It’s been interesting to watch reactions toLinden Lab’s recent announcement on the forthcoming launch of two of their new products – Creatorverse and Patterns.
While many have responded positively to the announcement, it is fair to say that some have not, categorising LL’s diversification as a sign that either the company given up on Second Life, or that the company can now only develop products or continue to develop SL rather than doing both. I find both attitudes completely unfathomable, although in the case of the latter, not entirely new. When it comes to even trivial, easy-to-make changes that are essentially crowd pleasers, there can often be a response from commentators who feel that company is only doing so at the expense of working on more serious matters – as if LL can only do one or the other.
They’re Still Working On It
The view that LL are developing new products because they’ve “given up” on Second life is one I find curious because in the 13 months following Rod Humble announcing the company would be diversifying, Linden Lab has clearly shown that it actually is continuing to develop and enhance SL – and what’s more, the work is taking place alongside the development of their new products. Since the beginning of 2012 alone we’ve seen LL:
- Making what they refer to as being one of the largest investments in hardware and infrastructure for SL to date (which came on top of a major hardware investment in 2011)
- Investing heavily in manpower, time and effort to bring greater and broader capabilities to Second Life, including:
- Materials processing – which should revolutionise how SL looks compared to modern games
- A new HTTP library capability aimed at eliminating many of the major issues we’ve long complained about, with texture load times and large group loading / management fixes being the first two to rolling-off the development line
- Advanced creation tools which will (permissions allowing) help enhance SL in a wide variety of ways
- Re-working interest lists and object rezzing to develop a faster, more logical way in which objects are rezzed around us when we teleport in-world
- Providing a new avatar baking process to eliminate bake fail
- Developing multi-threading region crossing to help eliminate sim boundary issues
- Purchasing a Havok sub-licence arrangement which, despite worries over TPVs and connectivity, could in the future yield significant improvements to SL through the provisioning of dedicated Havok libraries accessed by the viewer
- Pro-actively working to find a new audience for SL through the forthcoming link-up with Steam
- Working to nail down long-standing issues within the viewer – memory leaks and so on – in order to make the whole SL experience less prone to bumps, thumps and outright crashes
- Seeking to improve their customer support, and working towards providing better assistance for TPV users where it is logical for them to do so.
True, we may not necessarily like the way the company is developing the platform (pathfinding being the current bug-a-boo). There are also decisions the company has made and is making which may confound us or seem counter-intuitive; I’m still very much frustrated at their willingness to even engage in an ongoing one way dialogue towards users, for example. While such moves and decisions may well cause us concern and / or regret, they don’t actually point to the company as having “given up” on SL; and we shouldn’t confuse the two issues.
It’s Not Time Taken from SL
When it comes to the actual development of the new products themselves, there appears to be a misconception among some that LL has only been able to do so by taking time and resources away from Second Life. Yet, outside of senior management, this would hardly appear to be the case. For a start, and since mid-2011, Linden Lab has been recruiting very specialist skills aimed specifically at developing new products separate from SL itself. Secondly, we need to remember that in the case of at least two of the three new products we know about, the creative resources have (at least in part) come from outside of SL. Dio is being developed by Richard Evans and Emily Short, both formerly LittleTextPeople, a company acquired by LL and who have had little if anything to do with SL; while Patterns is being produced in partnership with games developers Free Range Software.
In fact, when it comes to developing both Second Life and their new products, it is worth pointing out that the Lab have divided development between two separate Directors of Product. Don Laabs, recruited in March 2012, has responsibility for the continued development of Second Life, while John Laurence, who joined Linden Lab in May 2011, has responsibility for the Lab’s non-SL products.
Don Laab’s recruitment, coming earlier this year, is worth noting as it tends to point to the fact that not only is Second Life still very much a focus at Linden Lab, but that the company appears to have restructured itself specifically to enable both the continued development of SL and the creation of new products to be carried out without undue impact on one another.
Why Not SL 2.0?
Some of the opposition to the new products seems to be born out of a feeling that the money could have been put to developing a “new” leading-edge SL. There is certainly much that is outdated in SL (the avatar mesh is proving increasingly problematical, for example – although considerations are being given to trying to enhance it to some degree); as such, moving to develop a “new” Second Life would appear to make sense. However, this isn’t necessarily the case.
While developing a “new”, possibly rebranded (for those who feel it is the name holding the platform back), Second Life may potentially make many of us already engaged with it a lot of very happy bunnies (providing a lot of caveats are met, compatibility-wise), it doesn’t necessarily translate into a product that is going to be any more successful than the current platform. Ergo, LL could pour a lot of time and effort into an “SL 2.0” which leaves them more-or-less where they started, and still stuck in the same single-channel revenue stream.
Any “new” SL could also lead to as many problems for those of us using the existing platform as it could for LL. Many are already upset at the apparent direction in which LL is taking SL. Were LL to invest in a “new ” SL, there is absolutely no guarantee that they company wouldn’t continue in the same direction, potentially building-in even more of the “gaming” capabilities some seem to view as anathema in their continued enjoyment of SL. Alongside this is the issue of compatibility. What happens if any “new” SL is such that it can only be truly enjoyed at the expense of abandoning much of our existing inventories?
Granted, neither of the scenarios above may necessarily be the case with any “new” version of SL (although it is hard not to see the former – incorporating gaming elements into the platform – as not being the case); but were either or both to happen, it’s fair to say they’d be unlikely to generate the most sanguine of reactions among many of us.
By providing a growing portfolio of products, Linden Lab could actually help Second Life. For a start, and providing each of the emerging new products goes on to find a sustainable audience, it means that a huge burden could be lifted from SL because is will no longer be sole provider for LL’s revenue and profit.This isn’t something that will happen overnight, but longer-term it could provide Linden Lab with room to address economic issues within SL. Take tier, for example. I’ve already covered why LL is pretty much hoist by its own petard here at present, and why even a moderately successful and evolving line of products could present the company with room to pro-actively do something about tier. While there is absolutely no guarantee this would in fact happen, the fact is that sooner or later, LL will have to address tier in some way rather than trying to weather the storm through gimmicks such as land sales. Having alternative revenue streams at least presents them with space to do so without necessarily having also having such a major impact on their bottom line as might currently be the case.
There is also another, more subtle aspect here as well, at least with one of the new products so far announced. While separated in terms of look, feel, and (one assumes) marketing, Patterns and Second Life have much in common. Both are immersive, 3D creative environments rooted in the concept of taking primitive shapes and putting them together to create richer, more complex objects and items. As such, who is to say that while remaining an entirely separate and distinct product from SL, Patterns couldn’t also become a gateway into SL for those who find the concept of such immersive creativity appealing, and are curious to see what else Linden Lab have to offer in this regard? As it is, I’m willing to bet that there are more than a few SL users who have signed-up for the Genesis release of Patterns – so again, why shouldn’t the flow also work in the other direction, should Patterns establish itself and the wider gaming community?
Evolutionary, not Revolutionary
There is a final aspect in all of this, and why it is beneficial for Linden Lab to continue to develop and enhance Second Life – and seek new potential audiences for it. The products so far announced or for which we’ve seen some details (Creatorverse, Patterns and Dio) are hardly revolutionary; all three are grounded in existing concepts and ideas. While there is actually nothing wrong with this (after all, what is truly “unique” in terms of any product developed nowadays, and how many products which have been seen as “the next XX” have gone on to enjoy more than moderate success?), it does carry with it some risks.
One of these is that each may itself never rise above being anything but niche itself. As such, and while taken collectively an expanding product portfolio may benefit Second Life as time goes on, it is unlikely that any one product launched by LL is going to be the proverbial runaway success. So it is fair to say that LL’s core market is liable to continue to be Second Life for some time to come. Therefore, it is in their best interest to continue to enhance and develop SL, and to continue to try to attract an audience to it – such as through the forthcoming link-up with Steam, something I’ve also commented upon recently.
So overall the relationship between Second Life and the other product streams LL develops could well turn out to be not so much competitive in nature, as some people appear to be viewing it, but something which is far more symbiotic, with each helping the other in various ways. Obviously, there are major question marks around the forthcoming launch, marketing and reception of the Lab’s new products. How well they are marketed and received – and how well they sell – will inevitably have an impact on Linden Lab and its future direction.
But to look upon the launch of new products and the attempt to leverage them into new revenue streams as a sign that Linden Lab has “given up” on Second Life or that their success can only be at the expense of SL borders on the premature.