It seems to me…

It seems to me I’ve heard that song before
It’s from an old familiar score
I know it well, that melody
It’s funny how a theme
Recalls a favourite dream…

Well after my recent gaffe in posting prematurely, the Rosedale / Komin double-act took to the stage yesterday as promised. I didn’t get an invite to the show – shame on them! – but couldn’t have attended even if I had, as I’ve been swamped by the demands of visiting family – shame on me!

I’ve yet to find a video record of the meeting, so have had to make do with ploughing through the V2T transcription Mallory Destiny has made available on Google Documents.

Given this is Philip Rosedale, it’s hardly surprising that much of what was said at the meeting sounds so very, very familiar. So of it almost hauntingly so. Let Bob say hello. He’s been instrumental in my coming back to LL. We’ve teamed up to run the company. Bob is a super star. Philip gushes, His skills are vast.  He was the prior CFO. He’s great to work with. We are a team. We talk at the same time.

Familiar? Somewhat. [He’s] a person with the rare and unusual combination of business leadership, creativity, and passion for Second Life that we were looking for … He has been in successful and highly regarded leadership roles … was how Philip once gushed over a certain Mark “M Linden” Kingdon in a (now deleted) SL blog post, before later stating, Much of my actual Linden work has been time spent with M.  We have literally sat at the same pod, 5 feet away from each other.

Given the tailspin SL seemed to go into after Kingdon’s arrival such gushing *might* be taken one of two ways by the more cynical among us – that either Rosedale and the rest of the Board have impaired judgement when it comes to appointing CEOs (and remember, it seems that Komin may way be in line for the post), or that Komin himself better be mindful of Kingdon’s less-than-auspicious-ousting at the hands of … one P. Rosedale and the Board of Linden Research…

Beyond the gushing, we get what is – if commentators are prepared to be completely honest – pretty much a retread of All We Have Heard Before, starting with Philip’s repeat on the  Tear[ing] down walls between SL and it’s potential and more and better use. and pull back and fix basic capabilities.

There is a lot that sounds good – at least initially – in what he has to say. He talks about making SL “Fast, Fun, Easy” and about “fixing” lag and crashes and even goes so far as to admit that Viewer 2 isn’t all it is cracked up to be and that as a result, users are “frustrated”.

But is there really anything new in what he has to say? Anything really defining as a means of showing that LL are actually beginning understand all that Second Life not only can be – but already is.

Well – and bearing in mind, this is only a transcript I’m working with, and one that seems a little disjointed in places, so it *is* possible some of what was said in the meeting is missing – in my humble opinion, the answer has to be “no”.

Let’s take the issues of crashes and lag: frankly these are not new phenomena; these been around since the dawn of Second Life  – so the idea that they should be a “focus” for Linden Lab going forward isn’t new. Rather, it is a retread of things that have been said in the past; and Lord knows, Frank Ambrose (bless him) and his team have worked very hard on the overall infrastructure of SL to make the back-end much less crash-prone and unsettling. True enough, the Viewer is another issue; but the fact remains that given that Second Life is now seven plus years old, and that the Viewer is central to the user experience, “crashing” shouldn’t require some new and heavy focus in and of itself – it should be part and parcel of LL’s on-going modus operandi – seeking to ensure the any adverse impacts of code changes, etc., don’t result in such a drastic outcome.

Same for lag. It’s not new. It’s been around from day one, so again, it is something that, so far as they can, LL should be keeping an eye on, both in terms of overall grid performance and in terms of how “high-end” they try to push things in the Viewer. That Philip needs to say LL are now going to be focusing on these issues (again) is perhaps an indication of just how far they have allowed themselves to be distracted by Bright Shiny Things (while raising the question of whether they can drag themselves away from the Bright and the Shiny in order to deal with such mundane issues as lag).

He also raises the issue of texture loading and refers to the roll-out of http for texturing loading. I’m no expert in this, but I’ve read what the experts have said and I understand that not only will the use of http significantly speed-up texture loading – it is something that people have been cajoling LL about for some three or four years, their pleas and suggestions falling on corporate ears that were conveniently deaf at the time. Are they listening now?

I’m also not entirely convinced by the “Fast, Easy, Fun” slogan (and that’s what it is really, a slogan, not a strategy). As with the comments about lag and crashes, and the (albeit somewhat correct) analysis of things like Viewer 2, Philip uses the slogan to suggest that getting Second Life turned around is solely a matter of technical innovation and technical fixes.

It isn’t; and this is where LL have always fallen down: fixing SL’s “woes” never has been purely a matter of “fixing” the technical. It’s about LL taking a long, hard and objective  look at its own culture and being willing to acknowledge that it is itself responsible for the majority of the key storms that have threatened SL in the past.

As so many of us have said  – some repeatedly over the years, others very eloquently – the vast majority of people at linden Lab simply are not directly engaged in Second Life. They have no personal involvement in Second Life or on-going in-world interaction with residents (weekly Office hour meetings don’t cut it for either). Thus, there is a huge gulf between their perceptions of what Second Life is / should be about and what is actually the case. And it is this gulf, more than anything else, that has hurt both Second Life and the community’s relationship with Linden Lab far, far, far more than issues such as the premature roll-out of a new Viewer and the like.

Not only has LL been unable to accept its own actions have been much to blame for upsets, hurt and even people departing Second Life as new alternatives continue to surface – it is potentially incapable as to even recognise or accept that anything it does with the or within the platform can be anything other than beneficial for all of us. Rather, when matters start to unravel their response at best borders on the patronising, “Yes, we know it hurts now, but believe us when we say this is good for you, you just need to learn to adjust and change…”, and at worse manifests an almost gleefully malicious refusal to accept that anything really is wrong with what they are doing – as evidenced by some of the recent blog posts related to Search. Between these two extremes lies what can only be described as indifference: a corporate shrug of the shoulders indicative of a “deal with it” attitude.

Of course technical issues need to be dealt with. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that simply getting Search fixed and running in a way that is meaningful to those using Second Life (rather than just blindly adhering to web precepts that seem wholly at odds with the needs of the community) would perhaps the single biggest step to making SL Fast, Easy, Fun. BUT… LL shouldn’t simply look to the technical and expect to find the yellow brick road leading to a nirvana where everyone is happily and fully engaged in SL; because that ain’t the way to go.

If LL are to achieve anything – then they need to look inward and tear down the “walls of culture” they have built around themselves and start genuinely engaging with the platform and the community. Whether they can actually do this, however, really is the $64,000 question. If they can’t, then sadly all that Philip said in the meeting amounts to nothing that hasn’t, to a greater extent, been heard before by those who have been around more than the last couple of years; and it is going to do little to make things better in the long term.

This Friday: The Linden Lottery Rollover!

YES! This week’s stunning lottery rollover features a prize of not ONE but TWO senior Lindens: Philip Rosedale and Bob Komin (Interim CEO and soon-to-be-CEO, as some are speculating) are holding the promised in-world meeting.

I call it a lottery not just because it is being held an hour prior to the European ritual of the Euromillions lottery draw – but because personal attendance is down to the luck of the draw as well – and I’ve already submitted my application. Given I’ve won precisely diddly on both Euromillions and the UK’s National Lottery, I’ll also be lining-up to get “in” on things via the other means advertised in the official blog.

It’s good to see that Philip is keeping to his promise – squeezing the meeting in just before the end of the month, but what is more interesting is the inclusion of COO Bob Komin – who was appointed as such back in January of this year and who, to date, is the only member of the Linden management team not to have an avatar listed on the Management Team’s About page – leading some to call him “BK Linden” (with all the inevitable jokes about burgers that follow-on from that). Mostly importantly of all is that he is very much seen as the man responsible for the recent shake-up at Linden Research which resulted in a 30% reduction in staff.

Speculation has been rife since Rosedale’s “return” to LL to take up the mantle of “interim CEO”, with many either blissfully unaware of the full history of the company BK (“Before Kingdon” in this case) or demonstrating that they have remarkably short memories. Or perhaps it is the Rosedale-tinted specs people like to look through…

Certainly, since his “return” Rosedale has stuck a note of contriteness in his two direct messages to the user community (SL7B and the aforementioned “strategy update“) – but this is really not something new; contrition (to a degree) has been shown in the past – but the company has never really swayed from the viewpoint that it is always right, and that Second life is really far too complex for any of us mere mortals to ever truly understand.

Indeed, as Prok reports, this attitude is very much still at the forefront of attitudes within Linden Lab, as she quotes Nyx Linden’s pat answer that even “*effective* communication” with the masses is “difficult”.  While I would agree that “*effective*” communication of complex technical issues with the larger community is perhaps difficult (not all of us are computer geeks) – effective communication in and of itself – keeping people appraised of what is happening, endeavouring to enable reliable customer feedback and involvement in matters, and so on – isn’t that hard – it is rather a basic fact and requirement of business life. And one LL routinely fail.

Which is why the upcoming meeting is going to be interesting – not because of the potential for anger, upset or general negativity from the audience, or the risk of flamewars (which again, some are hinting at) – but because of precisely what is said be Rosedale and Komin and – more importantly – how it is presented. As I’ve already alluded to – the meeting potentially stands as a litmus test as to whether LL are indeed “going back to basics” in the manner perhaps the majority of us view that phrase, or whether it is simply a matter of more “business as usual”  – the presentation of a case, the decisions that have already been made, and an outline of what it will mean for us all, with little more than a veneer of considered concern for the feedback given during and after the meeting itself. This has been LL’s modus operandi since the earliest days, and thus the cynical might point out could be considered as much of a “back to basics” approach as anything else.

I do find Komin’s appearance at the meeting interesting; until now, he’s been pretty much Shadow Linden (or perhaps Mystery Linden) inasmuch as until the layoffs, he didn’t really surface that much and left the public speaking to others. Now, at the time of a “new beginning”, he’s very much front-and-centre on things; this to me suggest that – once again – Hamlet may have hit the nail on the head and the COO may well be the CEO-in-waiting. This may not necessarily be a bad thing: his resume certainly suggests something of a broad grounding in business practices that has – if we’re honest – been somewhat lacking at LL over the years.  He’s certainly no dye-in-the-wool marketer or technogeek.

Certainly, it’s going to be interesting to hear what he has to say as much as Rosedale himself, and in precisely how he goes about saying things.

Starting over, or papering over?

Philip Rosedale today makes his first “official” blog post as the “returning” interim CEO (I use quotes around “returning” because face it – he never really left) – and it makes interesting reading.

The positive is that we once again seem to be moving to an era where Linden Lab is at least communicating to its user base. While Mark Kingdon cannot in any way be blamed for all of the woes that have struck Second Life since 2008 (for reasons I’ve mentioned before), it cannot be denied that one major failing within the Lab under his leadership was in the matter of open communication. Direct engagement with users whether in-world or via the blogs was a rarity. Kingdon himself didn’t really directly interact, talk to and listen to users in depth until February of this year – and then only once, albeit with a broadly positive interaction. While in the blogs, Lindens would occasionally appear, blog, and comment – but they turned cherry picking posts to which they’d respond into something worthy of the best politicians – if not an art form in its own right.

Now we have what amounts to – one the surface at least – some soul-searching from Philip, starting with his SL7B address and moving on to this blog entry which includes the welcome announcement of the possible return of Town Hall meetings – the (hopefully) first of which is to be held before the end of July.

Now, whether the old Town Hall meetings actually achieved anything or not can be debated; some will say almost certainly that they did, others will say that on the whole they were little more than PR and that the issues and directions for the future had already been determined within the Lab, and so feedback from such meetings would have little overall impact on matters.

While I’ll be returning to the first part of this view in a wider context in a moment, I have to say that  – in terms of the Town Hall meetings themselves – the fact that LL may not themselves taken much away from them that altered perceptions or thinking was entirely beside the point.

What the Town Halls did – and did well – was give those attending a sense of involvement with the Lab and with the future of SL as a whole. People felt engaged and motivated. While this may not have vastly altered the plans and ideas presented at such meetings (and I don’t necessarily subscribe to the viewpoint that the impact was minimal), the fact that people came away from them feeling engaged and having had the opportunity to say their piece doubtless contributed to the overall “good vibes” they had about SL.

However – and there is always an “however” – note that I did use the term “communication to” rather than “communicating with” users. The distinction here is important. Again, many of those who place blame for their woes squarely on the shoulders of Mark Kingdon should take heed: prioritised targets in Philip’s new strategy are – wait for it – the New User Experience (TM) and Viewer 2.1.

Yes, folks – Mark Kingdon may have gone, but his so-called “big mistakes” will roll forward regardless of anything you may say, think, feel or emote. The strategy around these was set a long time ago, and not by Mark Kingdon – but by Philip and the rest of the Board. While we may see some tinkering here and there and the odd shift in emphasis, rest assured neither is going to go away and nor is the Lab going to be swayed very far from the course it has set for itself.

And why should they, with regards to either of these things? Considerable time, effort and money have been invested in both. Frankly, LL would do itself far more damage by abandoning either than in sticking to their guns and trying to get both to work. and while they may have struck their collective thumb with a very heavy hammer in pushing Viewer 2 to far to fast – the fact that Philip has acknowledged this and is committing to rectifying matters is positive.

So, like it or lump it, Viewer 2 is here to stay. Now the important thing is to make sure that whatever voice we have is used to ensure genuine issues and concerns – Search and the rest – are heard clearly by Philip and LL and put towards the promised improvements.

Beyond this, Philip also identifies grid concerns as a major area of focus. While welcome news, this is not actually anything new. Frank Ambrose (F Linden) and the team have been hard at work on this issue throughout 2009/10 – and it has to be said that overall, the results have been significant. Yes there are still issues relating to smooth sim boundary crossings, some people still experience issues around Tping due to Mono attachments and the like – but on the whole, the grid is subject to far fewer outages, downtime and other glitches than ever before, and most of us – when push comes to shove – are enjoying a much better overall experience.

That said, there are still core issues that need looking at – even if they are much harder to address – as the recent series of server roll-outs / roll-backs from 1.36 through to 1.40.2 have more than demonstrated. And this is what I would hope Philip is referring to in identifying stability and performance as major points in the “new” strategy (simply because ensuring the grid is stable shouldn’t so much be a part of “new” strategies as it should be a part of “standard operating procedures”). It be sure, ensuring that every new release isn’t going to have some adverse effect on the main grid is a difficult thing to achieve: the beta grid is, after all, much smaller than the main grid and doubtless less impacted by things such as massive script usage, all-out combat scenarios, etc., – so missing potentially damaging flaws in new releases is a complex issue. But LL do have a habit of bundling comprehensive bug fixes together with new releases, so one cannot help but wonder if it would not be better to take a more cautious approach – as Philip seems to indicate, and reserve bug fix releases simply for that purpose and keep “big” features (such as Havoc 7) reserved for their own dedicated release – and then focusing interim releases primarily on fixing problems the new release has created incrementally.

The other major comment Philip makes is around the issue of XStreet / the SL Marketplace. This is interesting because the latter has come under much fire – and it has to be said that Grant Linden has been making a stupendous effort to engage with those with a huge spread of issues (many genuine, some perceived, a few down to simple confusion) and ensure that the appropriate feedback is given. Taken together with his actions, Philip’s comment should do much to reassure all of us that – again while LL are not going to abandon SLM as some of the wilder demands are insisting – the Lab is going to make every effort to ensure the new Marketplace is up to meeting its intended use and will be seen to be an overall improvement on XSL.

Taken as a whole, the blog post is broadly positive and encouraging. It indicates that while LL may not be moving away from its chosen path to any significant degree, some inside the organisation are willing to hold up a hand and state mea culpa and admit that the company needs to rescale its plans to a size that matches its actual capabilities and that whether they like it or not, at some point they are going to have to start, at least in some measure, back to engaging with the “pesky kids” (i.e. you and me) who run around their grid creating mischief.

I’ll be looking towards Philip’s planned Town Hall (or whatever he is going to now call it) in the expectation that what we’re seeing here is something of a genuine “back to basics” rather than another attempt to paper over the cracks which have now reached a size where even those in the lofty heights at LL can no longer ignore.

Summer blue

The last month and a bit have seen considerable changes in my Second Life; the end of a 3-three year relationship / friendship; much fiddle-farting around with i-Squared, partly due to the upcoming release of the SL Marketplace (which I’m actually beginning to like, despite the dearth of certain key functionality…); and a general amount of to-ing and fro-ing.

Most of all, though, it has (again) seen me swapping houses and living style. Three times!

The first change came about as a result of feeling that the Caprican house I’d put up to replace “Fallingwater” was a just a little bit on the large side for beach front living, so I set about trying to put together something a little more modest and which had a better “fit” for my beach location.

The result was the start of what I call the “Lion’s Gate” range: a 2-room single-floor house in something of a Colonial style. After the roominess of the Caprican, however, this was just a tad too far in the other direction, so the single-floor house became something of grand-fronted 2-floor affair.

I have to admit, I’m rather proud of this design, and it brought together several ideas I’ve been playing with of late: a revision of the old (and boring) “window tinting” that allows for “working” blinds on the windows without pushing up prim counts; the use of indirect scripted lighting to achieve an atmospheric  (and hopefully life-like) look to the place at night, and so on.

Lion’s Gate quickly matured into a mini-range of four houses which are now available via i-Squared, hopefully at prices to suit all pockets.

Sadly, no sooner had things settled down in the new house, which was also intended as a merging of tastes between two people; personal matters in SL changed for me, with the result that as much as I liked the house, I knew I needed another change. I just wasn’t sure quite what, although returning to sky living was a strong consideration – but so did living more “on the water”.

Flicking through various WordPress blogs, I finally came across a source of inspiration. This spurred me to design the Water Margin, my first attempt at a “floating house”.

Like the original Lion’s Gate, the Water Margin is a 2-room, single level house, with the two rooms linked by a 10m hallway. Like the house that inspired it, it includes a large open deck area where I can entertain and enjoy my sunsets, and it again incorporates window and lighting ideas refined in the Lion’s Gate range.

I have to admit, living on water is a little odd, but at least in SL I don’t have to worry about rough seas. And as it started out as something specifically for *me*, I’ve already grown very fond of the new place.

I’ve no plans to make any further changes; so long as I have a lot of water around me, the new house will remain undisturbed – and I’m blessed in having a sunken parcel to the south of me that is likely to remain undeveloped as it hosts various bits way up in the sky. Who knows. Maybe I’ll get a little sail boat and try my hand messing about on the water…

Blizzard’s backpedal: not so Real after all

After creating no small furore with their announcement about real IDs being displayed in their forums, Blizzard have performed a 180-degree volte-face with this announcement, from the CEO:

I’d like to take some time to speak with all of you regarding our desire to make the Blizzard forums a better place for players to discuss our games. We’ve been constantly monitoring the feedback you’ve given us, as well as internally discussing your concerns about the use of real names on our forums. As a result of those discussions, we’ve decided at this time that real names will not be required for posting on official Blizzard forums.

Given the speed with which the announcement has come – barely three days after the original was made – one can only come to one of three conclusions:

  1. People still have power….and when many speak in one voice very loudly, corporate ears cannot help but hear…and act.
  2. Blizzard were potentially testing the water to see how people would respond.
  3. Some ideas only look bright at 3:00am in the marketing dept’s meeting room.

Certainly, WoW have a large enough user-base for the former to potentially have impact; and I’d venture to say they are in a tougher marketplace when it comes to the risk of losing players to a rival than Second Life / LL; so if the voices are loud, persistent and demanding enough, it might shake the tree sufficiently to encourage a climb-down. But after three days? Hardly.

No, the clue is in the final sentence, we’ve decided at this time. This strikes me very much as confirming that Blizzard were dipping their toe in the waters of “privacy is no longer the norm”. As has been pointed out, games companies, as well as technologists in general, seem to be falling in love with the idea that privacy is no longer a “good” thing. Whether Blizzard fall into line with this remains to be seen. However, the announcement does make it clear Blizzard appear to consider game play anonymity as and entirely separate issue to that of forum identity, as the announcement also states:

I want to make sure it’s clear that our plans for the forums are completely separate from our plans for the optional in-game Real ID system now live with World of Warcraft and launching soon with StarCraft II. We believe that the powerful communications functionality enabled by Real ID, such as cross-game and cross-realm chat, make Battle.net a great place for players to stay connected to real-life friends and family while playing Blizzard games. And of course, you’ll still be able to keep your relationships at the anonymous, character level if you so choose when you communicate with other players in game.

Note the distinction there: anonymous interaction is defined in terms of “in game” [sic]….

Even so, while it may only be a respite, rather than a complete abandonment of the idea, Blizzard’s reversal on the matter is no doubt more than welcome among the legion of WoW players – and the rest of us should draw at least a small measure of comfort from it.

Making it Real (ID)

As is being widely reported, Blizzard, the makers of World of Warcraft have announced an upcoming change to their forum posting policy to the effect that forum users will soon only be able to post “using their Real ID — that is, their real-life first and last name — with the option to also display the name of their primary in-game character alongside it.” With the initial change commencing with the StarCraft II forums on the 27th July, and then being rolled-out to most of  the rest of WoW’s forums at some point thereafter.

Blizzard cite the major reason for implementing this change as being an attempt to stamp out flame wars, trolling, etc., – certainly a laudable aim in many respects. However, while the move is being hailed by some users, it appears it is generating considerable ire among others who fear the wider and potentially negative impact of “rl outing”.

I’m not a user of WoW – I’m not a “gamer”, period, and other than OS Grids and an initial foray in Blue Mars, I’ve never ventured very far from Second Life. Certainly, WoW has had absolutely no appeal due to the emphasis (to my untutored eyes) on “war”. But, be that as it may, I don’t need to be a player to understand the concerns that have been voiced by, among others, Before Its News, who provide a neat summary.

What is particularly interesting is that – as BiN states, the Real ID system has, until now been optional – players opt-in (as I understand it from skim-reading a number of articles on the subject) if they want to have their real life name linked to their avatar / character. Under the terms of the announcement, it appears that the linking will shortly be mandatory – if only initially on the majority of WoW forums (Blizzard state a few “classic forums” will not be affected). However, one does wonder where this may end up going, particularly, again as Sean Brooks on BiN points out, Blizzard’s privacy policy reserves the right for the company to, “enhance or merge the personal information collected at a Blizzard site with data from third parties. Blizzard may also provide your personal information to other companies or organizations that offer products or services that may be of interest to you”. Again, while there is currently a opt-out of this dissemination, and there is justifiable concern being expressed that the mandatory use of real life names in the forums could be something of the “thin end of the wedge”.

A wider concern I have with this move (and again, I’m speaking as a non-WoW user), is something Ciaran Laval taps upon – the manner in which our ability to maintain on-line privacy is being eroded by corporations seemingly bent on making Mark Zuckerberg’s belief that “privacy is no longer a social norm” a reality – whether we agree or not. This is a deeply insidious and cynical view for many reasons – not the least of which is that those preaching and/or pushing this mantra tend to exclude themselves from the equation and continue to protect their privacy. In this it is interesting to note that Blizzard are already, it appears, looking to possibly exempt their own forum moderators from having their names displayed on-screen for pretty much the same reasons as those upset by the move has raised as concerns themselves.

Of course, a forum moderator making an unpopular decision might end up a more prominent target for rl “reprisals” than your ordinary Joe Schmo who makes an idiotic or inflammatory remark. However, this doesn’t mean the associated risks in Joe Schmo being “outed” aren’t worthy of equal consideration.

There is absolutely no suggestion that LL are looking in this direction, and it is interesting to note that initial reaction to the news has been fairly mild. Whether it would remain so *were* such a policy to be announced, is a matter of conjecture. If I’m honest, my personal feeling is not even LL would be foolish enough to make any public linking of real life information with Avatars mandatory; certainly, it would fly in the face of all that has come before – and even Mark Kingdon, during the height of the so-called “Facebook pushing” was at pains to point out that any disclosure would remain under the control of the individual residents concerned. But the past is never any guarantee of the future.

It is probable that other providers of on-line games will be watching Blizzard to see if the change brings about the publicly stated goal of reducing the flame wars, trolling, etc., – after all, these are not solely an issue for WoW. The likelihood is probably that it will – if only because the most passionate have opted to vanish into other forums where their anonymity remains secure. Then the concern becomes that of emulation elsewhere (“well if it worked for Blizzard, it can work for us…”). If that were to happen, things might get very messy around the virtual globe…