As is pretty much always the case, I’m the last to arrive at the party when it comes to providing an analysis related to Second Life. This is intentional. When it comes to making sense of Second Life’s progress within a certain timeframe, I prefer to sit back and examine SL and its progress within the broader context, i.e. its direct and indirect competition, and the Real Life (RL) economic, social, and even societal factors that affect people’s willingness and ability to join SL, to stay in it, and invest in it. Sadly, far too much of the commentary fails (often willingly) to take these factors into account, and, by choosing a platform-centric perspective over a user-centric one, ends up painting a picture that’s either alarmist or unjustifiably flattering.
During the annus horribilis that was 2020, Tyche Shepherd released a number of summaries related to Second Life’s metrics, offering some interesting insights as to how Second Life fared in terms of usage and popularity. The last one was this tweet from October, which had to do with concurrency (how many users are in-world at the same time) and new user signups. The outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic coincided with a significant increase of the platform’s usage by its users, and increase also coincided with a spike in new user signups.
It is clear that, compared to 2019, daily concurrency remained consistently higher throughout 2020, although it trailed off after May. The big “hump” in the 2020 daily concurrency graph coincides with a significant spike in daily signups (new users joining SL). However, the increase in new signups didn’t last; by mid-May, 2020 signups fell down to the maximum number of 2019 daily signups and they remained consistently below SL’s 2019 performance in this area for the rest of the year.
As Tyche tweeted, this [c]oncurrency growth [was] driven by returning users or longer online sessions, rather than new users. It makes sense. When the pandemic hit, many of SL’s major markets went into a lockdown. Since existing SL users in those countries stayed at home, it made sense for them to get back into SL and start using it for longer sessions – some content creators even started being more active than before. In March and April there was even a significant increase in new signups. Again, it makes (sort-of) sense. Although SL is a seriously old virtual world platform that uses a rendering engine that’s inferior compared to just about any current competing platform’s, it has a dedicated user base that signs in regularly and creates some interesting virtual locales that someone can visit.
Also, SL’s user base is one that consumes like there’s no tomorrow, and they’re practically driven by each other to do so: shopping event upon shopping event and within shopping event, gachas, more fashion bloggers than you can shake a stick at, etc. It’s a veritable consumerist Mecca: consumo, ergo sum. I consume, therefore I am. With that in mind, I can understand why a skilled 3D content creator would want to join SL and start selling virtual goods to diversify their portfolio and increase their sales. Literally, to use the disgraceful term that Tribeflame’s horrible CEO Torulf Jenström coined, SL’s user base consists mostly of whales. Or, more aptly, mega-whales. Below, you can watch YongYea’s excellent commentary on Jenström’s disgustingly cynical keynote to understand what the term really means. At 25 minutes and 23 seconds, it’s pretty long, but it’s a must-watch.
And this brings us back to discussing the RL – ahem – realities that affect SL users’ behaviour and the platform’s ability to attract and keep new users. No, I’m not going to get into the same old tired arguments about the UI, the tier, the perks for premium users, the default camera offsets, or anything like that; I’ve spoken and written about them quite a few times in the past, and they’re rather irrelevant here. After all, I’m planning to revisit them in the future, in light of recent (non-)developments in the gaming industry.
Where most SL commentators’ narrative falls apart
I’m one of those people who’ve been in SL long enough to remember both the time when it was the mainstream media’s darling and its fall from grace. I was on my first SL account, which I had opened way back in 2006, when His Holy Philipness of Rosedale kept overhyping SL as the 3D web which would replace the web as we know it, even though everything had already started to point to the exact opposite direction. In fact, I still remember the noise my eyes made as they rolled inside their sockets. Ever since then, I’ve seen every controversy and every “crisis” that SL has weathered, and I’ve read all the analyses of all the (strangely) popular pundits. Throughout SL’s remarkably – and, perhaps, surprisingly – long life, the vast majority of said pundits have consistently and surprisingly, given that several of them fancy themselves as market analysts or what have you, failed to take into account the RL realities that influence potential, new, and existing users’ behaviour and stance towards SL.
Cost of Entry
When his Holy Philipness was making his bold claims, he appeared to be blissfully unaware of all the cost-related factors that determine whether people will join SL or not, and if, once they’ve joined it, they’ll stay or not. Even way back in 2006, when SL was down every Wednesday and half of the viewer updates made it crash more than a computer running Windows ME, you simply couldn’t have a half-decent experience if your computer didn’t have a dedicated graphics card with 3D acceleration and at least midrange capabilities. Such computers (desktops or laptops) were expensive back then; more expensive than their counterparts that didn’t have such hardware. They remained expensive.
Let’s face it: to have a relatively decent SL experience, you always needed a machine that cost at least USD 800 (for a desktop) or USD 1,000 (for a laptop of similar performance). And, due to the recent shortage of GPUs on the market and the price-gouging that “free” market gives us, this cost has doubled (at least), proving that all technological forecasts that predicted we’d be enjoying wonderful graphics and excellent performance at bargain basement prices were pure hogwash. Care to compare that to ordinary web surfing and casual gaming through Facebook, which can easily be done on a USD 250 laptop?
I know some people will say “oh, but you can run SL on a machine that has an integrated graphics circuitry,” but I have no time for this nonsense; I tell them to shut the fuck up before they finish the word “integrated”, because I’m talking about your SL experience being characterised by a decent frame rate at a relatively decent graphics level (at least Mid-High), rather than a slide show on “Low”. Seriously, this “integrated graphics” shit needs to be euthanised. SL is no different than any other 3D open-world platform in requiring a powerful machine. These things cost money. End of story. How exactly has it eluded all SL and general computer industry pundits that the cost to meet SL’s hardware requirements for a decent experience is an inhibiting factor?
Cost of (Second) Living
Your existence in Second Life is NOT free. Yeah, joining SL is free. You can also move about for free, visit most places for free, you can talk to others for free, most in-world groups are free to join, and there are also free houses, pieces of furniture and general decor, garments, and avatar accessories for you to pick up. But that’s pretty much where “free” ends. Of course, I’m not saying that Linden Lab acts in the deplorable and unethical manner that Tribeflame does (see YongYea’s video above, if you haven’t already done so). I’m stating a fact.
Let’s say you run into a bunch of freebies of acceptable quality and among these you find a house (a tiki hut, for instance) and some furniture. Where exactly are you going to put them? You’ll have to rent virtual land. Last time I checked, there’s no such thing as free land in SL, because virtual land rentals are a major source of income for LL. Depending on how much land you rent, your minimum monthly expenditure is going to be the equivalent of USD 5, and it can end up being as high as USD 300, or even much more.
Then comes the fashion and styling concern. To avoid being saddled with the crap default animations for standing around, walking, running, flying, and swimming, you’ll need to purchase a decent animation overrider that includes a bunch of relatively nice animations. Most cost about USD 10 each, although there are some cheaper alternatives. If you want to have options w.r.t. your avatar’s garments and accessories, you need to abandon the default “classic” avatar or the mesh avatar you chose when you joined, even if it looks nice (and some do look rather nice), because no SL fashion designer supports them. You’ll have to buy a mesh body, and this can set you back some USD 10 or more.
Also, the recent shift to the costly (sometimes exorbitantly so) mesh heads adds an extra expense, usually well north of USD 20. And then, you’ll eventually get bored of the freebie hairstyles, garments, shoes, and accessories you got. You’ll want to make your avatar more “you”; or you’ll want to imitate a certain style that’s popular among SL fashionistas or within the particular community you decided to associate with. Pretty soon, you’ll find you’ve spent at least USD 150 on avatar styling just to have something that’s beginning to satisfy you aesthetically. And you’ll keep spending. I know, because I’ve been there and still am. I do spend to satisfy my fashion, styling, and fetish whims and desires; I’ve accepted that spending RL money on SL is something I have to do to get some goodies, and hire people to do stuff for me.
To get some extra perks (such as a weekly L$ stipend, the right to own land on the Mainland or rent a region directly from Linden Lab instead of a virtual estate agency, a Linden home, and access to several sandboxes and areas reserved for “premium users”), you have the option to become a paid subscriber, paying a minimum of USD 99 / year. And then there’s the “SL civil partnership tax”; you can get “married” to someone else in SL for L$10, and the “divorce” costs the person who requested it L$25.
And let me dispel another myth for you: no, it doesn’t matter that we spend Linden dollars in-world and not “real” dollars or euros; this is digital currency we either bought by exchanging RL currency, and / or we’ve earned by being hired by someone who’s already bought this money and / or earned it.
Cost of Content Creation
Second Life styles itself as a creative platform. However, LL forces you to pay for your creative expression within it. First of all, the in-world Build Tools suck. They’re extremely basic, they don’t help you create complex shapes, you can’t optimise the stuff you’re making by creating custom Levels of Detail (LOD), and don’t even get me started on advanced stuff like, say, a bill of materials. It won’t be long before you realise that, if you’re going to create anything that looks relatively good, you’ll have to use some application outside SL.
Even if you choose external tools that can be had for free (like Blender and GIMP), there’s this niggling issue. To bring this stuff into SL, you have to pay. L$10 per image (texture) or sound or animation / pose. And at least L$11 per mesh object. So, if you want to be a content creator in SL, you have to accept that, even if you describe yourself as an amateur, it’s a business and it costs money. And if you decide to sell your goods on the SL marketplace, there’s a sales tax, which is admittedly low.
SL is a non-essential expenditure
I think it’s already been established that SL is costly. To look pretty, you need to spend money. RL money. To have a place you can call your own in SL, you need to spend money. RL money. To upload your stuff into SL, either for your own enjoyment or to share with others for free, or to sell it to others, you need to spend money. RL money. Even to be able to decently enjoy SL, you need decent hardware and a good internet connection. And these things cost RL money. Even if we take into account the fact that a good computer and a good internet connection represent an investment that can have other uses besides SL, there’s still no escaping the fact that our activities in SL cost the average SL user a non-trivial amount of money. RL money.
This weakens SL’s case for any potential user, and practically all pundits (never mind starry-eyed evangelists) so far seem to be oblivious of the fact that people, be they existing SL users or outsiders, are largely aware of the fact that SL is anything but free (as in gratis) and is, in fact, quite costly. Another fact that has historically eluded practically every pundit so far is that SL is non-essential to people and that people are aware of this. So, they yap endlessly and pointlessly about “user retention” and whatnot, ignoring the elephant in the room: that people can live perfectly well and happily without being in Second Life.
Let’s face it, the harshest and most cynical critics and detractors of SL and its user base are right when they say SL is a pretend world where we create “happy places” as an escape from our everyday lives (which can be pretty miserable). We’re playing house in here. Let’s own up to it. There’s nothing wrong with escapism, with living out our fantasies and whims, with role-playing, with recreating or re-imagining our world. It’s a valid pastime, every bit as valid as, and no more or less nerdy than being avid sports fans, fiddling about with model trains, playing Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, “mainstream” video games, paintball, spending our money and time on comic books (including manga), or on being passionate movie buffs, or whatever. It’s every bit as costly as these pastimes, though. There’s every bit as much peer pressure to spend more and more on it as you can find in these hobbies, and it’s just about as non-essential as they are, however much we may enjoy the time we spend in-world.
Then again, His Holy Philipness of Rosedale has proven, way back in 2014, when he made a complete fool out of himself at the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality Conference, that he’s either blissfully oblivious to the fact that SL and virtual worlds in general are non-essential to people, or that he’s just shamelessly downplaying facts to make a pitch and hopefully attract investors. But this is no excuse for anyone who fancies themselves as a journalist or a serious commentator; they should take him to task and ask hard questions instead of sucking up to him. But hey, what do I know?
So, there you have it: SL is both costly and non-essential. Its clientele, at least as far as I’m aware of, seems to be mostly middle-class people, ranging from the lower-middle class whose jobs and financial security were destroyed (abruptly or slowly and agonisingly, in true lingchi-style) in the consecutive financial crises since 2008, all the way to the upper-middle class who can afford to own and run multiple sims. However, as is always the case in every society, the higher income echelons are far more sparsely populated than the lower ones.
So, there you have three crucial, but inexplicably ignored in all SL-related commentary, Achilles’ heels that SL has been saddled with from its inception: it’s a non-essential expenditure, it’s costly, and too many of its users are in employment and / or income situations that make them vulnerable to the next financial crisis, whether it’s caused by the white-collar criminals of Wall Street and other stock exchanges or by the next fancy virus that crosses the divide between other animals and the homo sapiens species. When faced with the spectres of massive pay cuts (been there, fuck you very much Dr. Schäuble), fuel poverty (I’ve also met this one, fuck you again Dr. Schäuble), unemployment, loss of healthcare because the government decided to throw its taxpayers under the bus to save the profligant, tax-dodging, stock exchange gamblers’ arses, what exactly do you think these people will do? I mean, besides skipping “luxuries” like their annual visits to the doctor, their car’s maintenance, keeping their home warm in the winter, or taking their prescription drugs whose price some fuckhead decided to send to the fucking stratosphere to make a quick buck. Will they continue spending USD 100 / month to play house on that Tuscany-themed homestead and USD 100 / month on virtual clothing? I don’t think so.
Back when I had commented on the two ridiculous keynotes His Holy Philipness of Rosedale gave at SVVR 2014, I had written he based them on several false assumptions:
- That the world is full of people that are literally chomping on the bit to join a virtual world;
- That people are eager to purchase user input devices (like the Razer Hydra or the Leap Motion) and special displays (like the Oculus Rift) which will have limited (if any) use outside of very specific applications;
- That the markets for computer peripherals and virtual worlds exist in a vacuum and are unaffected by the ongoing global financial crisis;
- That, in the middle of the global financial crisis, people would eagerly spend the money for the Oculus Rift, the Razer Hydra, the Leap Motion, or whatever other similar device is “necessary” for these virtual worlds to be enjoyed in all their glory;
- That the only things that keep people out of virtual worlds are lag and the complexity of the user interface.
Nothing’s changed since then. His Holy Philipness is still as delusional as he was back then, and so are most pundits pontificating on SL and other virtual worlds. I’ve already said that SL is a non-essential expenditure. You won’t die if you don’t have your SL. You’ll die if you don’t have access to food, water, shelter, warmth through the winter and protection from the summer heat, healthcare. Not if SL one day closes its doors and LL goes out of business. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s not somehow protected from the ebb and flow of our employment and income status, and, as a consequence, it’s not exempt from being put on the chopping block if we have to choose between SL and really essential expenditures. How these realities keep eluding all those famous pundits boggles my mind. It’s not rocket surgery. It’s common fucking sense. And I have news for everyone – pundits, LL’s owners and top brass: there’s no amount of tech that LL can throw at SL can make it essential or lift the majority of its users from the precariat class and put them in actually decent jobs.
But is it really so?
Yes. It is. Private estate ownership in SL peaked sometime in November 2008 (see the graph below) and has been in decline ever since. A partial recovery started in the summer of 2009, and it lasted one year. Ever since then, SL’s been steadily losing regions. Is it a coincidence that this protracted region loss started at the same time the world was being rocked by one financial crisis after the other (financial crisis of 2007-2008, European debt crisis, 2009 global financial crisis, and so many others – I’ve lost count) that obliterated millions of jobs, deprived millions of people of their savings and earnings, left millions homeless, cost hundreds of thousands of lives due to financial crisis-triggered suicide or health damages that were related to the impoverishment of vast numbers of people?
I already wrote about the inexplicably overlooked socioeconomic factors that make it hard for people to justify joining SL and staying in it. There are also other factors that the pundits fail to understand. First of all, as the years go by, SL users’ interests change. Their priorities change. People lose interest and sometimes change their hobbies. They can be frustrated – either because an entrepreneurial attempt in SL didn’t go well, or because their SL-based romantic relationships went wrong, or perhaps they were driven out by the bully gangs that previous LL administrations failed to confront and tackle. Perhaps they had a child or two and decided they could no longer dedicate time to SL. Others simply passed away. Others moved on to different platforms, and as for new users… Well, while there was the aforementioned spike in new user signups between March and April 2020, there’s literally no telling what these new users are. Remember, as of last October, SL had nearly 64.5 million registered users (source: gridsurvey.com). How many of these users are alts and throwaway accounts (including users who signed up once to see something or attend an event, never to come back) is anyone’s guess.
SL and the Competition
I was asked why SL keeps losing regions and performs so badly when it comes to new user signups compared to newer open-world platforms like the GTA series or Roblox or World of Warcraft or this or that or the other. Seriously now? First of all, it’s impossible to compare SL to Roblox: SL is a sandbox, where you basically play house, explore other people’s places, even have some digital nookie, whereas Roblox is a game platform and a game creation system. Not to mention that Roblox was never burdened with idiot pundits who piled up and doubled down to reinforce the “SL is for perverts” smear. Apples and oranges. The GTA series is an open world, but at its heart it’s a series of action adventure games, with missions, goals, and a competitive element that attracts people, and especially the male of our species. Apples and oranges again. Same goes for World of Warcraft. It’s a massively multi-player online RPG, which has a storyline, missions, quests, goals. In SL, you have no mission or goal whatsoever.
Regarding the “mission” and “goal” thing: as I’ve said time and time again, in SL you’re mostly playing house. That doesn’t sound particularly attractive or rewarding to potential users. Also, SL is old. Its engine comes from the 1990s. Its graphical capabilities are mediocre compared to most current game engines’ (except, of course, Clusterfuck 2077’s), its ability to simulate anything is pathetic, its active user base is about the size of a relatively big European city, so its appeal is limited. And it’s just not getting any younger. Not to mention that, unlike CD Projekt RED, LL doesn’t have the power and the connections of a major European government throwing EU taxpayers’ money its way, and it’s no longer a media darling that can do no wrong.
Now let’s get back to the cost thing. Nowadays, all game studios milk their games’ players like cows, with microtransactions, lootboxes, pay-to-win crap, etc. SL makes its money from micro-transactions, digital currency sales, virtual land rentals, marketplace sales taxation, etc. But here’s the deal: in a mobile game, you’re led to think you’re playing “for free” and are given the “option” to pay in order to win an otherwise unwinnable stage, and you’re given some imaginary bragging rights about how “cool” your player looks compared to others, which makes it easier for you to be chosen to join a team of players. In SL, you immediately see the costs incurred, and you don’t really have much of an incentive to fork over the dough; if you start plonking USD 300 / month on a full region, you’re not getting the “oooh, I finally beat this stage” rush you get in Candy Crush or what have you. You just get an empty piece of land that you have to work to make it look good. And even if you make the most stunningly beautiful avatar in SL, you’re not getting much of a reward for it or validation from others.
But really, given the fact that all of the aforementioned platforms and games are entirely different from what SL is, I wonder how exactly we can say they’re SL’s competition and keep a straight face. If we can compare it to something, it has to be something like Active Worlds or maybe Minecraft.
In A Nutshell
Besides the appallingly shoddy punditry that surrounds SL, there are a few conclusions a rational reader can draw. For starters, SL still has dedicated long-time users, and even returning users. It still manages to engage its audience. However, this audience isn’t growing. New signups are on the decline, as SL and platforms similar to it fail to capture people’s imagination. Furthermore, contrary to common myth, our disposable RL time and dime do dictate our attitudes to SL. And finally, there’s no simple answer to the question “how can SL compete with X or Y?”. Are there lessons to be learnt from other, more successful, offerings? Yes. But this will require another diatribe.