Saturday, 21 June 2014

Linden Lab announce a successor to Second Life

My thoughts on this announcement.

The breaking news yesterday on Wagner James Au’s always excellent New World Notes was that Linden Lab were first rumoured and then confirmed to be working on a successor virtual world to Second Life.  In a statement sent to the site, Linden said that the new, ‘next generation’ world will be “an open world where users have incredible power to create anything they can imagine and content creators are king.  [It] will go far beyond what is possible with Second Life, and we don't want to constrain our development by setting backward compatibility with Second Life as an absolute requirement from the start”  - meaning it likely will not be compatible with SL and any inventory you have will not transfer over (see my recent post on the finite life of virtual inventory here).  They do go on to add, however, that this “doesn’t mean you necessarily won’t be able to bring parts of your Second Life over, just that our priority in building the next generation platform is to create an incredible experience and enable stunningly high-quality creativity, rather than ensuring that everything could work seamlessly with everything created over Second Life’s 11 year history.”

Big surprise?  Not really.  I speculated earlier in the year about the coming age of virtual reality – which, let’s all take a deep breath and remind ourselves, could yet turn out to be as actually popular as 3D TV – and how this might give SL a boost in popularity because it’s essentially a free product out of the Oculus Rift box; part of my speculation was that whatever the take-up is, however, it will probably only be short-lived: Whilst SL’s various bolt-on upgrades over the years have undoubtedly improved its graphical appeal hugely, these are finicky things that require skill and experience to organise, and many newbie VR explorers, therefore, just won’t get the experience we know is possible.  Something better – and a great deal simpler – is needed, and SL will only endure as a popular VR virtual world experience so long as that alternative doesn’t exist.  If Linden don’t supply this then someone else will.

Other than reporting that the new world is only in its “very early” stages and that the company is “actively hiring”, Linden doesn’t give much information about the status of this project.  Potentially, it’s entirely conceptual right now (although it’s tempting to wonder if there is any flow of information between Linden and High Fidelity via Philip Rosedale). Whilst this likely means that the new world is potentially years away at this stage, getting the word out to SL’s core user base that something new is on the horizon might just help keep them loyal whilst other tempting products start to appear.  It’s ultimately a much wider user-base than this that Linden will want to attract, but long-term SL residents will include the skin-makers and the clothes designers and the furniture builders and the landscapers without whom any serious attempt at a user-content driven world will fail.

What I find most interesting about the statement are two things.  First, the use of the phrase ‘next generation’ suggests a new reframing of business at Linden.  Former CEO Rod Humble previously reframed the company’s work as making ‘creative spaces’, an ethos which resulted in a veritable tumble of products into the marketplace which were thought to fit this brief – dio, Versu and Blocksworld to name but a few.  Any of those that failed to turn a profit got swept away quickly and brutally when current CEO Ebbe Altberg took up the reigns (although Versu got a new lease of life recently following an outcry from fans of Emily Short when it emerged that her Magnus Opus for the interactive fiction platform, Blood and Laurels, was complete and unreleased) and with this new announcement we’re seeing Altberg stamp his mark firmly on what many of us have been feeling of late is a somewhat ailing franchise.  ‘Next generation’ is a phrase we’re used to seeing in connection with such markets as mobile phones and games consoles and mobile data networks, business areas we also associate with a large range of products.  The use of this phrase, therefore, signifies not just a step forward in technology but also Linden’s acknowledgement that we’re now moving into an era where they will face something they have never previously encountered: serious competition.  Over the eleven years of its existence, there have of course been a few alternatives to SL crop up here and there, but none have attracted anything like SL’s numbers.  This time, however, it’s different, and Linden’s experience in this field will not necessarily give it any more advantage in the approaching market than Nokia’s experience did when Apple popularised the Smartphone.  The question has to be, are Linden acting fast enough, or will they become yet another market leader that failed to respond in time to the developments in its own field?

Second, I find the phrase ‘content creators are king’ especially meaningful, and it gives me hope that Linden have actually tuned in to what has made SL, in its own words, “the most successful user-created virtual world ever.”  In a fractured metaverse of competing virtual worlds, content will become the new apps of this market.  As we have seen, time and time again – VHS versus Betamax, Blu-ray versus HDDVD, Windows Phone versus Android and iOS, to name but the headliners – content is what wins format battles.  I can think of no better combination for developing rapidly an attractive content base than straight-forward tools and an open system for user-generated content, and the means to make money out of it.  User-generated content has made SL what it is and any new virtual world product which fails to take into account this tremendous success – and which fails to put it at the very heart of its philosophy – is unlikely to make any long-term impact.  When you stop to think about it, user-generated content is what gave MySpace the edge over social networking pioneers such as Friends Reunited (anyone remember them?) and then Facebook over MySpace.

But what excites me most of all about this announcement is the sense of new energy it communicates.  Has Altberg managed to shake Linden out of its fatigue and re-inject some of the pioneering spirit we all miss from the old days?  I sincerely hope so.  Now needs to be a time of group huddles and fist-bumps and air punches and battle cries at Linden HQ.  If it all comes to pass as the pundits are predicting and VR really does become the Next Big Thing in the IT world (again – deep breaths – it might not), we will be faced with a whole range of competing worlds and experiences; the very notion that Linden wouldn’t be there with its sleeves rolled up and slugging it out confidently with the newcomers is alarming.  Second Life is an amazing product and its architects should be diving in to whatever is approaching: they have earned their place there.

I’ll reiterate now my (previously expressed) belief that the company has to rethink its policy on land if it’s going to achieve a mass-market appeal in its future ventures: content is great, but you need somewhere to display it and nothing roots you to a world more than having a home there.  Hopefully, these early days of the construction of ‘Second Life 2’ will include a period of reflection on what’s been learned from SL that will include such issues.

There is, after all, so much that has been learned.  SL always was a product ahead of its time, but that time is now approaching.  In years to come, we might look back on our current world as ultimately the testbed pilot that led to a metaverse as pervasive as Facebook, as inspiring as nature, as unifying as sport and music.  Get in there, Linden: no-one knows this business better than you do; make us the place we have all been dreaming of.
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