The Drax Files Radio Hour: getting inside the Laabs

radio-hourThe 16th edition of The Drax Files Radio Hour delves into something many of us overlook:  the people who actually work at Linden Lab and keep Second Life running and available to us. Having travelled to Santa Cruz, Drax gets to spend time with a group of Lab employees, and interviews one of the more senior folk there, Don Laabs.

Also discussed is the new user experience – where sadly, in some respects, views are expressed which come over as somewhat devoid of any appreciation  – or at least acknowledgement – of what has been tried before and the fact that the Lab actually does have a lot of data on how well what we may consider to be “obvious” may not have actually turned out that well in the past. It’s both the new user experience element and the Don Laabs interview which form the mainstays of the show for me, so they’re what I’m focusing on here.

The new user experience discussion stems from Skyspinner Soulstar’s video, which has been featured on numerous blogs and subject to much debate. I have to admit that when seeing videos like this, I have two reactions.

The first is that the new user experience is a mess, and that more thought needs to be given to ways in which people coming into Second Life a) have a much clearer understanding of why they’re signing-up to the platform and what they might like to do, and b) how the sign-up / log-in experience can be better geared to ensuring those coming into SL can be better grasp the very basics of the viewer and can be delivered more readily to environments where they can connect with those things that caused them to sign-up to SL and which present them with the ability to connect to others who share that interest.

My second reaction is that, by their very nature, videos made by established SL users are somewhat biased from the outset, because they are invariably driven by what we think new users need, rather than what new users may actually require, or they are invariably seen as a means of reinforcing our own particular views on what we “know” is required in order to “solve” the issue of the new user experience. This latter point is demonstrated in the podcast itself, where Draxtor admits that the video reinforces his belief that the new user experience can be “solved” through the introduction of social interaction into the process (which, ironically, is not something I tend to actually agree with in general terms).

The problem here is that by reinforcing our own perceptions of what is “obviously” needed can perhaps blind us to other issues which may well be inherent in the overall process. Hence why, when it comes to discussions about how to solve the new user experience, particularly when they are directed at solution X or approach Y or idea Z, I find myself pointing to a comment Ebbe Altberg made during his VWBPE address:

In general, I’ve found that the customer is often wrong when they ask for something specific.

Now, when they say, “I have this pain” or “I have this need”, they’re pretty much always right. But when they say, “it needs to be solved this way”, they’re usually wrong … 

The very attractiveness of  Second Life and the fact that it is such a blank canvas to user engagement and retention really does mean there is no single solution that is going to work, and that what is needed is in fact a far more broad-ranging, holistic approach to matters which encompasses multiple approaches, leveraging things that both the Lab and the community can collaboratively supply.

Given the renewed openness and direct approach the Lab is presenting in its relationship with the broader user community, we are perhaps closer to reaching a point where such a collaborative, holistic approach could actually be undertaken by both Lab and users than we’ve been in a very long time. If the opportunity does arise, I hope both sides will grasp it without any need to rake over the coals of past mistakes in Lab / user relationships.

For his first Linden interview [25:32], Drax sits down with Don Laabs, Linden Lab’s Senior Director of Product for Second Life, and who is also known as Danger Linden.

Don Laabs,
Don Laabs, Senior Director of Product for Second Life at Linden Lab

I first made mention of Don Laabs back in September 2012, back when there was much gnashing od teeth over the misconception that the Lab was somehow “abandoning” SL in favour of developing new products. At that time, I pointed to the fact that the Lab had actually brought-in Don Laabs from EA games earlier in the year in order to ensure that SL would continue to be developed, while responsibility for emerging products was placed under the separate control of John Laurence, reporting into Don.

The interview is interesting and wide-ranging, starting as it does with a brief potted history of Don’s time with EA games, his thoughts on whether SL is a game or not – he characterises it as not a game, but “play”, and points to the over-arching difference between SL and the OASIS of Ready Player One being the latter having gameplay as central to its function, whereas SL has gameplay elements for those who wish to use them, before delving into a host of other issues, including the highly anticipated experience keys (also referred to elsewhere as experience permissions) which should further assist in the creation of tailored, region (/estate?) based activities – think Linden Realms with more on offer.

An interesting aspect of this discussions  – other than it touching upon the fact that while SL may not be a game, it most certainly is a legitimate platform for gameplay mechanisms and activities – is that alongside of the developing the experience capabilities themselves, the Lab are in the process of putting together a couple of experiences they hope will showcase the capabilities and springboard their wider use.

Linden Realms, launched in 2011, was an initial release of what were to become known as athe Advanced Creator Tools, the forerunner of the upcoming experience keys / permissions
Linden Realms, launched in 2011, was an initial release of what were to become known as the Advanced Creator Tools, the forerunner of the upcoming experience keys / permissions

While having the Lab provide in-world experiences tends to be a twitchy subject for some, taking this kind of approach – particularly if coupled with good supporting resources (wiki pages, etc.), isn’t actually a bad way to go. While it may be critiqued as looking and perhaps feeling a little twee, the Linden Realms game did, at the time it was launched, help promote what might be done with the initial experience permissions and tools (it was just a shame things went a be pear-shaped when the tools were initially rolled-out). As such, I do wonder – technical complexity not withstanding – how pathfinding might have been received had it been rolled out with a comprehensive example of what might be achieved using the tools, linked to the resources needed to create pathfinding based experiences.

A further interesting element touched upon in the interview is that maintaining something like SL is actually a lot more complex than people perhaps credit. As Don states, even if the SL code were effectively frozen today, changes in the world at large – to operating systems, to tools the platform uses (webkit and the issues around MOAP video & YouTube being a classic example – or indeed, the Mac Cocoa situation being another) mean than SL will still require ongoing and invasive maintenance even in order for it to remain accessible to users – and even to meet users’ changing habits.

The conversation here segues into a discussion of Second life and relevance. While it is true that Second Life itself doesn’t face any real competition in terms of virtual worlds (no disrespect here to OpenSim – but it is not of a scale which can be considered in any way competitive to SL, either in terms of established user base or – more particularly – in its ability to directly attract new users on a scale equivalent to SL), the platform does face enormous competition in terms of gaining traction on people’s time.  This means that SL is competing with a whole range of other activities people could be doing – web browsing, playing games, engaging with family and friends through Facebook, and so on.

The problem here, in terms of relevance, comes in several forms. There is the matter of legacy content, for example – and the expectation by users that such content will always be around, no matter how dated it may look. This impacts on what can and cannot be done technically with the platform in terms of maintaining relevance with emerging capabilities and so on. At the same time, system performance needs to be managed, but the platform needs to remain relevant to content creators of all standards and abilities as a place for creativity without unduly limiting how they create (such as by limiting polygon counts on models, etc.).  So relevance is a complex mixture of technical capabilities, maintaining legacy content, performance, and offering freedom of creative expression – anyone one of which can turn people away from SL as much as attract them.

This is again another excellent interview, and sets the bar for the upcoming shows and chats with other Lab staffers. Obviously, I’ve only touched on what interests me personally, and I do recommend that you take listen-in to all that is discussed.

Elsewhere in the show, the prickly issue of net neutrality is discussed, something which is having considerable air-time in the USA, but which isn’t garnering too much attention here in the UK, despite the fact we seem to be in much the same boat on the matter. Education also gets a further mention, with a most excellent OpenSim / Oculus Rift experiment at a school in Ireland getting media coverage. Despite being accused of “not understanding” the value of VR in SL, such work is actually where I see HMDs and added immersiveness in VWs as having value. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that historical recreations like this, perhaps coupled with the new experience keys and something along the lines of Fuschia Nightfire’s intriguing Ghost Castle, as could offer uniquely interactive, educational, and eye-popping experiences within SL.

Fuschia Nioghtfire’s Ghost Castle, which recreates Corfe Castle as one explores the ruins, potentially points to a way in which VR HMDs and VW environments could be used to incredible effect

And even without the headset, I still recommend Fuschia’s installation as more than worthy of a visit.

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10 thoughts on “The Drax Files Radio Hour: getting inside the Laabs

  1. I know about LL’s research on the new user experience and that handholding is not effective, But when I (and I suspect many experienced residents) view something like Skyspinner Soulstar’s video, we desperately WANT to help — “it would be so easy to show them —“. So very frustrating!

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    1. I think it’s more complicated that it seems.

      Handholding or not, might have no impact on the percentage of new accounts that stay, but could easily be a different percentage that is being gained and lost with each approach. Really I think both should be on offer. The new user experience redesigned to identify and direct users to who need more help to those who can give it, while allowing those who don’t to pass through without intervention.

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      1. Perhaps LL should be a bit more up front about SL having a learning curve and offer several paths depending on how people learn. Classroom, handholding, step-by-step manual, freeform with indexed manual backup, video demo, etc. Also the ability to go back and change their mind.

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        1. How much of the “steep learning curve” is real, and how much of it is down to skewed thinking?

          Let’s be honest here. The basic movement controls within SL are pretty similar to most games. People coming to SL are likely to have more than just a basic knowledge of using a computer and have the ability to make intuitive choices / decisions. While it is not as front-and-centre as perhaps it could be (i.e. open the very first time you launch the viewer – as it was in the Basic mode), there IS a “How To” guide to walking, talking, and such like which is enough to get people started.

          Yes, SL is complex – no two ways about that; but it doesn’t all have to be learned in a day. Or a week for that matter; or even a month. As such, it seems to me that at times we take everything we’ve learned over the passage of months and years in SL as being everything new users have to learn right from their first minutes in SL. Thus skew our thinking by plonking this “huge” learning curve as something which must be tackled the moment a newbie hits the beach.

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          1. It makes you wonder what those people are doing on that initial beach. Do they think that is all there is? Are they waiting for something to happen? Do they come back later? Perhaps someone TPs them inworld? It seems apparent from that video that few use the build as intended, following the path to the next stage. Maybe that first island is LL’s way of sorting those who are really interesting in SL from the merely (not very) curious.

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            1. I think it’s hard to gain a precise reading.

              I actually have an alt parked there, and another parked at the “old” Destination Islands (which at one time were being A/B testied alongside the “Social / Learning” islands set-up). In both cases, in semi-regularly logging-on to either to see what is going on, I can say that I tend to observe three behaviours in roughly equal measure at both points:

              • Newbies who arrive, run around as per the video – but who at some point actually start typing (usually “help” when English is used). These are genrally receptive to help and advice (I’ve actually been swamped with questions as a result of answering someone). I tend to classify these as “genuine” newbies, some of whom do appear to pick-up the UI pretty quickly, going on the number of IMs I can get – together with offers of friendship.
              • Those who arrive and who spend several minutes editing their avatar prior to flying off to the portal (the arrival system seen in the video) OR who then walk through one of the “destination” portals (in the case of the “old” system), OR poof after a few minutes as if teleported – all of which suggests to me that they are established users creating an Alt for some purpose.
              • Those who arrive and don’t move or chat for several minutes. Some of these do resume walking around and may ask for help or set off down the arrowed path. Some don’t move again before I log-out (other than falling into the “away” slouch), and some simply poof after a while. Again with the latter, I’ve no idea if they are being TP’d or whether they are logging out.

              This is why I feel that as well-intentioned as they are, video such as thie one doing the rounds at the moment can give a biased view of things, bacause while they apparently show a lot, they actually reveal very little.

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      2. I agree, hence why i think a more holistic approach is required, rather than the either / or approaches which seem to typify how things are looked at.

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  2. Naturally I’m most interested in anything we can glean about experience permissions, and the Cold War Kremlinologist in me wants to analyse every syllable for possible hidden meaning, but I’m kind of hoping that even the surface text isn’t to be taken quite literally.

    That is, I sure hope the permissions won’t be limited to an individual sim.

    Clearly the scope spanned Linden Realms regions, so I still have hope that this will be something like what we all expected — which is to say, something that scales grid-wide or at least across Mainland continents.

    Either way, I hope this is just a glimpse of more information to come soon.

    Speaking of “soon”, I’m less concerned about the Lab providing further examples, especially if that slows the roll-out. I also hope precious time isn’t being spent now on any UI for the functionality, when a scripted interface is all that’s needed. (If only examples and UI were the limiting factors for growth of pathfinding; I rather think much deeper limitations held it back.)

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    1. You’re looking into words as I am, hence my “(estates?)” comment :). I would certainly hope the new capabilities span multiple regions, a-la Linden Realms.

      As to the roll-out, I sit in the middle. While pathfinding wasn’t the friendliest of implementations in terms of the average user / estate owner being able to get to grips with it, it also suffered badly from incorrect thinking and negative advanced write-ups, quite outside of LL’s own lack of clarity with related communications, which did impact its arrival and reception. As such, I can understand (and forgive) the Lab if they are seeking to ensure that they have a the right ducks lined up to avoid a repeated misfire with the capabilities when they do launch.

      On the other hand, it has been getting on for three years since the first round of tools were first demonstrated (SLCC 2011), nigh-on two-and-a-half years since they first appeared in-world (Linden Realms launch) and almost two years since their initial roll-out to Magnum (which all went very pear-shaped, as you remember) – so a part of my thinking has hit the “JFDI” buffer …

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  3. What I see is that many people got a superficial and biased idea of SL (“you have to pay”, “wtf second life, get a real life”, etc), who tries to join anyway, comes with wrong expectations (a game, a virtual sex paradise…) and get disappointed (“there is no goal in this game”, “people ignore me or they treat me badly”, and so on), who is curious anyway, gets lost or eventually gives up when he or she faces a “big” technical issue (i.e. needs just to clear the cache or do other tricks, but he or she is not already so much into SL to take the effort of doing a search or to ask or to find assistance). There isn’t just that happening, but those happen often enough.

    So SL suffers of a huge bias. Most of the people commenting news about SL show this. They just gave a glance, thought they got the idea, and now bash Second Life in many ways, for example:

    – “in the game there are only empty server [sic], you hardly meet anyone and you get mostly ignored”. Translation: he rezzed and wandered randomly among some of the thousands of regions, without a clue WHERE people were (eg. clubs, popular destinations), WHEN they were on (some place may look like a ghost town, but they have daily meetings or even many meetings per day, for example) and HOW to interact with the people there (i.e.: it isn’t just a game, moreover not everyone is in SL for cybersex or dating, and so on).

    – “it is a pointless game, without any goal or objective”. They don’t know that there is much more, yeah a canvas or a platform in which you can build and simulate anything, there are art shows, education, chats, etc. and much more and of course there are some games and roleplay too, but not just that.

    – “you have to pay for ingame stuff”. They don’t know that there are good freebies, group gifts, promos, hunts and so on and that there are sandboxes, dressing rooms etc… and that you can enjoy SL even without spending a cent. You can pay, but you don’t have to.

    Sadly the videos on youtube and introductory experience reinforce these and other biases. The new intro island is really a disaster. I wonder if they used any beta tester at all.

    I don’t know what the solution could be, but there are weak points for sure in this process: the stigma, the misinformation and misconceptions toward SL, the introduction (not sustaining the first steps of the new users, not showing the potentials of the platform, and not keeping the user interested), some not user friendly UI and mechanics (e.g. when dressing, the inventory window not showing the previews of the clothes, and you have to rummage, the clothes need to add “shoe bases”, alphas, … at least with rigged mesh made things easier compared to attachments to add, resize and move), bugs that makes the experience less enjoyable (guess how lovely would be the net if you have to restart the browser every few minutes or crashing when changing web site or being unable to change page after few, and so on).

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