A look at key Second Life updates in 2018

2018 in review

Each year through this blog I attempt to track news about, and changes to, Second Life, as driven by by Linden Lab. On the technical side, this is do through my weekly SL project summaries, which summarise the various in-world meetings the Lab holds each week / month, and the rest is done through various means, such as attending public meetings and Q&A sessions, tracking the official SL blog etc.

Given this has been in some ways a busy and ambitious year for LL and Second Life, I thought it might be interesting to look back over the major changes and technical projects that have come to pass, and some of those still on the horizon.

Land

2018 saw some significant moves on the virtual land front.

  • On Wednesday, March 14th, LL announced an immediate reduction in Mainland tier costs of 10%.
  • At the same time, they also announced the amount of “free” tier granted to Premium members would increase from 512 sq metres to 1024 sq metres.
  • On July 2nd, 2018, private region fees dropped by up to 15%.

At the time of the Mainland restructure, and while welcoming it, I was a little dubious on how it would be received, simply because obtaining Mainland parcels could be something of a hassle. Well, it turned out the Lab had also thought of that, trimming back on the overhead involved in obtaining abandoned land and making it a simple ticket request.

The revised Mainland tier rates introduced in March 2018 (courtesy of Linden Lab)

Result: what has reported to be, and continues to be, a positive response to the change – although just how big is a little hard to judge at this point in time. The last date for which we have figures via Tyche Shepherd’s Grid Survey (January 11th, 2017), abandoned land accounted for around 21% of the Mainland. As (I believe) Tyche updates this figure annually, it’ll be interesting to see how things have changed come early 2019.

First announced in an official blog post on June 20th, The private tier pricing adjustments met with a mixed response, with some in the land rental business claiming they were being somehow being “gouged” on the basis that grandfathered regions were being excluded from the new pricing structure.

New Private region pricing structure, introduced from July 2nd, 2018 (courtesy of Linden Lab)

As I noted when the price adjustment came into effect, such claims were somewhat nonsensical. For one thing, grandfathered regions remain either US $54 per month (Full regions) or US $14 per month (Homestead)cheaper than the new rates. Further, while there was an up-front fee for converting regions to grandfathered status in the 2016 “buy down” offer, more than enough time had elapsed for those costs to be recouped in tier savings. For another, those best placed to capitalise on any surge in interest in holding / renting land as a result of the restructuring would actually be land rental businesses.

As it stands, and again using Tyche Shepherd’s grid survey, the restructuring may resulted in a very small increase in region numbers during 2018. However, I’ll have more on that when Tyche publishes her end-of-year report.

Fee Changes

Alongside the private region fee changes, the Lab also announced an increase in the cost of Linden Dollar purchases by US 0.50 per transaction. While in keeping with the goal of trying to shift the balance of the Lab’s revenue generation away from virtual land, the increase did cause a degree of upset, being the third such in around 15 months (the last being November 2017, when the cost per transaction rose by US 0.39).

This change particularly hit those who prefer to buy small quantities of L$ at a time. While it was pointed out that the impact could be somewhat mitigated through the purchase of larger L$ amounts over fewer periods – providing people’s available disposable income allowed them to make larger, if more infrequent L$ purchases. As it is, how the fee change may have impacted people’s buying / spending habits is a little hard to quantify.

Technical Updates

It may sound odd, but of the four major user-visible technical changes planned for 2018, three were actually established in 2017, with only one actually being delivered before the end of the year.

Animesh

The delivered project was of course Animesh – the ability to use the avatar skeleton to animate rigged mesh objects in a similar manner to animation an avatar (through scripted animations running the skeleton). I’m not going to dive deeply into Animesh, given it has been covered extensively in my Content Creation User Group summaries, and I also gave an overview when it was officially released in November, complete with resource links. Currently, the majority of Animesh creations that are surfacing appear to be basic NPC characters and pets / animals.

Bakes On Mesh

Bakes On Mesh (BoM) is a project extending the current avatar Appearance / Bake Services to allow wearable textures (skins, tattoos, clothing) to be applied directly to worn mesh faces in a manner similar to how they were for system avatars.  It was first announced in May 2017.

Vir Linden’s original announcement of Bakes on Mesh in May 2017

BoM touches multiple Second Life services: viewer, simulator, appearance and bake, as such it is a complicated piece of work.

The first part of the process was to update the Bake Service to support 1024×1024 textures, in order to allow wearables to match the quality of textures applied to mesh faces by applier systems. After that, the service needed to be able to recognise how to handle wearables when applying them to mesh faces. The simulator also required updates to recognise things like BoM messages, and obviously the viewer and its UI also required updates.

Cathy Foil introduces Bakes on Mesh (April 2018)

As it stands, the vast majority of the work has been completed. A project viewer has been issued, and the support services updated while the simulator code is grid-wide. However, there are still some issues to be ironed-out viewer-side; currently, the viewer lead, Anchor Linden, is leading work to resolve a positioning issue with small mesh avatars, so BoM is, for the present “on hold”.

It should be noted that the Lab do not see BoM as being designed to replace mesh applier systems, but rather as an alternative. However, it is also seen as potentially a means to reduce the overall complexity of mesh avatar bodies and heads, which may have an impact on applier systems / how they function in future. Also:

  • This work does not include normal or specular map support, as these are not part of the existing Bake Service, nor are they recognised as system wearables.
  • It also will not provide a means of applying wearables via script + UUID.
  • Either of these options might be considered in some future BoM extension.

Environment Enhancement Project (EEP)

Launched in June 2017, EEP is designed to give users improved control over their Second Life environment by:

  • Making environment settings a new inventory asset type that can be used from inventory, exchanged, and even traded on the Marketplace.
  • Allow these settings to be used personally, or applied at the region or parcel level (permissions allowing).
  • Also, the project will provide:
    • An extended day cycle for a region or parcel may be set between 4 and 168 hours (7 days), and may contain multiple sky and water settings spaced over the course of a day.
    • Scripted support for applying environment settings through experiences.
    • Enhanced shader support for atmospheric effects such as rainbows, crepuscular rays (“God rays”), better horizon haze and fogging.
The EEP sky over Hippotropolis, one of the early main grid EEP regions. Credit: Whirly Fizzle

The project has been led by Rider Linden who, from the start, has been exceptionally responsive to suggestions and feedback from users. One example of this is to add the to adjust sky settings by altitude, in a similar nature to Firestorm’s viewer-side windlight support.

Currently, EEP server-side support is available on Aditi, the beta grid, and on a limited basis on Agni, the main grid. The viewer is currently available as a project viewer, and is expected to b promoted to release candidate status in early 2019.

Return of Last Names

Announced in March 2018, this will see the return of last names (removed from Second Life in mid-2010), and allow Premium users to change their first and last name whenever they wish, although a fee in US dollars will be applicable to each change (described as being equivalent to “a few months” of Premium membership).

  • As with the “old” system, it will be possible to choose any first name, then select a last name from a pre-set list of available names. This list will both be routinely refreshed and will (eventually) include suggestions from users.
    • Legacy last names will not be re-opened for use.
    • New users joining Second Life will still have the default “Resident” appended to them, but will be able to change it.
  • Avatars will still have a unique agent ID, and it is this agent ID that will be used to positively identify individual avatars, no matter what the selected  / given name.
  • Once a name combination has been created, it is forever tied to that avatar and cannot ever be used by anyone else.
  • Previous names will be retained by the system, and should allow searching on them to find a current name, and hopefully allow a user to switch back to previous names they have used.
  • Unicode will not be supported.
  • The first name / last name capability will not replace Display Names, which will remain available as a separate option.

Delivery for last names is now looking to be no earlier than the second quarter of 2019. For general updates on last names that should reflect the state-of-play for the project, please refer to:

Grumpity Linden discusses last names, November 2018

Other Updates of Note

The following is a basic summary of updates from 2018.

  • Work continued throughout the year on the Marketplace, with a range of updates and improvements, including additional categories, the addition of favourites and wish lists, as well as continuing bug fixes.
  • The new themed learning islands for new users were introduced, and further advertising campaign landing pages were added to Second Life.
  • The mainland land auction system was overhauled, but has been dogged by issues that have prevented direct user-to-user auctions being added, as had been hoped.
  • There were continued performance improvements through 2018.

Looking Ahead

On the technical front, 2019 will hopefully see the deployment of Bakes on Mesh and EEP, as noted above, as well as the return of last names, but beyond these, what else might be delivered will largely be subject to announcements from Linden Lab. However:

  • Further premium updates.
  • Grid-wide experiences should be made available in 2019, most likely alongside the still-to-be-confirmed changes to Premium subscriptions.
    • The difference between grid-wide experiences and current experiences is that the former will be automatically enabled on all land (rather than the land holder have to expressly allow an experience (instead, land holders can block experiences on their land, if they wish / need to).
  • Vir Linden is looking at possible content creation projects, including:
    • A follow-on for Animesh that, if pursued, would most likely include the addition of avatar body shapes, which would allow more fully-rounded NPCs; and also more attachment-like behaviour for Animesh attachments.
    • Mesh uploader improvements – which may be of particular interest, given the improvements recently made to the uploader in Firestorm.
  • The new Linden Homes for Premium members (the SSP project) should become available.

Patch Linden on Linden Homes, November 2018

  • We should hear more about the transition of Second Life to cloud-based infrastructure and delivery.

There will doubtless be a lot more than this going on – particularly as the Lab hopes to be able to drive up user acquisition and retention. As such, I plan to continue reporting on Second life updates and changes during 2019 through my various project update summaries and other means within this blog.

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2 thoughts on “A look at key Second Life updates in 2018

  1. There are also some more modest changes in the works.

    There is enhanced Estate Access Management (EAM) which is currently in an RC viewer. The server-side changes for EAM have already been rolled out. Only the small number of residents who manage estates will see any changes.

    There is also the Bugsplat RC viewer that replaces the mechanism for the viewer to report problems to the Lab. Bugsplat servers are running (it’s a cloud service); LL will have to scale up if it gets released but that’s the vendor’s problem and they are already handling other large clients. The only effect that residents will see are different dialogs if the viewer crashes.

    There was Project Render, which eventually became the Love Me Render RC viewer that has gone through a series of revisions. I don’t know how much code, if any, has found its way from that RC to the main viewer so far. No server updates are required. There may be slight visual changes to what you see in the viewer, hopefully for the better; I haven’t noticed anything in the RCs.

    One more project viewer, Project 360, allowing the user to produce 360 degree snapshots, appears to be dead or on the back burner. It has not received an update since June.

    Now that there is a Firestorm “early access” viewer that supports Animesh I expect to see wider adoption. It’s also in current versions of Cool VL, Kokua, and Black Dragon. Nobody was in a hurry to buy animesh creations when 90% of residents couldn’t see it. Like you, I have mostly seen pets and NPCs.

    One animesh product I found interesting is a “slave girl” NPC that acts on chat commands and can run standard avatar animations; it comes with some and the user can add more. Aside from role play I could see clubs using it to augment the environment with go-go dancers, rather than needing to run bots for the purpose. For the market to develop fully there will need to be some way to add clothing to the NPCs; people won’t always want them to be naked or only be able to wear the outfit that comes with them.

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    1. Yeah, mea culpa with the EAM viewer; that should have been mentioned, particularly as I’ve been testing it.

      However, Bugsplat won’t really be user-visible, other than the fixes for multiple viewer icons and will most likely only apply to the Lab’s viewer – TPV’s that have bug reporting will likely retain Breakpad. Similarly, the 360-viewer has largely been on hold through 2018 – the viewer has been in development since late 2016, and the last update was June 2018, with no clear date as to when work will resume on it. Ergo, I deliberately excluded both Bugsplat and 360-snapshot from this article as they are not “key” 2018 updates (although arguably, a mention could have been made vis the 360-degree snapshot viewer as a potential 2019 delivery).

      Love Me Render isn’t a project per se. It is a Release Candidate viewer specifically to handle render pipeline updates as and when they are being made, and which the Lab prefer to keep separate from other viewer updates. As such, it is more a part of updates that could be classified as “performance improvements”.

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