Sunday 9 September 2012

Second Life the Video Game According to Iron Man, Rodvik

They say that even a brick will fly if it moves fast enough and the same might be said of Minecraft's meteoric rise given the way their blocky graphics have caught on with a younger generation brought up playing with Lego. Minecraft came long after Second Life and quickly overtook it in the traffic stakes which can't have gone un-noticed by the Linden Lab bosses who have been struggling for a long time with customer retention issues. Second Life attracts in excess of 10,000 signup's a day, so I have read, but has proved incapable of keeping any more than a fraction of them. If that wasn't bad enough we are now witnessing a steady drop in regions too and that has serious financial consequences when the major part of the Lab's cash flow is from hosting. But, whatever, the Lab has a savour!

The Steam video gaming community web site
Enter Rodvik Humble who came from Electronic Arts where he was vice president and led the EA Play label. I am calling Rod the Savour but others are more inclined to call him the Grim Reaper or the Iron Man sent to see that the dismantling of the virtual trappings of Second Life are handsomely replaced by the functionality of video gaming. However, I would say, on the whole, Rod got a fairly good, if guarded, reception from the Second Life community when he arrived and the hope was he would get stuff fixed and the horrible lag reduced if nothing else but, while there were some improvements amid continuing disruption to the service, it gradually began to dawn on the community that something else was afoot that would amount to a big departure from the traditional focus of Second Life, which is basically a social, economic and role playing culture with no specific aims or goals other than what might be in the mind of the user. The change has come gradually starting with Mesh and some simple quest games on the new Linden Realms. Then came their faltering attempts to roll out Pathfinder tools, and now they announce the Lab's intention to get listed on Steam, albeit very quietly.

Yes, it's full Steam ahead actually but you wouldn't think it for the low key way in which it was announced. Linden Lab's still worries about negative reaction I suppose but they can't gloss over the plan any longer and, in my humble opinion, it seems rather cowardly and rather unfair on paying customers to not be open and clear about things that might effect the many businesses and interests that have been encouraged to build in Second Life at considerable expense to the users over the years.

With hindsight it's not really that surprising though given Rod's background and expertise in video gaming that there is now a clear intent to break into that market especially as it commands tens of millions of potential customers. This was always the problem and it is clear to me that Rosedale had made the decision to break out of the virtual world's recruitment dilemma a long time ago. Even before he rather ungraciously belittled his customers and called them  "broken" people he had sacked a full third of the Second Life work force and dumped one of Mark Kingdom's acquisitions, Avatars United. Three weeks after that Mark resigned and Rosedale took over. He went on to close the teen grid and stop education discounts which some saw as a bid to make SL more profitable for investors - I remember at the time speculation was rife that Linden Labs was being prepared to be sold off. It wasn't of course but at that time no one had any idea what was coming and, on the face of it, things looked much the same. That is, more blunders and U-turns and apparent bewilderment all round following Mark Kingdom's departure.

It can't be denied though that Mark Kingdom failed to do anything that might help maintain the growth the grid had experienced in 2006-7 while the mainstream media were fascinated by Second Life. The news stories usually dwelt on clever young people making money by creating content which attracted many more who might have stumbled at the gate in confusion had they not bought into the vision (Your World, Your Imagination) and saw the potential. Making money was at the heart of the system and a powerful incentive to explore the platform, read stuff and learn how it works. Video gamers, on the other hand, don't generally have any interest in the inner workings of the environment in which they play other than what type of game it is and what the means are to achieve the game's end goal. They hear about a game from their friends or see it promoted on the Steam web site perhaps and with little ado they want in and will spend a little money while it holds their attention. First impressions count a lot and the first impression a video gamer gets of Second Life is, like, what the f*** is this all about?

Video gamers want challenges and goals and are seduced by impressive graphics. Virtual worlds citizens want challenges too but they also want experiences which play on and fire their imagination. Video gamers will move from one game to the next most readily when they complete the levels and achieve it's end goal while virtual citizens will more likely settle into an open ended experience like role playing. Virtual citizens tend on the whole to be very creative as well and many will try to run businesses or none-profit arts and entertainment venues. Education too has been shown to make good use of virtual worlds but Linden Labs has obviously sacrificed that market in favor of gamers they want to court by cutting the discounts. However, it would be wrong to say video gamers wont spend time in virtual worlds at all or that virtual citizens wont play video games ever but not the teaming millions which is what Linden Labs has their sight's on. Bringing in Rodvik Humble to master mind this change of focus might seem a smart move and potentially profitable for Linden Labs in the long term but it could back fire badly because it's uncharted territory really. When did a virtual world platform ever become a video gaming platform before? Mores the point, how do you marry two markedly different cultures unless the intention is to gently let one die off in favor of the newer, and hopefully more profitable one?

Here is where the Grim Reaper jib comes in. I read some time ago that Rodvik Humble had a reputation at EA for being the tough guy and was involved in putting the "Sims" game to rest. This was recently brought up in a post by WADE1 jyr in a SL Forum post and picked up by Darrius Gothly who posted in a blog article, I’m Quite Frankly Befuddled And Wrong...

Rod’s involvement in the Sims at Electronic Arts was as the 'End Game Manager' (Darrius' words), carefully shepherding the very popular title into the history books.

Darrius was blogging about the recent closure of SL Jira for bug reporting which he feels is a mistake and, in fact, all part of Rodvik's grand plan. Closing Jira where residents not only reported bugs - many of which have been on it for years with no resolution in sight - but also tended to rant about the problems. Darrius felt it's value, despite the rants, indeed, because of the ranting, actually served as a gauge for the importance that should be attached to any particular issue by Linden Labs. I agree and would also mention another recent decision to order TPV developers to remove the grid manager from the viewers ostensibly for Havok licensing reasons but dose all seem rather obvious Rod is attempting to blot out all connection with Opensim and as far as the SL Jira is concerned one would imagine he don't want all that ranting seen by the Steam community.

Drone Wars. a Second Life 1st person shooter video game by Sergio Delacruz

Getting back to Mark Kingdom's tenure as CEO of Linden Labs, Mark's focus was to tap into the Facebook millions by dressing up Second Life more as a social network platform, on-line profiles and all that stuff. It was hoped no doubt it might present a more acceptable face to the Facebook minions but it didn't actually go down that well with the Second Life community and got slatted really quite badly. I believe now that Mark had some very good ideas and, while I didn't think the Facebook focus was very smart and I would find it hard to forgive him for the Open Spaces fiasco, I would have to say I supported the release of the viewer code into the open source community which lead to the development of Open Simulator. Mark Kingdom presided over other important ideas as well. In fact, there was a time back when Mark was in charge that they employed people that were actively pursuing interoperability and the ideas we now associate with an open Metaverse. In particular Hypergrid travel grew out of those early attempts to enable teleports between Second Life and an Opensim grid. How this would have benefited Second Life is not clear but if they had made a proprietary version of Second Life server available for sale or on subscription where content was controlled by Linden Labs on central asset servers then SL would have been at the center of the open Metaverse today and probably much more loved than it is. They probably would have kept on growing too.

Well, that is all so much water under the bridge now and the vision of people like Mark Kingdom was taken up by Opensim supporters anyway. The Open Metaverse exist today or, at least, Opensim is the only platform offering the nearest thing to a Metaverse of independent grids and standalone worlds where they may all connect via Hypergrid travel and move content from one place to another. Rod's drive to turn Second Life into a video gamer's platform could well be the straw that broke the camel's back and lead to more SL citizens deciding to cross the divide and explore what Opensim grids have to offer. The fact is they wont be disappointed if they arrive with an open mind and don't worry over the apparent lack of traffic. Much of the Metaverse is by it's very nature hidden anyway. There are some 200 grids with over 100 of them Hypergrid enabled and presently the viewers don't make it easy to find them. We think there may well be more grids and certainly there are education grids behind firewall's and not allowing general public access. The kids though are learning Opensim fast due to that exposure. For ex-Second Lifers Opensim has a huge amount to offer and there is no Linden TOS or video game moguls pushing the video gaming envelope. In deed, there just aren't any mega corp's involved at the world level even if companies like IBM and Intel have contributed server code.

For Second Life role players the Opensim platform can easily match what SL is capable of and do it on a bigger scale at a fraction of the price. RPG's like Gor would easily fit into an Opensim world where enterprising leaders and Ubars could easily set up their own Hypergrid city state as part of the world of Gor. Hypergrid travel makes it easy to travel the Metaverse in search of other Gorean grids and standalones to raid. This would apply equally to many other game themes currently suffering the high cost and the lag of SL. Yes, there is traffic in SL but once a few Gorean or other role play sims establish regions in the open Metaverse more will follow and, anyway, what's to stop anyone expanding into Opensim while keeping regions in SL. This is what I have done and it is giving me time to make themed content and learn all I need to know for the future.

In any event if Rodvik has his way, and he surly will, the regulars of Second Life are going to have to live with an influx of young people who are first and foremost video gamers and probably wont know much about the culture of the existing community or their conventions and tastes. Mores the point they probably wont be adding much to the culture of SL and few will be role players in the sense we know it (the In Character descriptive word and para). I mean, God knows there has always been tension in role play circles when people fail to play by the rules - both the written sim rules and the un-written rules that players generally adhere to. Young video gamers wont buy all that. We have seen it already! Maybe, though, the video gamers wont show too much interest in the rest of Second Life after all although I'm sure some will out of curiosity if nothing else. When they do explore one wonders how they will behave and, in deed, what their expectations will be. I'm pretty sure there will be an increase in tensions and the established citizens might well see any foolishness on their part as griefing.

A lot will depend on the video games being developed with SL tools. I have seen a Doom first person shooter clone which is ok but definitely old school. The lab will undoubtedly develop more games of their own anyway and they have a wealth of royalty free content to work with (The TOS has been changed to read that way. Surprise, surprise!). It could be the Lab is either hoping some individuals will create the next super game on the lines of Sim City or even World of Warcraft mayhem right inside the Second Life grid which then raises the specter of Gold Farming Sweatshops coming to SL. Gold Farming is big business in the video gaming world with actual businesses set up to exploit workers in third worlds countries who spend hours on end gold farming or power leveling avatars for Western clients. It's a business netting hundreds of millions of dollars annually and possibly in the billions world-wide. However, game sweatshops can seriously affect a game's economy by causing inflation and Second Life's economy would almost certainly be highly vulnerable and the virtual experience would surly degrade for everyone.

Rodvik Humble and the Linden Lab directors are taking a huge risk that may pay off but it could go the other way too and be the death of the company. For the past nine years a lot of people have put their heart, soul and money into Second Life and, while the investors would loose money on such a failure, the residents who made the content and did all the creative work will loose a big part of their lives not to mention many small businesses and the community that has grown up around the company. Whatever happens to Second Life I, personally, am not prepared to leave all my eggs in one basket given the huge risks being taken so I am grateful to the developers of Opensim helping us build something far bigger and far stronger than any one company can make. The open Metaverse is our life boat and, as far as I am concerned, the future for virtual worlds.