On enhancing the Wilderness Experience and Premium membership

Starting yesterday, Premium members began to receive a survey via e-mail from Linden Lab seeking ways to improve the Wilderness Regions. I’ve actually no objections to surveys to a point – they do tend to point to linden Lab trying to seek some input from users, even if the surveys are somewhat weighted in a certain direction.

The focus of the survey was to gain feedback on how to make the Wilderness Regions more popular, and included a range of suggestions, thus:

LL’s suggestions for improving the Wilderness Experience

I’m not going to go anywhere near the suggestions themselves, as tempting as some of them are for poking at (I appreciate that people do come to SL looking for “dates” etc., but speed dating? In a jungle?!).

I’m also not going to offer up any suggestions on “improving” the current Wilderness regions myself per se, because Alex Hayden has pretty much hit the nail squarely on the head on that subject of offering up improvement ideas.

My only real response to Linden Lab on the subject of providing anything like the Wilderness Experience on a permanent basis is: stop it. Period.

I’ve no problem with these ideas being rolled-out as a means of previewing new capabilities that are coming into Second Life (as was originally the focus of the Linden Realms game). I’ve no objection to such previews being offered-up to Premium members ahead of the rest of the SL populace. This is worthwhile as it gives people the opportunity to get a look and feel for things ahead of roll-out, see how they might be used, etc. Combined with test areas where people can fiddle and play with new tools as well (as with pathfinding), then the preview idea has a lot of merit. Indeed, it is because I thought the Wilderness Experience was a means to preview pathfinding, I avoided being overly critical when it was launched.

However, I’m firmly opposed to LL sprouting “attractions” of their own all over the grid. As I commented on Twitter last night:

Which I don’t think is an unreasonable stand-point, given it is precisely how Rod Humble has described what should be the case.

Yet the company keeps muddying the waters. On the one hands, they’re hands-off for SL9B to the point of refusing to even provide a modest number of sims, on the other they’re tipping the table somewhat to assist a major reseller while also offering-up environments that, quite frankly,while novel in their own right could be done a hell of a lot better by users.

Again, I’ve not going to delve into the broader argument on LL’s approach, as Alex really has said just about all that needs to be said on the matter – and I again strongly recommend you read his piece.

There is another aspect of this that does annoy me however, and this is however you look at the survey, it reads as an attempt to seek feedback from us in order to make the Wilderness Experience more attractive to new users. Indeed, when you look at the Premium package as a whole, there is very little, that has any practical appeal to the established SL user for reasons that have been covered ad infinitum elsewhere including this blog).

There is actually nothing wrong with this – up to a point – and there are certainly valid reasons for making the Premium package appeal to those coming in through the door (not the least of which is helping to relieve the burden placed on tier for revenue – tier still accounting for around 80% of LL’s revenue). The problem is in the way that everything is skewed towards the new user at the expense of the established user.

There’s actually nothing new in this per se. Linden Lab hasn’t been focused on the question of actual user retention for years; their focus has been solely on churn and maintaining equilibrium. Whether this is the right policy or not is itself a major point of debate; it is also one I’m deliberately not going to enter into here, simply because it is complex, controversial  – and somewhat outside the focus of this article.

Suffice it to say that as it stands, there is little within the Premium package that would encourage the vast majority of established Basic Account users to upgrade. Sure, I did last year, after a long period as Basic. But I knew going in that I was taking a calculated gamble, and the attraction wasn’t the benefits; simply put, if LL were going to start previewing stuff to Premium users (as with linden Realms), I was prepared to take a punt in order to be able to blog on such things. Sure, I’ve been somewhat positive to some of the benefits since that time – but the benefits alone would not have caused me to re-up to Premium last November.

Linden Homes: limited occupancy time?

Alex offers some very practical suggestions on Premium in his post; some simply – and sadly – won’t happen. Others – such as setting a time limit to how long people can occupy a Linden Home – are viable options, and entirely in keeping with the original intent of the scheme – although I would caveat the idea as Alex expresses it. As I said in reply to his piece:

While broadly agreeing on Linden Homes – there should be a time limit on occupancy in order for them to function as Jack Linden originally claimed, to get people started on the property ladder – I would caveat it on a couple of points:

  • Offering people a larger alternative prim-wise is not sound; it does tip the playing field and could have a further detrimental impact on private estates.
  • What do you offer users “in place” of the Home benefit at the end of the year? In order to encourage people to renew their Premium, something needs to be offered as an incentive.

Personally, I’d prefer to see Linden Homes made available for a period of 3 months & a mechanism put in place by which estates wishing to do so can advertise their offerings (through the “community hubs” within the various LH “estates”, for example), presenting those coming to the end of their time with the opportunity to browse and then go see what is on offer and make a choice. Three months strikes me as ideal, as it fits with encouraging people to take the quarterly membership package which LL is so keen to push, so it gives the option of downgrading at the end of the period & it is sufficient time for newcomers to get to grips with having a home in SL and familiarising themselves with concepts such as rentals as they prepare to make a move elsewhere.

This still leaves the question as to what to offer as an alternative incentive. A rise in the stipend back to the old L$500? probably not enough on its own, so something more substantial needs to be offered, or people will simply downgrade.

The key point in this idea is that by providing the space for private estates to advertise their offerings to those whose time in their Linden Home is about to expire, and leaving it up to estates as to whether or not they advertise / provide information, Linden Lab is continuing in its role as a provider while avoiding being seen as to be tipping the table in favour of one estate or another.

Another option LL should perhaps consider – and which was suggested a while back by Will Burns – strike deals with branded IPs to provide genuinely exclusive and desirable items for Premium members. Obviously, there are some sticking points in the idea (do any branded IPs see any remaining value in SL?), but these hardly negate exploring options.

The overall problem here, of course, is that we’ll all have our own views on how things can be improved in terms of Premium membership – and the majority of these views will differ. I’m actually prepared to be somewhat flexible on matters, but as I said, benefits weren’t what drew me into re-upping – although I’ll also say that unless something drastic happens elsewhere, they are not enough to keep me at Premium.

The Wilderness “staging” regions (now closed, as with the “public” Wilderness), alongside the pathfinding sims

As to the Wilderness Experience, I can only repeat what I said in the survey and at the top of this post: LL, do not make it a permanent feature, or try to expand it. You’ve closed it and the “staging” version off to public access. Keep it that way until you have something genuinely new and exciting you wish to showcase, then re-vamp and re-open the regions. Indeed, keep them available for precisely this purpose: showcasing new tools, new capabilities and the like – but limit their lifespan in each case. Don’t go trying to hang trinkets and baubles on them in an attempt to dress them up and make them attractive. It won’t work.

Frankly, you’re far better off doing what you purport you want to be doing: providing tools and a platform on which to use them. Leave the actual content creation to the experts.

Your users.