Rod Humble’s Chaphat announces Cults and Daggers

Image courtesy of Chaphat LCC
Image courtesy of Chaphat LLC

Just over a year after departing Linden Lab, former CEO Rod Humble has announced the release of his new game, Cults and Daggers, which will take place under the Chaphat label on February 12th, 2015.

The game, priced at US $29.99, will be made available through the Steam platform. Described as “a sprawling and complex turn-based strategy game set in the Hellenistic era between the death of Buddha and the birth of Christ”, the game will be available for PC and Mac.

In it, players are charged with creating their own religious cult / faith and engage in a secret war for the soul of the world, lest the ancient Gods, unable to rule the world, seek to destroy it. Once they have created their faith, player must travel across the Mediterranean regions, spreading the word of their faith, converting the masses and gaining the support for the nobility. They must compete not only with the ancient Gods, but also the forces of other cults, spies, occult forces and other hindrances and opposition forces. As such, you can also engage in espionage, arm the members of your cult / faith

Cults and Daggers play screen (image courtesy of Chaphat LLC)
Cults and Daggers play screen (image courtesy of Chaphat LLC)

Commenting on the game in the official press release, Humbles says of the game:

With Cults & Daggers, I sought to explore beyond the traditional strategy game model of ‘build and fight’, and offer up a more cerebral experience. At the same time, I wanted players to challenge themselves by navigating the chaotic web created by corruption, religious avarice and betrayal as rival factions vie for power.

The game spans a 400-year period of history, between the death of Buddha and the birth of Christ, and can be played as a single player against the game’s AI, with a multi-player mode for up to four players (hot seat and play-by-e-mail supported). As well as building their own faiths, players can seek to subvert their opponents’ followers, train disciples to become fighters or assassins, gain additional rewards by directly thwarting the plans of the ancient Gods, and more.

Adam Smith, writing in Rock, Paper, Shotgun, says of the game, “I’m absolutely hooked by the theme and the world is an active place, with plagues and wars interrupting my plots”, another he notes a couple of things aren’t immediately clear when playing – although he also notes these isn’t sufficient to put him off, and he’s very keen to try the multi-player options.

A trailer video for the game has also been released on You Tube, so take a look for yourself. And for those of you who like Dance / Electronic music, you might want to have a listen to Mr. Humble’s debut album Outsurge, released last Apirl.

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Silence may be golden, but it also weighs heavy

I keep promising myself I won’t start banging  on about Linden Lab’s inability to openly communicate. That was more-or-less the tone of things in this blog back in 2011 (see my views on business, communication and growth, and the growing frustration over the Marketplace situation in 2012, and weel as point in between and after, if interested). However…

Rod Humble may have gone, but the Lab apparently has yet to issue any statement in reponse to enquiries from the media
Rod Humble may have gone, but the Lab has yet to issue any statement in response to enquiries from the media

Friday 24th January saw the news break that Rod Humble had departed the Lab. According to his own comments pass to others at the time of the announcement, he’d left the Lab “last week”. If so, this could mean the Lab has been absent a CEO for about two weeks, and they have yet to say anything on the matter.

It’s not just the fact that repeated enquiries from the likes of Hamlet Au and I (among others) have gone without response – we’re still small fish in the ocean of blogging / journalism. Where the story has been picked-up by the games media, it also appears that enquiries made to the Lab also remain unanswered.

True, the message has been somewhat slow in spreading to the media at large; only Gamesbeat picked-up on the news in the 24th along with as did Games Industry. Since then Gamasutra covered the news on January 28th, as did  Massively. Nevertheless, one would have thought some message would have been forthcoming from the Lab in order to squash the potential for speculation or negative rumours to become established as fact.  Or could it be that Rod Humble’s annoucement was a knickers-around-ankles moment for the Lab?

See what I mean about speculation?

Beyond this, as Ciaran Laval observes, there is still ongoing confusion and upset relating to attempts to cash-out and  / or tax ID requirements.  A part of this seems to be down to the Lab possibly being overwhelmed by the inflow of documentation, and it is taking time to clear things up. However, the fact that noting is  – once again – being done to communication matters and provide some form of open feedback really isn’t helping matters at all.

Of course, the Lab may well feel secure in its position that the majority of SL users are likely to be oblivious as to what is going on, and are happy knowing that SL is still there for them when they are ready to log-in. But in terms of those who are investing time, effort and money into helping make Second Life a place people want to log-in to and enjoy, not actually taking the time and effort to offer reasonable clarification of what is going on as requires things like cash-outs and tax (and, indeed, what is and isn’t required ahead of time) doesn’t tend to send a positive message, but does tend to add a little more weight to an overburdened camel’s back.

In writing about Rod Humble’s tenure, I pointed out that communications had started on a downward trend prior to his arrival, and had continued to sink throughout his time there, despite his own initial attempts to ramp things up. This smacks of a deep-seated cultural element within the company (driven out of the board?) which doesn’t see communications as having any real priority. As such, I’m not holding my breath in the hope that things will change, even with a new CEO, when (if?) we ever get to hear about one being appointed.

But even a short-term upswing, as witnessed in the months immediately following Humble’s arrival at the Lab prior to the downward trend resuming, would actually be better than we have at the moment.  I won’t borrow from Tateru again and use her Silence of the Lab logo, but I can admit, I’m sorely tempted to do so.

Three in ten: a look back over Rod Humble’s tenure at LL

It’s been a great 3 years! All my thanks to my colleagues at Linden Lab and our wonderful customers I wish you the very best for the future and continued success! I am starting-up a company to make Art, Entertainment and unusual things! More on that in a few weeks!

With these words, and a few personal notes to the likes of Jo Yardley, who broke the news to the SL community as a whole, Rod Humble’s departure from Linden Lab entered the public domain.

Rod Humble, with a little reminder from his past
Rod Humble, with a little reminder from his past

Rod Humble officially joined the Lab as CEO in early January 2011, although according to BK Linden, he had been logging-in during the closing months of 2010, “exploring and experimenting in-world to familiarise himself with the pluses and minuses of our product and the successes and challenges faced by our Residents”.

Prior to his arrival, and under the much maligned Mark Kingdon, the Lab had been investing in hardware and infrastructure, with Frank (FJ Linden) Ambrose being recruited into the company to head-up the work. This continued through the first year of Humble’s tenure as CEO, paving the way for a series of large-scale overhauls to the platform in an attempt to improve performance, stability, reliability of server / viewer communications and boost the overall user experience.

Much of this work initially announced in 2012 as “Project Shining”.  It had been hoped within the Lab that the work would be completed within 12 months; however, so complex has it proven to be that even now, more that 18 months later, elements of core parts of it (viewer-side updates related to interest lists, the mesh-related HTTP work, final SSA updates) have yet to be fully deployed.

Even so, this work has led to significant improvements in the platform, many of which can be built upon (as with the HTTP updates paving the way for HTTP pipelining or the SSA work already generating core improvements to the inventory system’s robustness via the AIS v3 work).

SSBAsaw a complete overhaul over the avatar rendering process in order to eliminate the bane of users' lives: bake fail
SSA, aimed at eliminating the bane of users’ lives,  bake fail, was one of a number of projects aimed at benefiting the user experience

It might be argued that these aren’t really achievements on Humble’s part, but rather things the company should have been doing as a matter of course. True enough; but the fact is, prior to Humble’s arrival, the work wasn’t being done with anything like the focus we’ve seen under his leadership.

A philosophy he brought to the Lab was that of rapid development / deployment cycles, as he indicated at his first (and only, as it turned out) SLCC address in 2011. This saw the server release process overhauled and the three RC channels introduced, making it easier to deploy updates, patches, and fixes to address bugs, issues and exploits.

Humble referred to this as “putting the ‘Lab’ back into Linden Lab”, and in fairness, it didn’t always work as advertised, as with the initial experience tools deployment in June 2012, which resulted in a spate of grid-wide griefing. However, it is fair to say it has generally resulted in less grid-wide disruption and upset.

More recently, this approach has also been applied to the viewer release process, allowing the Lab to focus more sharply on issues arising within the viewer code as a result of changes or integrating new capabilities. This in turn has largely eliminated the risk of issues bringing viewer updates to a complete halt, as happened in the latter part of 2012.

One of the more (to many SL users and observers) controversial aspects of Humble’s tenure was the move to diversify the company’s product brief. When talking to Giant Bomb’s Patrick Klepek in October 2012, he candidly admitted his initial attraction to the post was born from the company being “ready-made to do a whole bunch of other products, which I wanted to do.” He’d also forewarned SL users than the company would be diversifying its product brief during his 2011 SLCC address.

Many objected to this on the grounds it was “taking away” time and effort which might be focused on Second Life while others felt that it was a misappropriation of “their” money, or that it signalled “the end” of SL. In terms of the latter, the reality was, and remains, far from the case. In fact, if it can be done wisely, diversification might even, over time, help SL by removing the huge pressure placed upon it as the company’s sole means of generating revenue.

Diversification isn't in itself a bad idea; the problem is ensuring that a company diversifies wisely. Some of LL's initial efforts under Humble's guidance mean the jury is still out on that matter
Diversification isn’t in itself a bad idea; the problem is ensuring that it’s done wisely. The jury’s still out in that regard with some of LL’s initial efforts

The problem is that the direction that has been taken by the Lab thus far doesn’t appear to be the most productive revenue-wise, at least in part. The apps market is both saturated and highly competitive (and even now, two of the products in that sector have yet to arrive on Android). Similarly, it might be argued that Desura could be more valuable as a marketable asset than as a long-term investment), and dio appears to be going nowhere. All of which leaves Patterns,  which in fairness does appear to be carving a niche for itself, and has yet to be officially launched. It will be interesting to see what, if any, appetite the Lab has for continuing with these efforts now that Humble has departed.

There have been missteps along the way, to be sure. Humble’s tenure has been marked by a series of ongoing and quite major issues with the SL Marketplace which the company appeared to be completely unable to bring under control. These prompted me to wonder if “putting the ‘Lab’ back into Linden Lab” might actually work in all cases.  Worse, they led to a clear and continued erosion in customer trust where the Marketplace was concerned and quite possibly damaged Humble’s own reputation. Despite promises of “upping the tempo” with communications and updates, all merchants saw was the commerce team reduce communications to the bare minimum, and refused to hold in-world meetings which might otherwise have improved relationships.

Similarly, some projects were perhaps pushed through either too quickly or without real regard for how well they might be employed. Mesh was perhaps prematurely consigned to the “job done” basket, particularly given the loud and repeated calls for a deformation capability which were spectacularly ignored (and are only now being addressed, after much angst and upset in the interim, all of which could have been avoided).  Pathfinding has failed to live up to the Lab’s expectations and still appears to be something that could have been pushed down the road a little so that other work could carried out which might have left people more interested in given it a go.

Continue reading “Three in ten: a look back over Rod Humble’s tenure at LL”

Rod Humble departs the Lab

Update January 26th: My own look back at Rod Humble’s time at Linden Lab.

Update January 25th: Gamesbeat has caught-up with the news.

Update: Games industry has covered the news as well.

Update: The message on Rod Humble’s Facebook page confirming his departure from the Lab reads: “Its been a great 3 years! All my thanks to my colleagues at Linden Lab and our wonderful customers I wish you the very best for the future and continued success! I am starting-up a company to make Art, Entertainment and unusual things! More on that in a few weeks!”

Jo Yardley has posted that Rod Humble has apparently left Linden Lab. In a blog post she states:

In a personal message to me via facebook send a few minutes ago, Rod Humble told me that he has left Linden Lab as CEO last week.

After 3 years of running Linden Lab and bringing a lot of improvements to Second Life he resigned and is going to start up his own company that will make art, entertainment and all sorts of wonderful stuff.

It is not yet clear who will replace him but I wish him lots of success with his new project.

This news comes as a bit of a surprise and shock and there is no official announcement yet.

As noted in Jo’s post, there is no official announcement on the matter, but I have contacted the Lab in an attempt to gain further verification. I’ll provide an update should any reply be forthcoming. Even if confirmation is given, and there is no reason to doubt the veracity of Jo’s post, it is unlikely the circumstances behind his departure will enter the public domain

Be he ever so Humble: my interview with LL’s CEO

Back in June 2013, I had the opportunity to interview Rod Humble for Prim Perfect magazine. As explained in the piece, things didn’t entirely go according to plan, and I have to admit to being a little disappointed with the end result. Due to various reasons, the piece didn’t see the light of day until Issue 49 of Prim Perfect, which appeared in September 2013, and which is available on-line and in-world. What follows here is the article in full, reprinted with permission.

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2013 marks the 10th Anniversary of Second Life as a publicly accessible platform. In that time, Linden Lab has seen it grow from a small venture into a product which, whilst still niche, generates revenues in the region of $75 million a year, and keeps people from around the globe logging-in to it as a part of their daily routine.

In that time four men have helmed the Lab through highs and lows: Philip Rosedale, the man responsible for starting it all, Mark Kingdon, Bob Komin, who also served as the Lab’s CFO, and Rod Humble, known to us all as Rodvik Linden.

Rod Humble, with a little reminder from his past
Rod Humble, with a little reminder from his past

Humble, a veteran of Virgin Interactive, Sony Online and EA Games, brought considerable games industry experience with him when he joined the Lab at the start of 2011. Since then, he’s been the driving force behind a huge amount of work on Second Life, and in trying to expand the company’s product portfolio with a growing range of apps and games.

As part of Second Life’s anniversary celebrations, he spent a lot of time being interviewed in many venues and through a variety of media platforms. Our request to be included generated a warm and positive response, but was then derailed somewhat by scheduling issues on all sides.

Originally, the idea had been to converse via Skype, but as the scheduling conflicts bit, we were forced to use e-mail as the medium of exchange. While not ideal, it at least gave me the opportunity to gain a small window into the mind of the man in charge of the virtual world we feel so very passionate about.

I started out by turning the clock back and asking him what initially drew him to accepting the CEO position at the Lab, specifically what was it about the company, as well as the platform, that attracted him.

I immediately saw and fell in love with SL when I was approached. I was delighted and amazed at the creativity within the world.

As a platform, Second Life puts an incredible amount of power in the users’ hands, which is obvious from the range and complexity of things people have created in-world. Beyond the platform itself, I think a key strength of Second Life is the model of allowing users to monetize their creations. That sets up a situation where everyone wins – users are rewarded for being creative, and the virtual world continually gets fresh and interesting content and experiences for everyone, beyond what would be possible if Linden Lab had to create everything.

claudia222
Secondlife allows for extraordinary creativity, as exemplified by Claudia222 Jewell’s amazing creations

His tenure at the Lab has not only been marked by the introduction of new capabilities to the platform – the most notable perhaps being mesh and pathfinding – but by a strong push to improve usability, and performance. Not long after he arrived, the viewer was given a major overhaul and underwent extensive user testing. More recently, we’ve seen a 12-month effort under the umbrella title of “Project Shining” aimed at massively improving SL’s performance and stability. Given this emphasis, I asked him if he saw matters of performance and so on as potential threats to the viability of the platform when he first joined the company.

Any active user of Second Life can tell you that performance is a big issue. It’s a hard one for us to solve as well, because of the inherent complexity of the platform and the huge number of variables involved – like differences in broadband speeds, hardware specs, etc. But, it’s an area that I’m proud to say we’re making great strides in with efforts like Project Sunshine. Users should see bigger performance improvements from that project as the server-side changes roll-out.

But there were also other usability issues – like the complexity of Magic Boxes for Marketplace deliveries and the confusing number of communications tools – that we’ve worked to improve.

Two long-term issues for the platform have been user sign-ups and user retention. When it came to sign-ups, Humble again quickly made his presence felt, overseeing a top-to-toe redesign of the account creation process. This resulted in a significant increase in the number of daily sign-ups, one which still sees some 400,000 new accounts created monthly. However user retention has remained elusive; only around 20% of new accounts are still active a month after signing-up.

By Humble’s own admission, this is not a an exciting figure, and he’s set himself and the Lab the goal of improving it, going so far as to say his ambition is to get all those who said “Meh” to SL “back”. As a part of this, the Lab has resumed its examinations of the “new user experience”, testing new “Social Islands” and “Learning Islands” alongside the existing “Destination Islands” in an attempt to find out what does and doesn’t work.

This renewed interest on the Lab’s part led me to wonder if it might mean we’ll be seeing something in the way of directed experiences, so that “modellers get to aeroplanes rather than a nightclub”,  to paraphrase a remark he famously made in the SL Universe forums in 2012.

Continue reading “Be he ever so Humble: my interview with LL’s CEO”

Rod Humble on living the Second Life

Rod Humble is very much a Q&A man, something I can personally attest to, and which was shown back in June with his Q&A session with Best of Second Life magazine. There are pros and cons to this approach.

On the one hand, and particularly when working across large distances and different time zones, it means that neither side is tied to trying to commit to a day / time (at possibly an ungodly hour) in order to try to hook-up either in-world or by ‘phone or via Skype.

The downside to this is that it prevents a spontaneous conversation from developing, which stifles rapport, perhaps of greater impact from the reporting side of things, it gives the Lab the freedom to dictate the direction of questions / cherry-pick which questions they are willing to answer.

Rod Humble: master of the Q&A session
Rod Humble: master of the Q&A session

Much has been made of this second point, although from my own experience I can say LL are not the first to “vet” or pick questions to answer within an interview, and I doubt they’ll be the last.

However, perhaps what frustrates me more about the whole Q&A style approach is that can isolate questions from their broader context (unless submitted with reams of explanatory text), which can further dissuade the Lab from responding, when a more face-to-face contact might enable the aforementioned rapport to be established, resulting in a more relaxed exchange in which some answers might be a little more forthcoming.

I’ve no idea how much time Eric Johnson of All Things D got with Rod Humble recently, or how many questions were vetoed ahead of the fifteen that were answered. However, while the resultant interview, which appeared on July 5th, may initially appear to be much the usual mix of things we’ve been hearing about in interviews with the Lab’s CEO in general of late, it is a worthwhile read.

For those eager for Oculus Rift, for example, we find that the Lab is potentially looking at a “late summer” public debut for their support of the headset, and that Humble himself has been able to experience the capabilities.

I’m not actually that intrigued by the arrival of Oculus Rift in SL – although I can fully see the potential in integrating it into SL and the opportunities it may well open for the platform across a range of uses, and am thus fully supportive of the work being done. However, what does intrigue me is how the Lab are going to integrate Oculus Rift with the UI. Are we perhaps going to see the iteration of an entirely new form of viewer to cater for it?

Oculus Rift and Second Life: a "late summer" public release?
Oculus Rift and Second Life: a “late summer” public release?

More interesting from my perspective are Humble’s comments around new users. I recently had the opportunity to fire my own questions at Mr. Humble in June, and the issue of new user retention was on my list.

Sadly, it was something he sidestepped somewhat (which is perhaps as much down to the way I asked certain questions as anything else); so it was interesting to read in the All Things D article that of the approximate 400,000 sign-ups a month SL receives, some 80,000 are still logging-in to the platform after about a month (some 20%). As Humble himself notes, that’s a massive drop-off; however it might also be said to be sufficient to ensure the churn is enough to stop the platform hemorrhaging users in quite the way some of the more dour commentators like to present.

We also get to see more of Humble’s thinking behind the direction in which he’s taking the company:

Game makers are always trying to stay one step ahead of content creation, so you get these bigger and bigger budgets, trying to make more and more polished content. Second Life and YouTube are both rewarding their users for what they create. I believe there will be a day when you’ll log in to your social network and see, “Oh, I got five bucks because I posted my silly cat picture.” What I’m trying to do is position our company to take advantage of that and facilitate people being rewarded for the time they put in.

Whether this positioning involves SL in the longer term, particularly as the company does appear to be involved in both investing in new virtual environments (such as High Fidelity, wherever that leads) and perhaps creating a direct successor to Second Life itself, remains to be seen.

For those curious as to why the Lab hasn’t itself pushed SL to the mobile / tablet environment, Humble also provides food for thought, both pointing to TPV work in the area and why the Lab has tended to avoid getting too involved.

Overall, this is another Q&A session which can easily be lambasted for being one-sided and only talking about the things the Lab wants to talk about; however, that’s actually what PR is about – promoting the things you want to promote and generating the interest you want to generate. While the All Things D does at times cover ground ploughed in earlier interviews, it also covers some fresh territory and provides further insight into some of the thinking at the Lab, and that alone makes it worth the time taken to hop over and take a gander for yourself.

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