Sansar update: of lay-offs and moves

Sansar load screen

Alongside of the announced shift in emphasis with Sansar, there have been rumours of multiple lay-offs among the Sansar team. Ryan Schultz has led with the story, stating 30 have gone, although the rumour mill has been bouncing between 20 and 30.

Exactly how many have departed is difficult to judge, simply because LL does not comment on departures or cuts, but there are some limited ways in which we can stick a finger in the air and test things. My own knowledge of the Sansar team is limited to around 16 names, but it would appear from my rudimentary yardstick, that four of those names are no longer at the Lab.

My yardstick for this measurement is simple, but has been known to be effective in the past. All Lab staff have a Linden account in Second Life. With most of the Sansar team, that account name tends to marry up with their Sansar name (e.g. Ebbe Linden marries up to Ebbe in Sansar; Boho Linden marries up with Boho in Sansar, etc.). So by checking to see which accounts are inactive, it is possible to hazard a guess that the individual is no longer at Linden Lab.

In this respect, my findings tend to concur that of the three very specific names that have been mentioned in reference to the Sansar lay-offs do indeed appear to have departed Linden Lab. However, it also appears (up to the time of writing, at least) that a third high-profile name – that of the Lab’s Chief Product Officer, Landon MacDowell – still appears to be with the Lab, as his SL account is still active.

Granted, this is not a genuinely scientific means of making a judgement. However, it amounts to 1/4 of the names I know in the Sansar team, and if I recall correctly (I confess that in digging back through my notes, I’ve been unable to pin down the specific quote) during a meeting in either Sansar or Second Life, Ebbe Altberg indicated the Sansar team is around the 100+ mark. So, my finger-in-the-air figure would tend to concur with the idea of 20 to 30 people being laid off / transitioned.

In this latter regard, I took time to try to dig around a little further and concluded that it seems likely that at least two of the Sansar team who originally moved to that project from Second Life may have transitioned back to working on SL (in addition to Harley Linden also transitioning from Sansar to SL).

Precisely what this means for Sansar development in the future remains to be seen. I’ve already commented on the move to focus efforts on trying to make Sansar a venue for “live” virtual events (see Sansar changes emphasis: of live events and audience, and it’s something I intend to circle back to in the near future as it seems some of that piece may have been misinterpreted. For now, all I will say in regards to the lay-offs, is that whenever and wherever they happen, no matter how big or how small, they are never pleasant – least of all for those being laid off. So I genuinely hope any who have been let go by the Lab are successful in finding new positions sooner rather than later.

Sansar changes emphasis: of live events and audience

Linden Lab is shifting its development emphasis towards hosting more “live” virtual events to help build an audience

On Friday, November 1st, the Sansar Team held their weekly Product Meeting, which provided to be an event of two parts: an overview of the next Sansar release, which I’ve covered in my usual Sansar Product Meeting summary format, and confirmation that Sansar’s development is undergoing a change in emphasis in a drive to try to establish a much broader audience.

In short, and as noted by Sansar’s Community Manager, Galileo, and the Lab’s Vice President of Business Development and Marketing, Sheri Bryant (aka CowboyNinja in Sansar), who now takes up the role of Sansar’s General Manager¹, the Lab plans to focus a lot more on building-out Sansar’s ability to run “live” events within virtual spaces.

The decision has in part been sparked by the rise in popularity of “live” virtual events in a number of platforms (most notably the Fortnite / Marshmello event and the 11 million attendees it garnered) and the more modest – but significant – successes Sansar has had in hosting electronic dance music (EDM) events through partnerships with Monstercat and Spinnin’ Records.

It’s a decision that was actually presaged in October, when IQ ran an article in which Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg and Sheri Bryant were interviewed about the Lab’s intentions with “live” events in Sansar. As such, I wasn’t actually overly surprised to hear about the shift in emphasis, although others may have missed that piece. Certainly, the announcement has received a negative reaction from some, and has been – wrongly, I would suggest – characterised as akin to High Fidelity’s abrupt change of direction that occurred earlier this year – see: High Fidelity changes direction: the reality of VR worlds today (& tomorrow?) and High Fidelity changes direction (2).

I say “wrongly”, because while this is a change in emphasis, it is not in any way a shuttering / move any from anything within Sansar in the way High Fidelity’s change of direction was. As was noted in the meeting:

  • The intention is to make Sansar the “best possible” destination for virtual events, with an emphasis on both “larger” marquee-style events involving commercial partners and other brands / organisations and on the more creator-driven events we see in Sansar today.
    • Hence why the next release of Sansar – R37, due to be deployed in week #45 (commencing Monday, November 4th, 2019) will incorporate changes to the events system creators have been specifically requesting – including linking events directly to the world used to host them and allowing that originating world to gain the traffic figures of people attending the event version.
  • It will see Linden Lab endeavour to “integrate” user-developed events with major marquee events, so that audiences attending the latter will be made more aware of the former, and encouraged to explore more of Sansar beyond the current event they are attending.
    • So the hope is that if done correctly, provisioning bigger and more frequent “live” events, the Lab can not only achieve spikes in Sansar’s user base, but actually start to convert some of those visiting audiences into engaged users.
    • In this respect, work will be carried out to further improve the overall new user experience to make it more “unforgettable”, and to expand Sansar’s socialisation and communication capabilities to help encourage greater user/user interactions.
  • It also does not mean that other improvements for the platform are in any way being closed or abandoned – although it does mean that some are being re-prioritised and are seeing their possible deployment time-frames pushed back.

This latter point is likely why there has been some negativity around the announcement: for much of 2019 the emphasis has been on developing Sansar’s gaming  / questing capabilities, and these have reached a point where they are being actively and imaginatively being leveraged. Given that push to develop them and get creators excited by them, to apparently make a sudden track switch is bound to leave some feeling a little, “wait – what?”

Similarly, there has been a push to give the Sansar avatar a complete overhaul, with more being promised – particularly full body deformation and custom skin textures. It had been suggested these might appear before the end of 2019 – but they are now timetabled for delivery “in 2020”. So this again is likely to be grating on people. But that said, it is true that, insofar as encouraging people into Sansar to attend events, Avatar 2.0 doesn’t appear to have been any kind of barrier – and it might be argued that it is more important for Sansar to gain a broader and deeper user base than it is to keep iterating on new features and capabilities within the avatar system – particularly if there are relatively few people around to use it.

Even with the emphasis on “live” events in Sansar, the lab intends to keep working on the overall new user experience, including use of things like the Nexus (above) and the Codex

Obviously, there are risks involved in shifting the emphasis towards “live” virtual events as a means to generate an audience from which retained users might be gained. On the one hand, there is that aforementioned Marshmello / Fortnite event and its almost 11 million virtual attendees. However, it’s equally important to remember that Fortnite already had an estimated user base of some 200 million world-wide to draw on to attend that event – they weren’t using it to try to generate new users for the platform.

In this, Sansar has a long way to go to establish itself – and there is absolutely no guarantee that however things are developed or engineered, people attracted to the platform to attend an event by their favourite EDM DJ or comedian or talk show host or whoever aren’t really going to be interested in doing anything else other than attending an event. But again, to flip this over, it is certainly true that certain types of event that could allow audiences to have very unique experiences whilst attending such events. This is something Ebbe Altberg notes in reference to EDM events when talking to IQ:

It’s easier to hook up EDM artists to the system because DJs basically have an electronic output. So they stand there in their VR gear and we give them all kinds of in-game tools – fireballs, lasers, the ability to change the gravity so everyone can jump really high…

There’s also the fact that virtual shows and events do greatly increase the potential audience reach for artists and performers – and present the potential for physical world merchandising (assuming LL put such a capability in place – and they’d perhaps be stupid not to), something I touched on in Sansar: music entertainment with some sundry thoughts. This is something that performers and brands might well find appealing.

So to me, the shift in emphasis perhaps isn’t as upsetting as it appears to have been to others – but then, I’m simply not as invested in Sansar as some, which also should be taken into account. Certainly, and as I’ve previously argued, I don’t think a push to establish a presence in the “virtual events market” given the capabilities Sansar does have is not a bad thing. And, as I’ve noted in Sansar: music entertainment with some sundry thoughts, even if it doesn’t massively drive up the platform’s concurrency on its own, it could nevertheless contribute to doing so; what’s more, it could open the platform up to broader “repeat” audiences from a range of potential sectors and so help the Lab generate revenue from those sectors through a variety of means.

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  1. It is not clear right now, but Sheri may have shifted to focusing solely on Sansar, as Hari Raghavan, formerly the Lab’s Senior Manager, Marketing Communications, was introduced at the meeting as the “new Director of Marketing”.

Sansar: music entertainment with some sundry thoughts

Monstercat is one of two EDM labels Linden Lab has partnered with for Sansar, as noted in the IQ article

IQ posted an interesting article on Sansar on Wednesday, October 23rd that gives – for those who haven’t been tracking the platform’s progress – insight into one of the directions Linden Lab is seeking to grow Sansar’s exposure and use.

In Linden Lab: Virtual worlds will make Madison Square Garden look small, Jon Chapple sits down with the Lab’s CEO, Ebbe Altberg and Sheri Bryant, Linden Lab’s VP of Business Development and Marketing to explore the growing role of virtual spaces – including MMOs – in promoting music and artists, and in doing so, opens the door on the potential for a platform like Sansar to generate audiences beyond those which might be considered “traditional” VW users.

As the article notes, the relationship between music and virtual worlds is not new. Second Life has been a huge platform by which musicians, singers and DJs can reach a global audience and supplement their income, and – again as IQ notes – it has even seen the odd high-profile event involving the likes of Duran Duran (including “official” regions in-world), Suzanne Vega and U2. However, Sansar presents the potential for musicians and – particularly – DJs to reach much, much larger virtual audiences.

Interest in this kind of pairing perhaps really came into focus in February 2019, when Marshmello performed a 10-minute set in the MMO Fortnite – and to an estimated in-game audience of almost 11 million. This was achieved through Fortnite’s ability to instance environments – spin-up multiple versions of an experience according to demand. It’s a technique common to on-line games – and it is (as most of us are aware) a capability Sansar has as well. Add to it Sansar’s built-in ability to avatar broadcast – allowing selected avatars within an environment to be broadcast to all the other instances of that environment simultaneously in real-time – and you have a powerful capability ideally geared to presenting large audience events.

The Blasterjaxx headline event took place in the Social Guild club at Sansar’s Nexus, and saw attendees from 600 cities world-wide

In particular, Linden Lab have partnered with the electronic dance music (EDM) labels Monstercat (Canada) and Spinnin’ Records (The Netherlands) to host events by both labels within Sansar. Already the début events held by both labels were each seen by audiences spanning more than 600 cities globally, with the Monstercat début was attended by over 1,000 unique avatars). While this might not be on the scale of the Fortnite / Marshmello event (which had the advantage of being able to draw on Fortnite’s estimated active user base of some 200 million), it is still impressive for a virtual world event – just try to imagine an event in SL, for example, that has around 300 avatars at again given point in time in the “same” region.

In talking to IQ, Altberg and Bryant make it clear that they see the involvement of Monstercat (who now feature weekly activities in Sansar) and Spinnin’ Records as the tip of the iceberg, and that while EDM is an “easy” choice for an initial foray into music and entertainment partnerships, there are others the Lab is actively seeking out.

It’s easier to hook up EDM artists to the system because DJs basically have an electronic output. So they stand there in their VR gear and we give them all kinds of in-game tools – fireballs, lasers, the ability to change the gravity so everyone can jump really high … You can tell how much fun they’re having controlling the environment. They can change the way the world looks and functions by pressing buttons and turning dials – so they’re not just tweaking the music but creating a whole experience for people.

  – Ebbe Altberg to IQ

One question here is what do the likes of Monstercat and Spinnin’ Records get out of this? At the moment monetisation is limited to the current simple revenue-sharing system, which perhaps isn’t really that attractive. However, the article hints at some of the ways the Lab will be changing this – including the potential for what appears to be targeted subscription packages (VIP passes to back-stage green room events / meet and greets? Discounted physical world merchandise? Time will tell). Certainly, merchandise is a significant consideration – following the Fortnite event, for example, Marshmello / Fortnite (an admitted Fortnite fan / player) started to offer physical world merchandise as well as in-game goodies (which can already translate as in-world merchandise in Sansar).

For me, instancing and avatar broadcasting are between them one of the reasons I can see Sansar creating multiple niche, but viable, audiences for itself. For example,  around the world are multiple instances of remote learning for everyone from children through to adults, often with limited opportunity for interaction with tutors, subject matter specialist or one another. Here in the UK, for example, we have the Open University, catering to some 170,000-180,000 students (including between 7,000 and 10,000 non-UK based), who at most only get to discuss their work with a tutor via the Internet or telephone, whilst working in isolation from others on the same course. So imagine the power in being able to bring those students together into a lecture theatre or classroom, where they can learn together, share, ask questions, collaborate / participate in demonstrations / experiments – and then socialise together afterwards. Sansar can support this both through small-scale teaching environments and through lecture facilities that can sit 100+ students at a time via instancing / avatar broadcasting.

Nor is this entirely limited to education. Imagine, for example, the opportunity to sit down in your own home and attend a presentation by members of NASA’s Curiosity rover team – and ask questions of them. Or to be able to join a presentation / moderate Q&A by one of your favourite authors and then have your question possibly put to them  – and afterwards being able to hop on a link to purchase their latest book. And that’s just skimming the surface.

The potential for Sansar to host public lectures with global appeal was shown, albeit in a modest way, with Dr. Lee Mellor’s Murder in VR series held in October 2019. Credit: Sansar Official You Tube channel

Such activities may not come anywhere close to the kind of thing that “will make Madison Square Gardens look small”, but collectively, on-going approaches and leveraging Sansar in this kind of manner could help the platform generate the kind of steady traffic (if not large-scale or exciting) it requires to prove its worth. In the meantime, adding capabilities that allow better revenue generation, building out partnerships with music labels and other entertainment genres could help lay the foundations for Sansar becoming seen as a means by which much large audience-driven events can be hosted and run.

Obviously, none of this is going to happen overnight, and a lot is dependent on how LL bring to fruition various capabilities that are likely to appeal to partners – and on how well they can actually market the platform as an audience generator, and haul in users / attendees from their various strands of potentiality (those already familiar with virtual worlds also being one of those strands).

In this, I do admit to a nagging doubt that for all the effort put into them, all the road shows and attendance at Star Trek conventions and the like is really going to garner a lasting return in terms of audience growth. I say the because these activities appear to be almost entirely VR centric – and given that VR itself is still a long way short of being mass market, which it could leave those trying Sansar at such events as being something novel to “have a go on”, rather than something they take note of and then explore when they get home and fire up their PCs.

But, doubts aside, the IQ article makes for interesting reading and, for those not following Sansar that closely, perhaps sheds some light on the Lab’s thinking around that platform and how it diverges from SL.

Linden Lab: “what’s in the future?” and Sansar “re-imagined”

© and ® Linden Lab

September 2019 marks Linden Lab’s 20th anniversary – something I’ve commented on previously in the pages. It’s a milestone event for any company in the technology sector, where things can be here today, gone tomorrow. Nevertheless, the Lab have played things fairly low-key thus far, up to and including a there most recent blog post, issues on Tuesday, September 24th entitled What’s Next for Linden Lab?

While the title might be suggestive of being a commentary on the company’s past and future, it actually takes a general look at Second Life and Sansar, offering a consideration of changes to both platforms which users may or may not be aware of – and for Second Life, gives a small glimpse of things to come.

For Second Life, the blog post offers a brief look at recent and coming core feature releases – Animesh, Bakes on Mesh and EEP (the Environment Enhancement Project) – together with the recent Linden Homes release of Trailers and Campers (see: First looks: Bellisseria trailer and camper homes and Bellisseria: of Trailers, Campers and trains in Second Life).

Perhaps of more interest to user,s it also provides a mini-update on the migration to the cloud:

We have been hard at work moving the services that bring you Second Life from our existing data center to cloud hosting. Our goal is to make almost all of it seem invisible to you; in general we won’t announce that a service has been moved until it’s been working in the cloud for a while. Some things already qualify, though: Your inventory data has been in the cloud for quite some time, and the maps website moved a little while ago. We have several more things that your viewer uses that are being tested internally now, so expect more updates in the next couple of months. We are very excited about the new product possibilities that cloud hosting will enable.

Note, again, that this does not mean any regions or their underlying simulators have been moved to the cloud: currently, these are still being operated from within the Lab’s own facilities.

Another element mentioned in passing is the upcoming Second Life Blogger Network. This is something I’ve played a small role in helping the Lab to formulate ideas, and I’m interested in seeing it launched and how members of the blogging community respond to it.

In its look at Sansar, the blog post coincides with a press release for that platform issued earlier on September 24th, and in which the title really says it all:  Your World is Waiting: The Makers of Second Life Reimagine Sansar as an Immersive Destination for Gaming, Commerce & Live Events.

For those with an interest or curiosity in Sansar, the press release perhaps offers meatier reading than the blog post, covering at it does the most recent updates to the platform:  Avatar 2.0, the Nexus, the introduction of the Experience Points (XP) system, and the initial development of the Sansar “backstory”. All of these I’ve looked at in Sansar: R36 – Avatar 2.0 the Nexus, the Codex and more, and will doubtless be looking at again.

In particular the press release provides information on the new partnerships Linden Lab has entered into with regards to Sansar. These encompass include Dutch record label Spinnin’ Records, and a venture with Japanese kawaii (cute) brand-leader Sanrio alongside clothing brand Levis®. Also included is an outline of various live events Sansar will be hosting a series of live events through until the end of September to mark its “re-imagining”.

To coincide with the Sansar announcement, the Lab also issued a new promotional video for the platform. I’m not entirely sure it works, but the tag line – Your World Is Waiting – has a faint echo of a certain other tag line people may recall.

Returning to the blog post in closing, it makes no direct reference to the Lab’s anniversary, as noted above. However, given it is September, I’d like to offer all at Linden Lab congratulations on company’s 20th birthday; I’ve enjoyed being around for 13 of them, and I look forward to a good many more!

Sansar announces 2nd live comedy event

via Sansar / Linden Lab

Linden Lab have announced the second live comedy event to be held in Sansar. The SF Sketchfest will take place between 13:00-14:00 PST (21:00-22:00 GMT) on January 12th at the new SF Sketchfest Playhouse. The event will feature comedians David Cross (Mr. Show and Arrested Development fame) and Amy Schumer (MADTv, Insatiable, Shameless), together with openers Irene Tu and Chad Opitz).

Compared to the Comedy Gladiators event hosted in Sansar on December 10th, 2018 (read more here), the SF Sketchfest is receiving fairly low-key and what seems to be very short-notice advertising through social media (by contrast, Comedy Gladiators was promoted via a press notice via the Lab).

Ticket for the event are USD $4.99 each, and can be purchased directly from the Sansar Store.

The SF Sketchfest participants: David Cross and Amy Schumer, Irene Tu and Chad Opitz

These events utilise Sansar’s Broadcast capability, allows avatar audiences across two or more instances of an experience to experience performing avatars, with instances allowing a greater opportunity for friends to attend the vent together (although more work is required to make this more fully possible).

SF Sketchfest is also the second official Sansar event to use the platform’s new ticketing capability, which – when expanded – will be a further means for creator / experience holders to monetise their offerings in Sansar.

Sansar launches on Steam

Sansar on Steam. Courtesy of Linden Lab

As anticipated following last week’s community feedback hour / product meeting, Sanar has officially launched on Steam – although at the time of writing, there has been no official press release on the Lab’s corporate site.

Instead, the announcement came via a Sansar blog post, and a tweet via the official Sansar Twitter account.

As of today, December 5th, we are officially live on Steam!

We wanted to give a huge thank you to our current community who have been so supportive, and to extend a warm “Welcome” to all our new community members joining us from Steam!

You can find us on Steam as an Early Access Game, where we’re free to download. Even better, you’ll get to enjoy all the benefits of Steam as a social platform for gamers including full access to our Steam Community Hub!

– From the Sansar blog post announcing the launch

As the blog post notes, Sansar is being made available on Steam’s early access programme – a move the Lab hopes will help Steam users’ expectations regarding the platform and the fact it is still in development.

The Sansar page on Steam Early Access

The Sansar page on Steam includes a promotional video and a series of images from Sansar. In addition, and to underline the platform’s status, there is also a Q&A element, which addresses a number of questions, including:

Why Early Access?

“Sansar is a place where you can hang out with friends, play games, explore new worlds, and share incredible creations, but we can’t do that without you! Being in Early Access is important to us to make sure we’re hearing directly from the community on what you’d like to see and do in Sansar. Come join us!”

Approximately how long will this game be in Early Access?

“We plan on staying in Early Access until Sansar is the very best it can be. We’re constantly making improvements, and we’re eager for your feedback.”

How is the full version planned to differ from the Early Access version?

“We want Sansar to be the place where people can connect with communities and celebrate what they love through immersive virtual experiences, interactive events, customizable avatars, and easy creation. That’s why we plan to develop even more features around socialization, interactivity, personalization, and creation – elements that enrich the social experiences our platform enables. Plans will change based on your feedback, and we’re always listening and learning.”

What is the current state of the Early Access version?

“Right now, Sansar lets you host and attend virtual events, play games, explore user-created experiences, and buy and sell merchandise in the Sansar Store. Meet friends for a watch party and tailgate. Buy clothing and accessories for your avatars, or objects for the virtual experiences you build.”

The sansar.com log-in page now allows web log-ins using Steam account credentials (l). Sansar and Steam integration allows logging-in to Sansar using a user’s Steam credentials (r)

The launch blog post also has some important words for existing Sansar users (or those who have already created a Sansar account). these include:

  • Existing users can still access Sansar directly from their downloaded version of the client, and use all the capabilities with it, including creating new accounts; they do not have to use Steam to log-in.
  • However:
    • Existing Sansar users with a Steam account can add Sansar to their Steam account and launch it from there it they wish
    • Or if they are logged into Steam and opt  to launch Sansar via Steam, they will be prompted to log-in to Sansar with the account of their choice (Sansar, Steam or Twitch).
  • There will be no direct merging of Sansar and Steam accounts (“at this time”).
  • User with an existing Sansar account can continue purchasing Sansar Dollars using the payment information they have on file with Linden Lab.
    • However, users signing-up for Sansar via Steam must use their Steam Wallet to purchase Sansar Dollars.

The Sansar website gives full details on how to integrate Steam and Sansar accounts to get the most out of both. Once integrated, it is possible to access the Sansar Community on Steam directly through the Sansar client:

Accessing the Sansar community on Steam through the Sansar client (Shift-Tab) – requires Sansar / Steam integration for existing Sansar users / download of the Sansar client via Steam for Steam users

It will be interesting to see how this all goes for the Lab. Several years ago, there was an attempt to add Second Life to Steam, which didn’t go so well. However, the Lab believe they have learned some important lessons as a result of that process,  and the Sansar presentation through Steam does appear to be somewhat more integrated.