The term virtual worlds is broadly associated with everything ranging from an MMO with a defined objective and a shared storyline to an open creative environment like Second Life. For the interest of this article, we’ll focus on the latter. Virtual worlds have traditionally been described as open-ended 3D environments where people can essentially do whatever they want to, within the limits of the capabilities of the software.
Second Life, and derivatives thereof, are about as open as they come. Characters can be customized with their own shape, skin, clothing, and accessories. You can look like a normal human being, a cartoon character, a robot, or anything a 3D designer can conceive and import into the platform. The concept and idea behind these virtual worlds is remarkable. Being able to create and interact with objects without the physical and financial limitations of the real world is appealing, as is the ability to communicate in a visual way with people from all around the world. Second Life, and other virtual worlds like it, are powerful communication tools that allow participants to have virtual board meetings and give presentations on a level that a screencast or pre-built slide show could never do. With so much vast potential, why is the interest level in these virtual worlds dwindling among the general population? To start, let’s take a look at arguably the largest virtual world outside of the world of gaming, Second Life.
First, the massive influx of users between 2005 and 2008 contributed to the majority of the general users to give Second Life a try. During this time, the platform was in a state of relative infancy. Constant updates and significant weekly downtime caused a lot of new users to be put off and leave, never to return again. Just about anyone knows someone who tried Second Life once, lost interest, and retells the story about how they gave it a shot to their friends. The fact is, Second Life hit a burst of forward momentum too early, and this could very well have been the first step towards a larger decline in its long-term user population.
Another blow came during a span of time when Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life, began instituting more restrictive policies on what the residents could and couldn’t do with the virtual currently. Second Life, unlike many virtual worlds before (and after) it, offered a directly transferable currency that could be both transferred to and from various world currencies. You could buy Linden Dollars for USD, and sell them back and walk away with the real-world cash. This meant that 3D modelers, social butterflies, and other entrepreneurial individuals could actually make a profit from their time spent in the virtual world. In some cases, this profit was extremely bountiful. Unfortunately, some of the bigger in-world businesses such as virtual banks and gambling casinos were shut down without notice by Linden Lab citing possible legal concerns for the company. It would be hard to say this was a bad business decision on the part of the larger company, but it was a double-edged sword.
Let’s face it, anything can get boring if given enough time. Second life is no different. Virtual Clubs open and shut down on a seemingly daily basis, poorly skilled amateur virtual DJs spin the same tunes every night, and just about everyone may find themselves wrapped up in dramatic nonsense that comes inevitably to virtually every online social environment. For many users, this time came between January of 2007 and March of 2008. During this time, the average age of an avatar increased from 75 days to 123 days. This indicated a sharp decline in new accounts, a telltale sign of any online service’s decline.
I certainly wouldn’t count Second Life out at this point, either. Like any tech product, it has the potential of making a comeback with the right marketing campaign and technological advancement. In order to regain ground, Linden Lab has to really push Second Life to become what it was always intended to be. Second Life has taken a more social approach of late, becoming more of a 3D Facebook than its roots. Musicians, artists, writers, and thinkers were the biggest draw of the virtual world, and it’s Linden Lab’s responsibility to make the best possible platform for them to flourish. In order for Linden Lab to turn this aging virtual world into something fresh and new, it needs a relaunch and it needs to follow the advice being given so freely by its community.
Linden Lab did well by hiring on Rod Humble, who has been in the game development world for over 20 years. His projects include one of the best-selling titles of all time, The Sims. Changes have been made since then, but nothing that has quite turned around the lackluster concurrency numbers.
Bottom line: Second Life can only survive if it goes back to being what it was, a remarkably social virtual world where creation and art were the foundation on which everything else was built. Give users the freedom to make of the world what they want to, and trust them to be creative on their own.
Photo shared by Mosseby via Flickr.