Helping the community: the Phoenix Firestorm Support region

Update Aug 25th: The region is now open. See the link at the end of this article to visit.

This weekend, the Firestorm team will be launching a new in-world venture: the Phoenix Firestom Support island.

The region is designed to serve two purposes. One is to provide help and support for users of any calibre, via the use of in-world tutorials supported by real life help in the case of users new to SL, and via the provisioning of an area more focused on providing real life help for users more familiar with SL and the viewer. The second is to provide an in-world base of operations to support Firestorm users in particular.

Firestorm’s new support island

The region is somewhat mindful of the old SL Orientation Islands where new users to SL learned about the basics of the viewer and how to do things – so much so, in fact, that I was half-expecting to find a beach ball and table during my preview explorations :). While neither turned up, I did smile on coming across a large and talkative phoenix, itself a reminder of the OI parrot…

However, this is not to say that the region has been deliberately modelled on the old Orientation Islands. As Jessica Lyon, the Phoenix / Firestorm project lead pointed out to me as we discussed the island and the ideas behind it, it’s a matter of form following function. A relaxed and visually pleasing tutorial path with few distractions naturally lends itself to this kind of open-air approach.

The main element of the region is a path which leads people around the island from the arrival point, taking them past various lessons in gaining familiarity with Second Life and the viewer. These are very much focused on “learn by doing” – such as jumping over a fence to understand walk / jump – and are very clearly and cleanly presented, and obviously intended for the more novice user.

Arrival point

The signs are clear and concise, and while based on Firestorm running in a default mode (i.e. with the pie menu active), they easily translate to other viewers, whether they are using pie or context menus.

Within this sits a central area where questions about Second Life and viewer use that go beyond those that tend to be asked by “new” users can be addressed. This can be reached via a bridge from the outer area of the island or via a teleporter located at the arrivals point.

The central area, where the more experience user can seek focused assistance from staff and mentors

A key aspect of the region is that is designed to be staffed. Although it had originally been hoped that in-situ help relatively small, things haven’t quite work out as originally envisioned. “Our original plan,” Jessica told me, “Was to have a first entry to SL region for zero – 30 day accounts only, and would staff it with our own support staff and a careful selection of mentors/helpers. We have a RegAPI from LL [which would allow Firestorm to run a sign-up page and deliver new users directly to the region]. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work with “Resident” last names, so we had to switch to plan B. Plan B is to open the region to the public, and heavily staff it with mentors and helpers to ensure new and old residents alike get real help from real humans.”

As a result of the switch to “Plan B”, and to ensure the island is properly staffed, invitations to participate have been sent to the RHN, White Tiger Mentors, Mental Mentors and other groups. One potential benefit of this is it will help ensure there’s a much more diverse wealth of experience on-hand to deal with viewer-centric questions than might otherwise be the case were the island solely staffed by Firestorm-focused volunteers.

 

The New User Walk

The new user walk itself is easy to follow, and provides practical advice and lessons. It has been logically ordered so that lessons largely build upon one another, providing the new user with a relatively solid foundation upon which to build their Second Life experience.

The freebie area – not just about giving stuff away, but also about building upon previous lessons.

As mentioned earlier, the lessons take the form of “learn by doing”; the user is told how to do something and then invited to try it out. In the “Freebie” area, this has been taken a stage further: here new users can not only collect a range of practical items which have been carefully selected from across the grid, they can put previous lessons such as “buying” goods, unpacking boxes and changing outfits to work in a practical way.

Care has also been taken to ensure things are kept relatively light and that lessons are spaced out around the region to try to avoid undue lag as much as possible, as well as potentially serving to ease any congestion which might occur.

At the end of the walk there is a pavilion where users can opt to teleport to a number of destinations. These have been careful selected and are known to the “newbie friendly”. The number and range of destinations may be expanded in the future, but if so, it will be done with care, as the team are keen to avoid having newcomers shunted off somewhere they may end up feeling lost in, or where they receive a less-than-friendly greeting.

It is clear both from a tour of the region and from talking to Jessica, that a huge amount of work has gone into its development. So how did it come about in the first place?

Giving Back to the Community

“Ah, yes!” came Jessica’s response to my question, “Well, the fact that we are a not-for-profit corporation aside; I don’t want to bank money. I feel very strongly that money corrupts and I’ll have none of that with this project. We had more money coming in from Google Adsense than we needed, so it was either donate to charity every month or put it towards a region.

“Once we’d decided to acquire a region, it was paramount that it didn’t become just some club hang out. Every penny we’ve ever spent has gone back to the community in one way or another, and this would be no different. It would be used purely for providing support, helping residents and become a new location for our classes.” There is a note of rightful satisfaction in her words as she concludes, “Now with the monthly region expense, KDU, Digisign, server and our other outlay, we are just breaking even with our income/expense ratio. Perfect!”

The teleport pavilion

Even though the region will be opening on the 25th August, the work is far from finished. As Jessica mentioned in her reply, the team will be moving their own Firestorm classes to the region, making it an in-world hub for dedicated Firestorm support. Lessons will take place on a platform well above ground level so as not to interfere with the more general help and support going on. Additionally, the team plan to provide further platforms providing tutorial areas similar to the one on the ground in each of Firestorm’s nine supported languages.

Given the amount of work that has gone into the region, I asked who was involved in the project. “Miro Collas did the terraforming and general landscaping,” Jessica informed me, “Gabba Loon and Gfresh Botha started off the builds, with the work taken over by Angel Slocombe who did most of the building and texturing you see now. Lette Ponnier organised  Whirly Fizzle, Tansie Ballyhoo and Kaycee Romano with the texturing as well, and Freespirit Simmering collected top-notch freebies from some generous content creators.”

Developing a means to help new users is a subject fraught with problems. Trying to define something that can be of use to both new and existing users (two very different audiences) multiples the problems two- or three-fold. However, given the care already put into this region, and the careful consideration given to handling the demands of both audiences as well as in looking to the needs of non-English speaking users, it’s fair to say that the Firestorm team have come up with something that appears more than up to the various tasks demanded of it.

Kudos to all!

Grand Opening

The region will be officially opened on Saturday August 25th, with an event starting at noon SLT which will feature a short speech from Jessica herself followed by a DJ-lead party. The island can be reached via the Phoenix Firestom Support island SLurl.

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