Sansar at the end of 2019: a personal perspective

My Avatar 2.0 in the Sansar Nexus

The end of December 2019 brings with it the end of the second full year of public accessibility to Sansar. The year has been marked by both a continuing round of updates to the platform, some of which have given rise to concerns among the established base of creators while others have been welcomed; plus a shift in emphasis in an attempt to try to further build Sansar’s audience base and which might be described as “risky”.

I’ve tracked most of these changes through my Sansar reports, particularly those related to the (generally) monthly updates and releases and my Product Meeting summaries. As such, I thought I’d review some of the more notable changes the year has brought forth, and take a brief look into 2020.

Significant Updates and Releases

Avatar 2.0

The Sansar avatar 2.0 release was one of the biggest changes to Sansar made in 2019 and arrived as a part of the September R36 release, potentially the biggest Sansar release for 2019.

Avatar 2.0 was a complete overhaul of the avatar system, rendering the original avatar system obsolete. It introduced a new range of starter avatars, and provided a set of tools to help users and creators adjust their avatar clothing and accessories to fit the new avatar skeleton. In particular, the system provides a completely new deformation capability, initially limited to the head / face, but with the promise at the time of release that full-body deformation would likely follow before the end of 2019.

The facial customisation options introduced with Sansar’s avatar 2.0 in September 2019

Response to the new avatars was mixed, with the female avatar in particular being critiqued for its proportions and overall lack of feminine shape (which gave rise to new range of body form garments designed to provide the avatar with some semblance of bust, waist, hips and bum).

Beyond this, 2019 saw other avatar improvements, including the ability to jump and / or crouch/crouch-walk, uniform scaling, improvements to object manipulation / throwing (again for games), IK updates, better desktop movement controls and improved VR body tracking, etc, most of which came with the April R32 release.

Gaming, Questing, and Experience Points System

Late 2018 through much of 2019, Linden Lab was pinning attempts to build Sansar’s user base on gaming / questing type capabilities – for example, at the end of 2018, Sansar was released through Steam. More particularly in 2019, the March R31 release saw the introduction of Sansar’s questing capabilities, initially for the Lab’s use only. The ability for creators to build their own quests appeared in the July R35 release, with the ability for creators to offer rewards added in October, and an experience points (XP) system officially released in November’s R36 release.

The questing system is designed to be used in games (e.g. adventure quests), games, puzzles, tutorials, guided tours through experiences (or “worlds” as they would be renamed), with the XP system designed to be a multi-functional means for users to gain points and “level up” in Sansar, whether they actively participated in quests and games or simply spent time exploring the worlds in Sansar or come to the platform to socialise and attend events.

Questing capabilities were first introduced to Sansar with the March 2019 R31 release

Given their nature, these updates also fed into changes within the entire Sansar user / social experience, although changes in this area started in advance of the quest system deployment.

User / Social Experience

The first significant change to the social structure in Sansar came in the January 2019 point release 28.3 with the introduction of the Social Hub. Linked directly to users’ Home Spaces (the point where users were at that time logged-in to Sansar when using the client rather than an experience URL), this was intended to provide a common space all users could easily reach and so meet one another, reach other places of interest via portals, play games, etc. It also became the focal point for the first Lab-derived quests deployed with the March release of the quest system.

To further encourage social interaction, personal and group teleport portal capabilities were introduced with the February release for easier individual / group movement around Sansar, while the May R33 release saw the in-client Atlas receive an overhaul with the aim of making finding events and places easier.

The Nexus, Prime Portal and Codex

The biggest change to the user experience came in the September R36 release, alongside the avatar 2.0 update. This saw the introduction of the Nexus, Prime Portal and Codex.

  • The Nexus: a new landing point towards which all users were initially directed towards when logging-in to Sansar. For new users, it included a set of tutorials built around a series of quests intended to help users gain familiarity with the platform.
  • Prime Portal: a physical location within the Nexus linked to a new UI element that replaced the in-client Atlas. It was intended to manage the process of new world discovery (experiences were re-titled “worlds” by this point) by users.
  • The Codex: a new UI element to allow users record, manage and quickly return to places they have previously visited while in Sansar.

The Nexus was also supposed to introduce an evolving “backstory” to Sansar, initially revolving around an non-player character (NPC) called Agent Primus. However, this back story didn’t receive much growth, with Agent Primus acting as little more than another quest giver.

The splitting of world discovery away from what has been the in-client Atlas and into the Nexus / Prime Portal led to concerns that the latter would become a bottleneck with users, discouraging exploration of “new” (to them) worlds.  This concern appears to be confirmed by a chart released by user Gindipple. While only covering a single week, it shows the Nexus gaining 70% of all Sansar visitors, while 19 other worlds accounted for just under 28% of users by popularity. This split tends to indicate a “pooling” of users within the Nexus, without much of a spread outwards to other world (the 2nd most popular world only gaining 3.69% of logged-in users, for example).

Gindipple’s chart for one week of Sansar visitors by world

However, Linden Lab promised to evaluate the use of the Nexus, and in the December R38 release, they formally changed the log-in process to once again deliver users to their Home Space when using the client instead of the Nexus. In that release, the Codex was also updated to list all public worlds a-la the old Atlas, rather than just those a user has visited, thus hopefully making it easier for people to discover and visit worlds they have not previously been to.

Change of Direction and Lay-offs

The majority of updates throughout 2019 carried Sansar along a particular route, with the focus very much on gaming, user interaction, and broad-based attempts at engagement. That all came abruptly to an end in November 2019 when:

Events run by LL’s partners like Monstercat generate considerably more interest among users than other forms of event

At the time of the announcement, comparisons were drawn to High Fidelity’s 2019 change of direction. I didn’t feel such comparisons were accurate, inasmuch as “live” events have long been a part of Sansar’s “history” and didn’t amount to any form of abandonment of the platform in the manner seen with High Fidelity’s move.

However, I did – and do – believe the move to be a gamble.

In some ways the shift in emphasis is understandable. Recent changes to the Web Atlas events listing demonstrate that certain events can deliver a sizeable boost to Sansar’s user numbers. The Monstercat Call of the Wild events generate interest levels some 20-25 times greater than for other events.

As such, trying to expand interest in using the platform as an events venue – as Linden Lab are clearly trying to do, as evidence by an interview with IQ magazine (which I mused on here). However, interest in attending a specific event doesn’t necessarily translate into continued interest in visiting Sansar as a whole and becoming an engaged, active user.

User Numbers

Certainly, judging overall user numbers is complicated. For the last couple of years, there have been two easily accessible points I’ve used to gain insight into Sansar’s user numbers: the Steam stats page (covering those logging-in through Steam) and Galen’s Metaverse Machines stats page, which appears to have ceased offering weekly / monthly user figures in July.

Steam’s figures appear to show the period between May and mid-September 2019 did show a rise in Sansar’s popularity. However, it dropped off sharply during the latter part of September, with what appears to be a much smaller end-of-year blip. Up until updates appear to have stopped, Galen’s Metaverse Machines stats page showed a gentle increase in average users numbers – but nothing dramatic.

The Steam stats page show Sansar’s user growth in 2019 may not have been all the Lab hoped

Looking Ahead

A critique with the emphasis on events – that pre-dates the November re-focusing – is that there has been little incentive for more creators to organise them. For one thing, event cannot be easily monetised. For another, and until recently, due to the way events had to be set-up, the traffic attending them was not reflected in the traffic numbers for the originating world to make it more visible in the Atlas. / Prime Portal UI.

Changes have been made to how events are set up to address this criticism, but in order to try to encourage creators to become more involved in events creation, Linden Lab are apparently in the process of piloting a new programme.

Called COMET (COMmunity Events Team) is intended to have participating creators develop regular community-driven events in Sansar in response to “missions” (presumably created and assigned by the Lab’s Sansar Team), and achieve “points” and “various rewards as a group, and also work to earn rewards for the user base at large.”

A pilot of the programme is apparently set to start in early January 2020, and is currently subject to NDA (something which has been labelled as the Lab being unduly “secretive” although NDAs have often been used with the Lab’s pilot programmes  – I’ve been subject to more than one myself in relation to Second Life). Whether or not it will be expanded will depend entirely how well the pilot works.

Beyond events, 2020 will likely continue to see updates and improvements to Sansar; at the final Product Meeting for 2019, several broad brush strokes of changes were outlined. These include a further overhaul of the new user experience and the client UI, the former to further align the “first 10 minutes” with the emphasis on events, the latter to make the client more user-friendly. The remainder of the listed updates appeared to be more modest; however, they should not be taken as an indication there are only going to be modest update Sansar through 2020: LL has always played its cards close to its chest when it comes to technical updates.

From a personal perspective, while I’m still very much interested in the technical aspects of Sansar, I have to admit my general involvement with the platform have waned over the past year – hence the lack of any “Exploring Sansar” articles for 2019. However, I will continue to report on the Platform’s development / progress.