Ebbe Altberg talks Blocksworld, SL and the “next gen” platform

Dean Takahashi has a new article up at VentureBeat’s GamesBeat column, featuring a conversation with CEO Ebbe Altberg.

I admit to finding the title of the article, Linden Lab explores VR for its next-generation virtual world (interview), a little bit of a misnomer, given the article actually covers more ground than just the Lab’s new platform and VR. In fact, it’s fair to say that much of the focus of the piece is on Blocksworld, and not the new VW platform – which doesn’t make the piece any less interesting a read.

Ebbe Altberg discusses the Lab's next gen platform, Blocksworld and SL with VentureBeat
Ebbe Altberg discusses the Lab’s next gen platform, Blocksworld and SL with VentureBeat

The article starts out by noting the company’s longevity and the fact that it has been in something of a transitional state (as we all know), divesting itself of almost all its existing products save Blocksworld and SL, while at the same time announcing it is heading down the road of building a new virtual world platform.

Takahashi suggests the reason for the Lab divesting itself of products is down to some of the products failing to have the right mix of talent, traction and resources to make their mark.

This is perhaps debatable; while Creatorverse and dio were perhaps lame ducks in terms of appeal, it has to be pointed out that both Versu and Patterns had potential – the former has since gone on to stand on its own two feet, and the latter already had a reasonable user-base even whilst still in a pre-release status (and its termination drew no small amount of upset from Patterns user on Steam).

In fairness to Ebbe Altberg, he does acknowledge the fact that some of the Lab’s nascent  products didn’t really get a chance to grown their own legs, and that some of them might well have worked out for the good of the company. However, hard choices were required, the Lab really being too small to handle everything at once (and we know what happens when it grows beyond its means: remember, the June 2010 layoffs came after a sustained 18 months of recruiting that saw staffing numbers increase by 50% for no demonstrable increase in revenue).

Turning to the meat of the article, it has to be said the the recent sale of Desura had led to some questions over Blocksworld’s future. However, Altberg’s replies to Takahashi about that product should put paid to speculation:

We’re also very excited about Blocksworld. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to check that out before, but it’s a small up-and-comer. It’s one of the portfolio of non-Second Life products that we decided to stick with. We liked the user experience, the ease of creation, and the audience it targets: a much younger demographic than Second Life. Also, right now, it’s iPad only. It gets us into a lot of experience dealing with a younger audience. … You need to think about ease of use and simplicity but still enable them to create really powerful things, as well as working with the new medium of mobile. We’ve had good progress with this product. It’s still early, but we have good traction. The kids love it.

Blocksworld – the Lab “very excited” with its performance & harbouring further plans for it (image courtesy of Linden Lab)

In addition, and further into the interview, Altberg indicates that the game has around 400,000 monthly users. How this translates to revenue flow beyond the actual purchase of the game is hard to judge. While additional building sets and expansion packs are available as in-game “purchases”, these are paid for through “coins” which users can earn, rather than having to necessarily buy. Even so, buying coins is the easier option, particularly where the expansion packs are concerned (see the video below), so there’s a reasonable chance that Blocksworld is proving a “nice little earner” for the Lab, even if it is nowhere on the scale of SL.

Beyond this, it would seem clear that the Lab have further plans to enhance Blocksworld, including the development of an in-game user-to-user economy, which will allow the sale of creations and builds between users, somewhat a-la SL. Also, Altberg’s statement that, “right now it’s iPad only”, suggests that an Android version of the game is still under consideration.

One of the blocksworld expansion packs

In discussing the next gen platform, Altberg reveals some more about the pre-June 2014 status of the work, noting that there had only been a “couple of guys” involved in the “deep, deep plumbing” within the network stack for what the Lab hoped would ultimately be a “multi-user hosted virtual world experience”.

Since his arrival – and again as we all know – additional resources have been poured more directly into the project, which is intimated as being the major reason for divesting other products which might otherwise bottlenecked work.  He also indicates that since the Lab commenced its recruitment drive shortly after the announcement that they were working on a new VW platform, staffing numbers have risen to around 190 (which I confess to being slightly lower than I’d thought, believing it to be around the 200 mark). The Lab hopes to raise this to around the 220 mark over “the next few quarters”.

Oculus Rift: Lab launches project viewer with DK2 support
Oculus Rift: “The reason we did Oculus with Second Life is not necessarily because we think they’re the perfect marriage. There are constraints with Second Life with regards to its performance. You’re not going to get the frame rate you need for it to be a consumer-grade perfect fit. But we’re learning a ton. We’re going to apply all these learnings to the next-generation platform. Our content creators also learn a ton about how you create content that’s optimized for this device.” – Ebbe Altberg

In terms of the new platform, familiar ground is laid out as to the whys and the hopes, the potential to leverage the likes of Oculus Rift and VR, and trying to gain a better foothold on where all this technology may be going; there are also familiar pointers to familiar use-cases, etc. However, very little is said that is essentially “new”. This is hardly surprising, as we are only 5 months into the “in-depth” development run, and while things are moving into demo phases within the Lab, there’s doubtless still a lot to be decided before anything more public can be stated to the media (or with us) Patience remains the name of the game.

However, in outlining the new platform, Altberg offers food for thought for those already saying the Lab can’t do it on the basis that no-one else has managed it to the same scale of Linden Lab (although the fact that linden Lab has done it once already should be a fair indicator that they’re potentially able to do it again):

Past creations from other companies have been positioned as virtual worlds but haven’t hit the same components that Second Life has: user-to-user economy, user-generated creativity, a communications platform, 3D building platform, scripting platform. All those layers that we’ve combined to make a virtual world, this next-gen project will be in that spirit, rather than just a reductive flavour of that. Maybe not at the very first, but … we don’t want to constrain what people can do with it.

There’s a lot of simple truth in that statement, not only in the way that SL has combined a lot of things to bring about a “secret sauce” that does make it such an attractive platform, but in the fact that while the ingredients of the sauce are pretty obvious, the Lab still very much holds the recipe. Particularly where the means to establish a healthy and trusted user-to-user economy from the get-go is concerned.

SL also gets a fair mention – particularly with reference to the Oculus Rift, with Altberg making the interesting observation that not only has Second Life potential got the largest amount of content that is pretty much ready for the Oculus (things like the scale of build, etc., notwithstanding) – it may well have the largest concentration of potential Oculus-focused creators available – even if many of them don’t realise it themselves just yet.

There’s a lot more to the piece, which makes for some good – if light, if you’re hoping for a scoop on the Lab’s new platform – reading. It even has some decent images of Second Life in it, which should help keep people happy!

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