Second Life new user experience: themed Learning Islands

The Sci-Fi themed Learning Island

Over the past few months, several mentions on the idea of themed Learning Islands have cropped up in various public discussions featuring staff from Linden Lab – notably CEO Ebbe Altberg.

The idea is that rather than a user signing-up for Second Life via an advert and / or  landing page that delivers them to a “generic” learning island and then leaving them to discover things for themselves, incoming users will have a “path of interest” as it were, that leads them from an advert through the sign-up process and then delivers them in-world to a location in keeping with the theme of the ad that originally appealed to them.

– Ebbe Altberg discussing the themed Learning Islands idea in May 2018.

Broadly speaking, things run like this:

  • The Lab runs a web advertising campaign featuring a specific theme – such as “science fiction”.
  • Those clicking on an ad are taken to a Second Life landing page that matches the ad’s theme (example shown below).
  • A Play Now button allows people to sign-up to SL and which, when they log-in for the first time with the viewer, will deliver them to a Learning Island in keeping with the theme of the advert and landing page, where they can get started with using the viewer, etc.
  • As well as lessons / opportunities to learn, this themed Learning Island includes one (or more) portals which allow incoming users to reach the destinations appearing on the landing pages (and others like them).
Part of the Sci-Fi landing page, an example of the themed landing pages used in conjunction with the themed Learning Islands

The first of these campaigns / themed Learning Islands has been in testing for the last couple of months, and the next is about to be rotated into testing, as Brett Linden, head of Marketing for Second Life, informed me.

Linden Lab is still in the early weeks of testing the concept of Themed Learning Islands. The initiative began quietly a month or so ago with a Romance-themed island test that is not currently active. Next up is a Sci-Fi-themed learning island that we’ll begin testing very soon. We’re also looking at several other themes for future tests, [and] it is also possible that we’ll revise the Romance and Sci-Fi themes as we gather more data on them.

– Brett Linden, head of Second Life Marketing, Linden Lab,
discussing the new themed Learning Islands

The Romance Learning Island presents a wooded island with trails and climbs, with a central “quick learn” starting point covering the essentials of movement

Of course, putting an ad campaign backed by a sign-up process, etc., is only part of the story. There needs to be some means of assessing just how well (or otherwise) it is performing. Such assessment is very much core to all of the Lab’s user acquisition and retention efforts, with A/B testing being one of the primary methodologies they employ. This is the case  with these themed campaigns / islands as well, which will be tested from a number of perspectives.

Firstly, the themed campaigns and themed islands are operating alongside the Lab’s various other user acquisition campaigns and in-world learning islands. This allows the Lab to assess the overall effectiveness of each themed campaign compared to existing methods of acquisition / retention that take a more “non-themed” approach. Secondly, the themed Landing Islands within each campaign are being directly compared with their non-themed counterparts to assess their effectiveness in retaining a specific target audience, again as Brett informed me.

There is indeed an A/B test happening — where there are two equal themed landing pages with everything being identical in design/content — except for the Join URL. On the “A” version of the landing page, a click on Play Now will take you [via the sign-up process] to the non-themed learning island (currently used for most new users outside this test). The “B” version of this page contains the Join link that will direct [again via the sign-up process] the new user to the Themed Learning Island as their first login destination. In our paid ads that accompany this campaign, we’re distributing both the A and B versions of the landing page equally so that volume to each location will be equal.

– Brett Linden, head of Second Life Marketing, Linden Lab
on some of the Learning Island A/B testing

The Romance Learning Island presents core information on using the viewer to move, communicate and interact, and provides more general information on using Second Life

As a third level of testing, the Lab is using different approaches to the information provided within each type of Learning Island, again to assess what might be more or less effective in encouraging engagement and retention.

For example, the “Romance” themed Learning Island included what might be termed minimal user guidance beyond the basics of using the viewer to walk, jump, fly, communicate and interact. By contrast, the Sci-Fi island is far more hands-on with the user, with “main” and “advanced” tutorial areas, far more ways to impart information: info boards, local chat, links to external SL resources, etc.  In the future, other means of providing incoming users with information and to help them understand to basics of the viewer, etc., will be tested in specific theme types.

Thus it is possible for the Lab to investigate what works and what doesn’t in terms of information presented to an incoming user: is it too little or too much? Where might the balance between the two lie? Does a relaxed approach that lets the user learn on their own as the explore work, or is something more “formal” in layout better? Is it better to employ one approach to passing on information, or multiple means – text, boards, videos, web links?

The Sci-Fi themed Island provides a much broader learning experience, covering many more aspects of viewer use, with subject matter split between “Main” and “Advanced” tutorial areas

When not being tested, some of the themed Learning Islands may be opened to broader access from within Second Life. However, during testing, the islands are not publicly offered up for general access. The reasons for this are fairly clear if you stop to think about them, and Patch Linden summed them up succinctly.

We actually want to discourage public access to the islands while in testing so that our statistics, measuring and data-gathering don’t get influenced by having the islands inundated with established users coming into them and possibly preventing new users from naturally proceeding through the anticipated test flow. That way, we can gather as accurate information as possible on what’s happening in terms of acquisition and retention against everything else. 

Patch Linden, Senior Director of Product Operations, on why information
on the themed islands isn’t being generally announced

Also, once initial core testing with a specific themed island has finished, the Lab plan to add it to the broader Learning Island rotation. This allows a further level of comparison: does a themed Learning Island perform better with retention of users delivered to it outside of any related advertising campaign than is the case with non-themed islands, or does it not perform as well? Is there a difference? And so on.

Elements common to the “non-themed” learning islands can also be found in some of the themed islands, such as this guide to the SL viewer’s default toolbar buttons, again allowing for wider testing of approaches

One thing that struck me in talking to Keira, Brett and Patch about this programme is just what is going into user acquisition and attempts to improve user retention, when it is perhaps a little to easy to assume the Lab is just “tinkering without understanding”. Considerable thought is being put into trying to increase new user engagement and retention, and it does involve a lot of number crunching, analysis, and trying to build on what is shown to work, as well as trying entirely new approaches.

Overall, this themed approach to advertising / new user experience comes across as a good idea to try. Whether it actually works or not, and how well it works and with which themes, will only become clear over time; I do admit to being a little edgy around the Sci-Fi Island, which is very different in looks to the “hard sci-fi” images presented in the landing page – leading me to wonder if the contrast might have an impact on the new users who come through it.

But, concerns like that aside, it’s clear from talking to Brett, Keira and Patch that the Lab is pouring a lot of effort into this approach, as well as looking at other avenues of user acquisition and retention. Certainly, as this particular programme evolves I hope to be able to return to it in the future and offer updates and perhaps insights. In the meantime, I’d like to extend my thanks to Keira Linden, Patch Linden and Brett Linden for extending their time and input to this article.

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Arrivals and Departures in Second Life

Erstwhile Station: the setting for Arrivals and Departures, a new Second Life machinima

Arrivals and Departures is a new machinima from CEH Productions, a collaboration between Caledonia Skytower from  Seanchai Library, Elrik Merlin of Radio Riel and Designing Worlds, and Honey Heart of Elite Equestrian.

The 15-minute film, premiered in-world at a specially constructed theatre setting on Sunday, July 22nd, 2018, takes the audience into a moment of time in the lives of two people who come together for one last, shared moment. It reveals how their individual journeys have become intertwined, and the essential role each has come to play for the other. Though the word is never uttered in the film, it essentially addresses aspects of our attitude towards death.

He has accepted the journey on which he must now embark. His last act is to pass along that which has been most important in his life to someone who is remaining behind – requesting their commitment to carry on the work. She is dropped without warning into loss, grief, and accepting his legacy with no warning or time to become accustomed to its inevitability. She must choose to be present for him in this moment, accept the commitment with which he tasks her, and be prepared to continue on – while at the same time dealing with the shock and weight of it.

– Caledonia Skytower on Arrivals and Departures

Arrivals and Departures: Him and Her (via Caledonia Skytower)

The story was inspired by, and performed in, the superbly imagined Erstwhile Station, a Steampunk-inspired space port created by leading virtual world creators Sharni Azalee and Marcus Inkpen of The looking Glass fame for Fantasy Faire 2018. The build was generously donated to the project by Sharni and Markus, with Technical Director Honey Heart re-erecting it as a film set, using path-scripting techniques within the build required to realise the film’s action. For the premiere, Honey also provided a special theatre setting based on the film set, and which remains open for further viewings of the film.

Arrival and Departures is a transatlantic production; Caledonia Skytower, as writer based in Washington State, Honey Heart, who also developed the in-world animations used within the film, is based in Michigan, and Erik Merlin, who edited the film from footage he and Caledonia shot, is based in Scotland. Both Caledonia and Erik voice the principal characters.

The story itself is beautifully told. As noted above, it is a tale of passings and also of beginnings. It also highlights the vital importance of storytelling, harking back to an earlier time when tales were woven into a verbal tradition that was handed down by word of mouth from one generation to the next. Delicately folded within it is a reminder that while those who leave us in this life may physically pass beyond our reach, we can nevertheless continue carry them within us, breathing life into their passions and ideals by inspiring and teaching, loving and caring for those around us.

The Arrivals and Departures theatre setting, while will remain in place for several days after the July 22nd Premiere of the film, and where visitors are invited to watch it in-world

Eloquent and poignant with an elegantly told story, Arrivals and Departures is an outstanding film, and not one to be missed. You can see it on-line via the following links, or if you prefer, in-world through until 16:00 SLT on Tuesday, July 24th, 2018 at the Arrivals and Departures theatre in-world (Silver Sands, rated: Adult):

In addition, and with the producers’ permission, I’ve embedded the film at the end of this article.

About CEH Productions

  • Caledonia Skytower is an artist and storyteller with over 30 years of experience as a theatrical designer, production manager, and non-profit administrator. Since 2008 she has worked as a volunteer presenting literature live in virtual worlds, logging in over 1000 hours to benefit a variety of charities, and develop engaging experiences to promote reading and literature, as part of Seanchai Library. She continues designing for the stage, works as project specialist, a small non-profit consultant, and has self-published ten titles of fiction, poetry and reflective essays.
  • Elrik Merlin has been in Second Life for over a decade. Virtually from the beginning, he has been involved with in-world media, as a DJ, a presenter (and Technical Director) on Radio Riel, and on Designing Worlds, the popular weekly TV show on design and designers in virtual worlds, which he films and edits, and co-hosts. He is also involved in Fantasy Faire Radio and his voice can often be heard on promos and sponsor messages, and on several of the “Tales from the Fairelands” stories that are broadcast on FFR. He has frequently taken part in in-world and radio drama over the years, with groups including the Radio Riel and Fantasy Faire Players.
  • Honey Heart is the owner of two award-winning in-world companies, Ladies’ Pleasure and Elite Equestrian, where she heads a team of highly talented designers and scripters specialising in developing innovative horse avatars and accessories for equestrian enthusiasts. At the same time, she also has a design practice in real life. She originally began designing in SL because she couldn’t find tack and accessories for her and her first horse, Dancer, so she started making them herself. Then others wanted to buy what she made, and it grew from there. She finds growing a business with her partners to be the best fun in SL.

 

Private region price reduction: 2 weeks of grid growth but still early days

Strawberry Lake; Inara Pey, July 2018, on FlickrStrawberry Lakeblog post

It’s been two weeks since Linden Lab introduced the new pricing structure for private regions, and as Tyche Shepherd reports, her Grid Survey shows the grid has experienced its second consecutive week of net private region growth since the change came into effect.

In the week immediately following the introduction of the new pricing structure (Monday July 2nd through Sunday July 8th), the SL grid saw a net increase of 34 private regions, while in the week Monday July 9th through Sunday July 15th, the net increase was 35 private regions.

As Tyche indicates, these increases have helped slow the overall rate of private region attrition to just 0.3% – a net loss of 52 private regions between January 1st, 2018 and July 15th, 2018. By comparison, some 326 private regions were lost to the grid between January 1st and July 16th, 2017 (with an overall net loss of 667 private regions through the entire year).

The two weeks following the private reduction pricing changes have seen net increases in the number of regions on the grid. However, it’s still too early to call this a trend or draw significant conclusions. Credit: Tyche Shepherd

So, have regions losses turned a corner as a result of the price change?

Frankly, it is too soon to tell; two weeks is only two weeks – we need to see how things trend out over a longer period before anything can really be determined. A lot here will depend on how much of the tier reduction land rental businesses pass on to their tenants in order to make private rentals more appealing; something I noted in passing in Looking at the new private region and L$ fees. Plus, a simple count of region growth isn’t the entire story here.

Simply put, the private region pricing restructure will have seen the Lab take a reduction in monthly revenue generation. It’s questionable whether such a modest increase in region numbers, even when coupled with other options for increased revenue generation such as the Mainland price restructuring (with its possible attendant increase in Premium subscriptions) and the US $0.50 increase on L$ purchase transaction fees, has wholly overcome the immediate deficit of the tier rate cut.

Thus, while the uptick in private region count is a positive turn, it is too early to be celebrating. We’ll need another 4-6 weeks before we can start to get a genuine feel for how things are going as a whole. It will also be interesting to see how long new regions entering the grid remain in place or whether we see some rapid comings / goings month-to-month. I’m also curious as to how the restructuring affects the Full / Homestead product ratio on the grid, so will be looking to see if Tyche can provide some updates on this in the coming weeks / months.

In the meantime – and totally off-topic as far as private regions are concerned – I wonder if Tyche has had time to have a bop around Mainland to see how the abandoned land situation there is fairing? As of January 2018, abandoned land stood between 22% and 23% of all Mainland; it would be interesting to see how it now stands, some four months on from the Mainland price restructuring.

Second Life land auctions get a face-lift

As promised in the Second Life roadmap blog post of March 2018, the land auction system has been revamped, and is now live – although only for Linden Lab held Mainland at this point in time.

The announcement came via a blog post, A Face lift for Auctions, on Wednesday, July 11th. As per that announcement, the new auction system leverages Second Life Place Pages as the medium for presenting land up for auction and for placing bids, together with a new “cover page” listing available parcels up for auction. which can be found at https://places.secondlife.com/auctions.

As per the official blog post, there are a few things to note with the new system:

  • Currently, it is for Linden-held land only – Mainland parcel owners will be able to add their own parcels for auction soon.
  • Auctions of group-owned land are not supported at present.
  • When bidding, you must have the funds available in your account – under the new system, your maximum bid amount is immediately taken out of your account and held in escrow until you are outbid, or win the auction.
  • Winning bidders will generally be notified within one hour of an auction closing.
The new Places/Auctions page. Clicking on the link for a parcel available for auction will initially display a brief summary of the parcel (bid end time and current leading bid amount) before taking you to the auction page for the parcel – click to enlarge, if required

To help people get started with the new system, the Lab have produced an Auctions Walkthrough document, together with an Auctions FAQ – both of which should be read by those interested in place their parcels up for auction (when the system is open for people to do so) or who wish to bid on the parcels currently being auctioned.

Those wishing to offer their own land for auction (when possible) and who are not familiar with using Second Life Place pages, may want to read through my Place Pages tutorial. I will be updating this tutorial to additionally include information on how to create your own parcel auctions in due course.

A parcel auction page – note the image on the right is a placeholder; those auctioning their land can include a photograph of it, taken from the parcel’s Place Page

 

Looking at the new private region and L$ fees

Village of Ahiru; Inara Pey, May 2018, on FlickrPrivate region set-up fees and monthly tier rates are reduced from July 2nd, 2018, together with an increase in L$ purchase fees. Picture:  Village of Ahiru (blog post)

A major goal at the Lab is to “re-balance” the Second Life economy – shifting the onus of their revenue generation away from a heavy reliance on virtual land leasing to distribute it more broadly across all fronts  – land, Premium subscriptions, transaction fees, Marketplace fees, etc. Over the last few years we’ve seen some of this in action:

  • In April 2016, increases were made to all transaction processing fees and Linden Dollar processing fees (raising the latter by 30% to US $0.40 per L$ purchase).
  • In June 2017 increases were made to the maximum fee for processing credit transactions was raised to US $25, and the fee charged per L$ purchase was raised to US $0.60.
  • In November 2017, increases were made to L$ purchase fees (to US $0.99 per transaction) and to fees charged for transferring money via PayPal or Skill from the start of 2018, raising both to 2.5% with no maximum limit on the application of the fee.

Some of these increases were couched as being in part to meet the costs involved in the Lab handling the transactions and ensuring all proper fiscal and legal requirements for money handling are properly met. Doubtless, this was the case – the Lab has invested heavily in matters of compliance. However, it’s also not unfair to say that once the initial expense in performing this work has been recouped, these fee increases enable the Lab to both cover the cost of transaction handling and generate some revenue through such transactions (however modest on the individual transaction it might be).

On the other side of the scale, we’ve seen efforts to make virtual land more attractive – notably through the region buy-down offer of April-September 2016, and more recently the changes to Mainland pricing.

On July 2nd, 2018, the most ambitious change to private region pricing in Second Life came into effect: a reduction of 15% in private region maintenance fees (tier) for all current region types and reductions in the set-up fees for Full and Homestead regions (new OpenSpace (“water”) regions no longer being offered as a product from July 2nd, 2018).

These changes – it should be noted – come with a further increase in Linden Dollar purchase fees, which increase to US $1.49 per transaction.

New Private region pricing structure. Note that as from July 2nd, 2018, new OpenSpace regions will not longer be available as a product, and Linden Dollar purchase fees increase to US $1.49 per transaction

It’s fair to say that any change of this kind, be it in land pricing or transaction fees, can generate heated feedback (witness this forum thread on the 2017 increases). The changes to private region fees have been no exception, with views being expressed via in-world groups, within assorted forums (such as SLU) and even in blog comments. Some have been upset over the L$ transaction fee increase; others  – notably those in the virtual land rental business  – have been upset by the change no extending to grandfathered regions; others apparently don’t see the move as “enough”, protesting that the tier rate should be cut to US $195 (or similar). And there has been a fair amount of reaction to the L$ purchase fee increase.

Obviously, time will reveal the outcome of these changes, but as is my want, I’d pass comment on a few things.

When it comes to the land rental business, it is hard to see why the exclusion of  grandfathered regions is being taken so negatively. For one thing, these are already below the new tier rates, as the Lab states. Further, it is now 18 months since the buy-down offer closed. This should have been enough time to recover the up-front cost of converting regions to grandfathered status (US $600 / Full; US $180 / Homestead), and now leave rental companies in a position to enjoy a modest increase in income from such regions whilst also offering customers using them a degree of lower rent.

Which is pretty much also the opportunity they have with this tier reduction. Frankly, 15% is unlikely to have people leaping in droves to gain Premium membership any buying Full regions directly from the Lab. But what it might do is once again increase people’s desire to have Homestead regions as private homes. Given that these remain tied to holding at least one Full region, it’s not unfair to say that should it happen, land rental companies can only benefit. And even if the private land market remains relatively flat, such businesses should still be able to lower their rental rates to attract new customers without damaging their existing margins.

So it really is hard to see why some in the land rental business are so put out by grandfathered regions being excluded, or to claim they get “none” of the benefits of this fee reduction.

When it comes to the increase in Linden Dollar transaction fees (which with this increase will have rise by 198.4% since April 2016), the impact will perhaps be harder to gauge, simply because people can offset at least some of the impact by adjusting the amounts of Linden Dollars they purchase in a single pass. Just how much of an offset can be achieved depends on a range of factors – the amount of L$ someone buys in a single pass, how easily they might be able to consolidate purchases, etc. – but this doesn’t deny the fact it is precisely what people have been doing as a result of past increases.

Even so, it will in interesting to see what, if any, impact this has on actual spending in SL – although I suspect that changes to fees elsewhere that have been hinted at (such as with the Marketplace) might have more of a visible impact, if and when they come into effect.

There will always be positives and negatives to just about anything the Lab does. However, “the tier is too damned high!” has long been a mantra within Second Life and while it is “only” a 15% reduction in tier, this is a positive step towards addressing this mantra when it comes to private regions fees (and it’s not unreasonable to assume there might yet be more in the future – although they are unlikely to be even close to appearing over the horizon at this point in time). Similarly, while people are likely to continue to be put out by it, the increase in to the L$ transaction fee is a relatively “fair” move, as it spreads at least some of the burden of revenue generation for the Lab across a much broader section of the SL user base.

Lab blogs Animesh RC deployment

Animesh will make it a lot easier to have animals roaming in Second Life (as well as other things) compared to current methods of achieving the same results

On Wednesday, June 20th,2018, The Lab completed an initial deployment of Animesh to the Blue Steel release candidate server channel.

For those not up-to-speed with Animesh, the goal of this project is to provide a means of animating rigged mesh objects using the avatar skeleton, in whole or in part, to provide things like independently moveable pets / creatures, and animated scenery features via scripted animation. It involves both viewer and server-side changes.

As noted in the official announcement, Animesh has been in development for some time, with the Lab working closely with the content creator community to develop Animesh, with weekly (more-or-less) meetings being held as a part of the Content Creation User Group (CCUG) meetings.

It is important to note that with this deployment, Animesh is still very much in development, and there may well be further changes before it is fully released.

Animesh Halloween boogie, October 2017. Courtesy of Alexa Linden

Those wishing to try Animesh need to note the following:

  • The server-side support for Animesh is currently only available on the BlueSteel RC regions.
    • Server support for Animesh involves adding a new message and some new LSL functions – see below.
    • If you try to run Animesh objects on a non-Animesh region, you will encounter problems: a) content won’t look right because the server won’t be sending you the appropriate messages; and b) you’ll get script errors because the region doesn’t like the new LSL calls.
  • The Animesh project viewer is required to see Animesh creations correctly. At the time of writing this was at version 5.1.6.516525, dated June 18th, 2018.
    • Animesh content will not render correctly in viewers without the necessary Animesh code.

As Animesh is still in development, and given the caveats noted above, content creators are asked not to start offering any products that are no-mod or such on the marketplace or in-world. Products should wait until at least the Animesh viewer has reached release candidate status – or even has been formally released.

Similarly, TPVs are – as usual when it comes the the Lab’s project viewers – encouraged not to adopt the Animesh viewer code for release purposes until it reaches release candidate status.

Animesh Resources

You can find further information on Animesh via the following resources.

Furthermore, I provide regular updates on the Animesh project via my Content Creation User Group updates, so you can keep up with Animesh development through these.