“We are building a new product *in addition* to Second Life”

Just Another Tequilla Sunrise, Isle of Love; Inara Pey, October 2014, on FlickrJust Another Tequilla Sunrise, Isle of Love (Flickr)

It’s no secret that the Lab is working on a “next generation” virtual world(s) platform. Since the original announcement and follow-up confirmation, the matter has inevitably led to some controversy.  Since that time the Lab has sought to give reassurance to users that doing so is not the “end” of Second Life.

Hence why the Lab are continuing to develop Second Life and continuing to plan for its future, up to and including a planning meeting which took place at the Battery Street offices during February 2015. Hence why the Lab continues to circulate manpower and expertise between Second Life and the development of their new platform, so that both might equally benefit.

Indeed, after recently advertising a software engineering position specifically for Second Life work, Oz Linden, the Lab’s Technical Director for the platform, was able to Tweet:

And no, the Lab will not say who it is, or what their involvement in SL might be
And no, the Lab will not say who it is, or what their involvement in SL might be

In this, it’s also worth pointing out that Oz has very much been the cheerleader when it comes to SL’s prospective future. In 2014, when the Lab was starting a process of aligning its resources to support both Second Life and its new platform, he actively campaigned for the post of Technical Director for Second Life. In July of that year he was happy to go on record saying:

I went through kind-of a process with Linden Lab management to try to get the new position I’m in now. This is something I wanted. I wanted this. This was not some kind of booby prize that was handed me. I got a couple of IMs from residents, I’m sure they were mostly kidding and mostly all in fun, but saying, “Oh, poor Oz. He got left behind.”

Poor Oz did not get left behind. Lucky Oz got exactly the job he was looking for.

Oz Linden - Technical director of Second life offers some pragmatic and open thoughts about the platform and its future
Oz Linden – Technical director of Second life offers some pragmatic and open thoughts about the platform and its future

He also takes a very positive attitude to the debate over the new platform and how it might or might not impact Second Life, noting that for the Lab as a whole, that such a debate is going on within the community demonstrates that they still have a very passionate and supportive user base for the platform:

People wouldn’t bother to criticise us for what they see as our flaws, and we can all either agree or disagree with whether or not individual issues are a big deal, and that’s a conversation I’m looking forward to. But they wouldn’t be bothering to criticise us if they didn’t think Second Life was worth having and worth improving.

This was again demonstrated during the February 13th TPV Developer meeting, when the subject of the new platform was raised in passing, Oz again emphasised that the future of Second life is far from over. In doing so, he also demonstrates the kind of pragmatic attitude towards the new platform we should perhaps all consider adopting. He’s further  given me permission to reproduce his comments here in both audio recordings and as written transcriptions.

 

The folks that are working on the new platform would love to be able to say that they’re making something so amazing and so wonderful, and so much better that everybody will want to move over to it. And maybe that will happen; and if it does, then Second Life will be this vast, empty place, and there’ll be no activity happening here, and if we turn it off, nobody will notice.

I don’t expect that will happen, and realistically, none of them expect that will happen right out of the box, anyway. Because there’s an awful lot in Second life that will take time to to create equivalence for in whatever they end-up decided to call the new thing. So it’ll be time.

But if Second life continues to be a sound working environment for people, and they’re still enjoying it, and they’re still using it and it’s still economically advantageous to keep it alive – why would we turn it off? I mean, we won’t. It’s silly. And I think that’s going to be years and years. [That’s] just my personal opinion.

And in the meantime, my job is to continue to make it better. Not “keep it alive”; not, “keep it limping along” – to make it better.

 And in terms of future activities related to Second Life, he went on to say:

 

It’s no secret we had a big planning conference in San Francisco last week; it wasn’t meant to be a secret, we did. We got everybody involved in Second Life get together; we had developers, and QA people and support people, and operations people and product planning people and business people….

And everybody got together and talked about what was working, what wasn’t working, various ideas for how to improve things, and it was fantastic. It was really fun; everybody there learned something they didn’t know when they got there, and we came away with a lot of great ideas. And we’re going to go ahead with some of those ideas. So, we’re having fun!

So really, there’s no reason to fear for the future of Second Life at this point in time. It’s liable to be around for a good while yet. Hence why I use another quote from Oz as the title for this article, one which I’ll paraphrase in closing. The Lab aren’t building a new platform instead of working on Second Life, the Lab are building a new platform in addition to working on Second Life.

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Ebbe Altberg on user retention now and in the future

A part of one of the new user experience social islands
A part of one of the new user experience social islands

While at the TPV meeting on June 20th, 2014, Ebbe Altberg didn’t only address questions on the new virtual world platform the Lab is developing. The session actually kicked-off with a discussion of user retention in Second Life and the new user experience.

Some eight minutes were devoted to the discussion, of which around five and a half were taken-up by Ebbe talking through ideas, and the remaining time either with questions or with reminiscences about mentors and the old mentor programme. The audio presented here represents all of Ebbe’s comments on the subject, together with a transcription for those who prefer to read his comments.

 

The first question was whether the Lab had any further ideas for trying to improve user retention.

Well, there are lots of different types of users, and I think we can make it easier for some users without losing the power for other users. But yeah, that is a tremendous challenge, allowing for this incredible flexibility, openness, freedom, and at the same time make it simple.

I am convinced there’s a lot of things we can do, not necessarily in the short-term, but in the medium-to-long term that going to make things a lot easier.

Ebbe Linden (LL CEO Ebbe Altberg) Talked about user retention at the June 20th TPV Developer meeting (image: Strawberry Singh from the VWBPE conference, April 2014)
Ebbe Linden (LL CEO Ebbe Altberg) Talked about user retention at the June 20th TPV Developer meeting (image: Strawberry Singh from the VWBPE conference, April 2014)

I mean, just coming in and getting dressed is a major undertaking, and it shouldn’t have to be. There’s a lot of stuff that is geekier than it need to be; what the hell does it mean to “detach” something from your avatar and stuff like that?

So I think the user interface can improve a lot. and obviously, a lot of the work that you guys have just discussed here [Experience Tools, etc] will make retention improve. When the quality improves, performance improves, that will do a lot as well. It’ll just take users a while to notice and appreciate, and therefore get sticker. It seems to me, the metric seems to indicate, you know, some potential extra stickiness is going on. We’ll have to see; we’ll have to wait a little longer to be sure about that.

But when I talk about making in “simpler”, I’m not suggesting I’m trying to make it dumber or less powerful. So it’s going to take some smart people quite some time to solve for, but we have to try really hard to continuously make it easier.

Hopefully we can have something with the power of Second Life, but appealing to hundreds of millions, and not just a million; we have to figure out how to get there.

The next question was whether Ebbe was aware of the official mentor programme, and whether he would consider bringing that back.

[1:57] I was actually in-world yesterday [Thursday June 19th, 2014] with a group of people, many of whom have been part of that, and so we started conversations. There’s a lot of sub-groups participating in that conversation, of helpers.

I think the difficulty is, for our perspective, or why it might have been discontinued, is how do you manage it at scale? Who do you trust? Who’s behaving? Who’s not behaving? I think that might have been a part of it.

But I think that also a lot of those efforts were unfortunately discontinued as a part of the big layoff back in the day, when a lot of things were thrown out of the window whether it made completely sense to stop those types of things or not.

[2:43] Personally, I’m in big favour of a – what was at the beginning, what was it called? Community Portal? … Community Gateway programme – to enable creators to attract their own audience into their experiences. I think ultimately, if we’re going to scale way beyond a million users but tens of millions or hundreds of millions, we have to allow creators to be able to attract an audience from the outside world directly into their experiences.

There we have to think about what does that mean? Does it become some kind of co-shared, co-branded on-boarding experience for people? Because there are too many unique communities and verticals and experiences, that we can’t correctly advertise and drive traffic to those experiences, and it would be much more powerful if the creators could sort-of attract their own audience, and that’s much more scalable. That’s the way I think about it, but how long it will take to get there, I’m not sure.

[3:43] So we’re actually experimenting right now, where we’re doing A/B tests with a welcome island as we know it, and a second welcome island with a live helper so we can A/B test the conversion rates and the stickiness of the product. Obviously, one person is not going to do it, but we’re starting with one person as a very consistent way of treating people coming in. and then we can see what the actual performance differences [are] between those two experiences. We’ve also tried with audio on and audio off.

So we’re doing these little A/B tests to see what works, and if we find that having a live greeter there has a meaningful conversion rate improvement , then we just have to figure out how we can scale that, so we can have people able to meet everybody.

I haven’t seen statistics come out of that yet. I saw some stats of audio versus no audio, and it was like a tiny, tiny, plus for no audio, so we’re now trying with no audio, or no speech, so that … but other things we can do is maybe only certain people can get to the welcome island … and [not] having cuckoo folk show up there … Having a way to … we can technically potentially solve it so that we don’t have to have people kicking people out, but you could be sort of, only new users or … and if you’re a brand-new user, it’s a little harder to grief than if you’re and existing user.

Anyway, it’s stuff we’re actively playing with. I’ll try to figure out when we’ll have statistically relevant numbers from the tests we’re doing, and then we’ll go from there.

[At this point the discussion moves to PR as a means of reaching out to new users, and then moves into the discussion of the Lab’s next generation platform.]

The Snow Lion, Oceanside dAlliez; Inara Pey, May 2014, on FlickrCommunity Gateways offer perhaps the most flexible means to meet the needs of incoming users (image: The Snow Lion, Oceanside dAlliez (Flickr))

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The first interesting point of note here – and with the benefit of hindsight – is the first clue is given that the Lab is looking towards another platform for mass adoption:

“Hopefully we can have something with the power of Second Life, but appealing to hundreds of millions…” [my emphasis]

The idea of enabling established users to be able to build tailored on-boarding experiences which not only get newcomers involved in their activities, but also provide them with sufficient guidance to be able enjoy the rest of what a platform has to offer, could be a powerful move in the right direction. Not only does it resolve issues of scalability, it is also something that delivers the on-boarding process more squarely to users within a platform, something many in SL want to see.

It will be interesting to see if the Lab actively pursue such an approach with SL, or whether it is something they’ll look more towards implementing in-depth on the new platform. Perhaps we’ll see a little bit of both; the Lab initially “trialing” such an approach on SL, prior to enhancing  / expanding it with their new platform.

The further A/B testing with the current on-boarding process is interesting. Even if one discounts 90% of the current 350,000 (ish) monthly sign-ups as alt creation or spambots*, that’s still potentially 35,000 new users month who are coming into SL, of whom around 80% have apparently evaporated within a month. So any attempts to increase on this are to be welcomed.

That said, whether user retention can be signficantly increased by tweaking at the edges of the current on-boarding process is debatable. I tend to still be of a mind that without finding the means to connect incoming new users on a more “social” level with others within SL, attempts at increasing user retention will be limited in success.  Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see what comes out of the current A/B testing – and in seeing just where else the Lab is willing to invest time and effort in order to try to increase SL’s retention levels.

*Footnote: some claim that 99% of this number is the result of spambots which never actually go on to download the viewer, much less log-in. While I agree that the potential number of sign-up hits by bots is likely to be high, placing it that high is perhaps a stretch, and points toward’s Marcello Truzzi’s statement that such an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof.

Lab: “We’re not giving up on Second Life”

Update: Just as a further reminder, all that Ebbe Altberg had to say about the new platform can be heard here, with bullet points on his statements.

As per my article Ebbe confirms: “we’re working on a ‘next generation’ platform” (with audio), Linden Lab are working on a “next generation” virtual world – news of which should be appearing in the media soon, quite likely as a part of the Lab’s PR work around Second Life’s 11th anniversary.

The confirmation that the Lab are working on the platform – and may well have been for around the last two years (see: Rod Humble hints at more virtual worlds in LL’s future, October 2012) – have fuelled rumours and speculation about the future of Second Life (remembering that any new platform is still some way into the future).  As a result Peter Gray, the Lab’s Director of Global communications contacted me with a copy of an official reply the Lab is circulating in response to enquiries on the matter, and has given me permission to reprint it here:

Hi Inara,

Just saw your post – thanks for taking care to get what Ebbe actually said. Below is the comment I’ve just sent along to a couple of folks who asked for clarification, which mostly reiterates what it sounds like you already know. Still, I just wanted to send it along in case it were useful.

Best,

Peter

more/…

Linden Lab is working on a next generation virtual world that will be in the spirit of Second Life, an open world where users have incredible power to create anything they can imagine and content creators are king. This is a significant focus for Linden Lab, and we are actively hiring to help with this ambitious effort. We believe that there is a massive opportunity ahead to carry on the spirit of Second Life while leveraging the significant technological advancements that have occurred since its creation, as well as our unparalleled experience as the provider of the most successful user-created virtual world ever.

The next generation virtual world will go far beyond what is possible with Second Life, and we don’t want to constrain our development by setting backward compatibility with Second Life as an absolute requirement from the start. That doesn’t mean you necessarily won’t be able to bring parts of your Second Life over, just that our priority in building the next generation platform is to create an incredible experience and enable stunningly high-quality creativity, rather than ensuring that everything could work seamlessly with everything created over Second Life’s 11 year history.

Does this mean we’re giving up on Second Life? Absolutely not. It is thanks to the Second Life community that our virtual world today is without question the best there is, and after 11 years we certainly have no intention of abandoning our users nor the virtual world they continually fill with their astounding creativity. Second Life has many years ahead of it, and in addition to improvements and new developments specifically for Second Life, we think that much of the work we do for the next generation project will also be beneficial for Second Life.

It’s still very early days for this new project, and as we forge ahead in creating the next generation virtual world, we’ll share as much as we can.

If we had one message to share with Second Life users about this new project at this point, it would be: don’t panic, get excited! Again, Second Life isn’t going away, nor are we ceasing our work to improve it. But, we’re also working on something that we think will truly fulfill the promise of virtual worlds that few people understand as well as Second Life users.

Second Life 2.0

There’s been something of an ongoing discussion over the ever-excellent Metareality concerning the viability / attractiveness of a “new” Second Life – that is, a platform wherein Linden Lab starts over to present something new and overcomes the shortcomings of the SL grid as we know it today.

It’s an interesting – and entirely hypothetical – discussion point. Just how viable would a new Second Life be (if we assume the money was there to develop such a beast), both in terms of Linden Lab’s development of the platform and in people’s acceptance and use of it?

Well, some of the benefits that might come from such a product would be technical; doubtless things like the creaking mass of the asset server infrastructure could be addressed and made a lot more robust / scalable. Potentially the region / sim code could be completely overhauled to both improve stability and remove much of the “band aid” code that has, due to the nature of the platform, had to be applied to deal with various issues and bugs over the years rather than LL being able to dig deep and resolve them at source.

A new Second Life grid could also, I assume, be better geared towards handling the likes of mesh and other capabilities. Similarly, the Viewer could be revamped – and while this may draw boos and hisses – be kept closed, or perhaps licensed, to better control the growth of features and to ensure Viewer and server code remain better integrated.

There might also be the opportunity to directly address issues of accessibility through other means – tablets, web pages and mobile devices.

Would an “SL 2.0” allow the mobile / tablet markets to be better leveraged? (image: Lumiya for Second Life running on a Samsung Galaxy S2)

Social aspects might also be better integrated into the platform as well, for those who wish to use them. These are no to everyone’s cup-of tea, but that’s no reason to exclude such extensions / capabilities.

All of this could be massively to the good; but what about those of us already engaged in Second Life? Are we likely to leap onto the bandwagon of a “new” Second Life? Some undoubtedly would; but many of us probably wouldn’t for much the same reason as we don’t take a deep plunge into existing SL alternatives: we have an awful lot of what amounts to personal investment in our inventories, and if we can’t take it with us, the likelihood is, we aren’t going to go – not unless forced out of SL itself (which might easily see us giving LL the one-fingered salute and disappearing somewhere else entirely).

Of course, losing the current user base (or a good proportion thereof) might be seen as part and parcel of the risks involved in developing an updated platform – after all, with 16K-a-day sign-ups for the current platform, there is opportunity for LL to address initial retention head-on and harness a good percentage of that 16K and so not actually miss those of us who stay behind.

On the other hand, offering a migratory path from “SL 1.0” to “SL 2.0” would obviously be one way of alleviating issues around existing users, allowing LL to retain them and their loyalty while also avoiding initial issues of growing a new user base.

SL 2.0: The potential for better avatars?

However, offering such a path might itself create issues. One of the biggest potential benefits in an “SL 2.0” would be the ability to incorporate the infamous “avatar 2.0”, which has been the subject of speculation on-and-off since around mid-2007. This is something that is unlikely to happen within Second Life as it is because of a myriad of dependencies means a dramatic overhaul of the avatar could break things. As such, developing a new avatar form for “SL 2.0” could end up breaking compatibility with “SL 1.0” and render migration either problematic or (worse case) pointless.

Perhaps the biggest issue with any “SL 2.0” though, is not technical, but physical (so to speak). At the end of the day – and as Qarl comments in a recent Metareality podcast – a lot of issues relating to SL are actually centred on the relationship between users and Linden Lab itself. These take a variety of forms, some are justified (such as people feeling the company could be more forthcoming within consistent and more open communications and dialogue with the user base), others are completely unjustified (such as claims that LL are out to “kill” aspects of Second Life or that they act “maliciously” towards users).

Regardless of how justified or otherwise claims and arguments about LL are, the fact is that whatever the platform LL provides, the issues and arguments will likely continue. As such, there is a risk that any “new” SL could be taken to be “same s***, different shovel” by both sides of the relationship; users will continue to bemoan LL and LL will continue to feel they are in an uphill battle facing the same criticisms and complaints they face at the moment. This in turn could lead to both sides asking the question, “Why even bother?”

Over all of this, however, lies the biggest question of all: what, exactly, would LL achieve by taking such a route? It’s unlikely that “SL 2.0” would achieve any grater success than the current Second Life has achieved or has the potential to achieve, allowing for all the new capabilities being developed. Thus, any new variant of the platform is liable to end up occupying precisely the same niche as the current product, with more-or-less the same attractiveness to users and possibly the same grumbles and gripes – and this renders any idea of an SL 2.0 developed by LL pretty much moot. Far better that they focus efforts on improving and enhancing the current platform and in maintaining / increasing its relevancy.

Nevertheless, the idea is still an interesting discussion-point – well, for me, at least!