Saturday, 21 April 2012

Reports of SL's death have been greatly exaggerated

Here's my April column for AVENUE magazine.  I'm delighted that this month my article has been accompanied by photographs by Simotron Aquila, one of my very favourite SL artists.

Rumours are currently abound (perhaps substantiated by the time you read this) that Linden Labs® have New Stuff up their sleeve.  But not Second Life® New Stuff.

It was a post on New World Notes that first alerted me to this.  The interpretation there was that potential new products could include some sort of prim building game (inspired by the popularity of Minecraft), a fashion app for social networks and an interactive fiction product following the Lab’s acquisition of Little Text People in February.  Little Text People, I’m given to understand, is an experimental game studio (set up by artificial intelligence specialist Richard Evans and interactive fiction writer Emily Short) that is “exploring the emotional possibilities of interactive fiction”.  I’m not entirely certain what that means, but on face value it does seem compatible with Linden CEO Rod Humble’s December statement on creating artificial life in SL, about which I mused in these very pages a couple of months ago.  I have a history with interactive fiction.  The genre has its origins in 1980s ‘adventure games’: text only games you would load into your 8-bit computer and type commands into.  You’d start off in a location described to you by the computer (eg, ‘You are in a cave; everything is black’) and your subsequent instructions (eg, ‘Turn on my torch’ would be interpreted to give text responses (eg, ‘You turn on your torch and see a sleeping vampire’).  So long as you typed your commands correctly, that is, and used words that were in the computer program’s vocabulary – which, as you can imagine for a machine with less that 50k memory (that’s kilobytes, those tiny little things that came before megabytes), was not particularly large.  I wrote three adventure games and they are each of them offspring of my writer’s mind that I am especially fond of.  I always liked the idea that a reader should have to actively do something in order to discover the next little bit of a story.  I’m excited, therefore, to see what comes out of this new Linden partnership.

But text adventures were never the market leaders in gaming back then and neither is interactive fiction an especially big thing right now.  Many of you will probably never have heard of it before reading this article.  In an industry which has pretty much always been dominated by visual appeal, how is something text based going to grab hold of the masses (always assuming, of course, that the attention of the masses is actually desired)?  But then the same could have been said of Twitter in the days of its inception.  New ideas are the life blood of IT direction and rarely are we able to anticipate accurately their effect.

But what I’m more interested in right now is the impact all of this New Stuff is going to have on SL.  These are, as I said earlier, non-SL projects.  The very idea that the Lab is starting to focus on things other than the metaverse has set the blogosphere ablaze with talk that it’s abandoning SL, seeing it as a lost cause that can now only serve as a cow to be milked, whilst it’s still viable, for cash that can be invested in new directions.  It hasn’t helped that, alongside this news, Linden has also announced that it will no longer be publishing its quarterly stats, the interpretation being that visible evidence of a decline in SL usage will only speed up the remaining residents’ departure.

It would be foolish to deny the possibility that Linden stumbling across a Next Big Thing in its diversification could result in the relegation of SL to an online nook or cranny that’s allowed to quietly die.  After all, the technology on which it’s based is now sufficiently old that the term ‘legacy’ can now be comfortably applied; one of the challenges presenting its development, therefore, is making new features fit within the framework of all the old stuff.  Have you ever tried to get a shiny new Blue Ray player to feed a 1980s cathode ray tube television?  You can do it, but it’s a whole load of hassle and it’s ultimately a great deal easier to just throw out the old TV and get a modern one.  But the old TV in this case is the existing grid with all its users and their bulging inventories and the land they’ve paid tier or rent for over the years; people just don’t want to abandon all of that.  Mesh, therefore, would probably have taken a great deal less time to develop if it was for a brand new grid, but expecting users to abandon their acquisitions on the promise of something a little bit better would be a bit like – let’s see now – inventing Google+ and expecting users to abandon Facebook.  So developing SL further to meet the expectations raised by other advances in the IT world is going to become increasingly hard.  If that’s a little too abstract for you, take a look at the Outerra Engine virtual world in development: within a few seconds of watching the video you’ll realise that this is visually in a whole different league from SL.  In the end, then, there’s probably only so much that can be shoe-horned into the existing grid and we just have to live with that.

At the same time, assuming that Linden would just abandon its key product in favour of fiddling with unknown possibilities is equally foolish.  Even if success was found outside of SL, this wouldn’t presuppose the casting aside of the grid.  Have Google abandoned their search engine with the success of Android?  Have Apple abandoned their computers with the success of the iPhone?  Of course they haven’t, because these are still massively viable products – products which, incidentally, have benefitted themselves immensely from the success and development of their new siblings.  In fact, Linden’s recent rewriting of the requirements for third party viewers – critically, the very ambiguous statement on TPVs not altering the ‘shared experience’ of SL – could be interpreted as evidence of the Lab’s strong commitment to new innovation on the grid.  Taken by many scathing bloggers to be an attempt to shut down TPVs and force residents back to the official SL viewer, this new requirement could alternatively be seen as an effort to get everyone up-to-date on new technology so that it is actually used.  It’s a well-known problem in the videogame console industry that add-ons – however impressive they might be – do little to stimulate software development.  The Wii Fit board, for example, is a mightily impressive piece of hardware, but developers are going to be reluctant to create games that require it when they know that only a percentage of the total Wii owners out there actually have one: it’s always safer to aim for the lowest common denominator, where the biggest market lies.  How many SL content developers, therefore, are going to be eager to create mesh products – something which has the potential to transform the look, feel and (crucially) appeal of SL – when they know that there are still masses of residents out there using non-mesh viewers?  Knowing that the latest tech is available to everyone because everyone has an up-to-date viewer, makes this market far more attractive to develop in.  Yes, we all still hate the new viewer interface, but if we want SL to succeed, we need to be big enough to see the wider picture.

This approach might even mean in the future that some legacy elements of SL get dropped in order to enable the grid’s infrastructure to evolve; I probably won’t like it very much if items in my inventory I once paid money for stop working, but the likelihood is I actually stopped using those things a long time ago and I’ll want the new things more than I’ll want the old.  By the same token, I still have on floppy disk old DOS programs for my PC that I can no longer use; this is a shame, but I’m essentially happy for them to be sacrificed if it means this makes new technology easier.  Does it bother you that much that your iPod can’t play your old cassette tapes?  Of course it doesn’t.

And, right at the start of my writing this article, Linden published details of some new SL ‘tweaks’, one of which I’m quite excited about (disproportionately so, if I’m honest).  An upcoming feature to be implemented will allow residents to be teleported directly to any point on the grid.  Yes.  During my time at Nordan Art, you see, I was unofficially the Chief Teleportation Officer (my teenage fondness for Star Trek will never die).  When new exhibits were installed at new locations and heights on the sim, it was my job to work out how to get people there from the landing point.  I was astonished to discover how fiddly this process actually was: teleporting residents any distance over 1000m within a sim turned out to be about as exact a science as launching them from a catapult in the approximate direction and hoping for the best.  I’m still enormously grateful to whoever it was who first thought up the idea of the prim teleporter – essentially a prim you sit on that warps its way up to the destination, taking you with it like a little virtual taxi.  The new teleportation feature, therefore, probably won’t be visible to many as any sort of big step forward, but I appreciate it and I appreciate that Linden thought of it.

So reports of SL’s death, in my opinion, are greatly exaggerated.  There is lots of evidence that Linden is continuing to think strategically about its development, and new products don’t need to be thought of automatically as a threat.  The blogosphere just loves to complain about the approaching virtual apocalypse, but these articles typically take a single line of interpretation and pursue this to an extreme end.  The likelihood is that solar activity over the next twelve months is probably more of a threat to the grid than new products are.

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