There has been a lot of humming and hawing since the announcement of SL’s forthcoming dip into the world of Steam. I passed brief comment at the news, but refrained from saying too much because a) I’m not a “gamer” and b) I’d never used Steam (although I did sign-up as a result of LL’s announcement to see what things are like for myself).
Sure, there is a potential for some trouble to come as a result of the link-up. Some will find temptation calling and coming into SL with the express intent to cause trouble; but I seriously doubt the amount or impact of outright griefing, will be anywhere near as bad as the doom merchants predict. What is more likely is that the vast majority of Steam users will like as not ignore the arrival of SL on their collective doorstep, either because they are too busy doing other things like knocking seven bells out of a digital foes somewhere, or because their preconceptions about SL are such that they have no interest (beyond, perhaps, poking their nose in to confirm those preconceptions).
As to those that do decide to take a leap of faith and sign-up for SL, why do people automatically assume they’ll do little than turn up and stomp all over our virtual daisies? As Darrius notes in his piece. A lot of SL users are also gamers themselves. They manage to bridge the “divide” between SL and games without issue – so why can’t people coming from the other direction do the same? Not every gamer is a hoodlum looking for the digital equivalent of a forehead to nut.
Steam is Also Opening It’s Doors
The negative bias expressed by those unhappy with the link-up seems to be born out of an assumption that Steam is all about playing games. It’s not. While games are the central emphasis, Steam is far more a community of people interested in a wide range of activities that reach beyond shooting up the next zombie or six. There are 3D modellers, content creators, machinima makers, and so on. In fact, such is the breadth of interest among users that Value, the company which owns the site, recently announced that they’ll be launching a new “non-game” software service on Steam. In the official press release announcing the move, they state:
The Software titles coming to Steam range from creativity to productivity [my emphasis]. Many of the launch titles will take advantage of popular Steamworks features, such as easy installation, automatic updating, and the ability to save your work to your personal Steam Cloud space so your files may travel with you.
More Software titles will be added in an ongoing fashion following the September 5th launch, and developers will be welcome to submit Software titles via Steam Greenlight.
Ergo, when considering how SL will be promoted and where the appeal will lay, it’s worth remembering that there is an even chance it will not be placed within the “game” categories within Steam, but rather in the “creativity” category – something which immediately puts a different spin on how it will be perceived.
This would additionally fit with the fact that – for now at least – Second Life isn’t ready to be promoted as any kind of “game platform” (or as I prefer to term it, “game-enabling platform”). Oh, true enough, almost the entire thrust of LL’s development with the platform over the last 18 months has been to make it far more capable of supporting games and game-play environments; it doesn’t take a particularly keen observer to spot that. However, the platform isn’t there yet, not by a long shot. As such, it would be foolish for LL to push the platform as some kind of wonderful new game development tool or gameplay environment for a while.
The Needs of the Not-So-Many
I’d also tend to suggest that far from seeing the link-up with Steam as a means of trying to bring gazillions of users (“gamers” or otherwise) into SL, again as some have suggested (and others have blown raspberries at), Linden Lab are looking for something far more modest – again, at least to begin with.
The real problem facing Second Life is not about trying to throw open the doors to a mythical horde of new users, be they “gamers”, “Facebookers” or anything else. It’s about finding a way to get users – to use a term so recently employed by Rod Humble himself – to “stick”. Leave us not forget, SL has been doing rather well insofar as attracting potential users to its doors is concerned for some 18 months, with an average of something like 14,000 new sign-ups a day, or around 5 million a year. Yet it seems that precious few of those sign-ups stick around long enough to become engaged members of the SL community, spending money, sharing in the economy, and so on.
Given this, and coupled with Humble’s own recent interest in seeking established users’ thoughts on how to get more of those coming into SL to “stick”, the hook-up with Steam would appear to be more about trying to find a means to bring users into SL who are predisposed to stay. People like the aforementioned modellers, modders and content creators, who might be seen to already have more than a passing interest in what can be achieved in Second Life, and who might be more readily predisposed to becoming actively engaged in SL: buying content, developing inventories and putting down roots in the form of “renting” a modest parcel of virtual land – to say nothing of intrinsically understanding the opportunity to sell their goods to a new audience of users.
Obviously, such users aren’t going to be in the majority among those using Steam – but they don’t have to be. Even if it is only a few tens of thousands who get involved in SL (itself possibly a conservative figure, given Steam has some 54 million users world-wide of whom between 2.5 and 5 million are logged-in at any given time), then the link-up will have achieved an important goal.
And even if the numbers are initially small, there is a further benefit to be had: word-of-mouth. If SL can be seen to be an appealing environment in which to model, spend time, explore and socialise, then word is going to spread. Those coming through the door from Steam are naturally going to talk to their friends about their experiences, what they are getting up to and so on – and that in turn could lead to a steady stream of people coming into SL willing to discover things for themselves – and who have friends ready and waiting to greet them and show them around.
Which is not to say that the link-up won’t in time lead to LL pushing the “game creation” capabilities within SL more aggressively in the hope of attracting additional users. As the tools currently being provisioned do mature and things like materials processing arrive, this is bound to happen, for better or for worse. How this would work is very much up in the air; if nothing else, the biggest barrier to SL being exploited in this way comes down to the matter of cost / tier (something Raymond Martinek has offered a few ideas on elsewhere) – but all this is perhaps a discussion to be taken up another day, if only to avoid over-complicating this article.
Crafting the Message
However, through all of this, one thing is very clear, and it is something Darrius nails in his article: if the link-up with Steam is to work, Linden Lab needs to craft the message it sends to Steam users very carefully and clearly, and ensure that expectations are adequately and accurately managed from the outset. Failure to do so will simply lead to more of what we’ve been seeing for the last 18 months: people arriving, looking around and leaving again.
As it is, Second Life is very much entering uncharted waters where this link-up is concerned. While I seriously doubt things will be as bad as all the doom merchants are predicting, I do feel that Darrius has a point, and it may yet turn out to be not overly good for SL, or at least leave the status quo unchanged vis-a-vis user retention. BUT – and it is a big but – right now it is simply too early to tell. If Linden Lab do play their cards right, and are aiming for something along the lines I’m suggesting here, then this link-up could actually go some way towards revitalising Second Life without any of the more horrifying predictions around it ever having to come to pass.