July 31st, 2019 marked the second anniversary of Linden Lab throwing open Sansar’s doors to any and all who might want to try out the company’s (at that time) VR-centric social platform. In 2018, I marked the platform’s “first public anniversary” with some observations and thoughts, so I thought I’d do the say on the platform’s “second anniversary”.
When the doors first opened, and as the Lab forewarned at length, Sansar’s capabilities were nowhere near as built-out and Second Life (with its – then – 14-year history of development), the platform was fairly roundly beaten by some in SL as being dead on arrival. I personally felt such reactions were overblown, simply because we had been so clearly forewarning. but, I did (and do) still feel that launch was perhaps premature, and possibly the result of a knee-jerk reaction to the (genuinely) overblown predictions of growth within the VR marketplace.
|But that was July 2017. While the VR market is still trying to clamber its way to the forecasts made about it back then, a lot has changed for Sansar in that time. Releases for the platform have continued at the rate of one major release a month, with intermediate point releases that further help with bug fixes, put out minor improvements or smaller features.
In the last 12 months in particular the last 12 months have seen some significant updates, including:
|Sansar’s “Three Pillars” of Audience
- Working to bring the Desktop (non-VR) mode more up to parity with the platform’s VR mode (wrongly seen by some pundits as a “de-emphasising” of the platform’s VR focus).
- Adding far more capabilities for direct interaction by users within experiences – including the recent (and still developing) quest system, and support for things like guns for shooting games, etc.
- For VR users, full-body tracking has been introduced, with plans to continue to improve it.
- Use-generated events capabilities have been released, allowing experience creators to host their own events.
- Support for custom avatars has been added, together with avatar scaling, etc.
- The licensing / permissions system was introduced, and the Sansar Store finally integrated into the client.
At the same time the platform has seen numerous improvements to the UI, both in Desktop Mode and in VR mode; Users have been offered more of a feeling that they have their own “personal space” when logging-in directly to the Sansar client (rather than by way of an experience on the web Atlas) through the “Home Space”, and so on. There have also been a broad range of under-the-hood tweaks, updates and change through Sansar to better support avatar counts within experiences, to reduce experience load times, to improve overall performance and stability, etc. And, of course, creator capabilities have continued to be expanded.
So Sansar has hardly stood still over the course of the year, and is something of a decent beast to how it looked just a year ago.
Click gallery images for views of the Sansar Home Space
That said, there are some capabilities within the platform that are still lacking, or which have stirred a degree of controversy, together with decisions by the lab that have perhaps resulted in raised eyebrows.
An example of the first of these is the fact that there is still no easy way for content creators to offer updates to their products on the Sansar Store (outside of scripts) – a pretty fundamental capability if you want commerce to thrive on the platform.
The upcoming release of Sansar’s Avatar 2.0 has also caused some upset in that it will effectively put an end to the current avatar form, and “break” things like rigged hair and clothing (at least until the creator re-rigs it to the new avatar). However, this is countered by comments from within Second Life that once deployed, it may well encourage more avatar-related creators to give Sansar a go, given the enhancements it will bring to the Sansar avatar.
In terms of raised eyebrows, the decision to launch on Steam at the end of 2018 was perhaps the biggest. Again, given the overall state of Sansar’s development at the time, it appeared to be premature. Yes, Steam is considered the biggest platform for VR games, but Sansar’s lack of capabilities meant it might not gain traction among the more “consumer” type of Steam users – those who like to play fully-rounded games.
However, the decision can perhaps be made more understandable if referenced in terms of economics: provisioning the platform on Steam comes at a cost (30% of sales). This required an adjustment to the fees charged by the Lab – a bridge perhaps best crossed sooner rather than hit a much larger audience of creators with the increase further down the road.
The subject of Steam, however, perhaps brings us to the elephant in the room: user numbers.
Much has been made of this – particularly by pointing to the Steam stats. However, it’s important to remember that the Steam stats only represent one portion of those coming into Sansar: those accessing the platform through Steam’s own gateway (or who have maybe tied their Sansar account to Steam). As Linden Lab has noted, they don’t include people coming into the platform either directly through Sansar’s front door on the web, or by their local (non-Steam) installation of the client, or through specifically publicised events. Thus, when looking purely at the Steam stats, it is possible the entire picture isn’t being seen.
Nevertheless, and with the exception of recent events, it is not unfair to say that user numbers for Sansar have been disappointingly low. This has even been remarked upon by Landon McDowell, the Lab’s Chief Product Officer, and the person most directly in charge of Sansar’s development.
More recently, there have been some significant upticks in Sansar’s user counts – notably due to Linden Lab’s partnership with Monstercat, the Canadian independent electronic dance music record label. But again these tend to be spikes, rather than signs of a growing upward curve – which remains something Sansar has yet to really achieve. But this doesn’t mean Sansar has in any way “failed”.
The fact is, the virtual entertainment market is a highly competitive space; as such building an audience will take time (as the old adage goes, “it took my X years to become an overnight success”). With Sansar, this ability to to grow an audience has undoubtedly been hampered by the lack of broader capabilities.
However, there are signs that Sansar is now approaching a point in its development where it can start to appear to be far more sophisticated to incoming users, be they creators or “consumers”. Game play mechanisms are now appearing, opportunities for more direct immersion and engagement (regardless of whether or not a user has a VR HMD system) are growing, and even the avatars themselves are about to become a lot more engaging. Thus, the potential for Sansar to grow its user base over the next 12 months is potentially there.
There are still significant questions around Sansar and its future, not just in terms of raising its user count, but in terms of keeping pace with developing technology around VR (it doesn’t, for example support the Oculus Quest or similar Snapdragon based hardware). But again, it’s still too early to write-off Sansar on the basis of what it currently lacks, simply because it is still in development.
At the end of my look at Sansar’s first “public” 12 months back in July 2018, I noted that Sansar was not a place where I’d want to spend all my virtual time – and that is still the case today. But, having observed the development of the platform through the past year (and reporting on them), I confess to being somewhat optimistic that Sansar could well be in a stronger position in a year’s time.