Business, Collaboration and Creative Growth

“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed”

The above quote, often – and possibly wrongly – attributed to Charles Darwin, serves as a worthy bookend to this piece.

Collaboration is a term frequently used in business to denote innovative strategies, projects, products and tools. It is stamped on marketing media and blurb as a hallmark of success. Collaboration indicates a company can create dialogues that can be leveraged into tangible benefits that generate growth for all concerned.

Over the years, Linden Lab has struggled to find a broader home – a workable market – for Second Life. In this they have been hampered by a number of issues, perhaps the biggest of which is the dichotomy of how to actually see Second Life.

On the one hand, it is a digital nirvana-in-the-making that will massively impact and transform the human condition; on the other, it is a commercial exercise. The former view is at the heart of Philip Rosedale’s perception of Second Life, as this comment from July 2010, demonstrates:

“Second Life and virtual worlds are going to profoundly affect the human experience, profoundly, and in a positive way. That is the mission of the company to make that happen and it’s my personal inspiration and dream to see that happen.”

In other words, it doesn’t matter whether or not Second Life makes money. But Linden Lab is founded upon venture capital – and so there is an emphasis on its ability to perform well enough not only to survive and return the initial investment, but demonstrate it can grow beyond it, attracting more capital along the way.

The SL Adventure was just Beginning

Rosedale’s view is firmly planted in the early days of Second Life. Back then the potential of the platform was untapped and no-one really knew what they had on their hands. Users were giving form and substance to the vision, bringing it into a fledgling reality; LL could afford to step back and encourage and tweak without overtly interfering.

During those formative years there were good communications between the Lab and users; policies would be announced, Town Hall meetings would be called; issues put into the public domain, feedback would be accepted and ruminated and acted upon. People had the feeling of participation; that the Lab and the community were on the same side. Where policy intruded – as with the 2003 Tax Revolt, the users made it clear it was the policy that was the issue, rather than making it personal, and issues were generally resolved with a degree of compromise on both sides.

The Undiscovered Platform

In November 2005, CNNMoney ran a piece on money-making in virtual worlds. This was followed a week later by an article by Paul Sloan, focusing on Anshe Chung, whom he referred as a Virtual Rockefeller.  It became the story that wouldn’t go away, rolling on for a full year.

Suddenly Second Life was the darling of business hype – without either big business orLinden Lab really understanding why. Businesses leapt onto the Second Life bandwagon without having any real idea why; they all just wanted to tap into this strange and hip new market.

It was an aberration. While it was true that with an enterprising bent and a desire to succeed, a person could make money from within the virtual environment, the opportunities for large organisations to do so were far more limited – if they existed at all.

By late 2007, the initial love affair was all but over. And while all the publicity had generated a significant upswing in user sign-ups, it’s very probable that those sitting in the Boardroom viewed the 2006/7 period as something of a missed opportunity. What exactly had gone wrong? Why hadn’t Second Life proven to be something that big business could recognise as a value proposition? What was missing, where did SL lack relevance? How could it become relevant once more?

Second Life 2: The Search for a Market

Out of this came what can only be described as a determination to refocus Second Life as a tool fit for business. To achieve this, the mystic vision that surrounded Second Life needed to be dispersed and replaced by something far more tangible and appealing that would cause big business not only to show an interest, but actively pursue the platform.

So 2008 started as the “year of change”:

  • Philip Rosedale’s March announcement that he was stepping down as CEO
  • The announcement that same month of the new Trademark Policy
  • The appointment of Mark Kingdon, a seasoned marketing executive, as the new CEO in April.

Kingdon’s arrival started the drive to make Second Life a “killer app” for big business; a drive which saw:

  • A redefinition of the platform as a service
  • The start of a drive to radically reinvent the Viewer
  • Engagement with the likes of RiversRunRed to develop “immersive workspaces”
  • The development of what would become known as the “out of the box” Second Life Enterprise (SLE) “tool” and Second Life Workspaces.

In moving this way, LL ignored a wealth of history that demonstrated that the best way for a young start-up to grow is to work from within rather than try to reinvent itself. Worse, it completely overlooked the fact that the company’s own working ethos, perhaps more than anything else, made it fundamentally incapable of achieving the desired goal.

Mark Kingdon departed Linden Lab in June 2010, the final admission that the Great Experiment had failed. While there was something of a minor rise in user sign-ups, over all, little changed in that period – other than the steady erosion of user confidence in the Lab itself, as I documented in Change in Second Life.

The Voyage Home

Today LL is in almost precisely the same position as it was two years ago: trying to bridge the gap  between early adoption and mainstream use. Even so, rather than accepting the conventional wisdom that the gap is best crossed by leveraging niche areas in the current user base, LL’s eyes have resolutely remained turn outwards, constantly looking for the Next Big Thing to which they can pin their hopes.

And it needs to stop.

The fact is that, far from being predominantly maladjusted individuals, as Mitch Kapor unfortunately inferred in his 2008 SL5B address, the SL user community is highly representative of the audience Linden Lab are seeking. It is made up of gamers, designers, builders, actors, musicians, digital filmmakers, role-players, artists, pundits, educators – the list goes on. What better way then, to actively promote the platform to the world at large than to tap into the wellspring of talent already using it?

That this hasn’t happened speaks volumes about a failure of vision within a company founded upon a vision. Fortunately, it is something that can be rectified. And it starts with LL re-establishing the trust that once existed between themselves and the user community. It needs to return to constructive, two-way communication and demonstrate it can:

  • Embrace the fact that while it may be a harsh critic, the user community is a loyal spouse, ready to defend, support and promote the platform
  • Accept that the community might just understand the nuances of the platform, and the hurdles that lay between LL and a wider market share at least as well as LL themselves
  • Help to better promote events within Second Life to the world at large through, for example, access to the LL PR team for those events that demonstrate they can reach beyond the current user base into new audiences
  • Work with the community to develop tools the community can use to pro-actively promote activities and events both in-world and out world
  • Provide the means by which the community can provides gateways from other media into Second Life so they can draw audiences in-world
  • Help to give the community the ability to effectively crowd source and create buzz

In short, Linden Lab needs to start collaborating with the user community once more and thinking more holistically about their product. Doing so isn’t going to solve all of SL’s woes (would it were that easy); but it will represent a major step in the right direction.

Regardless of whether or not Darwin actually wrote the quote at the top of this article, the truth of the observation it contains is clear: collaboration lends to success and growth.

Further Reading

Jeff Petersen joins Linden Lab

Jeff Petersen has joined Linden Lab as the new VP of Engineering. Going under the name of Bagman Linden, Petersen is the second major hire the Lab has made from the gaming community, following-on from the recruitment of Rod Humble as CEO.

He’s certainly an interesting choice, as he notes himself:

For me, the challenges and the opportunities at the Lab are a perfect fit for my background. I come to the Lab with over 20 years of experience as a game developer and engineering lead, primarily in the MMO area. Prior to joining Linden Lab, I spent 10 years working for Sony Online Entertainment doing MMO RPG development (with a focus on the networking, servers, and core technologies), along with PS3 and PSP development. Some of the titles that I worked on include: Everquest, Everquest II, Star Wars Galaxies, Planetside, Untold Legends PS3, Field Commander PSP, FreeRealms, and CloneWars Adventures.

Old timers may remember an early entry into MMO gaming that I developed in a game called Subspace, published by Virgin Interactive Entertainment in 1996. The unique relationship I had with the player base of this product mirrors the relationship between the Lindens and the Residents in many ways. If there is one thing I’ve learned about MMO gaming over the years it is that MMO products have a life of their own, and the player investment in the product is a key aspect of that. Second Life is no different in this regard.  The Residents of Second Life want to see the product succeed every bit as much as Linden Lab does.

Reading this, one cannot help but think that Humble himself had a direct hand in the recruitment of Petersen: the words may be a little different between the two of them, but the sentiment is the same. It is certainly refreshing to hear yet another senior at the Lab talking in terms of player investment in the platform; something that has been a theme of mine for a while now – and to which I’ll be returning.

Another theme that Humble himself has frequently raised in various interviews is the fact that one of the biggest impediments to people getting to grips with Second Life remains the Viewer; and not just new users. From the comments he has made, it’s pretty clear that Humble would like to see the Viewer overhauled for the benefit of the community as a whole. Given this, it is going to be extremely interesting to see what Petersen brings to the table in terms of Viewer development.

Beyond that, it is also interesting to note Petersen’s extensive background in console game development at Sony. There have been more than a few suggestions made that one way in which SL might reach a wider audience might be through the development of a console-based Viewer. It’ll be interesting to see if, over time, any moves are made in this direction as a result of Petersen’s appointment.