Steaming into new waters

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).

Steam client

Some of the feedback has been downright thoughtful and thought-provoking, as with Darrius Gothly’s take on things. Others have been the expected doom-laden predictions.

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.

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15 thoughts on “Steaming into new waters

  1. I’m optimistic about the Steam move, though I’m not a Steam user myself. I’ve read my share of doomsaying blogs about it as well, most notably one comparing it to when LL implemented free accounts in 2006, letting in all the horrible riffraff and such.

    Just for reference, I just had my sixth rez day on Sunday, so you might guess how that particular post went over with me.

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    1. Happy 6th!

      It’s reading the doom-and-gloom blogs that tend to help me find balance when writing about LL; the blogs remind me that at time, LL have a thankless task whatever they do.

      This account was started as a freebie, btw, and so I share your view on comments in that regard :).

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  2. I’ve been a Steam user since the only thing Steam was good for was DRM for Half-Life 2.

    Steam as it is now is a great service. probably half my active SL friend’s list *already* uses Steam in some capacity; and I come to look forward and loathe the annual Steam sales at the same time. (So much good stuff, so cheap… but my wallet isn’t so happy by the end of it. 🙂 )

    Given Steam’s already gone out of its way to support games with a heavy modding community – you can download mods for Skyrim and Civ V and such via Steam Workshop very easily, with no needing to hunt down where to put all the files – Second Life is simply a natural step. The real question is can Linden Lab capitalize on the opportunity properly…

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  3. Excellent analysis (and so is Darrius, of course). My own point is that it’s not just “users that stick” that will come through Steam — they will also be people used to pay for quality entertainment. Sure, they won’t be buying wholesale regions at a whim! But they will surely find it “normal” that quality content is for sale in Second Life and it just costs a few dollars to get a super-cool avatar with all the weaponry they’re used to on their favourite game, and they can even join a community of similar-minded people using that avatar…

    The “trouble” with free accounts is that users expect that everything is for free, and LL makes no money out of supporting free accounts with CPU, memory, disk space, and bandwidth. Not so for Steam users. They’re willing to pay for quality entertainment. But “entertainment” has many forms: it doesn’t automatically mean “shooting Orcs”. For some — modders, for instance — “entertainment” means the ability to develop content. And many thousands of Steamers are really quite good at that. Imagine what happens when they figure out they can pretty much do the same in SL and even sell their content to a wide audience!

    Sure, I’m talking only about “handfuls of dollars”. I have just bought a few episodes for Half-Life 2 with “a handful of dollars”. My RL roomie (who dislikes most 3D FPS) joined Big Fish Games a long time ago, because it allows her a lot of entertainment for 6 dollars a month. She never joined any “free” Facebook game — because they aren’t appealing for her in the least. Instead, she prefers to pay a few dollars to get quality entertainment. The same applies to Steam users, and these are the ones that will come to SL with that mentality, too.

    I also proposed elsewhere that LL should use this opportunity to put SL on the App Store (and the Windows Store) as well. Put it cheaply there: say, download for 5 dollars, and you get L$2000 to start with. It has to be low enough to appeal to those willing to pay “a little bit” but who are aware that the good things cost money — but high enough to keep the ones expecting everything to be free away from SL.

    I have absolutely nothing against free accounts, of course. A huge number of free accounts in SL are from exceptionally talented individuals who have done amazing things for the whole community; they preferred to invest their time, skills, and talents to make this world a bit better (or nicer-looking). But LL unfortunately cannot pay wages to their staff with “talent”, nor is “time” a valid currency to pay for their co-location facilities.

    While this won’t make LL rich, it might at least get new residents with a slightly different mindset. And, of course, it might attract the vast hordes of Skyrim modders who suddenly have found a new market for their products!

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    1. I think it’s a mistake to say that “free” accounts don’t help pay LL’s bills. Free accounts are in the vast majority (70-75%, nowadays? – I know the figure was around 83-84% prior to the “big push” RH initiated last year to up the numbers of premiums). Ergo, they potentially contribute a lot more to LL’s revenue stream than Premium accounts. As Shug says, they pay tier on land, and the vast majority of that tier ends up in LL’s coffers.

      If anything, there is a strong argument to show that Premium accounts are far more guilty of failing to cover their associated costs than free accounts. For example: with an Annual account, I pay LL $72 (ignoring the VAT on that, which LL presumably pays to the Treasury). I get $4 back as a result of signing-up, and about $52 (being generous to LL) back in total in terms of weekly stipend. So LL actually get $16 a year out of me, or around $1.30 a month. Is that really enough to cover the server costs involved in providing me with a Linden Home? Does it cover the cost of the space I require on the asset servers for my inventory and the free gifts I receive? The math for Quarterly accounts isn’t a whole lot better, either. Yet with a free account, in terms of land, I was paying LL (after the estate owner had taken their cut) a minimum of between $8 and $12 a week – or $416 and $624 a year.

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  4. As I said before, Steam is a huge marketplace, and Valve are expanding beyond Windows. In fact, they’ve found that OpenGL can give better frame rates than Windows DX drivers can. There’s a place for Second Life.

    But can Linden Labs deliver? I am really not sure of that. It’s not just bad communication with the customers, it’s a repeated struggle to deliver working projects before the hype fades.

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    1. Yup… it is the “if / can” element of LL’s ability to actually leverage the move wisely and productively that is my biggest concern. Their track record hasn’t been that stellar over the years, and as much as it pains me to say so, since January 2010 it has become a whole lot worse.

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  5. Im a steam user, i played Portal and half life last year on it, but i always find it hard to find time to play games since im always working on stuff in SL. I think having SL listed as a FREE software will automatically guarantee a boost in curiosity users. Where else is Second Life listed?

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  6. If only 1 thing, Sl users can try to assure, is to provide useful answers to the newbies we hope to see around!
    I think the 1st obvious one is to tell them that there are better viewers then LL 1 (I managed to make a few change to Tpv’s none regretting it!).
    Another is pointing them to things that any can do in SL but normally don’t even think off (Riding a bike, sailing, parachute, surfing, golf and so many other sports any can do for free!)
    And if possible, to show them how to rezz a prim, hoe to duplicate,l link and unlink it, and so on!
    So to show them the Sl can be whatever they want or they wish, cause the biggest problem is that most newbies (stem or no steam ones!) really don’t have a clue about what they can do (besides sex!) on SL!

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    1. There is an answer to the noobies who only want sex, but I find it rather embarrassing when they run away screaming.

      It really does seem that this will depend enormously on whether Linden Labs can get their act together on promotion and communication. Not every noob is sex-starved, but they;re common enough to be well-known. They can possibly be traced to certain reports on TV shows. But who is presenting the alternative views? And can those views be put where Steam users will see them?

      There’s a yawning chasm of silence between the users and Linden Labs, and I think we rightly fear which side of the chasm the Steam users will be on.

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      1. Yup, the ability for LL to actually get their act together that concerns me where the link-up is concerned. Frankly, I’d like nothing more than in three or four months’ time be able to blog, “Cool, it seems to be working”. I do have severe doubts that will be the case, however. Frankly, the cynic in me believes that we’ll see no change, positive or negative, and that in six months’ time, the whole idea will be quietly rolled-up and shoved in a dark corner.

        As to Steam users’ expectations – I think this is hard to gauge; given the apparent cross-over that does already exist, I do actually think there is a chance a more positive message can be received on the Steam side of the equation, and there is enough there for LL to leverage (particularly in enlisting the help of those in the community who do use both SL and Steam). But again, this does circle back to LL’s willingness to actually and actively engage with their existing user base on an ongoing basis and outside of bracketed channels such as User Groups (which we are repeatedly told do not necessarily represent any official commentary / views on matters).

        I’ve often said that the greatest resource LL has is its user base (doesn’t take a genius to see that). However, the increasing levels of near contempt management appear to be showing towards users is going to ultimately damage SL – but that’s a subject for a future blog post ;-).

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