LL is unique in this respect. Other companies who develop software used for creative purposes have artists on staff to provide an end user’s perspective. Other videogame studios (which is essentially what LL is, even if SL is not a “game” in the literal sense) have art departments.

Until LL recognizes this shortcoming there is really nothing they can do to improve their user retention issues or prevent their eventual slide, already in progress, towards becoming the next Active Worlds or There.

Now, why is relying exclusively on programmers and software and hardware engineers bad? When you want programming to be done, you need a programmer, right? When you want to set up a data centre, you need software and hardware engineers and system administrators, right?

Yes indeed. And there’s no denying that LL has a very skilled and hard-working team. However, we must remember that programmers and engineers are problem solvers and their expertise can only produce optimum results if they are given a properly-defined problem to solve. Let’s face it, programmers cannot be expected to know how a skeleton for a certain character (human, anthropomorphic animal, humanoid robot, or any animal) should be rigged and they should not be expected to know how to make good-looking skin textures for default avatars – and I am only touching on two issues that I can readily think of. The learning curve is far too steep for them, these issues are way out of their own disciplines and, frankly, there is no guarantee that the programmers actually have such talents.

This leads us to the first step in setting a proper foundation:

1. Recruit personnel from the disciplines you need

What Penny wrote is unsettling, but explains a lot about all the times that LL’s technical teams have been going round and round in circles, without being able to address certain issues or about how many features in SL are implemented in an incomplete way: the Lindens don’t have in-house personnel of the disciplines that are needed to provide them with real-time feedback and input, and instead have to rely on the official user group meetings.

Let me say right from the start that I must praise LL for holding these user group meetings. Of all the software companies I know, only LL does it, and I can tell you that many respected MMO game development companies simply don’t offer such opportunities for their users to discuss things with members of the development team: instead, they choose to only implement one-way, top-down communication. LL, however, actually does offer its user base this opportunity and should be given credit for that.

But this does not always work well. The reason is that many of the participants of these meetings are not really skilled at what they’re talking about. Others may be ego-driven; others may care only about a specific product they make and not care about anything else.

This is why LL needs to hire a few people from the appropriate vocational fields; they’d be able to quickly and accurately identify problems, provide the programmers with the necessary feedback on the spot and also, their participation in user group meetings would help make these meetings far more fruitful and meaningful than they sometimes are, as they’d be able to guide the discussion appropriately. And, of course, given the right information right from the start, the programmers and engineers would not only be  a lot more effective in their job, but they’d also feel a lot more satisfied, the user community would also be a lot more satisfied and the Lindens would not receive all this flak that they often unfairly receive.

It makes sense, actually; the likes of Adobe use artists to help them develop applications like Photoshop. Medical software applications use doctors to help them develop Electronic Health Records software. And so forth. LL needs this sort of in-house guidance and it’s surprising that, so far, they have opted not to have it and not take advantage of it. I don’t understand what keeps them from doing so. Are  they perhaps afraid of paranoid “Feted Inner Core” conspiracy theories? Anyway.

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3 thoughts on “A Modest Proposal to Linden Lab, Part 1: Set a Proper Foundation

    1. More will come. However, I don’t know what to expect, as Penny Patton herself had made many of the suggestions I will repeat in my posts and I’m not quite sure what LL’s response was.

      Do keep in mind, though, that LL is a big company and big companies are characterised by one attribute that always characterises anything that’s, um, big: inertia.

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