Tuesday 28 August 2018

The Changing Face of the Opensim Metaverse After InWorldz Closed

What I like about the Opensim Metaverse is that it's constantly changing while Second Life, being a walled garden with an increasingly  restrictive and self-serving TOS, has begun to stagnate as it slowly declines. I would liken Second Life to a declining protectionist superstate while Opensim has become a growing collection of medium and smaller worlds with upwardly mobile populations that travel the Metaverse via Hypergrid, thus forming a greater market for virtual goods, services and entertainment. 

This has been made more evident with the sudden collapse of the walled garden InWorldz grid just recently and the displacement of a it's rather large population. What we are seeing from this exodus is that very few people are returning to Second Life or seeking out other walled garden grids like InWorldz. The vast majority are voting with their virtual feet and most are settling in the larger Opensim grids that are open to full Commerce and Hypergrid travel.

In my article at the turn of the month "Ex-InWorldz Staff to Launch New Grid" I broke the news that a new grid, Infiniti was being set up that will be run the way many of those now on the move wanted the old InWorldz to be run. Infiniti is not InWorldz II but I did report that when InWorldz closed due to financial problems, Beth Rieschel and those close to her did say they aim to set up a new world just like the old one, same management, same user data and as much inventory as they could save.

Well, the new InWorldz grid is now under construction and has the domain name, islandzvw.com. I was told it is registered in Panama but whois states it's a private registration. Beth Rieschel moved to Panama recently but anyway, the new grid will be funded by those who pledged money for the original Go Fund Me appeal that was meant to save InWorldz. The decision to use those funds to start a new grid was taken after it was clear InWorldz could not be saved and, while many withdrew their pledge complaining the money was not meant for a new grid, those close to Rieschel agreed they would support the new venture. Currently, the new grid management headed by Rieschel is beset by IP rights issues as they try to grapple with the filtering process to insure no content legally not entitled to be on the new grid is there.

Meanwhile, Infiniti is offering a limited 'alpha/beta associates' program for content creators. I've kept in touch with the planning team headed by Lecktor Hannibal and he tells me "Our technical members have been hard at work setting up the grid and making sure coding is on level for accepting new guests."  Well, it is open and will be accepting new registrations soon. The grid address is infinitigrid.com:8002/ and I visited via Hypergrid and met with Lecktor who is hard at work on the project. There was not much to see yet but a basic arrival platform and some free avatar vendors. I shall keep in touch of course.

Going back to the exodus from InWorldz, the grid that has taken the most settlers to date is DigiWorldz and, once again, I am grateful to Terry Ford (Butch Arnald)  for the information he was willing to share with me. By the August 8th 108 regions and almost 400 new users had been added to the grid since InWorldz  posted they were closing. Terry said, "Most users from InWorldz seem pleased with our grid's performance with many saying we have far less lag than InWorldz had. They are also 'Amazed' at our support with many saying they have never been helped so fast. Many are very happy with our pricing and the time it takes to have their region ready once they place their order, in most cases we have the region online in under an hour, sometimes as fast as 5-10 minutes. They are also very happy with our community and how friendly and helpful everyone is."

I wanted to know about grid performance but before moving on to that it's worth mentioning that DigiWorldz were the first to offer a money back guarantee and they still do. Also, they use both PODEX and Gloebit currency but leave it up to the individual region owners to decide which to use. Terry explained, "Some new users are confused when they have D$ (PODEX) and they visit a Gloebit region where their D$ goes to $0. That takes a bit of explaining, but once they know all they have to do is go back to a PODEX enabled region and their money will return, they are fine. We've had several of our new users ask for Gloebit instead of PODEX, but I would guess a percentage of less than 10% have chosen Gloebit." I also asked about Hypergrid and he told me, "None of our new users have asked to have Hypergrid turned off in their regions, but we will do so if asked."

So back to performance, Terry said, "We hit a 'High' for us last week as we had a total of 150 avatars online. Our system, thus far is handling the traffic and the loads just fine and we are not seeing any issues and are ready for more. We may, at some point need to upgrade our core storage to ensure we will have plenty of room for growth, but this was planned well before the closing of IW." He also told me they always keep extra servers available to use if they are needed and this practice proved itself very well with the sudden influx recently.

DigiWorldz Metrics: Standard Regions: 6395, Avatar Accounts: 7204, Traffic: 2390* 

Ilan Tochner, Co-Founder and CEO of Kitely grid, reported a 300% spike in recorded Kitely Market Sales on August 8th in a blog article that showed a sales graph. He said "Users that moved to new grids began restocking their avatar inventories. InWorldz didn't allow its residents to use Kitely Market, so for many of these users this is the first time that they've been able to buy from our marketplace." and he went on in the same article, "We saw Kitely Market sales begin to rise on July 26, a day before InWorldz shut down. The graph below compares sales from the week since InWorldz shut down, to the average weekly sales in the three weeks before that. Kitely’s own grid experienced the biggest growth in absolute numbers, but DigiWorldz and Discovery Grid experienced the most growth relative to their previous sales levels." Kitely Market can deliver automatically to all Hypergrid-enabled grids just as easily as Second Life market place can deliver in-world to it's residents.

Commenting on the same Kitely blog, Snoots Dwagon of Elf Clan, which had been big in InWorldz from it's early days, said, "We lost a BUNDLE on that grid. Wanna speak out-of-pocket: my group spent some $150,000 over 8 years with Inworldz just on land. That doesn't count for inventory and avatar purchases. So yeah, we're "out of pocket" a whole lot." And he continued, "Both Kitely and DigiWorldz have proved themselves bend-over backwards friendly in helping us get back on our feet. Kitely features privacy and web-control tools, DigiWorldz features open lands and interconnectivity. Both grids went out-of-their-way to help us learn how OpenSim and Hypergrid works, how VARs are set up, and help us figure out how to understand this (for us) totally new environment. They didn't do that just because we're "Elf Clan"... they've been doing the same thing for individual members. I'm talking about personal service, standing right there and showing you around and answering questions."

Kitely Metrics, Regions 15854, Avatar Accounts: 105087   Traffic: 1267*
(not counting the higher number of people visiting the Kitely Market website).

It has been reported in a poll on Hypergrid Business that very few refugees returned to Second Life which shows the level of commitment and, in deed, confidence the people currently on the move have in the Opensim Metaverse. Even the none-commercial grids like OSgrid and Metropolis which are the biggest community "share and share-alike" grids have taken in a small number. These grids do have a high user traffic and thriving communities with a lot of private land mostly run on home PC's so not up to handling more than a few users at a time. Most function well enough though but others are hosted on external grid services that offer greater bandwidth. That said there are some very popular venues on OSgrid such as the Maritime Club in Virtual Belfast. There is always life at the Lbsa Plaza too where people arrive when visiting for the first time or, using Hypergrid teleport, this is often where the travellers land. And look out for the Summer of Arts on Metropolis grid.

Metropolis Metrics, Regions Online: 793, Avatar Accounts: 17587, Traffic: 3440*

OSgrid Metrics: Regions Total 5482, Avatar Accounts: 123774, Traffic: 4524*

It should be noted that the way Opensim takes account of metrics is a mixed bag and it has always been difficult to try and get a total count on all the hundred's of grids in the Metaverse because some refuse to show any statistics and others show them partially and in different ways. It makes it hard to scrape the numbers too and so much of the Opensim Metaverse is hidden or "Dark", as they say. That doesn't mean anything sinister, it just means some grids exist without being known about or they are school grids behind a firewall. The big grid owned by Linden Lab has no problem with it's stats because it is all under one roof, the Second Life grid and, thanks to web services like Tyche Shepherd's Grid Survey, We get a pretty good idea of the region count. But with Opensim the grids are owned and run by many different people and companies from all over the world. So it helps to understand that traffic in Opensim Metaverse is made up of both unique logins and travelling visitors where the grid is Hypergrid enabled.

Returning to the commercial grids, Discovery grid was perhaps the first to start welcoming refugees because, as one commenter on Hypergrid Business Survey said, they chose "Discovery. Balpien Hammerer is one of the admin's. That worked for me." And, in deed, Balpien had been in InWorldz for many years and did development work there particularly on physics. His interests include sailing.

They say people go where their friends are and I think that this is well demonstrated with Discovery grid because of all the comments on the HB Survey it appears to be an often given reason to go there. For example, Lamat Lisle said "Discovery, because it is the most promising one in terms of residential use, economy, stability, development and possibilities, imo. A reliable grid, ran by professional and friendly people, a lot of folks I know from old InWorldz and all regions are connected with large waters to sail or fly. Dedicated and skilful work by the developers. Great for physics. Affordable prices for land as well."

Discovery Grid Metrics: Regions Online: 244, Avatar Accounts: 1041, Traffic: 1148*

I have written to Balpien Hammerer and he agreed to answer some questions for me but, unfortunately, I didn't get the reply in time for this article so that is something for another time. Suffice to say that Balpien left InWorldz long before it's collapse. He probably left when others appeared to start leaving when the InWorldz metrics had been showing signs of decline as reported on Hypergrid Business. Looking back I recall Beth Rieschel caused something of a stir on HB at that time when she stopped publishing the active user stats on the grid's splash page. This lead to some copycat reactions especially from Great Canadian grid who's owner also pulled their active user stats and complained of HB bias. But, whatever, InWorldz decline was probably not that great anyway and, as we have seen, the user base still appears to be substantial given the numbers of people re-settling in other grids.

In a discussion with Mike Chase, an ex-InWorldz resident involved with the Golden Touch Dance Troupe, I mentioned that in Opensim grids land is cheap and plentiful - too plentiful perhaps, I would add, because it leaves so much empty space that may be great to explore until you get bored and then you have to find the places where most people gather, or role play or whatever and that means often one has to travel via Hypergrid to the grids with some of the busy regions. The problem for all grid owners is getting enough traffic to get people together so they discover mutual interests and form friendships. And friendships are like glue because, as I said before, people go where their friends are!

Too much empty land is not just wasteful but it is off-putting in my view. Better to have fewer well-developed themed regions that keep people coming back to than have them get lost in the vast wilderness of the good and the bad in region building and design - it wont impress anyone for long. I recall someone telling me in Second Life they liked InWorldz and it had lots of nicely built Game of Thrones regions to explore but she is a role player and never met anyone to role play with. At least, in Second Life, there is still a well established large role play community. And, like it or not, Linden lab's high land pricing actually serve to keep RP land in regular use. There is empty land in Second Life too, of course, on Mainland particularly but most islands are in use. 
Courtesy, Linden Lad Sansar

Linden Lab maintain high land prices which makes it difficult for anyone to own more than a single region. Land Barons capitalize on this and offer regions and smaller parcels. Many Europeans rent because they avoid 20% VAT they would have to pay on top of the tier if they buy land directly from Linden Lab, and that is not to mention the high setup fees they charge. A lot of people just can't afford full sims anyway so it works well for the Land Barons and Linden Lab sits back raking in the money with little effort, given the Barons are always paying whether land is rented out or not. The key here is land scarccity because it is over priced but in Opensim land is cheap and the grid owners are, in effect, the Land Barons. However, it is not hard to run your own instance so this pushes Opensim land value down further and the free Metaverse ends up with a vast number of virtually empty sims as I said above.

Courtesy, SineSpace, Earthquake
Partly for that reason Linden Lab will always be ahead of the game. They had years to build a large user base when SL was new and exciting. Content creators had years to make all manner of content to share or sell and the users had time to grow their personal inventory they are loathed to part with after so many years of collecting and spending their money. Opensim has never had that kind of advantage. Today the free Metaverse has to make the most of Hypergrid, low cost and more freedom. There is no scarcity advantage because land is so cheap.

However, Second Life is still declining slowly while Opensim goes on expanding in terms of land area, and this despite all the new next generation VR platforms like High Fidelity, SineSpace and Linden Lab's Sansar desperate to build a user base, which so far they seem to be failing to do. In deed, it appears they all share many of the same people and those same people turn up in Opensim grids and in Second Life as well. I think it is going to be a long time before a critical mass of people desert SL and Opensim to make a difference.

High Fidelity Reaches a New Record! Over 250 Avatars in One Domain
But, regardless, I still think Opensim can be improved and that will help it survive many more years yet. In my view Opensim needs innovation and, hopefully, some of the people coming from InWorldz will help breathe new life into it and get it on a new development curve that will see serious improvements in speed and features so that Opensim too can be a platform for VR as well as desktop. I asked Mike Chase are there some serious problems porting Halcyon code to Opensim and he said, "Most of the changes would come over fairly easily. In spite of some of the public comments made in the past Halcyon is still basically OpenSim. Much of the internal structure is the same.  There are a few things I’ll touch on in other questions that are more work.  But I think there are some quick wins for assets, inventory, mesh and materials. etc. that might be useful especially for grids trying to scale."

I am leaving the rest of my interview with Mike Chase for another article after I hear from Balpien Hammerer hopefully but my point about creating value added features would give some grids the edge in renting out land and justify higher prices because feature-rich land would be scare in Opensim. Value-added proprietary features will make some grids more inviting too but in-house or paid developers are needed for that and it could prove expensive. Kitely has done this already I might add in the form of its own version of improved var regions and better asset storage as well as numerous code fixes and improvements where some have been contributed back to core and others kept as value-added features unique to Kitely.

Anyone can run a standard instance of Opensim and it is fairly easy to set up but, for the most part, they lack the power and expert maintenance that the bigger grids can provide. I have a basic personal grid and I run it on a VPS with commercial grade bandwidth so it is great for personal use and as a workshop to experiment and script. But I would not expect it to handle sim rentals as well so, in my view, if you want to run a store, entertainment or role play I think it better to go with a leading grid like those mentioned above.

*(logins for last 30 days + Hypergrid visitors)
(technically private remote VarRegion estates on the Kitely grid are Worlds and the Region equivalent of 15854 in land size is 17651)