Since the recent massive layoffs at Linden Lab, many people have asked me for my opinion on Second Life’s future. Is the platform in immediate danger? What is the long-term outlook? What alternatives to Second Life exist? What is the future of virtual worlds?
I won’t claim to be an expert on any of this. My decision to invest tens of thousands of real-life dollars on virtual islands hardly makes me qualified to give smart investment advice. However, since a lot is at stake for me here, I have spent nearly all day, every day, since this news reading everything I can and seeking opinions from people far more knowledgeable than myself. I’ve explored other virtual worlds, with an eye towards if, or how, they can replace Second Life, particularly as a venue for live entertainment. And while my experiences were fairly brief and hardly definitive, I’d like to share them with the community, to get your feedback and thoughts. Those of you more experienced with these other platforms, please chime in and let me know if any of my facts are incorrect.
Before I go into specifics, let’s look at what makes Second Life such a unique and powerful way of connecting to other people. Mitch Wagner, in his excellent commentary on the recent layoffs, says SL has the following qualities that are not found or not common in other forms of social networking:
– A rich, 3D graphical environment.
– The ability to have a shared, realtime experience involving more than a half-dozen people.
– The ability to meet new people serendipitously.
I agree with all of these, but feel that they need more detail to better express why SL is truly unique. Here is my revised list, with a couple of additions:
-A rich, 3D graphical environment that is user-created, interactive, and endlessly customizable. Many popular games feature 3D graphics, but none are as user-controlled as Second Life. The ability to create environments from one’s imagination gives SL infinite potential and opportunities for architects and artists to express their creativity.
– The ability to construct one’s identity completely independently of one’s real-world name, age, race, cultural background, physical ability, etc. I’m not so much talking about anonymity/pseudonymity, I think that’s overrated, but the ability to look, dress, and act the way we feel INSIDE, without the limitations of our physical bodies. The role-playing games within SL also allow people to “try on” different identities, like actors in a play, or to express aspects of a self, such as identification with an animal, fictional character, or lifestyle/sub-culture. The customizable avatar is available to, and embraced by, every user in Second Life, including those who do not or cannot create content themselves.
– The ability to have, and create, a shared real-time experience involving a larger group of people. This is not a feature unique to SL at all – many text based chats and web conference applications provide this – but they do not provide a sense of being physically present with others, due to a lack of avatars. Since avatars are a powerful form of self-expression, we can learn a lot about a person without even speaking to them, just by studying their avatar.
– The ability to meet people one would be unlikely to meet otherwise, due to geography or differences in culture, values, socioeconomic background, age, career path, and similar factors. Although imperfect, SL provides many ways to connect and find people with similar interests, including groups, the world-map and mini-map, event listings, and a relatively effective search function.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of SL’s best qualities, but it’s a good start. Let’s now examine some of SL’s biggest problems, so we can see how other virtual worlds stack up.
-Poor customer service and relations. It’s rare to see customers of a popular product expressing such vitriol towards its creators. Internet forums always have a few chronic complainers and tinfoil-hat-wearing crazies, but when the average user holds an extremely low opinion of a company, there is a problem. Linden Lab’s relationship with its customers has been badly damaged by sudden price increases on popular services, arbitrary policy changes, and technical difficulties that go unaddressed. There is a perception that management does not care about its customers – including and especially those who operate businesses on the SL platform.
-High system requirements. While realism is an important aspect of virtual worlds, the current popularity of mobile devices and low-end laptops render SL inaccessible to many people. The promised browser-based SL app is at least a year away from being possible, according to my technically-savvy contacts, but a 2.5D or simple 3D “light” viewer would be faster to develop and release, and make SL usable on low-end machines. This would in no way replace the standard viewer, but serve as another option that would increase the potential userbase.
-Problematic new user experience. For years, the public welcome areas for new users have been plagued by griefers and spammers. These problems could be minimized by setting up a network of volunteers with the ability to page Linden Lab staff for immediate assistance, but instead, Linden Lab eliminated its official mentor program. SL has a high learning curve, and while there are UI changes that would make it simpler, Viewer 2 missed most of them and actually made some basic functions more difficult, such as managing multiple IM conversations, and giving an item to another avatar. Meanwhile, the user-created Emerald viewer has greatly surpassed Viewer 2 in number of users, and adds new and helpful features with each release.
In evaluating each of these virtual worlds, I’ve tried to consider all of the above factors. I’ve done my best to be objective; aside from SL, I have not invested any money in any of them, and approached each one with an open-minded attitude. I remain open to learning more about them all, and welcome fact checking and alternate viewpoints.
InWorldz is in many ways the most promising virtual world out of all those I visited. It is OpenSim based, so its interface and operation are identical to SL. That might bias me in its favor, but it also makes for an easy transition for everyone in the event that SL falls apart. People will naturally gravitate towards the familiar, and InWorldz is well placed to capture that market of disaffected SL users who have virtual lives to re-establish and content to sell. Unlike most fledgling grids, it already has a working currency that can be exchanged for USD – businesses can move in now and start making money.
Bugs and crashes are more common than in SL, but it runs well considering the small size and newness of the grid. Sim rentals are a steal at $75/month for a 30,000 prim sim! The owners and management are friendly and clearly committed to listening to users’ needs and concerns. If they have the business savvy, technical skills, and funding to fully develop this grid, it could be a worthy competitor or replacement for SL. If you are a SL user with a little extra time or cash to invest in a worthwhile project, I recommend joining InWorldz.
Heritage Key is a small OpenSim-based grid owned by Rezzable LLC – creator of Greenies and various other well known SL projects. Heritage Key has an educational focus and features stunning historically-based builds such as the tomb of King Tut, and interactive exhibits. They host a weekly lecture series and live music events a few times per week. All content on HK is created by Rezzable; there are no homes to rent and limited avatar customization items available. It is not aiming to be a SL replacement, but rather an alternate use of the technology. So don’t go there looking for a home or a life, but the events are top-notch and worth attending, and the builds fun to explore.
This much-hyped new virtual world has a lot going for it, but some problems as well. It is visually beautiful and the basic avatars are more sophisticated than SL. There is a working currency system, and great potential for live events, as the cities can hold far more avatars than a SL sim. They are also larger than a sim, making large-scale builds more cohesive and cost-effective to operate.
Cities are downloaded before visiting them, which does mean that you have to spend time staring at a download screen – however, the process was fast over my cable connection. After it is downloaded, the city is ready to explore, with no lag or blurry objects that haven’t rezzed yet. The world uses meshes instead of prims and sculpties, making for a far superior visual experience. User-created content is encouraged – you have to sign up for a free developer account, but it’s open to anyone and IMO that process will reduce content theft and griefing.
The viewer is simple to use, but also very limited. There’s no search function, events directory, or map to see if there are others near you. I found it difficult to locate others to talk to, and the cities felt big and empty. Avatar customization is very limited so far – there’s no way to be a furry, dragon, or robot. Although I’m generally human, I love the freedom that SL offers, to be anything for an hour, a day, or a year. If Blue Mars can’t provide that opportunity, they will not attract the many dissatisfied SL users who might otherwise flood in.
I have a pretty good graphics card, but I crash and freeze often in BM unless I log in right after a fresh computer reboot. The system requirements are higher than SL’s, which will greatly limit adoption of the platform. Oh, and the lack of a Mac viewer is epic, epic fail. That said, the minds behind Blue Mars development seem to be superior to those at Linden Lab – start developing a browser-based or light viewer, BM, and beat them to the punch!
I don’t know much about Avatar Reality, the company that owns BM, but from the little I have seen, they are friendlier and more responsive to customers than Linden Lab. For that reason, more than any other, I believe that Blue Mars has potential. Right now, they don’t have a lot of what they need to become a mainstream virtual world, but if they look at the market trends and take a quick shift in direction, they could find themselves in a position to dominate the market and take us beyond OpenSim-based worlds into the future. I’ll certainly be checking in there regularly to see how things evolve.
Twinity feels like a cross between Blue Mars and The Sims. It’s visually superior to SL, but runs better on my computer than Blue Mars. The avatars remind me of The Sims 2 and 3, and are fairly realistic but have limited customization options, comparable to Blue Mars. They have a working currency, and you can shop for new content from your inventory window.
The concept behind Twinity seems to be to replicate real-world cities and locations. Their promotional material does not emphasize creativity or fantasy, and indeed, what exists there so far is rather bland. The potential is there, but the proper marketing is not. The viewer is simple to use, but fairly limited and lacks the options of the SL viewer. It has a working search and it’s easy to find places to go.
I noted that Anshe Chung has a presence in Twinity. An event at one of her sims was advertised via a small pop-up at the bottom of the viewer. While I’m no fan of Anshe’s, I liked that Twinity promoted the event to users. It made it easy to find people to talk to and something to do. I wish Linden Lab would do something like this – although every club owner with a crappy “Best in Blue” event would howl and cry, if they chose quality events like live music, plays and gallery openings to pop up in the viewer, it would do a lot for new user retention.
Overall, I’d say that Twinity has a lot of potential, but it is mostly wasted thus far. I simply did not find it a compelling experience. That could change, but for now, I won’t be investing much time or energy in Twinity.
This virtual world of sorts is the only one that rivals SL in number of users. Although it has the reputation of being teen-oriented and cartoonish, there are avatars that are more realistic. The options for avatar customization are nearly as extensive as SL, and the in-world shopping catalog is very easy to use. I love that you can try all items on before you buy them. The currency can be purchased at major retailers such as Best Buy, something SL *really* needs to offer to expand their market and make L$ easier to buy for people without credit cards.
The interface is simple, and movement options are limited, but you can sit, dance, and cuddle, with lots of custom animations available. I think IMVU would run well on lower-powered computers that can’t handle SL, and it would be easier for less computer-savvy people to learn.
Overall, I really liked IMVU, except for one enormous, deal-breaking problem: rooms are limited to 10 avatars. This makes it completely useless for conferences, live music, or any other sort of large group gathering. I was so incredibly disappointed when I found out. If anyone knows of a way around this, please let me know
I remember visiting ActiveWorlds back around 1997 and being fascinated. I even got an idea for a novel from it, which sadly I never got around to writing. It didn’t run well on my computer, but ever since then, I dreamed of virtual worlds and all that they could make possible for me and many others. So naturally, when I found out that it still existed, I had to check it out.
AW has had upgrades since then, and the 3D graphics are pretty good. It is a user-created world, and from what I can tell, the building tools are more sophisticated, but not very user friendly. The avatars are awful – the free avatar for unpaid users looks like a bad SL sculpty mannequin. Paid avatars are slightly better, but limited. The viewer is not user friendly, however it has a very comprehensive help section that is easy to consult while exploring.
AW has no economy or money system. I am not sure if there is a way to set a music stream, or how many avatars can be in a sim. Overall, it feels dated, but it might be a good base on which some great coders could build something better. It is definitely not a SL replacement or alternative.
In summary, I am sorry to say that there is no perfect SL alternative. If SL were to go under tomorrow, my worst fears would probably come true – we’d all be scattered to the winds, some giving up, others trying desperately to replace something that can’t be replaced. You see, it is not the money I worry about losing should SL fail, it is the people. Friends, friends who are like family, brilliant businesspeople, talented musicians, creative minds making beautiful places spring from their imaginations. We cannot lose all of this. We must not lose all of this.
We must find a way. For now, OpenSim is it. Back up your content. Copybot your sim if you have to – NOT for profit, not to hurt anyone else, but to hold on to what you’ve made, and what you’ve paid real money for. Choose a virtual world, or two or three, and spend a little time in them. Choose one that cares about its customers, and tell them that’s why you chose them. Bring your friends along, too. SL may crash and burn, or it may pull through this and thrive. Either way, there will be changes. Let’s try to get through them as a community. Someday, everyone will be in virtual worlds. We are the pioneers, and that’s never an easy road – but the avatars of the future will thank us.