Second Life land and users in 2020, via Tyche Shepherd

Sunset at home in Second Life

The last few months of 2020 saw Tyche Shepherd release some brief summaries related to Second Life that – as always – make for interesting reading for those interested in the general state of the platform.

In the first, a tweet Tyche issued in October, we were offered insight into general use of the platform in terms of sign-up and concurrency. It came as a the last in a brief series of tweets from Tyche on the subject that started after the Lab indicated that with the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, they were seeing an increase in general usage of the platform, particularly among returning users.

Following-on from Tweets in June -, Tyche confirmed that overall, median concurrency on the platform saw clear growth in March through mid-May (when the first ’bout of lockdowns hit a fair portion of the world  due to the pandemic, before gradually falling through until mid-August, when a further “bump” occurred that lasted through until October (when Tyche made her Tweet). She also showed that overall, median concurrency remained well above that seen in 2019.

SL concurrency, March-October 2020. Credit: Tyche Shepherd

That concurrency is up can be taken as a good sign; it means that more people are engaging in the platform at any given period, allowing greater opportunities for interactions  – which can be particularly important for incoming new users looking for things to do and people to meet. However, it is with regards to the latter that Tyche’s observations have been more mixed.

On the one hand, the second graphic included in her tweet appears to in part confirm commentary from the Lab itself: that 2020 has seen an upswing in the number of users returning to the platform, whilst also suggesting that – again, understandably, given the pandemic – that existing users were spending longer in-world in 2020 that had been the case in recent years. All of which is also to the good (particularly if returning users find reasons to maintain their engagement in the platform once more).

Second Life new user sign-ups 2020. Credit: Tyche Shepherd

However, on the other, the graphic reveals a niggling concern: whilst sign-up have remained relatively stable for a number of years, with occasional peaks and crevasses, 2020 saw a distinct decline in sign-ups from the end of March through until early October, despite an initial spike in sign-ups in the March-April period, again potentially fuelled by the pandemic. In particular, the drop-off not only saw sign-ups fall below the average set in the first two months of 2020, but also fall and remain below average sign-ups seen throughout 2019.

As such, Tyche’s figures tend to suggest that, while the Lab is determined to grow SL’s user base through the attraction of new users – a programme it has, to varying degrees,  indicated it has been focused on since around mid-2019 – there is still a lot to be done in this area, if the hoped-for growth is to be realised. However, this is somewhat tempered by the fact that given the rise in median concurrency is in part fueled by returning users, it demonstrates that the Lab is correct in focusing a portion of its marketing efforts towards former users who have drifted away for one reason or another.

Land use – or more correctly, grid size – is another metric Tyche tracks, providing as she does regular reports on the overall size of the main grid and the comings and goings of both private and “Linden owned” regions. While the relative size of the grid, if looked at in and of itself only, can be a false or misleading indicator of the overall state of SL, tracking the number of private regions does help in building a picture of LL’s core revenue flow – region tier.

On January 3rd, 2021, Tyche tweeted her year-end analysis on private region numbers, revealing that 2020 saw an overall net growth of some 919 private regions (Full and Homestead) through the year, representing a 5.7% increase.

Second Life private regions in 2020. Credit: Tyche Shepherd

The majority of this growth came in two bursts: mid-April through to the end of May (with one significant period of shrinkage during the week to Sunday, May 10th, 2020), and then November-December 2020, immediately following the period of unavailability of new regions through the mid-months of the year resulting from the work transitioning SL to AWS services.

While the increase in the size of the grid is not exceptional when compared to increases seen prior to 2011/2012, it is still positive, indicating that there is a general willingness among users to invest in land, helping the Lab’s bottom line. The uptick in 2020 has meant that when the general reduction of Linden-held regions through the year is taken into account, the total number of regions in the grid grew by 3.3%.

Given the difficulties of 2020, Tyche’s figures tend to show Second Life held its own through what has been what might be termed a less-than-optimal year. With the Lab looking to further ramp-up advertising in 2021 (and perhaps further tweaking of the on-boarding process), it’ll be interesting to see how the overall level of users / size of the grid fares through the year.

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Fourteen years, Oh my!

Contemplating fourteen years

I logged into Second life to receive a greeting from Johan Neddings congratulating my on reaching my fourteen rezday – and I have to state that, but for his IM (And tweet, when I looked at Twitter!), the date honestly would not have registered with me at all.

While I try not to bring the personal and the physical world into this blog too much, the fact is that 2020 has been a real stinker of a year for all of us, thanks in large part to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which has impacted so many people around the world in so many ways, and in relation to work and things, I’m no exception. There have also been some personal matters, particularly in the last month or so and which will continue through the next few months to varying degrees, that mean SL is not currently a primary focus for me, although I am trying to keep abreast of news and articles.

Within Second Life, 2020 has certainly been interesting. On the technical front, things have clearly been dominated by Project Uplift and the Lab getting everything transitioned to run on Amazon AWS services. Much could be said about this,but I think the most important aspect to it is that while some remaining services have yet to be migrated, and we have yet to go through a period of fine-tuning / performance tweaking, overall, the entire process has been really smooth. Yes, there are some visible teething problems that need to be sorted, but when you consider there were a fair few SL services transitioned to AWS without users ever noticing they had been moved, LL have done a really good job with what might have been a really disruptive undertaking.

Of course, one of the visible changes to SL that has come along this year is EEP – the Environment Enhancement Project. While this also has some issues that are still to be sorted (and some UI niggles that may not be, given they tend to be subjective in nature), I’ve found it to be a very flexible and usable capability, if a bit of a beast to get one’s head around at first. I’ve particularly had fun creating a number of personal Fixed Sky environments, as well a 24-hour  day/night cycle for Isla Caitinara (and I will at some point get back to my tutorial on Day Cycles, which has again be pushed to one side due to the aforementioned physical world matters).

A gibbous Moon rising over Isla Caitinara, part of the Day Cycle for our island home

On the personal SL front, things have been pretty quiet. Circumstance / opportunity led to us shifting home to settle within the “new” Second Norway estate, now under the management of Vanity Bonetto and her team (which also includes Ey and his team), and as someone who has followed that entire situation from initial rumours through the takeover to becoming a resident there, I can honestly say Vanity and her team have done a superb job, both in maintaining the core of the estate in its “mainland” regions, and in revamping the estate’s island offerings, and in bringing in new opportunities and features to the estate, as I noted in Second Norway: a closer look. In fact, we’re so settled that we actually recently up and relocated to a slightly larger island within the estate!

2020 also saw me unexpectedly get involved in administrating an in-worlds arts group – the Phoenix Artists Collaboration. Things  haven’t gone quite as well as had been hoped, particularly in the area of exhibitions, largely due to all three of us who have taken on the responsibility for managing the group all being hit with physical world demands. But hopefully, once the page has turned to mark the start of 2021, we’ll be able to start properly pulling things together.

The garden of our new Isla Caitinara home
Fourteen years in Second Life is a long time, so do I have any insights to share? Oddly, no I don’t think I do. Second life is still offering me the three things I enjoy: fun, discovery and freedom, so I’ve little doubt I’ll be marking 15 years in-world in twelve months time. Perhaps the one thing I would say is that while fourteen years have passed since “Inara Pey” first arrived, I actually don’t feel any older than my first days in-world with her. Wiser (I hope!) perhaps, yes.  But not older. In this, I think my avatar has been a positive influence; largely unchanged in terms of looks for 10 of those years, she has – as past studies have pointed out in reference to people and their avatars – she has encouraged the vanity in me to exercise regularly and (generally!) mind my diet in an attempt to (in my own way) also look as good.

And of the future? perhaps the most burning question is that of Linden Lab and Second Life post the current acquisition process.

As I’ve noted before, I’m interested to see the overall shape of the revised board, and whether or not some current members will retain a minority holding. I’m not overly concerned about the risk of LL being stripped or sold on; as I’ve noted in these pages, the two incoming principals between them have good track records for long-term investment and company growth. Certainly, the Lab aren’t slowing down their own plans for SL: beyond / alongside of the “uplift” work, there are major plans for overhauling several aspects of the viewer to hopefully make it more performant and efficient, and projects to further improve things on the back-end as well. Much of this  work is fairly long-term, which speaks to a good level of confidence for the platform’s future, and I currently see no reason not to share in that confidence.

In the meantime, here’s to a happier time of things in general in 2021.

Linden Lab’s acquisition: sundry thoughts & speculation

via lawdonut.co.uk

It’s been a week since the news broken that Linden Lab is in the process of being acquired by new owners (see Linden Lab announces it is to be acquired, July 9th, 2020). Since then there has been a lot of comments and speculation ranging from the entirely positive to the inevitable “we’re doomed! / the sky is falling!”

Some have raised concerns that neither J. Randall Waterfield nor Brad Oberwager have experience with running games companies. However, having hands-on experience in running the type of company in which you’re investing isn’t actually a prerequisite for funding / representing / guiding it. Rather, what’s important is having the ability to understand the company, appreciate its value proposition and being able to contribute to its continued growth; and both Mr. Oberwager and Mr. Waterfield appear to have these abilities. In particular, J. Randall Waterfield, as CEO of the Waterfield Group, comes from an environment where long-term investment in companies to ensure their growth is very much the raison d’etre.

Waterfield buys and builds well-run American businesses.
We prefer basic businesses with a few years of proven, conservative growth. We avoid companies that are growing too fast. We believe slow and steady makes the race… We strive to be a good partner to existing management, are passive with regards to general managerial issues, and work hard to help our CEOs and their families’ realize their vision.
Waterfield’s investment timeframe is forever. We work to grow book value at a reasonable pace with no exit in mind.

– from the About / Investment Criteria page of Waterfield

Now, to be clear, it’s not the Waterfield Group that is investing in Linden Research, but rather a venture between Mr. Waterfield and Mr. Oberwager; but given Mr. Waterfield’s pedigree with long-term investment, is hard not to see him taking the same approach in his other ventures.

Nor should the fact that Mr. Oberwager has sold off three of the businesses he’s built be seen as a negative. Building a company from the ground up is a different matter to investing in an established, profitable entity, and selling the former in order to repeat the cycle isn’t automatically indicative of a intent to buy-in to an existing company simply to sell it on without a longer-term commitment.

Which is not to say a buy-out like this isn’t without risk; with the best will in the world on the part of incoming investors to a company, things don’t always go as planned or turn out as hoped – but planning for failure isn’t generally how investors set about acquiring profitable companies.

A further point to remember is that acquiring a company isn’t something that happens overnight; it can actually take multiple months or even years to progress from an initial decision to sell, through reaching an agreement in principle, to that final closure.

Due Diligence means investors are rarely unaware of the business they are about to invest in

One big part of this process is due diligence, a process designed to make potential investors precisely aware of what they are getting themselves into – things that might alter the deal, such as revealing unwanted risks or unwelcome financial exposure that they might wish to see properly mitigated prior to proceeding further. This means that incoming investors are rarely coming into a company flying blind or are suddenly going to find themselves facing an unwelcome wake-up call that might leave them re-evaluating their desire to retain the company.

On a more interesting – to me at least – level is that given the length of time an acquisition can take – even if measured over months, rather than years – is how closely the decision to sell Sansar might have been tied to the decision to offer Linden Research up for acquisition.

Simply put and despite the effort already put into Sansar, it still has a long way to go before it is likely to establish a sold income-generating business model, and therefore represents a significant revenue sink hole of unknown depth. As such, it would make sense for the Lab to divest itself of Sansar prior to putting itself up for acquisition; doing to removes the uncertainty around that platform whilst leaving the company with a demonstratively profitable product (Second Life) and a second that is just starting to show its potential (Tilia Inc.). Depending on the time frames of the two events, the sale of Sansar might even have been a pre-requisite put in place by the new investors to limit potential risk raised through the due diligence process.

Following the acquisition announcement, there were questions asked through the forums, etc., on why would a profitable company be put up for sale, and statements (such as can be seen in comments on this blog) that you “don’t sell a profitable company”.

Well the fact is that profitable private companies are routinely sold for a variety of reasons, and none of them are “bad” or “negative”. For example, and leaving aside the point that the fact a company is profitable obviously makes it more attractive, a sale can be because the current owners wish to exit the company entirely to pursue other opportunities; or they may simply want reduce their overall holdings in the company as part of a general change in lifestyle, whilst leaving the company with the ability to continue operating successfully (and in the case of the latter, still have their experience / expertise available, should it be needed).

I’m not about to try to second guess what reasoning is at work in the case of Linden Research, but  I am curious as to the shape of the board once the acquisition has been finalised. Will it be just the two new investors (which seems likely), or will one or two of the remaining board remain?

Obviously, how things pan out will only become clear over time, but overall (and such is my nature as a “glass half full” person) I lean towards the feeling that the coming change for Linden Research will prove to be positive.

Linden Homes: recent expansions, future thoughts

Welcome to Bellisseria

Since their introduction in April 2019, Linden Lab have released more than 10,000 new Linden Homes across Bellisseria, including the southern extension to the continent and southwards towards the Mainland continent of Jeogeot. They represent an extensive mix of themes: “traditional” homes, houseboats, campers & trailers and Victorian, all of which have proven very popular – as evidenced by the speed with which releases have tended to be snapped up.

The more recent updates have seen the southern section of Bellisseria that arrived with the release of the Victorian type of home directly connected with the northern, and additional off-shore expansions that place Linden Homes in the waters off the north-west coast of Jeogeot. The latter do so by offering what might be seen as the first “cookie cutter” element of the new Linden Homes, duplicating as it does the original houseboat expansion, together with a couple of the sand bar layouts from elsewhere around the continent.

Victorian Houses and the railway in the southern extension to Bellisseria

These extensions fulfil Patch’s promise that the new continent for Linden Homes would directly connect Jeogeot with Sansara to the north, providing water access (including the coastal waters of Bellisseria) between the two, and which goes well beyond the narrow corridor of water originally linking Jeogeot to Bellisseria.

In addition, the extensions close to Jeogeot also encompass one of the earliest Mole builds – Pyri Peaks. It was designed to offer anearly attempt at an interactive adventure involving a storyline, a fun fair and a network of underground tunnels and chambers. It is a setting I wrote about in 2013  with Pyri Peaks: the mystery of the lost Moles (2013), and whilst it is perhaps a little long in the tooth by today’s building / design standards, it is good to see it folded-in to the new Linden Homes in a move that might encourage interest in this part of SL history.

Pyri Peaks: home of the Pyri Fun Fair and now within sight / reach of Linden Homes

Whilst there are still houses within Bellisseria yet to be released, just where any future new locations for the homes might go raises an interesting point to ponder. One doesn’t have to look too far west of Bellisseria to note the number of private regions lying in that direction, together with the likes of the recently-arrived SS Galaxy, the QA versions of the Shop’n’Hop regions as well as the actual shopping event regions.

While these latter regions might be relocated to provide a little more western room to expansion, it would seem the the eastern side offers a far better opportunity, although this runs the risk of sliding into the open space to the east of Jeogeot, which might eventually lead to that continent looking crowded-in and limit expansion somewhat. So, might the Linden seek to offer a new continent elsewhere at some point in 2020? If so, will it see further home types?

Campers and Trailers in the Linden Homes regions extension just off the coast of Jeogeot

Offering new styles of Linden Home certainly helps maintain interest – but it comes with a potential risk: new houses could encourage those with Linden Homes to vacate and rotate from type to type, making it difficult  / frustrating for others who have yet to claim a home and who want to get one of the newer styles (something that has already been the case).

That said, were I to be asked, and given the potential for a more “offshore” style development alongside Bellisseria, I’d love to see something along the lines of houses built along a network of canals, with each house having a modest boat house or mooring space within the parcel and suitable for a small boat or two. Admittedly, it would require careful design to provide a mix of houses, waterways and footpaths (rather than roads) to connect everything together (and likely require a fair number of bridges), but such a design could generate interest and provide something more unique in terms of layout and options.

There are still regions in Bellisseria awaiting release to user, such as this area of Traditional Homes, sitting in the hills overlooking the southern extension to the continent

I’m pretty sure others have ideas for what they’d like to see, if there are to be further Linden Home types – feel free to comment with ideas! I’m also sure the Lab has plans of their own in terms of house types, if more are to be offered. In the meantime, as noted, there are still numerous regions in Bellisseria and the southern extension still to be finished, and the LDPW are once again back at work to get them finished and available as part of the weekly release cycles.

A decade (+) of blogging: thoughts on Second Life

On the occasions of my 13th SL rezday, Erik Mondrian reminded me that 2019 marks my 10th year of blogging via WordPress (I’d used another platform for a couple of years prior to that). With his reminder, Erik presented me with a challenge:

A slightly belated Happy Rez Day, Inara! And, if I may, perhaps a challenge? Not that you’re short of things to write about, but if you have time: In the last 10 years, what do you feel has been one of the best changes/additions to SL? And what are your hopes for the next 5?

– Erik Mondrian, via Twitter

As I stated in my reply to that tweet, I’m note sure I could pin thoughts down to any one thing in terms of what has positively happened to Second Life; there are simply too many – and some tend to be interconnected in some ways. However, I’ve been cogitating Erik’s challenge, and here is (slightly later than planned) an abbreviated list of some of the things that I believe have either benefited SL or had a positive impact on it over the last decade or so, and which I’ve particularly appreciated during my time using the platform.

Communications with the Lab: the relationship between the Lab and SL users has tended to be a complex one. At the time I moved to blogging via WordPress, things were at a low ebb. There had been the Homestead region situation, together with the drive to make SL a more “business oriented” platform (vis: Mitch Kapor’s SL5B crossing the chasm address that appeared to suggest SL’s early adopters were interfering with trying to reach an early majority audience; suggestions that parts of the Mainland should be made “business only”; the (ill-fated) Second Life Enterprise (SLE) product development; lectures from form Lab employees on how users should dress their avatars “for business”, etc), all of which left a lot of SL users felling pretty disenfranchised.

However, starting with Rod Humble and particularly with Ebbe Altberg, the Lab has sought to strongly re-engage with its users and embrace them. Things haven’t always worked out in their entirety (communications did go a little backwards towards the end of Humble’s tenure); but there is no denying the improvements seen through activities such regular Town Hall / Lab Chat / Meet the Lindens events plus the likes of VWBPE addresses and Designing Worlds interviews, and the simple expedient of allowing LL staff to once again openly engage with users whilst using their “official” accounts.

Windlight: although it was originally introduced in 2007, Windlight had a profound effect on the appearance of Second Life that’s hard to overlook. Originally a third-party product Linden Lab acquired and which didn’t see all of its potential capabilities implemented (for whatever reason), the overall impact of Windlight shouldn’t be trivialised.  If you need an idea of how SL looked pre-Windlight  – with the exception of the old particle clouds – just disable the Basic Shaders in the viewer.

Open sourcing the viewer code: also introduced in 2007 and not without its share of hiccups / controversies (the Emerald viewer situation, for example), the open-source project has undoubtedly served SL well. It has allowed third-party viewers to thrive within a reasonable framework, and both exposing features hidden with the viewer’s debug settings and allowing developers to add their own options, allowing users a greater choice of client options. It has also provided the means for users to contribute potential improvements to the viewer back the the Lab, generating a a largely positive synergy between developers and the Lab.

Mesh model import: admittedly, the impact of mesh modelling in Second life cuts both ways: positive and negative. Leaving aside what might be regarded as its negative aspects, it has helped to improve SL’s look and feel, potentially made region design more accessible / attractive, and helped bring improvements to the avatar we might otherwise not have seen, or which may have not have been implemented until later in the platform’s life (e.g. Bento and Animesh).

Performance improvements: over the last decade, LL has worked extensively “under the hood” with Second Life to try to improve overall improvements, such as the long-term Project Shining. Running for some 2 years with the aim of improving object and avatar performance, it was followed by further projects and efforts to help improve performance in assorted areas. Some have had mixed initial impact, but all of which have, overall, helped to improve things for most users, even if only incrementally in some cases.

Materials, Bento and Animesh: all three have helped improve the look and feel of Second Life, making it more attractive to users old and new.

Looking to the next 5 years, there is much that might happen or which many would like to see happen – from technical aspects such as further improvements in simulator performance (e.g. script and physics performance, region crossing management), through to more esoteric aspects such as audience growth / user retention, fee balancing, etc. However, I’ll restrict my thoughts for the future to one topic: the transition to the cloud.

This work has already eaten into the Lab’s engineering and operating time over the two years, and will doubtless continue to be a significant focus for 2020. However, it is a leap into the unknown for Linden Lab and Second Life, both technically and in terms of operating outlay / revenue generation (e.g. capping the cost of having cloud servers running 24/7 in a manner that doesn’t require uncomfortable fee increases).

On the technical side, it’s more than likely that the focus on moving to the cloud has a higher priority that developing significant new features for SL – and perhaps even curtailed implementing updates that might be seen as having a limited lifespan, such as infrastructure changes that could be rendered obsolete following the cloud uplift, but which are nevertheless causing a lot of teeth grinding amongst users.

Even when the uplift itself is completed, it is likely that the transition will still require a significant among of settling-in and adjustments that will continue to occupy the operations and engineering teams. So there is a lot hinging on this move that will continue into the next couple of years, and that is important to the overall future of the platform.

Name Changes: poll update

In Name Changes: $40 per change(?), some thoughts and a poll (December 17th, 2019), I offered some thoughts on the proposed US $40.00 fee for name changes, together with a (very) rough-and-ready poll on how people feel about the capability and the fee (so rough-and-ready that on reflection, I should have structured it a little differently and  used Google Forms for the poll for greater flexibility rather than the tools provided by Automattic for WordPress.com users, which are perhaps a little too basic).

As I noted in that piece, since last names were eliminated in 2010 in favour of “Resident” and the use of Display Names, there have been frequent calls for them to be “returned” to SL. These calls started almost immediately after “Resident” was introduced, through both forum threads and via Jira feature requests. Such was the demand, that by late 2011, LL were actively looking into bringing last names back, although ultimately they gave up on that attempt.

However, I also noted that the fee itself might be a limiting factor (together with the fact that the option will be limited to Premium members), and whilst admittedly a small sampling, the results of my very straw man poll would seem to support this. Just under 61.5% of respondents indicated that they probably won’t use the service, whilst over 80% of those responding the the question on the fee indicated that they felt it was too high.

Results from my (very) rough-and-ready Name Changes poll

Given that most people will naturally be opposed to paying almost any kind of fee for anything (even the L$10 upload fee for textures / sounds / animations is a source of grumbles), then opposition to the Name Change fee is to be expected. But the volume of negative responses, together with the level of disinterest expressed in the capability, would seem to point to the fact that  – again allowing for the fact it is limited to Premium members, and the responses to the poll likely came from Basic members as well – the $39.99 fee may will be a limiting factor for users after Name Changes go live beyond the natural pause LL hope it will provide against too-frequent changes that might otherwise impact services – and might in time prove counter to the degree of effort LL have had to put into implementing the service.

Fee aside, comments that followed my December 17th article and made through the likes of Twitter and direct IM, suggest that Premium members who are eligible for the service may well be put off from using it due to what they perceive as a another potential shortfall: the inability to re-use last names previously made available by LL. Those who wish to take their partner’s last name, for example, are effectively unable to do so except by continuing to use Display Names, while those who have a favourite last name that has previously been offered by by the Lab will similarly be out of luck.

Sample comments on how the lack of the re-use of “old” last names is seen as a limiting aspect of Name Changes

Again, this is only a small sampling, and one that uses a very basic poll to gather feedback. Nevertheless, it does suggest that Name Changes may well face a very mixed reaction once deployed, the former interest among users to have a last names make a return to SL notwithstanding.