As we walked up to the offices that cold October day, I couldn't help but remember the situation we were in the last time we had been invited to do an interview with Bob Stoll, CEO of Inactive Worlds. While the issues we brought up were incredibly valid, and in most cases has proof to back them, the interview itself seemed pointless. That and we were kindly escorted off the property by the very real security at the time.
I could only wonder what this trip would be like, and if we would finally get some straight answers. This is 5 years later, and Inactive Worlds still has the same issues it did the first time. The general consensus seems to be among most of the active and oldest users of this software that the pricing is still out of control. I knew this was going to be a touchy subject, so I simply prepared myself to be escorted again off the property...
Darian Knight: So, Bob... long time no see :)
Bob Stoll: Who let you in here!?
Darian Knight: You invited us for the interview... remember?
Bob Stoll: Oh, that's right. You actually got past the security guards? [mumbles under his breath]
Darian Knight: Umm yeah. So shall we get on with this interview?
Bob Stoll: Of course! Inactive Worlds is always glad to be of service to the community! [smiles]
Darian: Ok then. I guess the thing that is burning in people's minds is "Why are the prices for Inactive Worlds so high, and why are features that are a given elsewhere being considered "an additional option" for a price in here?
Bob: First, I would like to state that we do not charge for extras. There is a simple flat price of $6.95 a month or $69.95 a year for citizenship. I am not sure where you are getting your information from, but it is wrong. Our pricing is comparable to other MMORPGs today.
Darian: Actually... I was referring to things such as Voice Chat in worlds, Customized Avatars, Personal Avatars, and Tourist Access. These are all "optional" add ons for a world or user correct?
Bob: Mostly for world owners, yes. Voice Chat is not vital to the user in operating the software, nor is a personalized avatar. Therefore they are deemed optional and thus will have an additional charge involved.
Darian: But in places such as Second Life, Voice Chat is not additional, it is a part of the entire system as a given. As well as being able to personalize your avatar - for instance in SL it may cost me a couple of dollars to change my shirt whereas by this browser it may cost me $30. The difference being that in Second Life I keep my other clothes that I have bought and can change into them whenever I want for free. In Inactive Worlds, I would be charged $30 for the review process for each change, even if it was a shirt.
Bob: While that is an amusing comparison, Inactive Worlds is not trying to be Second Life. In fact, Inactive Worlds has no competition at all.
Darian: Didn't you just say that Inactive Worlds is comparable to other MMORPGs today?
Bob: Yes, that is correct.
Darian: And wouldn't that put you in the same market as them?
Bob: Sure, but Inactive Worlds has no competition, so it's not our concern.
Darian: Well, judging from the numbers, Second Life is considered an MMORPG. Which in turn puts you in the same market as Second Life. Though saying Inactive Worlds has no competition seems slightly skewed. In this market, it seems the competition doesn't view Inactive Worlds as competition in the least.
Bob: How do you figure?
Darian: We are referring to the updated graph and tracking of MMORPGs found here. [hands him the graph]
Bob: So what is this supposed to prove? Inactive Worlds isn't even listed on this graph.
Darian: Well that's mostly the point I am making. If you are comparing your services to MMORPGs and saying the pricing is on par, don't you think the browser itself should be on par with your competition? At least have comparable numbers for users? Your user base is so low it would barely register on that graph compared to any other system listed.
Bob: I already told you, Inactive Worlds doesn't have any competition. And besides, we are working on rebuilding our user base, you know that right?
Darian: It's very possible that the pricing will play a large part to hinder your attempts in that direction.
Bob: I disagree.
Darian: Alright. So how do you justify the inflated pricing that is still in place, six years after the price hike devastated your user base numbers? According to the numbers, Inactive Worlds has yet to recover from that day, where you used to have nearly 3,500 new users a month, since that time (six years now) the company is lucky to break 300 new users a month. You are operating at 1/10th the user base for four times the citizen price. According to the numbers, you are taking a huge loss every month for the past six years in the revenue from citizens versus what you were making with the pricing set to $20 a year.
Bob: Amusing. And what do you have to back that claim?
Darian: This graph here
Bob: We will not change our prices. They are comparable to other types of MMORPGs out there. Are you saying this isn't worth $6.95 a month?
Bob: Why do you insist on dredging up a six year old grudge against Inactive Worlds? Do you not like the community so much that you would try and tear it apart, and hold the company and it's software hostage? This is just yellow journalism, that's what this is.
Darian: Well, first off, I'm not simply dredging it up. It has been an issue since day one and has not been sufficiently addressed for nearly six years now. It is painfully obvious simply from the numbers alone that after six years, the 90% of your user base did not return and you are at the same levels as when you increased prices. Secondly, I love this community or I would not be here - that I have the tenacity to call you out on obvious delusions does not make me a yellow journalist, nor a hater of Inactive Worlds or the community (whatever is left of it), it simply makes me a very concerned customer. As for trying to hold the software and company hostage, the only time in history when this has been actually done was during the price hike itself by Inactive Worlds. [at which point I hand him this set of letters].
Bob: We didn't have a choice back then. We had to increase the prices because we were on the verge of closing down operations.
Darian: I understand that fully, Bob. And Inactive Worlds as a company were right in asking for the support of it's community during it's darkest hour. Everyone in the company were once citizens just like us, and part of the community. Back then, when there was an issue in the community we had a voice and Inactive Worlds listened. Back then you remembered your roots. But after that increase in pricing, many of the community voiced that they could not afford such payments and over 90% of your user base left. Now those of us who stuck it out are being ignored with the now (still) important issue you never addressed to begin with. You are a stable company now and in the black, and suddenly we no longer have a say. Or we have a say if it agrees with your company and only then. We feel hurt and betrayed after 6 years.
Bob: You're lucky we even listen! How many companies actually listen to their customers? We don't need to listen to any of you! It's a privilege just to get a response from us.
Darian: I am sorry you feel that way. I feel Inactive Worlds is lucky that only 90% of the community walked out on them and not 100%. They are lucky they didn't get swallowed by an investor when their stock nosedived and they were delisted. You are lucky that you have a community that is so devoted to your company that they are willing to pay you quadruple the price for a product that doesn't even come close to it's competition. You are lucky we stuck around for another six years, patiently waiting for a product that was comparable to other MMORPGs of the day. You are lucky we try to tell you what is bothering us instead of doing what most customers would do and just walk away and leave you to go out of business. You have no idea how lucky Inactive Worlds is for having us as a community. We are not just a couple of people throwing a temper tantrum - we are the ones who kept your company alive when it was ready to cease operations.
Bob: So what are you trying to say? You act like we owe the community something.
Darian: At this point, you owe them your job and company. But all they actually want is fair pricing. If they do not get it, you will lose your company. You lost 90% of your user base on your flagship universe, you are slowly losing the other 10%. If you cannot compete, your company will fold - and this time your community will not be there to save you. There was a time when you actually listened and this was driven by the community because you were an active member of the community yourself. Why not try going into the community and asking them , one on one, if they believe the pricing is too much.
Bob: We don't need to. The pricing is completely fair and will not change.
Darian: Even if you are taking a massive loss comparatively from $20 a year? Why would you advocate financial loss and a 90% loss of user base for a short term gain? The gains you must have seen back then to enable you to reach fiscal responsibility surely have worn off maybe a year after the fact, thus creating a long term loss. It doesn't make sense.
Bob: We don't make our money from the citizenships in Inactive Worlds, we make the bulk of our revenue from the sales of servers to corporate clients and businesses. So whatever loss you are talking about due to pricing is inconsequential.
Darian: Wait... your main source of revenue is from the sales of servers, which justify taking a consistant and massive loss of user base and citizenship revenue for nearly six years and running? Why take losses when you clearly do not have to? Especially if returning the fee to it's original level would dramatically help to increase the user base to the levels they were at before the price increase?
Bob: We cannot afford to lower the prices of Inactive Worlds citizenships. And besides, $6.95 a month is comparable to any other MMORPG on the market today. This is a free market, if you don't like the prices why don't you go where you think your dollar will be better spent? You don't have to be here, you know.
Darian: Inactive Worlds has got to be the only company in history that is dumb enough to tell their customers to leave if they are not happy with their product. Did you learn nothing the first time around? You lost 90% of your original customers.
Bob: This isn't the only server, you know. We have hundreds of galaxies and universes around the world for many clients. So it's not like this community really matters. We could shut it down today and continue on with our clients.
Darian: What makes you think other clients would trust in your company's ability to effectively run a successful 3D environment system for them if you can't do it yourself? You have already lost most of your credibility as a company, you have lost 90% of your base citizens and not gained them back and if you treat the people who stuck by your side in your darkest times like this, how are you treating just mere clients?
Bob: This means nothing to us. Inactive Worlds is the leader in 3D Internet Environments and has no competition. Our pricing is more than fair and will not be lowered, and that is that.
Darian: Ok fine. Can you explain then how since 3.2 of the software (possibly earlier) it has been possible to create photo realistic models and avatars, yet the closest thing anyone has seen to this is in a world called VR5? They are not associated with Inactive Worlds are they?
Bob: No they are not. They are a third party company and have no association with Inactive Worlds officially, I would like to make this perfectly clear.
Darian: That is fine. So how is it possible that a third party company with no association with yours and a dedicated three person staff for that world manage to vastly increase the quality of the system in ways that your own company have not in over six years with budgets of a quarter of a million dollars, but in a matter of 12 months with orders of magnitude lower funding? I mean, we're talking quality levels that are beyond your best competition - photo realistic. This is ten times better quality than even Second Life using a browser that was thought to not be capable of such detail.
Bob: I will not comment on that other than to say that we are looking into these methods.
Darian: You mean copying them, right?
Bob: No, I mean we are looking into making this software better and more comparable to other MMORPGs today. We are currently working with another company to create a MMORPG named Piko Island, which will have many advancements over our current 4.1 release of the software.
Darian: Yes, I read some of their forums prior to this interview. One of the testers had mentioned that the graphics look blocky and that they hoped the new version would look better. So tell me, are the new avatars for Piko Island going to rival the quality of the Adam Experiment in the world VR5?
Bob: I am not at liberty to say. Piko Island is a closed project.
Darian: Well, with the amount of money involved with a server like Stagecoach Island, I would have imagined that the environment would have looked a little better - or at least the avatars. Tell me, how is Stagecoach Island doing these days, surely they must be filled to the hilt with users like I saw around when they first opened up.
Bob: Well it is mostly empty now with a handful of users trickling in now and then.
Darian: So who were all those people I saw in there around when they first opened?
Bob: Those were mostly the original Inactive Worlds community checking out the new features of 4.1 before we released it for our main universe.
Darian: Wow, must have made your client think that the advertising capacity and claims you made were true. They must have been completely amazed at the traffic they were seeing. I wonder how they feel now that they have a nearly empty system after the majority of the Inactive Worlds community came back here... I wonder if they think the money was well spent...
Bob: I refuse to comment on that, and it is none of your business.
Darian: Ok, Bob. All I'm trying to say is that even after six years, the prices are still considered too high. It was painfully obvious in the thread for Inactive Worlds forums that the majority felt this way.
Bob: What thread? I don't see any thread about pricing.
Darian: That is because it was deleted by Inactive Worlds staff.
Bob: Besides, that wasn't the majority. We received hundreds of emails and messages from the community saying how much they were enjoying the environment and that they love our software.
Darian: More than likely because they were expressing that the prices are too high, but this doesn't mean they hate the company of the software. They want to make sure you know that these are two separate issues and should not be intertwined for the sake of making people look like they hate the company or it's product. You would never try to create a correlation between dislike of the prices and hating the company and community, would you?
Darian: Or attempt to pin the actions of the entire thread on a single person in order to marginalize it's importance as just somebody trying to tear apart the community, would you? It's not like you accused somebody of being a ringleader... did you?
Darian: I see. So an honest question was asked, and a large number of people showed up to answer both honestly and constructively. Offering both their voice that they felt the pricing was too high, but also many ideas (many backed with solid proof) on how to correct the situation. Some were very angry (which is expected) and others just trying to be useful by doing what the community did best - coming together to try and solve a problem put in front of them. Many solutions were offered with what seemed to be very good research behind it. Some of the ideas were trivial at best, while others could have been considered just plain logical and sound business. The majority of that thread agreed with each other on the one point that the prices were too high and -
Bob: It wasn't the majority! We have plenty of users who go about their daily use of this software completely oblivious to your little war in the forums. They are very happy, and don't need to hear about the negative attitudes you portrayed against the community and the company in that forum. You did a larger disservice to everyone by even saying you were unhappy with the pricing and the current state of the company. You should be ashamed of yourself!
Darian: Would you care to wager that?
Bob: What are you talking about?
Darian: Open a thread called Inactive Worlds Pricing. Place a link to it from IWGate so a larger amount of people even know they can say something. And If I and even StrikeMan agree to say only one post, do you believe people will agree the pricing is fair?
Bob: Of course.
Darian: Then open the thread :)
Bob: We don't have to. We already know the pricing is fair and comparable to MMORPGs which is why we will not be lowering it. We are a successful company and we do not have any competition. This subject is done and I refuse to talk any longer about it.
Bob: If you have any other suggestions besides those concerned with pricing, we will be glad to listen. Thank you.
Bob: Ok then. I think I have proved our point very clearly now. I'll have securi-
Darian: That won't be needed. We'll show ourselves out. Thank you for your time.
So six years later, and still no concrete answers. At least not from the company themselves. For the rest of us, we have the real figures and numbers involved and are not afraid to address them. I left that day in total amazement that after even this many years of not recuperating from that initial loss, that they would still outright deny anything was wrong.
I sat back in the van as we pulled out of their parking lot, the snow flurries beginning to fall. "Ya know, CP." I said to my colleague, "I can't hold it against them any longer". CP turned to me as we drove, "How could you not?".
I finally had found the answer I was looking for after all these years. I took a sip of my coffee and replied "I simply think they have never recovered from their delusions of grandeur from when they were the only company doing this. They simply do not see the real world like the rest of us anymore, that there is competition and they are being beaten. They simply refuse to see it".
CP kept driving, apparently in thought. "Ya know... that makes sense." he said, "I guess after all of those years on top, none of them could stand to accept that they are now dead last, a kinda shell shock so to speak...". I took another sip and gazed at the gently falling snow... "Too bad this will probably be the last time we do an interview with them..." I replied.
Without breaking his gaze on the road, came the reply I was waiting for: "But you have to admit. We had a hell of a time."
A smirk appeared at the corner of my mouth... yeah, we had one hell of a time. And the memories are more than worth it.
Looking To the Future - Wherever it Leads Us: Darian Knight