Thursday, 16 February 2012

Second Life shrinks as the Hidden Metaverse expands!

Since this time last year Second Life lost 1,384 regions according to Grid Survey but, more worrying for Linden Labs, is the loss of 858 sims in the past two months alone. Now consider concurrency hovering around 60k peak daily traffic which has remained static for several years leaving the grid with no growth despite Linden Lab's claims of over 10,000 new sign-up's per day.  It is clear that people are leaving as fast as they are joining and it is the  creative people, enterprise and educational institutions who are leading the exodus (for example; Rivers Run Red, a virtual design company closed 30 sims and left to join Kitely in the past month). Moreover, if the current rate of loss continues Second Life will loose over 4,000 regions by the end of 2012. In contrast the open Metaverse has seen another sharp rise in regions and traffic according to a Hypergrid Business report "OpenSim exceeds Second Life private regions"

Whatever happens it is clear that the slow decline appears to be gaining momentum and the reasons are not hard to fathom. Linden Lab seems to have been dithering with uncertain priorities since the rot set in back in 2008 during the Open spaces fiasco when the Lab's reputation took a dive they have never really recovered from. Since that time they have consistently failed the residents with exceptionally poor customer services, consistently faltering platform software and the gradual, and to my mind, deceitful undermining of the very premise on which Second Life was built - user participation.

Originally, Linden Labs sold Second Life on the slogan "Your World, Your Imagination" and they built into the system the means to create content and easily capitalize on it by distributing it to a growing population pursuing their own varied gaming and social themes. The Lab provided an economy with token currency and users found they could make money and build business' from selling content, offering services and renting out land. It proved to be a successful business model and the platform thrived.

In recent times, however, Linden Lab's managers appear to have taken a very blinkered course in the pursuit of greater profitability. They don't appear happy to rely on the high land-pricing structure they have in place for sim hosting, nor are they content to earn money off of uploads and other services. The Lab has blundered from one bad decision to another which has left the in-world markets and stores empty while they reap a profit from their web marketplace and they undermine their land market with free homes to gain more premium memberships. What the residents want is a well maintained grid to pursue their dreams and businesses. What they get is instability, uncertainty, profit grabbing and the feeling the Lab could not care less about the residents wishes and needs.

The Hidden Metaverse

The core business of all virtual world operators is the sale and renting of virtual land. Linden Labs earns the balk of it's money operating a vast server farm to run all the sims on their grid and, for the most part, this is how Opensim grid operators make their money too. The operators are all essentially server hosts regardless whether they call their setup platform a grid or admit to being nothing more than a host connecting sims to other grids.

In fact there are a lot of hosts that will set you up in a Hypergrid enabled standalone or connect you directly to some other grid like OSgrid which allows anyone to connect and take part in it's community. Hypergrid Business blog has a good list but, anyway, in the past year OSgrid has grown in leaps and bounds (currently exceeding 11,000 regions) despite periodic culling of unused or abandoned slots (grid coordinates). But, regardless of the culling, OSgrid dose appear to go through periods of growth and decline anyway as communities sprout up then branch out as the owners learn the platform technicalities. Often, after a short "learning" spell in OSgrid we see some create hypergrid enabled standalone worlds while retaining one sim in OSgrid as a gateway. Small satellite worlds have been quietly growing in number in recent years and an example of this would be United Federated Starfleet, a Trekie community.

UFS now supports a grid of 29 regions and a user base of over 700. The Trekies hail from Second Life of course where they still have a community and sell clothes and other merchandise. They branched out to OSgrid a few years back then went on to developed their own grid which appears mildly active. I regularly see traffic of 15 or more on the grid and, of course, these numbers are not recorded anywhere other than the grid itself.

There are many small grids or standalone sims like this - probably in the hundreds if not a thousand or more given the number of downloads of Diva Distro, Sim on a Stick and the core platform code itself. The platform code has been downloaded thousands of times so it is reasonable to suggest that there are thousands of small virtual worlds that quietly make up the hidden Metaverse. Certainly, when you go looking you find them if you search hard enough. The best way to find the hidden Metaverse is to teleport to them via Hypergates and many regions in OSgrid offer stargates (teleporters) that help you on your way but you can type in a grid address anyway and do some traveling. Even better are the type of gate you just walk through and it teleports you to a pre-selected grid. Linda Kellie, the well known content creator who gives her stuff away free has a building on her Airy Bay region which is kinda of like Alice in Wonderland where there are many doors round the room leading to the worlds she has selected for you. All you do is walk right through.

Gaga tries another door at Airy Bay wondering what world she will be teleported to if she dare enter.

In my own travels I came upon Lani Global's world of Dune on OSgrid where those amazing giant sand worms slither across the surface then burst up from the sands with gapping jaws. Lani runs a Sci-Fi role play based on Dune and supporters have built up their own sims in the same cluster. In deed, being something of a Sci-Fi fan myself, I recently added a sim which represents an asteroid on which my spaceship crash landed. Lani's graphic designs are something of a Must-see marvel and there is a freebie store in the Pyramid offering lots of Sci-Fi related content including the LGS combat meter.

Gaga braves the Dune world created by Lani Global

The hosted estates in OSgrid are generally the best resourced and least laggy. Often too, this is where you will find stores selling content for real money using something like Paypal or OMC. OSgrid is serving a growing Adult community too and the managers seem to have become more tolerant to it. In the early days of the grid the managers where more cautious but times have change. I don't know of any gambling sims on the grid although I have seen a few Zyngo type slot machines but the BDSM and Gor communities do seem well
Shock horror as giant spice worm bursts from the sand
 catered for and attracting residents. It's hard to say exactly how OSgrid is going to develop but my guess is that it has a bright future continuing on it's present course. It certainly works as a HUB for the hidden Metaverse and as a learning platform for all those budding builders that come after. I regularly see OSgrid traffic peeking around 200 plus these days and though the community is somewhat floating unlike InWorldz, which has a more stayed community, there is enough support, mentors and help at the Plaza sims to assist noobs settle in. There may even be two factions in OSgrid such as those who encourage the freebie culture and the professional hosting estates, often built on ethic, cultural and language lines. They tend to build their own communities similar to mainland in Second Life then rent out land plots and sims around their islands which often look like their real homeland. The Dutch and Germans seem well represented both on OSgrid and amongst the satellite hypergrid sims.

W.A Fashions at Littlefield.  Gaga shops here for her boots!

The Open Metaverse in general is maturing and Opensim in particular is becoming more stable and feature-rich. There is great opportunity for budding entrepreneurs to build mods or applications for gaming similar to puzzle games and quests as Lani Global has done. Some functions in the German-language Metropolis Grid have been optimized for use on mobile devices like iPhones and SmartPhones. Currently the following functions for smart phones are supported: Grid Status displays online users, News is covered in Metro News and the Metropolis Forum is accessible on the phones too. In the future there are plans to run Metropolis itself on a phone too.

M.A Rentals. One of the vast hosting estates on OSgrid

In the rest of the Metaverse, the walled garden grids which don't allow hypergrid teleports or content to leave their grids continue to gain residents but fortunes are shifting like the sands of time. Avination has seen a decline in the last half of 2011 after it's meteoric rise to leading grid at the start of the year when it had over 1,000 sims and daily peaks in traffic of 300 plus. Since then it has lost over 500 sims and traffic has dropped to peaks around 100. It has been said Avination had more casinos at one time than users to fill them but clearly there were some successful clubs. Many have since closed. InWorldz on the other hand has worked it's way back into the lead gaining sims and user traffic peaking in excess of 200 a day. Both grids are closed worlds for content security reasons so play no part in hypergrid travel and don't enjoy visitors via HG teleports which is unfortunate for their vendors but it is perfectly understandable since they want to attract top class content sellers who don't want their virtual goods copied and resold in Second Life.
Gaga visits the beautiful 1001 Arabian Nights

Infinity Lights Art Gallery

Content security remains an important issue in the development of the open Metaverse and the developers continue to work on solutions. However, It may still be a long time before we see the walls come down and the barriers lifted on the free flow of traffic and content across the whole Metaverse but I believe, ultimately, it must happen and a greater market will open up. Second Life is in slow decline anyway because it's a closed grid and the alternative technology is improving to the point of opening up the Metaverse just as the world wide web was opened up 20 years ago. OSgrid is in a unique position as the test bed for the developers who generously allowed anyone and everyone to connect their sims to it. In my view it has come to represent more than just another grid. I would describe OSgrid as a microcosm of both the visible and the hidden Metaverse in fact since so much of it originates there before branching out. And, mores the point, most of the branching simulators link back just as if all roads lead to Rome.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Aurora Based Nova Grid Shuts Down

Without warning Nova Grid has suddenly closed and the owner Enrico Ranucci has made no statement as to the reason why. Everyone appears to be left in the dark and I have asked many who might know something. They all say you know as much as I do so, on the face of it, it is looking like a silent closure although I have not heard of anyone losing money yet.

Nova was built up on the Aurora server code and some might have said this was premature given the highly experimental nature of the software. The developers still call it pre-alpha even but that's not to say the platform was not functional. Aurora sim is very advanced and fast. In many ways it is better than Opensim core, on which it is based. But it probably was too unstable for running a grid selling virtual land at this time. One source did say to me that Enrico was tired of the slow progress in Aurora sim development and it's true since Revolution Smythe took time out for his education that the project did seem to loose some of it's focus and momentum.

Personally. I still have a lot of faith in the Aurora project although I am now concentrating more of my time in OSgrid and developing a standalone with hypergrid connection to OSgrid. I still have a server running an Aurora instance but I am a bit disappointed myself too with the lack progress on the ODE physics engine. Currently, Revolution Smythe's improvements to ODE have improved motorized vehicles and aircraft a lot and they work far better than in Opensim but this, in turn, has broken wind sailing which was important to my role play game development involving Pirates and sea battles. Opensim ODE still functions better for wind sailing so in the face of slow progress in Aurora I have switched to working with Opensim again and I will wait to see how Aurora sim progresses. It must be said though, that, from what I have seen on Twitter recently, plenty of code commits are being made to Aurora sim at the present time so the closure of Nova in no way reflects on Aurora or puts that project in doubt.
Here is one of my sailing ships on my Auroroa-based standalone. On first linking the ship together and scripting it she sails fine but soon as I stand up and try again or take it to inventory and re-rez then she delinks herself as you see in the picture while she sail basically ok. On the other hand motor boats and helecopters fly brilliantly! Now, the trick will be to fix wind sailing too.

Enrico started out in Second Life then began renting sims in OSgrid through his company, New Voice. He launched Nova Grid very soon after the Aurora project began and probably relied on the rapid development promise coming from the team. Nova functioned much like OSgrid and anyone could connect their Aurora based standalone sims if they wanted to so a small community had started to develop although I do recall a serious loss of renters when there was a mishap with the asset storage code and a lot of inventories were wiped out - exactly the kind of thing that can happen with alpha software! Enrico was also a contributor and provided a sim on the Nova grid serving as a meeting place and HQ for Aurora devs. There were regular meetings at one time but this stopped back in September. More recently Enrico announced a 2012 offer of a cloud based sim for one year free and had previously reduced sim hosting to as little as $6 a month.

Without any facts I don't want to speculate what went wrong but I sure do think Enrico took on a huge challenge and appears to have been broken by it.