Back in June 2013, I had the opportunity to interview Rod Humble for Prim Perfect magazine. As explained in the piece, things didn’t entirely go according to plan, and I have to admit to being a little disappointed with the end result. Due to various reasons, the piece didn’t see the light of day until Issue 49 of Prim Perfect, which appeared in September 2013, and which is available on-line and in-world. What follows here is the article in full, reprinted with permission.
2013 marks the 10th Anniversary of Second Life as a publicly accessible platform. In that time, Linden Lab has seen it grow from a small venture into a product which, whilst still niche, generates revenues in the region of $75 million a year, and keeps people from around the globe logging-in to it as a part of their daily routine.
In that time four men have helmed the Lab through highs and lows: Philip Rosedale, the man responsible for starting it all, Mark Kingdon, Bob Komin, who also served as the Lab’s CFO, and Rod Humble, known to us all as Rodvik Linden.
Humble, a veteran of Virgin Interactive, Sony Online and EA Games, brought considerable games industry experience with him when he joined the Lab at the start of 2011. Since then, he’s been the driving force behind a huge amount of work on Second Life, and in trying to expand the company’s product portfolio with a growing range of apps and games.
As part of Second Life’s anniversary celebrations, he spent a lot of time being interviewed in many venues and through a variety of media platforms. Our request to be included generated a warm and positive response, but was then derailed somewhat by scheduling issues on all sides.
Originally, the idea had been to converse via Skype, but as the scheduling conflicts bit, we were forced to use e-mail as the medium of exchange. While not ideal, it at least gave me the opportunity to gain a small window into the mind of the man in charge of the virtual world we feel so very passionate about.
I started out by turning the clock back and asking him what initially drew him to accepting the CEO position at the Lab, specifically what was it about the company, as well as the platform, that attracted him.
I immediately saw and fell in love with SL when I was approached. I was delighted and amazed at the creativity within the world.
As a platform, Second Life puts an incredible amount of power in the users’ hands, which is obvious from the range and complexity of things people have created in-world. Beyond the platform itself, I think a key strength of Second Life is the model of allowing users to monetize their creations. That sets up a situation where everyone wins – users are rewarded for being creative, and the virtual world continually gets fresh and interesting content and experiences for everyone, beyond what would be possible if Linden Lab had to create everything.
His tenure at the Lab has not only been marked by the introduction of new capabilities to the platform – the most notable perhaps being mesh and pathfinding – but by a strong push to improve usability, and performance. Not long after he arrived, the viewer was given a major overhaul and underwent extensive user testing. More recently, we’ve seen a 12-month effort under the umbrella title of “Project Shining” aimed at massively improving SL’s performance and stability. Given this emphasis, I asked him if he saw matters of performance and so on as potential threats to the viability of the platform when he first joined the company.
Any active user of Second Life can tell you that performance is a big issue. It’s a hard one for us to solve as well, because of the inherent complexity of the platform and the huge number of variables involved – like differences in broadband speeds, hardware specs, etc. But, it’s an area that I’m proud to say we’re making great strides in with efforts like Project Sunshine. Users should see bigger performance improvements from that project as the server-side changes roll-out.
But there were also other usability issues – like the complexity of Magic Boxes for Marketplace deliveries and the confusing number of communications tools – that we’ve worked to improve.
Two long-term issues for the platform have been user sign-ups and user retention. When it came to sign-ups, Humble again quickly made his presence felt, overseeing a top-to-toe redesign of the account creation process. This resulted in a significant increase in the number of daily sign-ups, one which still sees some 400,000 new accounts created monthly. However user retention has remained elusive; only around 20% of new accounts are still active a month after signing-up.
By Humble’s own admission, this is not a an exciting figure, and he’s set himself and the Lab the goal of improving it, going so far as to say his ambition is to get all those who said “Meh” to SL “back”. As a part of this, the Lab has resumed its examinations of the “new user experience”, testing new “Social Islands” and “Learning Islands” alongside the existing “Destination Islands” in an attempt to find out what does and doesn’t work.
This renewed interest on the Lab’s part led me to wonder if it might mean we’ll be seeing something in the way of directed experiences, so that “modellers get to aeroplanes rather than a nightclub”, to paraphrase a remark he famously made in the SL Universe forums in 2012.
We definitely want to make it easy for Second Life users (especially new ones) to connect with the things in-world that match their interests. What we’re testing at the moment is more geared at getting new users familiar with basic controls, so it comes even before the point where they’re ready to connect with relevant content.
So, as a part of the new approach, might we be seeing the Lab reach out to in-world mentor and helper communities once more?
We’re not announcing plans to bring back official ‘mentor’ or ‘helper’ programs right now. I do think there’s value for new users in connecting with someone personally in-world, but we want to be careful that the solutions we apply to the aspects of Second Life we’re trying to improve are all scalable, and these may not be.
One of the issues established users perceive with generating new interest in the platform is that of marketing. Many feel that the Lab’s efforts are weak or misdirected, and that more could be done to improve the overall marketing of Second Life. I actually commented on the issue back in 2011; unsurprisingly, Rod Humble has a different view on things.
This is an area that I think may not be appreciated by a lot of current users, but the fact is that our marketing has been very effective at attracting people to the platform – as evidenced by the high number of new registrations we continue to see. The marketing team keeps a close eye on metrics, and if a campaign’s not effective, they’ll make changes or roll out new ones.
But would he consider working with residents to help with marketing campaigns, such as commissioning (via competition or otherwise) promotional videos?
We wouldn’t rule it out, sure. But again, the work our marketing team’s currently doing has been effective at drawing people to the platform. Where we see them bounce off is what we’re now working on improving with some fixes we’re A/B testing.
In terms of marketing, I wondered what had happened with the intended link-up with Steam. He revealed that the plans “hit complications”, and could give “No answer as yet” whether it might still go ahead. Since then of course, we’ve had the acquisition of the Desura digital distribution service, and Humble has indicated there are some grand designs for that brand, sentiments echoed by Scott Reismanis, Desura’s founder; whether these will have an impact on the Steam link-up remains to be seen.
One of the surprising aspects of the exchange was that questions around the Lab’s new products were left unanswered. Whether this was by design or simple lack of time, I’ve no idea; but even had then been addressed, some would have been rendered moot with the passage of time between interview and publication, such as is the case with the launch of Blocksworld. Nevertheless, the lack of answers did leave me wondering as to the reason. The Lab has an odd approach to its products, seeming to see a dividing line of interest between Second Life and its new products where SL users are concerned. It’s an attitude I actually don’t understand, given many of us are actually interested in straddling that line, and do have an interest in the Lab’s endeavours outside of Second Life.
Another group of questions which were passed over were on the issue of tier. Now, to be fair, that they were didn’t come as a surprise to me; tier is something that the Lab rarely discusses in public. And to be fair to them, any attempt to talk openly on the subject tends to be the verbal equivalent of walking into a minefield for the Lab: whatever they say one way or the other is liable to blow up in their face on reaching an audience, the fact that tier is of deep concern to many notwithstanding.
When thinking of tier, it’s hard not to link it with the future of both Second Life and Linden Lab; it is so closely entwined with matters of revenue, after all. And it is in relation to the future that Humble made one of his most intriguing remarks when being interviewed by GamesBeat’s Dean Takahashi, when he referred to the company’s involvement in virtual worldS (plural), in October 2012. He later confirmed that the use of the plural was deliberate.
Since then, of course, we’ve learned that the Lab is an investor in Philip Rosedale’s High Fidelity . However, the comments Humble passed back in October of last year have stayed with me, so I decided to round-out the interview by asking him if he was willing to add anything more to those comments.
I’m not going to elaborate much on what I’ve already said, because the fruits of the investments we’re making / what we’re developing is still quite a ways off. But what I can say is that we’re continuing to invest in and develop Second Life, of course, but beyond that, virtual worlds are a space in which I think there remains a lot of opportunity, and we’re in a great position from a number of perspectives to be a leader in the next generation.