Of Blizzards, Titans and Successive Lives

Blizzard Entertainment logoIn a recent blog post, Ciaran Laval wrote about Blizzard’s cancellation of its extremely ambitious project Titan, and opined that it could affect the fate of the new virtual world platform that Linden Lab is working on. What makes the cancellation of this project important is that it’s been in the works for about seven years now, and what makes it seem relevant to Linden Lab’s actions and product portfolio management is that Blizzard and Linden Lab both have MMOs as their main source of income, and that Titan was touted as the “next big thing”.

In comments to Polygon, Blizzard co-founder and CEO Mark Mohaime and Chris Metzen, Blizzard’s senior vice president of story and franchise development, offer partially useful insights into their decision to axe this big-budget project. Note that I say “partially”, because at least some of the real reasons will remain for a considerable amount of time with the people involved. Truth be told, it’s rare for any company to cancel without very serious reasons a large project it’s been working on for years.

In other quarters, talk is made of “fear of cannibalisation”, i.e. that Titan would eat into the market of other franchises in Blizzard’s portfolio, most notably World of Warcraft. In other words, it’s claimed that Blizzard feared existing WoW users would stop playing WoW, with some of them migrating to Titan and others moving to other MMOs developed by competing companies. This explanation is rather plausible, as Blizzard wants to have a relatively diverse portfolio and harvest income from all of its products, without fearing that one product would cannibalise the other. In this context, cannibalisation simply means that you’ve spent precious money to develop a new product, which is supposed either address a different market segment or to cause your clients to buy both products – and, instead, the new product merely transfers buyers from the previous product to the other or causes them to seek gratification in the products of your competitors.

How does this all relate to Linden Lab?

linden-lab-logoIt has been theorised that the Lab’s next-generation virtual world, which is rather erroneously referred to as “SL 2.0” by many in the SL user base, and whose development was confirmed last June by LL CEO Ebbe Altberg, could “cannibalise” Second Life and harm the company in the process, so lessons should be learned from the cancellation of Titan. I beg to differ, and here’s why:

For starters, Linden Lab doesn’t have a diverse portfolio of MMOs. The only “big” product it has in the MMO / virtual world market at the moment is Second Life. Second Life, in turn, is both a product and a platform, but I think emphasis should be given to the “product” aspect, since you can’t create your own private or corporate installation of Second Life – this job has been pretty much left to OpenSim.

Second, Second Life has been historically saddled with poor design decisions that caused it to have severe limitations. It doesn’t scale well, it doesn’t support procedural textures, you can’t import custom avatar skeletons, the default avatar mesh is a mess, mesh support was implemented in a way that left a lot to be desired (especially when it comes to avatar clothing), etc. And, right now, it seems that it will finally have some real competition in the face of High Fidelity. Please note that the Lab is a very minor initial investor in HiFi, so the two are really far more likely to be competitors than partners.

Third, Second Life as a brand has been tarnished, not least because of the ill-advised overhyping of the 2006-2007, when both the Press and the Lab were marketing it as the be-all, end-all internet platform, even though it was clearly not ready (technically) to do most of the things Mr. Rosedale promised. And I’m not even touching the various controversies that have surrounded SL.

Fourth, maintaining SL’s codebase is, as many Lindens readily admit, a “non-trivial task”, and I think they’re putting it mildly.

So, I have every reason to believe that the Lab is rather keen to replace Second Life with a new platform, which will not only be technically better, but also far more versatile, and free from the – largely undeserved – tarnished reputation of the old product. They want the new platform (note that I stress this word) to cannibalise Second Life; they want SL users and content creators to ditch the old virtual world and move on to the new one, and they want new users (individuals, institutions, corporations, etc) to come in – when the next-generation platform is launched, SL will remain open as long as it’s still profitable.

In other words, Linden Lab’s situation is really entirely different from Blizzard’s, and I don’t see how they’d want to reconsider the decision to develop a next-generation virtual world platform, given that SL is already showing its age – and, in the IT industry, time is really unkind to everything. I would also like to point out that Titan had reached a point where it made sense for Blizzard to either ship it or cancel it. Seven years is an extremely long time for the development of any kind of software. Too long, perhaps.

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5 thoughts on “Of Blizzards, Titans and Successive Lives

  1. Not sure I entirely agree with either side of the argument – yours or Ciaran’s.

    While it is true that SL and the Lab and their next generation platform are somewhat different to Blizzard’s situation with Titan – the latter having been in development hell for seven years, there is undoubtedly a risk the Lab must face in developing a potential “replacement” for SL – and Ciaran is somewhat right in offering-up caution.

    The reality for the Lab is thatfor the foreseeable future, they only have one guaranteed audience for a virtual world product – that’s the people already using SL and the likes of OpenSim. In theory there is the potential to reach a much bigger audience, but until it actually happens, that’s pretty much all it is – a theory; a hope. It really is (to use the famous misquote from Field of Dreams) “If you build it…” territory – and you can put the “will” either after or before the “they” and add any necessary question mark accordingly.

    So the Lab is gambling. Get it wrong, and their new platform could face a resounding “stuff off!” from their existing users – and could potentially make it very, very hard for them to have it taken seriously elsewhere, such as with the media…

    The flip side is, if they get it “right” and win over the vast majority of their existing user-base, then they have potentially bottled lightning twice. Having people flooding through the gates to the brave new world from SL and OpenSim could help generate precisely the publicity (and associated curiosity) needed to boost their user numbers to something beyond SL’s million.

    The problem is, putting all the ingredients together means that LL do run the risk of ruining the recipe and allowing someone else into the game – be it High Fidelity or a another company.

    Where you are correct, however, is that with the best will in the world, SL has reached the limits of its growth; not necessarily technically, we’ve seen some huge strides being taken over the last few years, but in its ablility to achieve the status of mass appeal. And even technically, it is hamstrung in a number of areas – not because of “poor technical decisions” – it’s probably fair to say that much of SL was built on the best of what was available at the time (1999-2002), but it has now been seriously overtaken as technology and tools have moved onwards, and the longer this goes on, the harder it becomes to readily update things, with enven those elements that can be updated requiring years to achieve with managed expenditure.

    Ergo, it is very likely that at some point, SL will falter. It’s also possible that something else neater, better, faster and sexier could come along – and cries of “think about the inventory!” notwithstanding, the current SL user base proves a fickle mistress and hops away to this new Big Shiny, leaving LL in charge of a hulk only fit for the breakers yard. And in that respect, better they do make the effort to come up with something that at least pleases us, their (currently) loyal users, in the hopes they can then leverage it further, rather than be hounded by fears of “getting it wrong”.

    1. I think “Development Hell” is the operative word here, or at least one of the operative words, and here we need to consider a product’s life cycle. If too much time passes and no product is launched to replace the aging one, then both the existing product will eventually die and the money spent to develop the new one will have gone entirely fruitless. A product’s life cycle consists of the following stages:

      1. Development
      2. Introduction
      3. Growth
      4. Maturity
      5. Decline

      Second Life seems to be in the rather unique position of combining maturity with decline. It loses regions; I’m not sure about how user numbers are evolving these past few years. Technically, no one can deny that Second Life is much better than it’s ever been, and, at its current rate of development, I believe that, within the next year, it’ll still be – limitations arising from initial, binding design decisions notwithstanding – technically noteworthy and even more mature than it currently is.

      However, as I said, regions are being lost all the time, and I don’t see new users coming in to rent new ones and make up for what’s been lost – although I could well be wrong here. You said that, for the foreseeable future, they only have one guaranteed audience for a virtual world product – that’s the people already using SL and the likes of OpenSim, and that the potential for SL to reach a much bigger audience is – at least now – a theory. This is an important point that’s often overlooked. Now, while I’m certainly not in Ebbe’s head, I think it makes sense for him to say “let’s win the current users over and, while we’re at it, let’s make the new platform versatile enough to also allow users to do things with it that, right now, can only be done with OpenSim or Unity.” At least that’s what I got by reading his statements and comments in the various forums.

      Product development is, of course, a gamble – especially when you’re trying to replace your main product. And yes, even if what you built your main product back then was the state of the art, SL’s development started around 1999 or thereabouts, it opened its virtual doors in 2003, and much of its underlying technology traces its roots back to the 20th century; right now, better technologies do exist and the Lab needs to move forward, otherwise it’ll be overtaken.

      Your closing paragraph sums it up succinctly. I’ll have to add, though, what I pointed out in the start of this comment: They’ll need to avoid Development Hell like the plague.

      EDIT: Finally, I’ll have to point out once again that LL’s situation at this moment is different from Blizzard’s.

  2. There are major differences between Titan and Linden Lab’s next generation virtual world but the reason I urged caution for Linden Lab was due to some of the quotes from the Blizzard team. Mike Morhaime said :

    “So we set out to make the most ambitious thing that you could possibly imagine. And it didn’t come together.”

    I’ve seen similar comments from Linden Lab staff regarding their ambitions for the next generation virtual world. A Linden said to me that he felt Second Life was the Everquest of virtual worlds, an MMO that WoW knocked off its perch and far outstripped. LL are looking for millions in their new world.

    The danger for Linden Lab is if they end up in the Blizzard position of tying themselves up in knots to try and make this happen, that it doesn’t end up being fun for the team and they have to keep going back to the drawing board.

    Chris Metzen finishes by saying he hopes they will be supporting World Of Warcraft forever, yet World Of Warcraft is very much on a downward spiral.

    I fully believe Linden Lab are right to explore new technologies and develop a new generation virtual world but the Titan story sounds a warning bell, it most definitely doesn’t sound a death knell.

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