Speaking of user retention: Part 3 – Entice the user

Yes, I know the hot topic of the week is the news of Linden Lab’s development work on a next-generation virtual world, and I must say I barely resisted writing something about it. I opted to keep my thoughts in draft form for the time being while the dust settles, along with my frustration and anger at Second Life’s self-absorbed user base, which is rife with people exhibiting how widespread the Dunning-Kruger effect truly is.

I opted to continue on the subject of user retention instead. The reason is simple: If the mistakes that were made and prevent users from staying in Second Life are not addressed, then the next-generation virtual world (let’s call it SL2 from now on and be done with it) will suffer from the main issue and it won’t live up to the expectations of its designers and of whomever decides to invest time and money in it.

It’s, of course, no secret that SL’s user retention is not what was hoped for, and various reasons have been proposed: from the new user experience to the user interface and the learning curve that comes with it, and everything in between. Please note I’m not talking about OpenSim, because those who join or start OpenSim-based grids are usually determined to stay the course.

I’ve already explained that the user interface cannot seriously be considered as a primary reason for SL’s sub-par user retention rates. Furthermore, I’ve been one of those people who have gone on record for saying that you can’t merely rely on technical solutions for everything. Some things are of an entirely different nature and need to be approached and treated accordingly.

This is what brings me to what I say in the title: Entice the user. What does this mean? I’m going to take you back to the 8th segment of The Drax Files Radio Hour. There, Draxtor Despres had a “conversation” with a girl named Pamela. Please note the quotation marks; I put them there, because the dialogue felt more like two parallel monologues, with Drax trying hard to promote the idea of virtual worlds, without (at least that’s what it seemed like) paying much attention to what Pamela was telling him.

To cut a long story short, Pamela simply saw nothing interesting in virtual worlds. She simply didn’t have a use for them; they didn’t offer her something that could interest and entice her to give them a shot, much less stick around.

I was appalled to see the panelists of the Creating the VR Metaverse panel laugh at her responses to Drax’s catechism, and was especially appalled and annoyed at the dismissive, snobbish attitude exhibited by Philip Rosedale, as I already wrote. This attitude can be summed up as “well, it’s not us that have failed to make virtual reality attractive to the public, it’s the public that doesn’t understand how cool virtual reality is” and must be dropped yesterday. It’s counter-productive, it gives virtual worlds a bad name, and is also delusional, because it ignores the fact that people like Pamela are not a minority at all; in fact, most people out there share her point of view.

Also, this attitude reveals that the powers that be at virtual world providers expect the potential user to do their homework. This attitude would make any marketing consultant worth  their salt raise an eyebrow (at best) or raise their hands up in dismay. Yes, they provide the user with an array of technical tools, but what about actually providing the user with compelling experiences that will make them say “wow, this is great! I want to see more!” or, even better “wow, this is great! I want to make something like this in this virtual world!”. I’m not the only one who sees things this way. The question now is, which one of the existing and future virtual world providers will succeed in enticing the user?

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6 thoughts on “Speaking of user retention: Part 3 – Entice the user

  1. Mona —

    You’re totally right. It’s the reason why nobody is buying Windows phones – it’s not that the technology is worse (though personally I find the tiles annoying) but the fact that they don’t have the developer and app ecosystem of their competitors.

    The folks at Oculus, for one, are particularly aware of this and are working hard to ensure there’s enough content out there when the Rift finally ships to give people a reason to use it.

    For Second Life, the equivalent situation would be the in-world content developers. Is Linden Lab doing enough to ensure that really great content is created for Second Life, and to help promote that content to the wider world?

    I remember Apple’s “there’s an app for that” commercials. They were cool.

    Though I wonder how well the iPhone would do with app developers if Apple suddenly announced that they were shifting development to a new kind of phone, instead of just releasing upgrades to the existing iPhone, the’re switching tracks, and will not be tying themselves down by the idea of backwards-compatibility, and the new phone will have all-new content and all-new app store.

    That’s the problem when the thing you sell isn’t a single game or experience, but a platform for others to develop games and experiences. It’s easy to release new games in which users have to start over at the beginning with new characters — gaming companies do that all the time. It’s a lot harder to do that when you have a platform.

    1. The x86 family of processors has been around longer than I’ve been alive. In theory, it ensures a degree of backwards compatibility. In theory, so does the Windows ecosystem (even I know that Windows started out as a front-end running on top of MS-DOS).

      In reality, this “backwards compatibility” simply isn’t there, and I’m glad Linden Lab are not trying to fool their user base with promises no one can guarantee will be kept. I know of quite a few games from the pre-Pentium era that couldn’t be played on newer machines and newer versions of Windows (and this gave companies like GOG.com a reason to exist). I also know several Visual Basic applications that were written between 1998-2000, which could run just fine on Windows 98, NT 4.0, Me and 2000, but either need a lot of fiddling to run on Windows XP and later or refuse to run at all.

      I’ll say it again: Backwards compatibility is a promise that no one can guarantee will be kept. Would you like a more recent example? In our office, we’re having backwards compatibility and interoperability issues between LibreOffice and the latest incarnation of OpenOffice. And these two projects supposedly conform to an open standard, are open source and this means that supposedly developers of both projects would be bothered to ensure that ODF files we created with LibreOffice can be opened with OpenOffice and vice versa. But no; the cancer that plagues the vast majority of open source projects (i.e. the “culture” of egotistical “volunteer”, “amateur”, “if you don’t like my code, fuck you and write your own” geeks that wouldn’t last a day in a proper professional environment) has ensured that all the hopeful declarations of project leaders have become hollow promises.

      Let’s get back to SL and OpenSim now… Exactly why should we be bothered with maintaining backwards compatibility with the obsolete prim-based system? Or with the horrendously wasteful and crappy sculpties? Get rid of them, and give me a better solid modelling system, with better tools for manipulating the shapes, and with proper support for assemblies. I honestly hope LL ditches the current system and gives us an easy-to-use system that takes cues from proper CAD applications. And if this happens, I’ll say “good riddance” to the old system.

      Do you know why? Because we must look forward. Things become obsolete. The elven brazier I made way back in 2007 (while on my first account) as part of a class I attended at the now-defunct TeaZers University simply wouldn’t cut it today if it was compared to one made with mesh. Why exactly would I want to bring obsolete stuff to a new platform? To make my builds look ugly? No thanks.

      As for Oculus, we’ve reached the “ship the doggone thing already” point. Right now, there’s too much talk, and too little in the way of actual stuff on that front.

  2. my rl husband thinks that sl is ridiculous & calls it “playing barbie” ~ he doesn’t have much use for online games in general

    both my brothers are gamers but they prefer shoot-’em-ups & say that sl is “for girls”

    my mom got an account & i helped her put together an attractive avatar & took her dancing in clubs but she just wanted to watch & have me make her avatar move & once i went home she quit logging in & now says she’s forgotten her password

    my former housemate ~who is female in rl~ got a male avatar & played sl for awhile but her laptop didnt have the processor power to make her experience a very good one ~ she quit logging in altho she recently told me she’s been logging in now & then w/ a newer computer

    i’ve been a regular sl user for almost 3 yrs now ~ why have i stuck while others i know haven’t? 1 partuv me agrees that sl is pretty ridiculous or that spending $$ on it is ~ yet another partuv me has had a lotuv fun in sl ~ more than the platform itself tho what has kept me in sl is the very good friends i’ve made in the game ~my sisters & sl husband are awesome !! i’ve enjoyed their company very much & have enjoyed the music ~~ ~ all of this has nothing to do w/ the platform itself or anything LL has done besides provide a virtual ‘place’ for me to make friends ~ this being the case i dont think it really matters what LL does or doesnt do so long as they dont screw sl up so badly that there are no cool ppl left to make friends with

    1. Well, if we’re honest… The “playing house” and “dressing up” elements in Second Life are very popular and, along with the in-world sex market, drive a significant portion of the virtual economy. What makes SL attractive (and for how long) for each individual person differs greatly.

      Spending money on virtual worlds and games can be seen as ridiculous. I know people who have been spending large sums of money on games like Ikariam, Grepolis, and Travian. I’m sure many of these people think spending money on SL is ridiculous. And many outsiders think spending money on both online games and virtual worlds is ridiculous. Then again, have you considered that much of what we spend in RL is spent on ridiculous stuff? Let’s take car geeks as an example: They’ll spend a lot of money to tune their cars to produce silly horsepower figures, they’ll lower them until their floorpans scrape roadkill off the asphalt, they’ll add bodykits that make their cars look ugly as hell, they’ll install terribly loud and silly-looking audio systems. And they’ll have spent on this stuff just as much money as a shopping addict would have spent in SL in the same length of time. So, how do we define what’s ridiculous? And who defines it?

      As for whether SL will keep on having people in it, or whether SL2 will have people in it… Well, besides LL’s technical efforts to make it easier for people to find others, communicate with each other, and enjoy themselves while in-world (let’s be honest: Regardless of what the loud-mouthed agitators and their sheep are saying, SL has improved vastly since it first started), much still depends on the users. For instance, if your friends find themselves in a position where they can no longer justify being in SL… There’s not much the Lab can do.

      1. – I’m new to SL, but entranced by its potential. I agree with what you say about the principals being preoccupied enough to be foolishly blind to user attitude.
        – But I agree with Rosedale in a video saying that the things that will entice the grand public will be ultra-high resolution and ultra-low latency, as well as non-cartoon avatars.
        – I’m no gamer, I’m a seriouser. So I’m just tinkering, biding my time, looking at SL uses for education, industry, self-growth.
        – The principals started out for fun to make a war gaming app. And they made SL open source so people could build whatever they liked. The lack of content is prob because of the complex hassles of building things, the clunkiness of the results, the sluggish, awkward getting around I’ve experienced as a beginner.
        – But I’d guess that’s going to change in a world where $2B has been spent on just a VR headset, and Rosedale is talking 100ms latency and quite nice avatars.

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