Op/Ed: Let’s play a game of make believe

by Pixeleen Mistral on 27/11/06 at 2:05 pm

by Eloise Pasteur, European Affairs desk
Eloise_pastuerWe’ll start with the probably mutually exclusive ideas that: 1) I’ve got enough money to set up a rival for Second Life and 2) I’m nice enough to do it how we, the users, want. So, what do we want? As a minimum, and in no particular order:

- Less lag, to include at least better client fps, more constant sim fps, faster texture loading;
- Better uptime (no fortnightly downtime for example);
- Better physics engine;
- Better copyright protection;
- HTML on a prim;
- Customer service;
- Better communication with the users;
- Better scripting language choices;

- Different UV maps (clothes templates) to include at least 2 arms so you can have asymmetric upper clothes layers, and a better distribution of polygons;
- Importing different meshes (so non-humanoid avies are easier, and some clothes and hair options may be improved);
- New importing tools or building tools (import from Maya, CAD style build tools etc.);
- No grey goo/self replicating object attacks or better anti-goo tools;
- Better AR resolution or whole new system (may intersect with better copyright protection in part);
- Better land control tools (access, building, scripting, autoreturn etc. as well as landscaping);
- User identification/verification restored.

Before you scream ‘more tools against griefers is missing’ the last four items are various anti-griefing tools split into parts like this because a lot of them cross over into other things.

Some people will shout loudly for other things.
I can think of at least one person who, on reading this list, would add “resident government” whilst I can think of other voices (including mine) that would say “I’m not going there if it’s resident governed” so I’ve deliberately avoided them, but I would be willing to add to the list tools and ownership systems that allow for various government forms. The can include democracy, which in SL is a fiction that people allow to happen rather than built in, as well as feudal systems which is pretty much what we’ve got now and since I’m doing it this way, I’ll allow other forms of governance. Tools, similar to covenants, but which actually support the local variations in systems should be built in. So, as a general statement, things which can be locally implemented to enhance the users’ experience within the rest of the structure allowed as options, anything that will have significant objections and would have to be general, not included.

If we split this list up into a few more general headings we have:

Technical improvements
Company improvements
Legal/Social improvements

Technical improvements
are, in some ways, easy. I’m starting building this now, so I do it with the current tools and the likely projected tools. SL started building a number of years ago, and chose the things that were to hand then. The problem LL faces is that the code, which at one time might have been clean and “pure” has been patched so often over the months and years that taking something out (Havok say) and replacing it with the latest version is a nightmare. Of course, over time my new world will start to suffer that problem as well. But, since I know it will happen I’ll set up a system so that we have a stable period in each year whilst the patches are turned into neat, clean code so the next round of upgrades can come onto a cleaner code base each time. (For those of you that run big coding projects: I did say this was a dream didn’t I?)

Company improvements, things like having a customer support service that is trusted, and better communication with the residents could be instituted of course within LL but it appears not to be part of their corporate culture. Linden Lab might say they value communication and customer service of course, and if you dig hard enough you can find statements saying they do, but should you have to dig for those statements? Perhaps it is only because bad news travels faster, but it seems easier to find the statements where they say stuff you rather than lets talk.

Legal and social improvements tie, to some extent, to technical improvements. We’ve all seen the change in groups recently, and although your experience may differ I’m seeing a change in how groups behave to reflect those technical changes. The new groups systems were also a wonderful example of how LL can, occasionally, consult with the residents and communicate well with them. Sadly for a large proportion of residents calling it ‘the new group system’ is confusing: it’s the only one more than half of our residents have ever known, and it’s the last great example of general consultation with the users. Other social and legal changes are meant to be in the pipeline, but when will they get here, and what will our world look like then? Of course my new world will have a different starting base. Since I’m giving you, the current users, everything you want, all shiny and new, I’m going to expect 1.5 Million new users very quickly, and a growing population base. Systems will be put in place for a social system based around that size of user base.

You’ll have your opinions about how nice I am, but sadly I’m not a billionaire. I’m not even a Lindenaire. But sometimes these dreams are useful in a different way. I’m opinionated and of course I believe I’m right. I suspect there are few people who will object to the vast bulk of the suggestions I’m making, although there would be some protests about the details I’m sure.

If it’s this simple, why don’t Linden Lab just do it?
Well the technical changes are hard to do, because there are a lot of devs very close to the code who understand niches of it, and lots and lots of patches. There is a solution, actually two, although both will be unpopular for various reasons:

Option 1: Don’t change SL at all for a number of months. No new features, no bug patches, only pure exploit patches. All the devs instead work on rationalising the code to the new structures and systems and we release (eventually) SL 2.0. It looks just like 1.13 but it’s clean code we can patch and develop from smoothly.

Option 2: Follow Steve Jobs’ example and hire an outside firm to develop SL 2.0 (which Apple did for OS X). It’s got to have all the current functionality, fewer (ideally no) bugs, and all the new toys built in. In the meantime the current dev team can tweak, patch and nurse SL along.

The social changes are hard too. SL is growing like crazy. Whatever the proportion of active users to the headline number is, no one doubts that we’re getting a lot more sign ups now (more in every four hours than the total members when I joined for example) but the culture of SL is still struggling to adapt. Unless a simply better all round alternative appears, doubtless it will adapt, although what it will adapt to is anyone’s guess. Some changes to society such as votes for women and abolition of slavery are unequivocally changes for the better. Some are much more contentious – Does a woman have a right to have an abortion, or is it murder? We can’t know, in advance, just how the changes to the culture of SL will turn out, even though we can see them happening.

The company can change and do a number of those things I’ve mentioned. In fact, the company must change. It’s no longer this nerdy, cutting edge tiny thing, it’s a major news and real life social phenomenon. It employs 200+ people, not 6 guys in a room with 12 coffee makers any more. As companies grow, and their products expand and grow, they have to change. One of the possible changes is the change to death of course, but a number of companies do manage to change and thrive. The appearance of Zee Linden isn’t necessarily a good choice, but seems a clear indication that LL is looking to change and grow.

Second Life isn’t dead. Some will tell you it’s not even moribund. Parts of it are approaching middle age, and parts old age: technical developments in computing are just that fast after all. At the moment it’s the only game in town. Will it stay that way?

That’s the $64,000 question. If Linden Lab fail to convert their business to their new reality, it might not stay in town. If they fail to make some choices about how to develop in the medium term, it will die as it becomes too old and nasty to run. Not all of those choices will be universally popular I’m sure, when are they ever, but I’d rather have a good Second Life in a year than nothing, wouldn’t you? Unless the competition emerges of course. If Linden Lab fail to cope with the new social and associated legal realities of growing quickly, of long term residents, of new large companies appearing within SL it might implode just like most MMORPGs do as the customers move on to the next new thing (LOTR online anyone?).

Will someone open up competition?
I’m now starting to believe they might. The costs for developing “Eloise’s Elysian Existence” (or some snappier name) are high, previously prohibitively so. But, learning what SL does badly as well as what it does well is quite easy. Working out how to avoid the former whilst doing the latter as well or better is possible. 1.5 Million as the headline number (even if only 10% become long term users) and 100,000+ new users per day suddenly starts looking like a sufficiently rewarding number to make it worth competing. Face it, if you really do SL but better all round, you’ve got 150,000+ sign-ups in your first day, and all the publicity of “the new Second Life” too.

Let’s hope someone wakes up and smells what’s cooking and pulls out the stops and makes the hard choices. Let’s hope it’s soon!

9 Responses to “Op/Ed: Let’s play a game of make believe”

  1. Trevor F. Smith

    Nov 27th, 2006

    Oh, how I like this post. As someone who is working towards something which is regularly compared to Second Life (shameless plug: http://ogoglio.com/) I participate in the SL culture and watch the news carefully, considering the exact questions you address.

    I could talk about each point you make, but this is a blog comment so instead I’ll just say that Second Life cannot mature beyond its current form to be the metaverse as the Lindens originally conceived without a hard left turn towards opening the platform and supporting diversification of culture.

    Imagine a world with only one ISP and only one web hosting company.

    As good as your requirements are, there are dozens of equally important requirements for others’ needs and the only way to prioritize and address them is to figure out how third parties can build their own sims and join the grid without being capable of crashing the world.

    What we have right now is a company town, and what we need is a network of global cities.

  2. Jonas

    Nov 27th, 2006

    Lots of great questions, and I agree that the time is ripe for a competitor to step up. With the availability of tools like OpenCroquet and Multiverse, the cost may not be so prohibitive anymore. Maybe one could analyze what the key aspects of SL are that contribute to its success? Is there some point between There.com and Second Life that has sufficient functionality to attract the users, but is sufficiently constrained to minimize lag and have improved graphics? Perhaps PhotoSynth (http://labs.live.com/photosynth/) or 3B ( http://www.3b.net ) are the early stirrings of the SL killer? How hard would it be to turn Google Earth or MS Virtual Earth into multi-user environments?

  3. Bruno Ziskey

    Nov 27th, 2006

    We definitely need a strong competitor for SL. Think about it, if people switch to the other guys version of SL, whats Linden Labs going to do? Not sit on their asses, I can tell you that. The life blood of companies is capitalism, and that entails a healthy dose of competition, which makes the competitors act like the US and USSR in the Cold War: try to outdo each other. Linden Labs may update SL in a much better, more effcient way, find better ways to create less lag *cough stop allowing free accounts cough cough*, fight griefers better, ANYTHING so long as it keeps the competition from getting SL’s customers. There.com doesnt even come CLOSE to matching the abilities of SL, but if there was a competent, easy-to-use program equal to SL, and had everything SL didn’t, I would instantly sign up for it, even pay for it if I had to (*a gasp escapes from the free account people.* Is Bruno serious? PAY to play an online game where you need money anyway to do anything worthwhile?) Sure, call me crazy, but thats capitalism, and it works. Kinda wish that Star Wars program had been completed, though. *sighs*

  4. Urizenus Sklar

    Nov 27th, 2006

    All I can say is God bless you and good luck, Trevor.

    I have to say though that two years ago I gave a talk at State of Play, arguing that open source platforms like Croquet and Muppets was going to replace Second Life, and Cory Ondrejka told me I was full of it, and as much as it pains me to say it, so far he is right. One problem is those open source platforms are developing too slowly. Few people are working on them and in at least one case I know of a key person was hired off the project by Linden Lab.

    The other problem is that the key to success is having a critical mass of users. People in social networks will tolerate crappy tools for an awful long time before they abandon a platform. social platforms are just too sticky. People are still in TSO, after all. I think the Lindens figured out it was better to be first and shitty than late and good.

  5. Sativa Prototype

    Nov 27th, 2006

    I eagerly await the next thing down the pipe. Hurry up, somebody get cracking!

  6. Electro Spark

    Nov 29th, 2006

    At the end of the day, it all comes down to money.

    (Virtually) nothing is impossible, but some things are more costly than others.

    With most of your points, and the reasons why they have not been addressed in Second Life is probably down to the fact that either it would break the current 1st World financial model, through either loss of revenue directly from subscribers, or from “significant” investors pulling the plug.

    I’d love HTML on a prim… but if that involves bringing textures in as well, thats a lot of lost revenue.

    External investment is another thing which will also drive what features are seen next.

    While its fine to have an altruistic view of what the perfect Second Life would be like, the servers, bandwidth, and salaries in the 1st World still need paying. And innovation. And innovation costs money. Lots of money.

    If Linden Labs were already so minted that they could build a Second Life for free, and host it, you really have to ask yourself why would they? At least at the moment it is a fairly innocent innovation. The good old capitalist desire to make more money. Not greed. The money made is used in part to pay for additional hardware, staff, bandwidth, R&D, etc… Sure, the Lindens will make money too, but its their idea. They deserve it.

  7. Trevor F. Smith

    Nov 29th, 2006

    It never occurred to me that HTML on a prim would decrease LL’s revenue, but I suppose it could be used that way. On the other hand, since the SL clients would be downloading images from third party web servers it would reduce Linden Lab’s server load and bandwidth fees. I wonder if 10L is enough to cover those costs as it is.

  8. urizenus

    Nov 29th, 2006

    I was wondering that myself. 4 cents per texture upload doesn’t seem like a lot of revenue, but I couldn’t begin to guess how many textures are uploaded every day.

    On the other hand, a *lot* of those textures are stolen intellectual property, so if I were a platform owner I would jump at the html solution just to stay out of DMCA tangles.

  9. Eloise

    Nov 30th, 2006

    Whilst considering lost revenue through texture uploading, consider that a lot of the textures uploaded are for clothes and skins. HTML on a prim won’t affect that.

    Also consider that at least some of the methods mentioned for html on a prim are replacing a texture with a URL feed, much like video streaming currently works. Other methods may actually be implemented of course, but if that is the case you’re only replacing one texture (so good bye plywood) with one other texture, whatever it may be.

    I rather suspect that 10L isn’t designed to cover the costs. The current business plan more or less relies on premium members and tier in combination income from Supply Linden selling on Lindex.

    The ecconomic stats page http://secondlife.com/whatis/economy_stats.php show in October total uploads (textures, anims and sounds) L$8.4M, Nov to date L$8.7M. Stipends 96.1 and 90.7 Million respectively. Supply Linden sales 49.7 and 72.8 Million respectively. At L$272 to US$1 that’s about US$182,000 and US$268,000 in Lindex income, and rather less than US$10,000 for total uploads if they’re all replaced by LindeX sales.

    Which do you think they’re more interested in?

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