Steam: some news, further speculation

The TPV/Developer meeting on the 24th August included an interesting, if brief, discussion on the forthcoming link-up with Steam, in which a little more information was revealed, and comments were passed that allow for further speculation as to how things might be handed.

In keeping with the Steam format, there will be a promotional video for Second Life which will be available for Steam users to view prior to initialising the Steam download / installation process. This video (produced by Linden Lab) apparently does not promote Second Life “intensely as a game”, but rather as a “place with a lot of cool content”, with the overall approach to the video being described as “kaleidoscopic” and fast-paced in terms of images shown.

Perhaps the most interesting comment however, came from Oz Linden in response to a question relaid by Jessica Lyon, on users being able to log-in to SL “from Steam”, in which he said, “Yeah, it creates a Second Life account…I don’t know how the name gets created … the two are connected somehow.”

This sparked a short discussion on how this might be possible, and what the mechanism would be for handling names, with some in the meeting wondering if the link-up would allow them to use their Steam user IDs with SL. I’m going to go right out on a limb here, and suggest that when it comes to creating an SL account “from Steam”, we might already have the answer sitting in front of us.

How Steam Works

For those unfamiliar with Steam, obtaining a new game is a matter of using the Steam client or web page to browse available games (listed in several categories). Individual games can be previewed in a dedicated panel / page, which includes the options for promotional videos and stills to be added, as well as a description of the game provided.

A typical Steam client game preview panel

Should the user opt to play the game, they can start a download / install process from within Steam (on PCs running Windows 7 32-bit, games are installed into C:\Program Files\Steam\steamapps\ common, for example). Links are created to the user’s Steam library, allowing games to be launched from there as well as through things like short cuts on the desktop, etc.

What is interesting here is that many of the games have some form of sign-up process. However, rather than being incorporated in Steam itself, these generally take the user to an external website to complete the sign-up process. Could Second Life simply take the same route?

The Answer, My Friend, is (Maybe) Written in the Viewer (apologies to Bob Dylan)

Last month, I commented on changes made to the SL Development Viewer’s splash screen – specifically the dialogue box pointing the user to the need to sign-up for an account in order to access SL.

SL Development Viewer 3.4.1.263582, (August 16): initial prompt asking the user to create an account – included for the Steam link-up? (click to enlarge)

This has been included in all subsequent Development viewer releases since August 16th, but is only displayed if there are no avatar account files located on the host PC. Once somone has logged-in to SL and the account files created, the prompt is no longer displayed in starting the viewer.

At the time I reported this update I speculated as to whether it might be related to the upcoming Steam link-up. It’s hard to see why else LL would add such a prompt to the viewer’s splash screen – and the arrival of the update, just a couple of days after the original announcement did seem rather timely (although the splash screen changes have yet to be seen in any other flavours of the official viewer). Certainly, handling things this way would eliminate the need for complicated links between the Steam client / website and the SL website / sign-up page, and eliminate the need for any API interaction between the two.

If this is the case, however, one assumes steps will be taken to update the SL sign-up pages – the final step of which is to download the viewer; as Steam users will have already have effectively done this already, having the prompt without clarification could lead to some confusion.

The potential rebuttal to this is that Oz is involved with the viewer – so if the sign-up process was simply a matter of adding a dialogue to the viewer in order to direct the user to SL’s sign-up page, he’d know? Or is he simply being coy in his response, pending the official launch?

Will SL be Promoted as a Game?

During the TPV/Developer discussion, speculation is voiced that SL will in fact be promoted by Valve as a game on Steam. If correct, then one assumes that SL will be appearing in the Free Games category on Steam. However, this did not apparently come from Linden Lab, but rather from one of the TPV developers at the meeting.

As it is, Valve are due to launch their non-game offerings (described as “creativity and productivity” software this coming Wednesday, September 5th (which some have taken to be the date SL will appear on Steam, although this again is by no means clear) – so we might gain some further insight as to how SL might be pitched then – assuming SL isn’t one of the first offerings on the list.

Given that the original blog-post from the Lab announcing the link-up stated it would be happening in “the next month or so”, it would seem that we may have a couple of weeks yet in which to speculate, rather than perhaps getting a definitive answer this week.

Time will tell, as they say…

Related Links

Steaming into new waters

There has been a lot of humming and hawing since the announcement of SL’s forthcoming dip into the world of Steam. I passed brief comment at the news, but refrained from saying too much because a) I’m not a “gamer” and b) I’d never used Steam (although I did sign-up as a result of LL’s announcement to see what things are like for myself).

Steam client

Some of the feedback has been downright thoughtful and thought-provoking, as with Darrius Gothly’s take on things. Others have been the expected doom-laden predictions.

Sure, there is a potential for some trouble to come as a result of the link-up. Some will find temptation calling and coming into SL with the express intent to cause trouble; but I seriously doubt the amount or impact of outright griefing, will be anywhere near as bad as the doom merchants predict. What is more likely is that the vast majority of Steam users will like as not ignore the arrival of SL on their collective doorstep, either because they are too busy doing other things like knocking seven bells out of a digital foes somewhere, or because their preconceptions about SL are such that they have no interest (beyond, perhaps, poking their nose in to confirm those preconceptions).

As to those that do decide to take a leap of faith and sign-up for SL, why do people automatically assume they’ll do little than turn up and stomp all over our virtual daisies? As Darrius notes in his piece. A lot of SL users are also gamers themselves. They manage to bridge the “divide” between SL and games without issue – so why can’t people coming from the other direction do the same? Not every gamer is a hoodlum looking for the digital equivalent of a forehead to nut.

Steam is Also Opening It’s Doors

The negative bias expressed by those unhappy with the link-up seems to be born out of an assumption that Steam is all about playing games. It’s not. While games are the central emphasis, Steam is far more a community of people interested in a wide range of activities that reach beyond shooting up the next zombie or six. There are 3D modellers, content creators, machinima makers, and so on. In fact, such is the breadth of interest among users that Value, the company which owns the site, recently announced that they’ll  be launching a new “non-game” software service on Steam. In the official press release announcing the move, they state:

The Software titles coming to Steam range from creativity to productivity [my emphasis]. Many of the launch titles will take advantage of popular Steamworks features, such as easy installation, automatic updating, and the ability to save your work to your personal Steam Cloud space so your files may travel with you.

More Software titles will be added in an ongoing fashion following the September 5th launch, and developers will be welcome to submit Software titles via Steam Greenlight.

Ergo, when considering how SL will be promoted and where the appeal will lay, it’s worth remembering that there is an even chance it will not be placed within the “game” categories within Steam, but rather in the “creativity” category – something which immediately puts a different spin on how it will be perceived.

This would additionally fit with the fact that – for now at least – Second Life isn’t ready to be promoted as any kind of “game platform” (or as I prefer to term it, “game-enabling platform”). Oh, true enough, almost the entire thrust of LL’s development with the platform over the last 18 months has been to make it far more capable of supporting games and game-play environments; it doesn’t take a particularly keen observer to spot that. However, the platform isn’t there yet, not by a long shot. As such, it would be foolish for LL to push the platform as some kind of wonderful new game development tool or gameplay environment for a while.

The Needs of the Not-So-Many

I’d also tend to suggest that far from seeing the link-up with Steam as a means of trying to bring gazillions of users (“gamers” or otherwise) into SL, again as some have suggested (and others have blown raspberries at), Linden Lab are looking for something far more modest – again, at least to begin with.

Continue reading “Steaming into new waters”

Advertising SL: the machinima effect

It’s been said many times that LL are pretty weak when it comes to promoting Second Life through advertising. Like their attempts at PR promotion for the platform (as opposed to the company), their approach is both lax and sporadic, rather than being proactive and focused.

When you consider that anyone with an interest in virtual worlds can barely flip a web page without hitting yet another ad for IMVU, you have to wonder at how LL can be so reticent to get out there and aggressively promote the platform on a continuous basis. Lets face it; when does SL tend to hit the headlines? Either when the Lab is facing a lawsuit (or when users are hitting each other over the head with legal claims such as the bunnies vs. horses situation) or when some erstwhile pundit is predicting the “imminent” demise / sell-off of the platform.

As readers will know, I’ve found LL’s lack of willingness to actively promote Second Life pretty frustrating over the years, and have commented on this a number of times – including quite recently.

I’m not alone in thinking this. Earlier today, Crap Mariner tweeted:

Linden Lab needs to make some ads like this for Second Life:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LC6nkqGEBBw&feature=autofb

It’s super advert. It prompted me to reply:

Or #LL should work with the machinima folk for suitable ads: say a competition; top 3 promoted on YT, SL.com, etc.

Which I think got us both thinking, as Crap followed up with a blog of his own even as I set out to blog here.

Next month is Machinima Month, in which the platform’s burgeoning machinima community is encouraged to participate, and to “encourage the creation of new work, and showcase existing work to the community and beyond”. As monthly rolling event supported by the Linden Endowment of the Arts, this is an excellent move on LL’s part.

But – as I hinted at in my Tweet, why not go further? Why not have a machinima competition: the top prize(s) being the active promotion of the resultant (time-limited) videos by LL (with full credit to the originators) throughout all channels available to LL – including things like an official You Tube channel and the SL Facebook page (both of which should be used to show-off the “winning” submissions from the month Machinima event overseen by the LEA).

The competition could be free-form (limited only by time length – say no longer than 1 minute), or be defined by specific content LL wish to see covered (in-world creativity, in-world entertainment, commerce, etc.) – with these aspects acting as categories for the competition.

Integrated into a broader-based advertising campaign (why not take a leaf from IMVU’s book?), a Machinima-based advertising approach such as this would score in three ways:

  • It engages the Lab directly with a talented section of the community who are capable of producing material that promotes the finest attributes of Second Life
  • It relieves the Lab of the burden of attempting to produce something themselves, while allowing them to determine what should be used through their own advertising / promotional channels (You Tube, the SL Facebook pages, etc.)
  • It provides a clear demonstration that Second Life is a collaborative platform, where user creativity is fully supported and encouraged by the Lab.

Art is an incredibly powerful tool for promotional purposes. Let’s see LL and the community leverage the creative potential with the platform to actively promote the platform.

To market, to market; Extending SL Marketplace’s relevance

Metaverse Exchange (MVX) is, it would appear, dead. The site has been down for around three months now – more than enough time for any outstanding fees, etc., to have been paid – assuming there was sufficient money in the coffer to cover costs.

It’s a shame; Metaverse Exchange was one of the better, smarter-looking alternatives to the SL Marketplace (SLM), and offered its services to grids other than Second Life. However, in its wake, dare I say, it leaves something of an opportunity for Linden Lab.

It is fair to say the Lab has a very odd attitude towards OpenSim Grids. On the one hand, the Lab will openly mention OpenSim, discuss ideas and so on, but on the other – most notably in the forums – stomps soundly on any mention by users of any specific OpenSim Grid; almost as if by doing so, they can hide the existence of such places.

But OS Grids cannot be wilfully ignored. They are gaining popularity among consumer users and content creators alike. Indeed, many of the latter have found that, sadly, creations they’ve made turning up on other Grids – Grids they aren’t involved in, forcing them to engage in DMCA take-downs; a depressing action to have to take. Even Kitely, which has been widely lauded through the likes of Twitter, allegedly has misappropriated content within it.

Several people have commented on the Kitely situation, from several different angles. Of them all, Botgirl Questi hits what is perhaps the most common sense tone. Rather than trying to hunt down and stop illegal content pirates on a case-by-case basis, we should, she suggests, seek to set-up “transworld marketplaces” that would enable goods to be readily sold across different grids.

It’s a grand idea – but not easy to accomplish, as MVX demonstrates. Not only does it require the ability to manage multiple virtual currencies with a workable exchange rate; it also requires a decent volume of traffic from the various Grids that join the system.  More particularly, it requires the trust of those using it.

Step forward Linden Lab.

While it still has problems, SLM is the most professional-looking of the web-based marketplaces available to virtual worlds plus the majority of merchants active across other grids are already well-established within Second Life. Therefore, a logical progression might be to extend SLM’s reach into other Grids.

Obviously, doing so would not be easy. There would need to be support for multiple currencies, magic boxes (or whatever replaces them) would have to support multiple Grids or come in various flavours, the product pages themselves would need to support currencies and offer a quick and easy means for additional currencies to be added / displayed. Similarly, merchants would need to select which currencies they wish to have displayed, based on the Grids where they have a presence.

This latter point might be something of a sticky wicket in some respects: it means that Linden Lab could be said to be promoting competition. However, if LL were to move in this direction, the benefits to the company and merchants alike would probably outweigh the downside. Just three such benefits could be:

  • Providing additional commission-earning opportunities to Linden Lab which – given the way the company have been pushing SLM, must be somewhat viable and worth extending
  • Offering a further marketing channel for Linden Lab; as other Grid environments mature, the chances are the number of users they have who are not also engaged with SL will grow – and marketing through the SLM pages could encourage them to come try out SL
  • Giving SL merchants an opportunity to extend their reach into other markets, an important boost in the face of the flat line situation many are experiencing in terms of SL in-world sales.

Beyond this – and while it would not totally eliminate content ripping – developing a “transworld” SL Marketplace could well help reduce the incidences of content illegally ending up on other Grid environments, as Botgirl suggests.

MVX managed to develop an environment that could span a number of Grids: Second Life, InWorldz and (dare I mention it) Legend City. It’s clearly not wise to try to support all OS Grids that come along; some won’t survive (again, as demonstrated by Legend City). As such, caution needs to be practiced in any engagement with them; but again, this should not prevent so cross-platform development from occurring.

At the end of the day, the one real weakness that doomed MVX was most likely that of publicity and reach, the former impacting the latter and thus keeping the use of the platform pretty much in the realm of happenstance – merchants would use it if they happened to stumble across it; consumers would learn about it as they jumped over to other grids as a result of hearing their favourite merchants were investing time and effort elsewhere. This isn’t an issue for SLM, which has an establishing branding behind it.

Beyond this is the fact that OS Grids are maturing and stabilising. Over time, they will become something of more keenly felt competition where Linden Lab is concerned – and people will jump back and forth in search of new opportunities – consumers and content creators alike. As such, someone is going to come up with a viable replacement for MVX that can reach out into these emerging digital markets and capture them.

So why shouldn’t LL look at the opportunities that may be had and claim the high ground first?

Tell me a story: marketing Second Life

Grace McDunnough pointed me (via Twitter) at an interesting little tidbit of thought by Jonathan Baskin about the possible end of “silly social media”.

Before anyone gets too excited, it’s not a piece proposing the end of thing like Facebook; rather it is an examination of various efforts to use social media as a tool for marketing – and why, like-as-not, they fail.

Elsewhere, Tateru Nino offers up a post that starts to examine the new user experience. Leaving aside the fact she’s now gazumped me on two topics I’ve been wanting to blog about; Tateru makes a very valid argument that indirectly ties into the article Grace pointed me to. That observation is this:

“Linden Lab is rubbish at telling its story.”

Rather than constructing any form of consistent marketing strategy, LL seems to jump from idea to idea, randomly seeking something that will somehow, magically work and bring in new users. Along the way, they give the impression they don’t understand either their own product or those that use it.

The SL Facebook page is symptomatic of this – and a clear example of Baskin’s critique on blindly trying to leverage social media spaces as advertising mediums. Slapping supposedly feel-good items on a Facebook page and getting people to “like” it isn’t going to generate a noticeable upswing of new users entering SL; nor is boasting the “like” count – not when it largely comprises people already using SL. This is not to say I think having a presence on Facebook is “wrong” or not worthwhile. Rather, I find using Facebook in this way is akin to preaching to the converted rather than marketing to potential new users.

“A tale in everything” – William Wordsworth

In Business, Collaboration and Creative Growth I suggested there needs to be a renewal of collaboration between Lab and user community; that such collaboration could be used in diverse ways – including PR and marketing. This can be done through the use of a technique called narrative marketing – and it can be used to significantly improve the manner in which LL could leverage a presence on Facebook (and elsewhere).

Simply put, narrative marketing is using stories to promote and market a product – stories drawn from customer experiences, from situations, which can be drawn together into a narrative that engages the audience and draws them into the product; they reach into the heart of human interest and experience. Narrative marketing recognises that marketing is a two-way street, and that engagement with the consumer can be more effective than simply preaching to them or bombarding them with images and text or sending them hither and thither. It resonates with the audience because stories:

  • Are more memorable, evocative and interesting: they engage the audience
  • Generate identification and empathy
  • Are perceived as more unique and personal, thus generating greater acceptance and a sense of believability
  • Are more viral – we all tell and repeat stories.

The power of narrative marketing is that it is open to developing themes and ideas that can be easily repeated across a marketing strategy incorporating diverse mediums, almost like stringing a necklace. When placed within a common context, many different stories can be gathered and then strung together in any order, like the beads on a necklace, to create a range of experiences that attract several audiences while maintaining the same underpinning message.

The narrative approach can be linked directly with traditional means of brand development (strategy, identification and management), drawing them together into a narrative that focuses on communications and activities. It allows a company to say, “This is me”, with strategy, values and positioning defined by the narrative and channelled as stories that trigger memories, associations, experiences and expectations in the potential customer / user that cause them to say, “I like you. Tell me / show me more!”

“Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today” – Robert McAfee Brown

Second Life is a story-rich environment which can be woven into a broad tapestry of narrative and ideas that can reach many audiences, simultaneously.  Narrative marketing provides the means by which tools like Facebook might be used more effectively and potentially generate the kind of response Linden Lab is seeking far more effectively than a count of “likes”.

Consider what is more effective:

  • A page full of likes and a list of past events with a vague link to an even vaguer sign-up webpage (the current FB-to-SL.com situation), or
  • A series of stories, drawn from the rich diversity of the SL user community, that illustrate how Second Life is being actively used by role players, gamers, students, teachers, companies, entertainers, etc., the narrative naturally drawing the reader into a strong linking page on the SL website that further encourages them to sign-up and experience things for themselves.

Obviously, quantifying the narrative isn’t easy; let’s be clear on that. It requires a whole new approach to both the platform and the wider market. In this regard, Dusan Writer hit the nail squarely on the head when he stated at the top of his recent interview with Tom Boellstorff:

“During my recent interview with Rod Humble, the new CEO of Linden Lab, I had one major piece of advice: reach out to Tom and spend some time with him (and while you’re at it, hire an ethnographer to work at the Lab!).”

Hire an ethnographer to work at the Lab! Perhaps one of the most insightful suggestions ever given to the management at Battery Street. Hire a “corporate anthropologist” who can plumb the depths of diverse SL communities and activities, drawing out genuine stories which can be drawn into a narrative theme to market Second Life and persuade people to discard any preconceived notions of what SL might be about and come and see what it is about.

Part of the power of Second Life lies in its ability to be “anything you want it to be”; but unless this is quantified in some way, captured in a manner that people outside of Second Life can identify with, then it’s going to remain a nebulous concept. Rather than generating curiosity, it tends to result in a feeling of, “Yeah, so?” Quantify the fact people can be “anything they want to be” in terms of stories from SL itself, and you transform “Yeah, so?” into “Yeah! I want some of that!”

This isn’t actually rocket science; the fact is most people engaged in SL have been drawn into it through stories from others: friends and colleagues who have been a part of SL, or glossy pieces of journalism that have glamorised SL as the place to be. Stories, personal tales of what excites and engages, resonates far more strongly than a wall of miscellaneous photos or out-of-context videos; so why not use them?

“The answer is always in the entire story, not a piece of it” – Jim Harrison

Right now, the process of trying to attract new users, bring them to the SL website and get them to sign up is a series of mismatched steps that can lead to frustration long before the user sets foot in-world. Worse, some of the steps are either misleading in their presentation or – boring.

Tateru Nino, in her article, observes:

“Crafting an effective new-user experience for Second Life starts long before the user logs in for the first time. The Second Life viewer user-interface is not the most important part of a new user’s story.”

Simply put, there is no flow between, say, the Second Life Facebook page and the Second Life website sign-up process. There are no themes or threads that naturally lead from one to the other. The SL sign-up process is devoid of any charm: What is Second Life is at best meaningless as it doesn’t actually fulfil its title. Of the two videos supplied, one is misleading – much of what is shown doesn’t happen in SL, period; while the other (the Welcome Island walk-through) is boring; combined. Neither tells a desirable story; neither encourages someone to click on JOIN NOW.

Developing a narrative flow that runs seamlessly from Facebook to a restructured “What is” page that clearly and succinctly informs and which in turn integrates with the sign-up process could achieve so much more. The stories are the means by which people become intrigued by the potential of SL has to offer; leading people to want to know more, allowing them to be further hooked into wanting to sign-up, enticed by what they learn in What is Second Life. Everything becomes integrated, focused on the single purpose of translating interest into in-world footfalls.

“My major allegiance has been to storytelling, not to history” – Russell Banks

Narrative techniques can be utilised in other areas as well. Gathering stories from both staff and customers can give a clearer understanding of any disconnect in specific customer-facing functions in a company, such as customer services.  The use of stories from customers and staff alike removes the inevitable bias and preconceptions inherent in more traditional tools such as surveys, which tend to suffer from interpretations that find what is being looked for, rather than identifying where the issues lay.

The development of narrative requires engagement between an organisation and its users. As such it can clarify where and why communications are going wrong. Want to know why Second Life users are negatively concerned about how Linden Lab goes about implementing changes to the platform? Listen to their stories, and use those stories to build a process of engagement to ensure future changes are properly communicated alongside a means be which feedback can be given and demonstrate it is being heard and addressed. Help them through future implementation dips by letting them illustrate in their own words why it happened before.

Randal Ringer headlines 2011 as the start of the decade of narrative marketing. Second Life is ideally suited for a narrative marketing campaign that encompasses Linden Lab and the positive experiences that have grown out of direct user participation in the platform. Narrative marketing can naturally lead to better and more responsive engagement and collaboration with the user base as a whole; beyond this, it can provide pointers to how Linden Lab itself can better structure itself to deliver the services and support that the users can understand and appreciate.

Further Reading

Business, Collaboration and Creative Growth

“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed”

The above quote, often – and possibly wrongly – attributed to Charles Darwin, serves as a worthy bookend to this piece.

Collaboration is a term frequently used in business to denote innovative strategies, projects, products and tools. It is stamped on marketing media and blurb as a hallmark of success. Collaboration indicates a company can create dialogues that can be leveraged into tangible benefits that generate growth for all concerned.

Over the years, Linden Lab has struggled to find a broader home – a workable market – for Second Life. In this they have been hampered by a number of issues, perhaps the biggest of which is the dichotomy of how to actually see Second Life.

On the one hand, it is a digital nirvana-in-the-making that will massively impact and transform the human condition; on the other, it is a commercial exercise. The former view is at the heart of Philip Rosedale’s perception of Second Life, as this comment from July 2010, demonstrates:

“Second Life and virtual worlds are going to profoundly affect the human experience, profoundly, and in a positive way. That is the mission of the company to make that happen and it’s my personal inspiration and dream to see that happen.”

In other words, it doesn’t matter whether or not Second Life makes money. But Linden Lab is founded upon venture capital – and so there is an emphasis on its ability to perform well enough not only to survive and return the initial investment, but demonstrate it can grow beyond it, attracting more capital along the way.

The SL Adventure was just Beginning

Rosedale’s view is firmly planted in the early days of Second Life. Back then the potential of the platform was untapped and no-one really knew what they had on their hands. Users were giving form and substance to the vision, bringing it into a fledgling reality; LL could afford to step back and encourage and tweak without overtly interfering.

During those formative years there were good communications between the Lab and users; policies would be announced, Town Hall meetings would be called; issues put into the public domain, feedback would be accepted and ruminated and acted upon. People had the feeling of participation; that the Lab and the community were on the same side. Where policy intruded – as with the 2003 Tax Revolt, the users made it clear it was the policy that was the issue, rather than making it personal, and issues were generally resolved with a degree of compromise on both sides.

The Undiscovered Platform

In November 2005, CNNMoney ran a piece on money-making in virtual worlds. This was followed a week later by an article by Paul Sloan, focusing on Anshe Chung, whom he referred as a Virtual Rockefeller.  It became the story that wouldn’t go away, rolling on for a full year.

Suddenly Second Life was the darling of business hype – without either big business orLinden Lab really understanding why. Businesses leapt onto the Second Life bandwagon without having any real idea why; they all just wanted to tap into this strange and hip new market.

It was an aberration. While it was true that with an enterprising bent and a desire to succeed, a person could make money from within the virtual environment, the opportunities for large organisations to do so were far more limited – if they existed at all.

By late 2007, the initial love affair was all but over. And while all the publicity had generated a significant upswing in user sign-ups, it’s very probable that those sitting in the Boardroom viewed the 2006/7 period as something of a missed opportunity. What exactly had gone wrong? Why hadn’t Second Life proven to be something that big business could recognise as a value proposition? What was missing, where did SL lack relevance? How could it become relevant once more?

Second Life 2: The Search for a Market

Out of this came what can only be described as a determination to refocus Second Life as a tool fit for business. To achieve this, the mystic vision that surrounded Second Life needed to be dispersed and replaced by something far more tangible and appealing that would cause big business not only to show an interest, but actively pursue the platform.

So 2008 started as the “year of change”:

  • Philip Rosedale’s March announcement that he was stepping down as CEO
  • The announcement that same month of the new Trademark Policy
  • The appointment of Mark Kingdon, a seasoned marketing executive, as the new CEO in April.

Kingdon’s arrival started the drive to make Second Life a “killer app” for big business; a drive which saw:

  • A redefinition of the platform as a service
  • The start of a drive to radically reinvent the Viewer
  • Engagement with the likes of RiversRunRed to develop “immersive workspaces”
  • The development of what would become known as the “out of the box” Second Life Enterprise (SLE) “tool” and Second Life Workspaces.

In moving this way, LL ignored a wealth of history that demonstrated that the best way for a young start-up to grow is to work from within rather than try to reinvent itself. Worse, it completely overlooked the fact that the company’s own working ethos, perhaps more than anything else, made it fundamentally incapable of achieving the desired goal.

Mark Kingdon departed Linden Lab in June 2010, the final admission that the Great Experiment had failed. While there was something of a minor rise in user sign-ups, over all, little changed in that period – other than the steady erosion of user confidence in the Lab itself, as I documented in Change in Second Life.

The Voyage Home

Today LL is in almost precisely the same position as it was two years ago: trying to bridge the gap  between early adoption and mainstream use. Even so, rather than accepting the conventional wisdom that the gap is best crossed by leveraging niche areas in the current user base, LL’s eyes have resolutely remained turn outwards, constantly looking for the Next Big Thing to which they can pin their hopes.

And it needs to stop.

The fact is that, far from being predominantly maladjusted individuals, as Mitch Kapor unfortunately inferred in his 2008 SL5B address, the SL user community is highly representative of the audience Linden Lab are seeking. It is made up of gamers, designers, builders, actors, musicians, digital filmmakers, role-players, artists, pundits, educators – the list goes on. What better way then, to actively promote the platform to the world at large than to tap into the wellspring of talent already using it?

That this hasn’t happened speaks volumes about a failure of vision within a company founded upon a vision. Fortunately, it is something that can be rectified. And it starts with LL re-establishing the trust that once existed between themselves and the user community. It needs to return to constructive, two-way communication and demonstrate it can:

  • Embrace the fact that while it may be a harsh critic, the user community is a loyal spouse, ready to defend, support and promote the platform
  • Accept that the community might just understand the nuances of the platform, and the hurdles that lay between LL and a wider market share at least as well as LL themselves
  • Help to better promote events within Second Life to the world at large through, for example, access to the LL PR team for those events that demonstrate they can reach beyond the current user base into new audiences
  • Work with the community to develop tools the community can use to pro-actively promote activities and events both in-world and out world
  • Provide the means by which the community can provides gateways from other media into Second Life so they can draw audiences in-world
  • Help to give the community the ability to effectively crowd source and create buzz

In short, Linden Lab needs to start collaborating with the user community once more and thinking more holistically about their product. Doing so isn’t going to solve all of SL’s woes (would it were that easy); but it will represent a major step in the right direction.

Regardless of whether or not Darwin actually wrote the quote at the top of this article, the truth of the observation it contains is clear: collaboration lends to success and growth.

Further Reading