Tag Archives: Linden Lab

Merchandise and the Lab

Marketing Second Life is something we all have an opinion about, and as such, Linden Lab has often taken a far amount of flak from users on the subject. I’m as guilty as anyone in this; in the past I’ve been particularly verbose on the subject through posts in this blog such as Business, Collaboration and Creative Growth, Tell me a story: marketing Second Life, and Advertising SL: the machinima effect (the latter of which has been somewhat overtaken by the Lab recognising the power of Draxtor Despres’ The Drax Files; World Makers series.

However, there is another potential marketing strategy the Lab is missing, something which was recently brought home by by a segment of The Drax Files Radio Hour.

During a visit to the Lab’s HQ for the show, Drax had a chat with Shaman and Kona Linden, both of whom were holding items of merchandise available to Lab staff – a Rubik’s cube featuring the Second Life logo on one face, and a FIC (Fêted Inner Circle) mug. Lab personnel have also seen out and about wearing a certain t-shirt proclaiming their leading role in provisioning virtual worlds.

Shaman Linden holds a Rubik’s cube with the Second Life logo and Kona Linden, with an arm around Caleb Linden,  holds a FIC mug (image: Draxtor Despres)

Other items were mentioned as being available, leaving Drax to wonder why the Lab doesn’t market these goods to users; and he has a point. True, there are issues of the Lab’s international user base and the cost of postage – but these are things that can be factored-in, and if the Lab doesn’t necessarily want to handle the additional weight of merchandise orders, etc., itself, there are companies who will do it for them for a small commission on sales.

Certainly, the appearance of the merchandise has sparked discussions in a number of areas since the show. Ciaran Laval, for example started a thread over on SLU (although admittedly, it got somewhat sidetracked into a discussion of the meaning behind a particular term, which eventually involved Kevin Bacon – who said the six degrees of separation was dead?); others elsewhere have expressed an interest in having at least some of the merchandise, and other items that have been seen in the past.

The Lab's current t-shirt (l), and two styles of jacket / track suit top worn in the past by Philip Rosedale - all have been the subject of "want" attention from SL users

The Lab’s current t-shirt (l), and two styles of jacket / track suit top worn in the past by Philip Rosedale – all have been the subject of “want” attention from SL users

Take the jackets that were variously sported by former CEO (and co-founder of the Lab) Philip Rosedale; these were oft been admired and a subject of attention at the likes of the old SLCC events; so why not make them available?

And how about an updated version of the 10th anniversary varsity-style jacket the Lab made available in-world in 2013? Replace the 10th anniversary logo with the SL logo, and it might well be something users would buy if offered in the physical world. I know I wouldn’t object to having the opportunity to buy one, although admittedly, that might be something a tad too expensive to produce and sell…

If I understand things correctly, there’s even a JIRA-related t-shirt, something which would likely prove popular within the coding community;

The in-world 10th anniversary varsity-style jacket: an updated version might have potential in the physical world

The in-world 10th anniversary varsity-style jacket: an updated version might have potential in the physical world

Some items made available in the past, such as a pendant, and Ciaran makes mention of  Jack Linden once offering those at his office hours meetings a “bag of swag” (although where this was physical world items or not is unclear to me – I didn’t attend Jack’s meetings – but Ciaran seems to lean towards this being the case). Were they to appear again, they might prove popular enough to make it worthwhile.

The advantage to the Lab in making these items available for users is not just a potential (albeit modest) revenue stream through the sale of the goods – it’s the broader reach of marketing and promotion they offer. Of course, some might thumb their nose on seeing someone else wearing a Second Life jacket, but that’s no reason not to offer them; and a FIC mug in the office is a way to start conversations (and depending on the nature of the office politics, might end up being something everyone wants, regardless of whether they are SL users or not! :) ).

So how about it Ebbe? Why not give thought to making merchandise available to your users? Even if you only dip a toe or two into the water to see how things go, it might prove worth your while.

LL’s next generation platform and the mainstream market

There can be a broad gulf between niche and mainstream. Bridging it isn't easy

There can be a broad gulf between niche and mainstream. Bridging it isn’t easy

One of the aims the Lab has in developing a new virtual world(s) platform is that they hope to lift it into mainstream adoption, with not hundreds of thousands, but potentially hundreds of millions of users.

It’s a lofty goal, to be sure; but the Lab isn’t alone in talking in these terms. Brendan Iribe over at Oculus recently talked in terms of a virtual world / MMO (he seemed to be using the terms interchangeably) with a billion users – although granted, he also couched this in terms of being a decade or more away.

But how realistic is it for a virtual world to achieve figures of hundreds (or even tens) of millions of users? The gap between niche and mainstream isn’t an easy one to bridge. It’s fair to say that the Lab hasn’t managed it so far, although they’ve certainly had both opportunities and attempts at broadening their mainstream appeal in the past – which is not to say they yet can’t.

Bridging the gap involves dealing with a number of key issues. Three of these might be said to be relevance, identity and ease-of-use.

Loki Eliot's Main Stage, SL11B Community Celebration

Loki Eliot’s >stage desgin at the SL11B Community Celebration

If people don’t see a virtual world as having relevance in their lives and the things they do, then it’s going to be hard to persuaded them as to why they should consider using it. In this, it doesn’t matter how snazzy it looks or how clever the technology behind it.

This need for some real value proposition is perhaps most clearly exemplified by Pamela in the 8th segment of The Drax Files Radio Hour. She dismisses any involvement in a virtual world because she sees no advantage in it compared to what she can already do in her day-to-day physical life. Her reaction may have caused some of the mirth seen at the SVVR Creating the Virtual Metaverse panel, but it is one that is unlikely to be in the minority. Laughing such opinions off doesn’t actually make them go away.

Pamela’s comments also touch on the issue of identity.

Handling issues of identity for groups of people with very different views on the subject may not be easy

Handling issues of identity for groups of people with very different views on the subject may not be easy

For those of us engaged in Second Life, the ability to define our identity howsoever we wish by virtue of the anonymity we enjoy, is intensely liberating. We can be who we want to be and what we want to be; it gives us the willingness to express ourselves more openly and creatively.

However, as Roland Legrand points out when discussing the Lab’s new platform, for many people out in the mainstream world / market the Lab would like to reach, it is downright creepy and off-putting. They are intensely uncomfortable around the notion that the people they may meet in a place like SL may not be entirely as they present themselves.

How this might be dealt with in a manner which gives them the level of comfort they need while still allowing others complete freedom of anonymity, isn’t a straightforward matter. On the one hand, it must allow people to define themselves howsoever they wish; but on the other, it requires that the platform provide some form of assurance that the person with whom you’re interacting really is who they say they are.

And so to ease-of-use.

The new platform needs to provide an intuitive UI which presents itself as easy-to use and offers the greatest flexibility of use, be it with a keyboard and mouse, or an Oculus Rift and STEM system. It also needs convenience of use as well, if it’s going to be made available through mobile devices.

Allied to this is the need to ensure that incoming users are presented with compelling experiences which encourage their use of the platform, and increase their desire to explore it further. This includes ensuring those who come to it with an idea of what they want to do and what they are seeking can find it and similar-minded users quickly, while those who arrive out of curiosity are entertained and /or engaged.

Taken together, these three elements provide a substantial challenge to anyone attempting to drive a virtual world product into the mainstream market. So far, no-one has successfully managed to tackle all three with a single virtual world product and bridged the gap into mainstream acceptance, including Linden Lab. As such, it’ll be interesting to see if the Lab do indeed rise to the challenge, or whether they opt to channel their efforts in other ways, such as towards deeper penetration of vertical markets by offering multiple “worlds” via a single platform. That, however, may be the subject for another blog post.

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Three in ten: a look back over Rod Humble’s tenure at LL

It’s been a great 3 years! All my thanks to my colleagues at Linden Lab and our wonderful customers I wish you the very best for the future and continued success! I am starting-up a company to make Art, Entertainment and unusual things! More on that in a few weeks!

With these words, and a few personal notes to the likes of Jo Yardley, who broke the news to the SL community as a whole, Rod Humble’s departure from Linden Lab entered the public domain.

Rod Humble, with a little reminder from his past

Rod Humble, with a little reminder from his past

Rod Humble officially joined the Lab as CEO in early January 2011, although according to BK Linden, he had been logging-in during the closing months of 2010, “exploring and experimenting in-world to familiarise himself with the pluses and minuses of our product and the successes and challenges faced by our Residents”.

Prior to his arrival, and under the much maligned Mark Kingdon, the Lab had been investing in hardware and infrastructure, with Frank (FJ Linden) Ambrose being recruited into the company to head-up the work. This continued through the first year of Humble’s tenure as CEO, paving the way for a series of large-scale overhauls to the platform in an attempt to improve performance, stability, reliability of server / viewer communications and boost the overall user experience.

Much of this work initially announced in 2012 as “Project Shining”.  It had been hoped within the Lab that the work would be completed within 12 months; however, so complex has it proven to be that even now, more that 18 months later, elements of core parts of it (viewer-side updates related to interest lists, the mesh-related HTTP work, final SSA updates) have yet to be fully deployed.

Even so, this work has led to significant improvements in the platform, many of which can be built upon (as with the HTTP updates paving the way for HTTP pipelining or the SSA work already generating core improvements to the inventory system’s robustness via the AIS v3 work).

SSBAsaw a complete overhaul over the avatar rendering process in order to eliminate the bane of users' lives: bake fail

SSA, aimed at eliminating the bane of users’ lives,  bake fail, was one of a number of projects aimed at benefiting the user experience

It might be argued that these aren’t really achievements on Humble’s part, but rather things the company should have been doing as a matter of course. True enough; but the fact is, prior to Humble’s arrival, the work wasn’t being done with anything like the focus we’ve seen under his leadership.

A philosophy he brought to the Lab was that of rapid development / deployment cycles, as he indicated at his first (and only, as it turned out) SLCC address in 2011. This saw the server release process overhauled and the three RC channels introduced, making it easier to deploy updates, patches, and fixes to address bugs, issues and exploits.

Humble referred to this as “putting the ‘Lab’ back into Linden Lab”, and in fairness, it didn’t always work as advertised, as with the initial experience tools deployment in June 2012, which resulted in a spate of grid-wide griefing. However, it is fair to say it has generally resulted in less grid-wide disruption and upset.

More recently, this approach has also been applied to the viewer release process, allowing the Lab to focus more sharply on issues arising within the viewer code as a result of changes or integrating new capabilities. This in turn has largely eliminated the risk of issues bringing viewer updates to a complete halt, as happened in the latter part of 2012.

One of the more (to many SL users and observers) controversial aspects of Humble’s tenure was the move to diversify the company’s product brief. When talking to Giant Bomb’s Patrick Klepek in October 2012, he candidly admitted his initial attraction to the post was born from the company being “ready-made to do a whole bunch of other products, which I wanted to do.” He’d also forewarned SL users than the company would be diversifying its product brief during his 2011 SLCC address.

Many objected to this on the grounds it was “taking away” time and effort which might be focused on Second Life while others felt that it was a misappropriation of “their” money, or that it signalled “the end” of SL. In terms of the latter, the reality was, and remains, far from the case. In fact, if it can be done wisely, diversification might even, over time, help SL by removing the huge pressure placed upon it as the company’s sole means of generating revenue.

Diversification isn't in itself a bad idea; the problem is ensuring that a company diversifies wisely. Some of LL's initial efforts under Humble's guidance mean the jury is still out on that matter

Diversification isn’t in itself a bad idea; the problem is ensuring that it’s done wisely. The jury’s still out in that regard with some of LL’s initial efforts

The problem is that the direction that has been taken by the Lab thus far doesn’t appear to be the most productive revenue-wise, at least in part. The apps market is both saturated and highly competitive (and even now, two of the products in that sector have yet to arrive on Android). Similarly, it might be argued that Desura could be more valuable as a marketable asset than as a long-term investment), and dio appears to be going nowhere. All of which leaves Patterns,  which in fairness does appear to be carving a niche for itself, and has yet to be officially launched. It will be interesting to see what, if any, appetite the Lab has for continuing with these efforts now that Humble has departed.

There have been missteps along the way, to be sure. Humble’s tenure has been marked by a series of ongoing and quite major issues with the SL Marketplace which the company appeared to be completely unable to bring under control. These prompted me to wonder if “putting the ‘Lab’ back into Linden Lab” might actually work in all cases.  Worse, they led to a clear and continued erosion in customer trust where the Marketplace was concerned and quite possibly damaged Humble’s own reputation. Despite promises of “upping the tempo” with communications and updates, all merchants saw was the commerce team reduce communications to the bare minimum, and refused to hold in-world meetings which might otherwise have improved relationships.

Similarly, some projects were perhaps pushed through either too quickly or without real regard for how well they might be employed. Mesh was perhaps prematurely consigned to the “job done” basket, particularly given the loud and repeated calls for a deformation capability which were spectacularly ignored (and are only now being addressed, after much angst and upset in the interim, all of which could have been avoided).  Pathfinding has failed to live up to the Lab’s expectations and still appears to be something that could have been pushed down the road a little so that other work could carried out which might have left people more interested in given it a go.

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The Lab looks back at 2013

secondlifeLinden Lab has issued a blog post looking back over the course of the last 12 months, noting what have been, in their eyes, the high points of the year.

It’s an understandably upbeat piece – and there is nothing wrong with it being so. It’s possible that some will see it as a reason for more grumbles and complaints about X, Y and Z. Certainly, I’ll be offering my own look back over the year as seen through the pages of this blog in due course, and not all of it may be as positive as the Lab’s post. But all things considered, this has been a reasonable year for the platform, particularly on the technical level, as the post points out, referencing as it does Project Sunshine (Server-side Appearance), Project Interesting (the interest list updates, the last of which will be making their presence felt in viewers in 2014), materials processing and CHUI.

There’s good reason to point to these items, and several which pass unmentioned, such as the Lab finally deciding to get behind a methodology by which mesh garments can be made to fit, and the ongoing work to overhaul the Lab’s network communications protocols, as taken together they all demonstrate that the Lab still has the interest Second Life in order to try to substantially improve it and to address users’ needs.

And while the decision over which approach to take in order to get mesh garments to fit may not be pleasing to everyone, at least we now know that we are going to see mesh garments fit our assorted shapes, and it’s not going to be too much longer before it is available to everyone. We can even take some comfort in the fact that while it may not be the easiest to work with from the creation standpoint, it can be used (and indeed, is being used), and it is likely to stand the test of time in terms of maintainability.

The Lab’s introduction to Project Sunshine from earlier in 2013

Server-side Appearance (SSA) in particular was deployed as it should have been: without being tied to specific time frames or “to be done by” dates, while fully involving the TPV community in order to make sure that everything was not only on course, but to also help ensure the Lab didn’t miss any glaring holes or make any damaging omissions. Yes, there were issues and upsets along the way – the loss of the “z-offset” height adjustment capability, the introduction of the less-than-ideal “hover” option to replace it. But on the whole SSA was perhaps one of the smoothest deployments of a substantial change to the platform rolled-out in the history of Second Life. Not only that, but it appears to have helped forge new levels of co-operation between the Lab and TPVs.

This year, thanks to SL’s tenth anniversary, also saw the platform regain some attention from the media – and while some of it was the same old, same old, it’s fair to say a good part of it was fresh and positive.

Of course, there are the things which are left unsaid: Marketplace sales may well have been good, but the Marketplace itself still remains a sore point for many merchants – as does the long-term silence of the Commerce Team when it comes to outward, ongoing communications. In fact, communications from the Lab have remained at rock-bottom throughout most of the year. Had there not been a raft of projects going on under the “Shining Project” banner, one wonders how much actual communication would have taken place between Lab and users outside of the in-world user groups. We also have the unfortunate situation with the Terms of Service still to be sorted through; while some things like the changes to how third-party L$ exchanges can operate could have perhaps been better handled than they were at the time – but that again brings us back to the most awkward of “c” words, and I’ve banged on about that enough in the past.

Facebook may not by everyone’s cup of tea (it’s certainly not mine), but that’s no reason to get upset over the SLShare capability introduced this year and which provides the Facebook users among us with the means to share their SL experiences with friends and family if they wish

Tier hasn’t been quite the cause célèbre it has been in the last couple of years, but it has still been a worry for many, despite the fact that there really isn’t a lot the Lab can do about it without potentially hurting themselves more in the process. something which is probably unlikely to change any time soon. It’s also something I’ll likely have more to say about myself in the near future, if only to update (and complete) my post on the subject from the start of the year, which I never quite got around to finishing with its “second half” despite periodically working on it.

But even with these not-so-upbeat aspects of the the year, we’re all still here; or the majority of us are, and many of those who have departed have not necessarily done so out of annoyance or anger with the Lab, but simply because times change, interests wax and wane and life inevitably rolls on.

All this is not to dismiss the issues which have occurred during the year; 2013 hasn’t all been a bed of roses. But then again, name a year in the public history of the platform that has. However, this year has been positive in that it has seen the Lab put good, solid effort into making Second Life more robust, and more predictable than perhaps it has been in a good while, and added some decent nips and tucks to capabilities across the board. Hopefully, in 2014, we’ll see the same approach taken towards unravelling the thorny issue of ensuring more of those coming into Second Life “stick” (to use Rod Humble’s expression) long enough to become fully engaged with the platform, its user base and its economy.

After all, contrary to the opinion held in some quarters, it’s not just (or even necessarily) the cost of land that’s the key to SL’s sustained growth – it’s the numbers of people using it. But that’s a blog post for another day.