Aug 24, 2011

Why I Dislike “Other” Grids

Convincing Huck Finn to whitewash the #SecondLife fence.

 

This is one of those blog posts that will invariably be written from the top of my head, but definitely less technical. It’s about life experience, history repeating, and of course about why I really don’t like “other” grids in SecondLife. I understand very well that “other” grids aren’t necessarily part of SecondLife and it can be argued that they are separate entities unto themselves. For instance, OSGrid, ReactionGrid, InWorldz (which I have a particular distaste for), SpotOn3D (which is probably the only grid that actually manages to piss me off simply because of their arrogance and disregard), and others.

 

This isn’t to say that I dislike all other grids, however I do keep the whole thing in proper perspective, which seems to be a rarity with those who actually use those grids.

 

Let me tell you a story about my

first years in virtual reality.

 

I got my start back in the days of VRML and places like Blaxxun Contact, but the system I was using back then wasn’t exactly Blaxxun. Instead it was a place called Cybertown (which to this day most likely still exists as a digital ghost town). Cybertown could be described under the concept that I became very familiar with over the years called a White Label product, whereby the company responsible for the technology or service would license that technology to third parties without any branding. In the case of Blaxxun (and I’m sure BSContact can correct me if I’m wrong), it was a company that made a good technology product – in that they made a multi-user layer for VRML systems, and that technology was white labeled and licensed to third parties who would then create their “unique” systems powered by Blaxxun Contact technology.

 

Years later, I encountered this scenario while using ActiveWorlds technology. Their main universe, the Active Worlds Universe, was really of little concern to the company because they made a majority of their money (and probably still do to this day) licensing out their technology to third parties as a white label product and service. Just like the scenario with Blaxxun, there existed in the case of ActiveWorlds dozens or maybe even hundreds of third party “Active Worlds” based universe systems all rebranded with different company names and sold as unique services, all betting on the idea that nobody had heard of ActiveWorlds, or any of the other third party universes to begin with.

 

Concerning ActiveWorlds, at least they were partially correct in assuming nobody had heard of the parent company responsible for the technology. But during those years I wound up with a sort of virtual world fatigue. I’m sure any long-term virtual environment user will concur, that virtual world fatigue is real and it comes and goes, but often is triggered by oversaturation of similarity.

 

What brought this on in my AW years was this constant insistence by third party universe owners (white labeled universes) that I should leave ActiveWorlds and come join their universe instead. Clearly they were better than ActiveWorlds, would go the argument. They, of course, had essentially bolted on various additions to the browser at the time, maybe set up a novel registration system, or paid for certain modifications to the ActiveWorlds browser or server which made their version slightly different. Many of these third party, white-label universes were small fish in the ocean of virtual worlds and you’ve likely never heard of them before. Places like Virtual Celebrity Islands (Peace City), Virtual U, SpiralMatrix, Vectorscape, Galaxyworlds, Cybernet Worlds, and even the ill-fated Juno Internet Service had their own browser at one point. If you’re an ActiveWorlds user (or an old timer who remembers) those names should sound familiar, but if you weren’t in the ActiveWorlds scene, then it is highly likely none of those systems ring a bell, let alone remembering ActiveWorlds itself.

 

Part of the third party ploy to attract users away from other systems and from ActiveWorlds itself was to offer cheap land and server space for the object paths (sound familiar?) or tout how they had a better and easier setup and registration process that in some way had different features that made it better than what Activeworlds had offered. Many even introduced their own in-world currency system.

 

Is any of this sounding familiar to you?

 

 

philip-on-caticorn

This pretty much sums up what goes through my mind

 

In the end, the hard truth of the matter was this: No matter how much any of them tried to differentiate themselves from the main company responsible for the technology in the first place, they always fell short and instead were always seen as either short term flash-in-the-pan or (more appropriately) living in the constant shadow of Activeworlds, and thus perceived as a cheap copy.

 

There was, of course places that exist today like VirtualU, but despite the in-world hacking and paid additions to the software in order to add features and abilities, to this day the idea of a specialized system built for expos and business meetings never seemed to make sense to me (and even if it did, I can’t imagine that business is exactly booming). The modern equivalent to VirtualU today is SpotOn3D, who I’ve had the pleasure of hearing insist to me how they alone finally got this “virtual world” thing right when all else have not – however not realizing that it’s all been done before and has failed, and that I actually know this because I witnessed it myself over many years in the industry before SecondLife even existed. But moreover, the modern equivalent to all of those third-party universes from the Activeworlds white-label process happens to be the scenario by which we have all of these different “grids” and then SecondLife as the main example of the technology.

 

Just replace the word “Universe” with “Grid” and you realize we’ve repeated the scenario once again, and I’m seeing pretty much the same outcomes and attitudes replayed.

 

With InWorldz, they remind me of SpiralMatrix or Cybernet Worlds, where the land is basement priced, the service is on par, and the technology is two generations or more behind the main company responsible for the technology to begin with. The users of that system act like a cult from Utah, and insist it is far superior to even SecondLife or any of the other grids, and always cite things like “the land is so much cheaper here!”. Hell, they even created their own currency in world called I’s or whatever. Congratulations to the hard work of the team behind InWorldz, because it does take a lot of work to run and operate a virtual world environment. However, your “grid” is doomed to obscurity in the grand scheme of things, and if SecondLife itself is a niche audience, yours is a niche within *that* niche.

 

I have the same to say about most “grids” and even to many virtual environment systems on the whole like BlueMars and Kaneva, and (yet again) There.com. Let me address a few “grids” here. It’s not sugar coated, and it’s going to hit a nerve, but at least I’m being blatantly honest and upfront. I’m sure it is likely to offend, because I’m not about to paint a rose-colored picture of where we’re at as a whole.

 

I’m about to be very candid, and straight to the point.

 

If you wish to remain unoffended or stay within your rose-colored world where nothing you do is wrong, I suggest you skip the rest of this post, as it will be a realist viewpoint verging on the edge of cynicism. Any comments that are derogatory, flaming or just outright attacking will be ignored entirely. This is just my own opinion and analysis, without any sugar coating – it will likely be very harsh.

 

SpotOn3D – you haven’t gotten anything right. You’re just arrogant and ignorant. All the business acumen in the world didn’t save you from brewing the worst PR sh*tstorm you could have mustered, and a lack of actual understanding for the history and practice of virtual worlds as a whole has you repeating common (yet completely avoidable) mistakes. You don’t seem to understand the merit of how people react to what seems like subtle policies or actions on your part, and that it would cause trouble in the long run. Pride comes before the fall. You haven’t done anything at all different than when I called your idea “VirtualU” or any number of other virtual world environments who thought it was a novel and innovative idea ten years ago to set up a walled garden system to cater to business professionals and schools. You’re heading down the same path as your predecessors, gleefully and completely oblivious, if not outright self-assured. If anything, the recent PR nightmare should have been your wake-up call. 

 

InWorldz Put a leash on your community. It’s ok to want to grow your userbase, but not through sleazy practices like trying to get people to leave other virtual environments. I don’t hold you, as the company, at fault. I fault your community – but you can make a big difference in that perception by actually coming up with creative outlets to promote InWorldz *outside of the SL community niche* like an actual, honest to god, real company would. Right now, you (and many other grids) are giving off the perception that you’re a bunch of vultures fighting over users. That has to stop if you ever hope to be a brand and service that stands on its own merit, and not in the shadow of others – a footnote in the history of virtual worlds, if you even bother to warrant that much.

 

Avination: Start with what I just said about Inworldz and add to it this nugget of knowledge: An online marketplace isn’t the reason your in-world land sales falter. Banning magic-boxes isn’t any more of a solution than banning automobiles because you can’t seem to sell horses anymore. The problem isn’t the innovation in marketplace type systems, it’s the lack of added value in having in-world stores. Forcing the issue isn’t a solution. Instead, why not offer education to your business users or entrepreneurs to show them that actually running a virtual business implies many of the same things as running a real business, and that if they insist on making their “store” nothing more than a fancy vending machine, then they should not expect people to treat it any better than that. Having a privately held marketplace system that doesn’t interoperate with other grids unless they agree to a privately held agreement does more damage than good in the bigger picture – and is the same lesson I offer to SpotOn3D as well as Linden Lab, except in the notion that Linden Lab can afford to ignore this for the time being while you and other open grids cannot. 

 

Kitely: While you have a good idea, I don’t believe it has really been brought to your attention that marginalizing and perpetuating the already damaging image of treating virtual environments as disposable and cheap is bad for the industry as a whole. The entire point of the virtual world industry is to try and convince the majority of the public that virtual worlds are a lasting, persistent and engaging arena for all manner of interactions – so much so that it has the potential to supplant or greatly augment current web practices. By offering cookie-cutter, on-demand, throw-away instances, you bring that higher understanding down to the level of “gimmick”. While you are poised to make money in the short term, and even make an adequate business model from doing so, the bigger picture is that the cost of doing so is near irrevocable damage to the overall perception and expectation of seriousness and persistence for virtual worlds as a whole. On-demand spaces serve a very small niche, while perpetuating negative ideals of what a virtual world should be to the masses.

 

Linden Lab: I don’t even know where to begin. You have a decent system, not the best. There is a lot to offer but it is buried in bad decision making, high employee (and CEO) turnover, and stagnation in innovation. You have a marketing leader who has done little to innovate the perception or lead of your company. Of the 150 brand names in virtual worlds as of 2006-2007 (as reported by KZero), considered the hey-day of SecondLife, possibly 2 exist actively in SecondLife today, while brand names like Dell Computer are a digital wasteland of inactivity, probably flying under the radar of accounting and existing purely on recurring billing. Searching for any of those brand names today is like reading a virtual worlds obituary. You control the most powerful marketing engine the world has ever known called Marketplace in conjunction with what amounts to the most ideal (for the time being) method of immersive experience, and fail to see the connection between real life brands as marketing and prosumer culture by which your system boasts in spades.

 

You literally have an army of content creators who would bend over backwards to accommodate your company in the unlikely event that you implemented an IP system which rewarded users for creating content on behalf of brand names instead of punished them. This should be your focus, and not expending inordinate amounts of time and money chasing down DMCA requests and playing virtual worlds Whack-a-Mole. Instead, your marketing director has spent the last year “getting acquainted” with SecondLife and has enacted what constitutes business as usual – all the while seemingly not understanding that SecondLife is far from business as usual and by no means should be treated like a video game. Instead of implementing a prosumer based solution to your dilemma you continue to approach this issue in brick and mortar methods; separation between producers of content and consumers – you’re thinking like a video game company and not like an open ended virtual environment company. In the process, you continually invoke the Streisand Effect, shutting down one or a group of IP infringing creators, only to have twenty or more pop up shortly after either on your marketplace or bypassing your gaze and selling directly in-world. Your IP “Pop Quiz” that every person needs to take and pass before they are allowed to upload content via Mesh is the thinnest veil of a solution, demonstrated by the Back to the Future Delorean Mesh car replica sitting on the Beta Grid – not just one, but half a dozen of them.

 

Instead of wasting money and time playing cat and mouse, or covering your ass in the thinnest excuse for IP protection action you could muster, it’s time to use your resources to work smarter and not harder. You need to give those brands a reason to come back, and this time actually stick around. You need to do this in a manner which celebrates the fact that you have an army of prosumers who are more than eager to do your bidding and win sanction for those brand names, to do the work for them, and hold their heads up high as the official outlets of those products in your virtual space, while giving those brand names inexpensive and viral capacity for marketing in the virtual environment. It’s time to turn your perception of negative into positive and use it to your advantage. Clearly Linden Lab didn’t give them a reason the first time when they had all the world as a stage, so you had better be willing to roll up your sleeves and work on being innovative and enticing to those brands that you lost, getting them (and far more) back into your system. It’s not as hard as you’re making it out to be, trust me.

 

When you said you didn’t understand why SecondLife had staying power, or why it continues to be popular, I knew you weren’t lying. It clearly has an appeal that has yet to be effectively quantified for you or your staff, or how to actually use that to your advantage. Just ask your marketing director, who doesn’t seem to have any more of an idea than she did a year ago when she began. Mr Humble, in all of your experience in the video game industry, even you have to admit that it didn’t prepare you for SecondLife – in many ways this digital nation is leaving you baffled and perplexed.

 

What you need, Linden Lab, is somebody who can explain this to you and give you a clear path to raise the bar. Somebody who can easily lay it out, and explain why consumer versus producer thinking doesn’t work in your business, and what is more likely to work in your favor instead. The problem is that the person you are likely to find for that position isn’t going to conform to your preconceived notions of who you think is best. They should be willing to tell the hard truth, and not sugar coat it. It should be a person with multitudes of experience in virtual world environments, not just SecondLife but across a very broad range of virtual world environments over the course of many years spanning almost to the dawn of virtual world environments themselves. You’re looking for people who have experience in technology or video games, but seem to not understand that you’re hiring people for the wrong job. SecondLife isn’t a video game, and hiring people with video game industry experience is a mismatch. Hiring the right person will be the hardest decision you’ll ever make, because your very core of being will scream and tell you not to.

 

That, however, should be your clear indication that you are about to get it right. I don’t really care who you hire, as long as they are capable of meeting or exceeding those requirements, however unconventional.  Virtual Environments like SecondLife are new media, cutting edge, and there aren’t any degrees from any college that will prepare somebody for dealing with it – that is your first mistake. Mr Humble, you’re the CEO of Linden Lab and even your own years of experience at a video game company didn’t prepare you for SecondLife, so it’s time to start looking for people who meet unconventional and realistic expectations for the situation at hand. You should be hiring for that based on actual virtual environment experience in a business sense, not whether they can pull a college degree out of their butt on demand.

 

I’ll say to you what I’ve told countless other virtual environments and even game companies before you: You have the potential to be something far more amazing than even you can imagine right now. Unfortunately, potential is only one part and is often overshadowed by lack of action or understanding. It would be a shame if your potential were wasted like so many others in the history of virtual worlds. Just ask all the white label spin-offs who the world has wholly forgotten, and will continue to forget today.

15 comments:

  1. The big question here is whether the Second Life-OpenSim grids relationship is more like ActiveWorlds-white label spinoff grids relationship or more like the AOL-Apache relationship.

    The early websites also sucked compared to AOL, were uglier, and had fewer users.

    But they offered interoperability, control, and low cost -- a company could set up their own website quickly and easily, compared to getting a page on AOL, and it had full control over its site. Similarly, crackpots and individuals and non-profits and schools could set up their own websites, and set their own rules for their visitors.

    It's probably too early to tell right now. The growth of OpenSim grids seems to be linear right now, not geometric. A decent browser might accelerate that process, and there are several large-scale educational projects that could, if they come to pass, dramatically increase the numbers of hypergrid-linked OpenSim grids and help jumpstart the growth of OpenSim, just as Netscape and academic institutions jump started the growth of the World Wide Web.

    Or something else could come along and take us in a totally different direction. Either way, it's an exciting time to be following developments.

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  2. My reaction to your blogpost: http://constanza1973.wordpress.com/2011/08/25/sick-and-tired/

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  3. My reply to your reaction awaits moderation. I'll make no bones about it - if you reject it to save face, I'll publish it here on the article itself as an amendment/update.

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  4. Not sure why, but the following comment disappeared when I went to publish it.

    Elenia:
    Just a quick comment here, after reading Constanza's blog and then yours (as I wouldn't want you to think I am misinterpreting anything at this point). I won't address anything outside of InWorldz other than this: I've been in many other vw's, GW, LOTRO, WoW, and countless others. How did I find out about them? Through word of mouth from my friends. It's a business BEST advertising bar none.

    Putting a leash on users is not a feasible solution to any company... much as you have the right to beat on any company you so desire, companies are not under any obligation to "put a leash" on their users. And in fact, rely heavily on that exact type of advertising.

    We, as Founders, have always made it very clear, that no resident has to be in "one world". Many of them have presences in multiple worlds, and we applaud them the time and fortitude to do just that. I think everyone has a right to be in any world they so desire, they have a right to speak about any world they so desire, they also have a right to not be in those worlds.

    InWorldz as a company, has zero presence in any other world, other than SL, and even then, I never wear any tag to "advertise" InWorldz. We do not solicit anyone out of the other grids, nor do we expect anyone to follow us to our grid. I have many friends in SL, they are quite content there, and that suits them and us just fine. Do we have awesome residents who love us? Yes. Do they speak up for us whenever they feel they need to? Again, yes. You obviously have your places you choose to bolster and discuss, and that's fine. But I would never expect the company of the place you prefer to "put a leash" on you. And I think you would be quite aghast if they should even suggest to you that you quit talking them up.

    Just trying to show the shoe on both persona's aspect a bit.

    ---------------
    My response:

    I'm not against talking them up, and you seem to suffer from misreading like others. I'm against predatory practices which I've seen quite often from the InWorldz camp from business owners. Stuff like hiring people in SL for a club, and then later pulling a bait and switch and telling them they have the job still only when they work for their club in InWorldz instead. I've seen quite a lot of sleazy tactics on this front, and it makes the whole look bad - even if a lot of InWorldz is not. That is what I'm addressing here, not talking up InWorldz or idly inviting friends over. It's the destructive and sleazy practices which give InWorldz a bad name, even when it's not deserved. If InWorldz considers that sort of practice "the best advertising" then that's truly sad indeed.

    However, I suspect you, like others, instead simply just decided to skip the context and address it out of context to make a point.

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  5. No, I get exactly what you're saying. I think there can sometimes be over enthusiasm and it can be more negative than we'd like. From a company stance though, we can't do much about it, other than be the leaders in how we deal with others who come from other grids, welcome them, and let them know it's ok to be in multiple worlds.

    That is really the crux from our standpoint. We do read what goes on out there, we've read the group chats that are sent to us, and while we love our residents for being so enthusiastic, there are times it can seem to go too far. Again, our only real option is to make sure we set the example once they are there.

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  6. There is actually a solution, and I outlined it. It isn't about "directly" leashing that negative part - in effect I actually said quite the contrary. It's about creating an influx of non-SL type niche users to quell the underlying issue of *why* those sleazy and predatory practices persist. Right now, they are addressing it the only way they seem to know how - in that they know there are a lot of users and friends elsewhere, and resort to predatory practices to "persuade" people to come over to InWorldz.

    If the system were growing independently on it's own merit, without the reliance on other grids to poach, then that "leash" is effective in that it quells the predatory practices and gives users an overall reason to try it out instead of experiencing it through that very bad way. The context is that those 1% who are being sleazy and predatory about things shouldn't be in a position to tarnish the remaining community to begin with. It's that 1% which is often times what many people see as the majority because they are the loudest and publicly visible. That sort of thing has to stop or it'll relegate InWorldz to a footnote in the grand scheme of things, even if it's unwarranted.

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  7. And we will be pushing in that direction before the end of the year, you are absolutely right about that. As we've always looked at the "niche" market numbers, and being a sub-niche is not the most viable for a company to continue growing and pushing a technology that has such wonderful potential.

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  8. SL is young, it has time to grow-up. Imagine yourself at 10 years old and then imagine yourself at 16, 21, OMG imagine SL at 30...

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  9. Hi Aeonix,

    While our solution does allow creating "cookie-cutter, on-demand, throw-away instances" most of the worlds people create in Kitely are unique, persistent and made available 24/7. Our technology's flexibility offers options that always-on offerings lack but it does not remove the ability to use virtual worlds as always-on places nor does it detract from VWs ability to greatly augment current web practices (having more options for how to use virtual worlds is a good thing IMO).

    I fear many people misunderstand our offering so I'll clarify this point again: Kitely worlds may be cheap and easily created by they are also persistent and available 24/7. Our technology just makes sure that a world doesn't take server CPU resources when no one is using it. Whenever you wish to enter a Kitely world it will automatically start and be there with all the modifications from the last time someone changed that world.

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  10. Ilan:

    I wasn't setting out to "bash" Kitely, I want to make that clear. As with InWorldz I'm describing the widespread public perception - even if it's unwarranted. The reality from your side may be very different, but perception (even if ambiguous) does the damages among the population - again even if that's not what you perceive as the manner by which things work. I'm pointing out that the ambiguous notions tend to sabotage even if we had no intention for it to be that way.

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  11. Hi Aeonix,

    Thank you for clarifying that but I wasn't blaming you for this common misconception of what we actually provide. We have obviously failed in getting people to realize that they can use Kitely to do everything they can do in other OpenSim grids.

    We intend to address this misconception by providing several features that should help people find and visit persistent Kitely worlds.

    The first step we will take is to provide a list of public Kitely worlds and the number of people currently visiting them. This feature has been requested dozens of times by our existing users. There are currently over 1050 Kitely worlds, many of them public, but people can only access them if they know their URL. A list of public worlds should go a long way towards creating a more unified Kitely community and should help people realize that we provide more than just throw-away virtual spaces.

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  12. Ilan:

    I'm sure there are persistent worlds there. To me, it gets overruled by the lowest common denominator of short-term spaces, as that seems to be a key selling point of Kitely.

    Not necessarily saying it should be abandoned... because I believe it's a good idea overall. Just a matter of shifting focus less on the short-term advantages and more on cultivating the long term persistence ideal that Kitely also can provide... might help to turn that perception around.

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  13. Hi Aeonix,

    The benefit we advertized was that you can have the virtual worlds that you want when you want them (i.e. "on demand"), nowhere did we say they were throw away. However, as you are far from being the only person to have raised this point, I agree we need to work on our marketing message. In fact, our entire website design could use some work to support the points we need to get across.

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  14. Ilan - I suspect the notion of "on-demand" may be the point of contention here. On average that phrase translate in somebody's mind to "temporary", "not always around", "less than a full blown instance". While that is what you're trying to convey as a benefit, maybe the choice of description can be changed to reflect a more positive connotation instead? Something like "Intelligently managed spaces" or "Resource managed virtual environments". It's kind of like a lesson I learned about marketing once where the difference between "cheap" and "frugal" or "updated" and "improved" make a huge difference even though they say the same things - one usually has a negative connotation while the other is positive in the mind of the reader.

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  15. Hi Aeonix,

    Our slogan, Virtual Worlds on Demand, has been extremely helpful in bizdev talks when discussing our current and future differentiating benefits. However, at the same time, it contributes to a narrative that dissuades people looking for persistent worlds from considering using Kitely.

    I hope that once people are able to see the long list of existing public and persistent worlds on Kitely that this narrative will change. If it doesn't we'll need to consider how to best update our marketing language. We are really dealing with several very different types of customers, each with their own needs and preferred marketing terminology.

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