In 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?
It 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.
- Blizzard’s Decision To Cancel Titan Should Sound A Warning Bell For Linden Lab – by Ciaran Laval
- Blizzard cancels its next-gen MMO Titan after seven years – by Philip Kollar for Polygon
- Coverage of Linden Lab’s next-generation virtual world on this blog
- Ebbe confirms: “we’re working on a ‘next generation’ platform” (with audio) – by Inara Pey