Sansar in limbo: revisiting it as a white label service

Sansar Studios Conference Stage – and example of a meeting / event space from early in Sansar’s public development

Introductory note: over the course of the last 24 months I’ve drafted a number of pieces on Sansar none of which, for a variety of reasons – including something of a lack of dedication on my part – never got to see the light of day. The following piece represents a synthesis of some of those views, in part borne from recent events in the physical world. 

Back in the mists of time, and before Sansar gained its first users through the original Closed Alpha programme, there was talk that the platform would have support for third-party access controls built-in to it, so that a company or organisation or similar would be able to employ their own user authentication services as a “portal” for their users to access their Sansar experiences (or the “next generation platform” as it was still called at the time, the name not having been finally determined).

We’ve also heard in the past wishes to be able to connect your users with Second Life, where you can manage user access from places where you already do that within your institutions today, and support for third-party authentication and access control is something that we’re building-in to the foundation of the next generation platform [Sansar].

– Ebbe Altberg, VWBPE Conference, April 18th, 2015

At the time – for me at least – this appeared to suggest that Sansar might have some form of support for white label offerings, that is, environments that are built and provided within Sansar’s cloud services, but due to branding, path of access, etc., appear to be a natural part of a customer’s own services and capabilities rather than being provided and operated by a third-party (Linden Lab).

A Sansar Studios conference room template design

It’s an idea I mentioned in a number of articles on the platform between 2015 and 2017, and would it have been the case, then potentially Linden Lab could have a powerful offering for companies and organisations that wanted to leverage VR in a “dedicated” (platform / environment manner), but didn’t necessarily have the in-house skills to do so.

By this I mean that, rather than have to hire-in staff versed 3D design and able to utilise engines such as Improbable, Unreal or Unity, etc., and have to place the burden of running the resultant environment(s) through their own IT department, or having to to find a design house and a suitable service provisioner, they could use Linden Lab’s “one stop shop”, capable of providing all the design expertise (via Sansar Studios) and the ability to provision and manage the environment(s), on pretty much a reasonably “fixed” price basis, and no significant additional overheads in terms of hardware costs, depreciation, engineering, etc.

Such a white label service would provide both clients and the Lab with assorted benefits. For the Lab, it means a business model that can be relatively easily marketed to almost any client, and offer a constant revenue stream (design of the required environments, providing any required custom avatar looks and the necessary API requirements; operating fees (potentially on a defined sliding scale depending on frequency of use, number of active instances, etc); the potential to offset the cost of developing specific Sansar capabilities which – under a contractual agreement – they can use  / offer elsewhere in the platform; gaining brand names of users of the Sansar engine.

Information boards from the 2018 Swansea University VR / AR conference installation in Sansar

For customers it means the aforementioned ease of provisioning opportunities through assorted third-parities (design, implementation, operation) or need to hire-in specialist staff; they gain capabilities that are branded as their own with the ability to easily adapt / expand those capabilities according to their needs / the needs of their own clients, and for a controlled price; they also have the ability to turn services off without undue financial impact; no concerns over hardware purchase / lease / depreciation.

If such an approach had worked, then it’s not unfair to assume it might have helped with the platform’s ability to generate revenue whilst Linden Lab sought to grow the more public presence of Sansar with other audiences – creators, VR enthusiasts, gamers, and so on.

Admittedly, in writing this piece I’m making the assumption that LL didn’t tread this particular route of trying to promote Sansar as white label service; truth be told, they might have done and found it to be a dead end. However, there is evidence to suggest they didn’t get that far. Firstly because even by June 2015 Ebbe Altberg was indicating that the third-party authentication and direct access would arrive some time “later” in Sansar’s development path, whilst Product Meetings during the past year suggested it was still something LL would “like” to do, some time.

Meeting room access points (teleports) at the 2018 Swansea University VR / AR conference installation in Sansar

Today, with mounting fears about the latest coronavirus outbreak – Covid-19 – there is obviously a case for the use of virtual environments to handle certain use-cases, thus helping to avoid people from having to travel or gather in large groups where the risks of infection tend to climb. As I reported on March 13th, Linden Lab has just moved to make the use of Second Life more attractive to educational institutions and non-profits by lowering the fees for such regions and opening a micro-site dealing with using SL as a workspace.

But how much more inviting might a platform like Sansar be in this situation, particularly if it could be offered as such a white label service to entities specialising in organising events, conferences, etc., on behalf of others, or to companies that routinely need to organise and host their own staff / client events? Yes, there is something of a credibility hump in using virtual spaces – with or without the accompanying headsets, given Sansar can be accessed and enjoyed without the latter) – but that shouldn’t necessarily be a barrier to making the effort.

As it is, and as we know, Sansar currently sits in limbo; staff (including the team forming Sansar Studios) have been let go, and Linden Lab is seeking a “Plan B” for Sansar. So getting things moving forward once more would appear to be a little difficult given that most of the personnel involved with Sansar have (hopefully, for their own security) found a new home and income.

Nevertheless Sansar as a white label environment offers an interesting thought exercise.

Sansar at the end of 2019: a personal perspective

My Avatar 2.0 in the Sansar Nexus

The end of December 2019 brings with it the end of the second full year of public accessibility to Sansar. The year has been marked by both a continuing round of updates to the platform, some of which have given rise to concerns among the established base of creators while others have been welcomed; plus a shift in emphasis in an attempt to try to further build Sansar’s audience base and which might be described as “risky”.

I’ve tracked most of these changes through my Sansar reports, particularly those related to the (generally) monthly updates and releases and my Product Meeting summaries. As such, I thought I’d review some of the more notable changes the year has brought forth, and take a brief look into 2020.

Significant Updates and Releases

Avatar 2.0

The Sansar avatar 2.0 release was one of the biggest changes to Sansar made in 2019 and arrived as a part of the September R36 release, potentially the biggest Sansar release for 2019.

Avatar 2.0 was a complete overhaul of the avatar system, rendering the original avatar system obsolete. It introduced a new range of starter avatars, and provided a set of tools to help users and creators adjust their avatar clothing and accessories to fit the new avatar skeleton. In particular, the system provides a completely new deformation capability, initially limited to the head / face, but with the promise at the time of release that full-body deformation would likely follow before the end of 2019.

The facial customisation options introduced with Sansar’s avatar 2.0 in September 2019

Response to the new avatars was mixed, with the female avatar in particular being critiqued for its proportions and overall lack of feminine shape (which gave rise to new range of body form garments designed to provide the avatar with some semblance of bust, waist, hips and bum).

Beyond this, 2019 saw other avatar improvements, including the ability to jump and / or crouch/crouch-walk, uniform scaling, improvements to object manipulation / throwing (again for games), IK updates, better desktop movement controls and improved VR body tracking, etc, most of which came with the April R32 release.

Gaming, Questing, and Experience Points System

Late 2018 through much of 2019, Linden Lab was pinning attempts to build Sansar’s user base on gaming / questing type capabilities – for example, at the end of 2018, Sansar was released through Steam. More particularly in 2019, the March R31 release saw the introduction of Sansar’s questing capabilities, initially for the Lab’s use only. The ability for creators to build their own quests appeared in the July R35 release, with the ability for creators to offer rewards added in October, and an experience points (XP) system officially released in November’s R36 release.

The questing system is designed to be used in games (e.g. adventure quests), games, puzzles, tutorials, guided tours through experiences (or “worlds” as they would be renamed), with the XP system designed to be a multi-functional means for users to gain points and “level up” in Sansar, whether they actively participated in quests and games or simply spent time exploring the worlds in Sansar or come to the platform to socialise and attend events.

Questing capabilities were first introduced to Sansar with the March 2019 R31 release

Given their nature, these updates also fed into changes within the entire Sansar user / social experience, although changes in this area started in advance of the quest system deployment.

User / Social Experience

The first significant change to the social structure in Sansar came in the January 2019 point release 28.3 with the introduction of the Social Hub. Linked directly to users’ Home Spaces (the point where users were at that time logged-in to Sansar when using the client rather than an experience URL), this was intended to provide a common space all users could easily reach and so meet one another, reach other places of interest via portals, play games, etc. It also became the focal point for the first Lab-derived quests deployed with the March release of the quest system.

To further encourage social interaction, personal and group teleport portal capabilities were introduced with the February release for easier individual / group movement around Sansar, while the May R33 release saw the in-client Atlas receive an overhaul with the aim of making finding events and places easier.

The Nexus, Prime Portal and Codex

The biggest change to the user experience came in the September R36 release, alongside the avatar 2.0 update. This saw the introduction of the Nexus, Prime Portal and Codex.

  • The Nexus: a new landing point towards which all users were initially directed towards when logging-in to Sansar. For new users, it included a set of tutorials built around a series of quests intended to help users gain familiarity with the platform.
  • Prime Portal: a physical location within the Nexus linked to a new UI element that replaced the in-client Atlas. It was intended to manage the process of new world discovery (experiences were re-titled “worlds” by this point) by users.
  • The Codex: a new UI element to allow users record, manage and quickly return to places they have previously visited while in Sansar.

The Nexus was also supposed to introduce an evolving “backstory” to Sansar, initially revolving around an non-player character (NPC) called Agent Primus. However, this back story didn’t receive much growth, with Agent Primus acting as little more than another quest giver.

The splitting of world discovery away from what has been the in-client Atlas and into the Nexus / Prime Portal led to concerns that the latter would become a bottleneck with users, discouraging exploration of “new” (to them) worlds.  This concern appears to be confirmed by a chart released by user Gindipple. While only covering a single week, it shows the Nexus gaining 70% of all Sansar visitors, while 19 other worlds accounted for just under 28% of users by popularity. This split tends to indicate a “pooling” of users within the Nexus, without much of a spread outwards to other world (the 2nd most popular world only gaining 3.69% of logged-in users, for example).

Gindipple’s chart for one week of Sansar visitors by world

However, Linden Lab promised to evaluate the use of the Nexus, and in the December R38 release, they formally changed the log-in process to once again deliver users to their Home Space when using the client instead of the Nexus. In that release, the Codex was also updated to list all public worlds a-la the old Atlas, rather than just those a user has visited, thus hopefully making it easier for people to discover and visit worlds they have not previously been to.

Continue reading “Sansar at the end of 2019: a personal perspective”

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.

Sansar at two years: observations and thoughts

Courtesy of Linden Lab

July 31st, 2019 marked the second anniversary of Linden Lab throwing open Sansar’s doors to any and all who might want to try out the company’s (at that time) VR-centric social platform. In 2018, I marked the platform’s “first public anniversary” with some observations and thoughts, so I thought I’d do the say on the platform’s “second anniversary”.

When the doors first opened, and as the Lab forewarned at length, Sansar’s capabilities were nowhere near as built-out and Second Life (with its – then – 14-year history of development), the platform was fairly roundly beaten by some in SL as being dead on arrival. I personally felt such reactions were overblown, simply because we had been so clearly forewarning. but, I did (and do) still feel that launch was perhaps premature, and possibly the result of a knee-jerk reaction to the (genuinely) overblown predictions of growth within the VR marketplace.

But that was July 2017. While the VR market is still trying to clamber its way to the forecasts made about it back then, a lot has changed for Sansar in that time. Releases for the platform have continued at the rate of one major release a month, with intermediate point releases that further help with bug fixes, put out minor improvements or smaller features.

In the last 12 months in particular the last 12 months have seen some significant updates, including:

Sansar’s “Three Pillars” of Audience

  • Content creation – including provided a set of well-round tools / support for tools for both avatar and world creation.
  • Socialisation – making sure people can interact with one another, make friends, hold social events.
  • Gaming  / exploration – quests, mini-games, people exploring experiences and discovering what has been put into them.


Landon McDowell on Sansar’s audience segements

  • Working to bring the Desktop (non-VR) mode more up to parity with the platform’s VR mode (wrongly seen by some pundits as a “de-emphasising” of the platform’s VR focus).
  • Adding far more capabilities for direct interaction by users within experiences – including the recent (and still developing) quest system, and support for things like guns for shooting games, etc.
  • For VR users, full-body tracking has been introduced, with plans to continue to improve it.

  • Use-generated events capabilities have been released, allowing experience creators to host their own events.
  • Support for custom avatars has been added, together with avatar scaling, etc.
  • The licensing / permissions system was introduced, and the Sansar Store finally integrated into the client.

At the same time the platform has seen numerous improvements to the UI, both in Desktop Mode and in VR mode; Users have been offered more of a feeling that they have their own “personal space” when logging-in directly to the Sansar client (rather than by way of an experience on the web Atlas) through the “Home Space”, and so on. There have also been a broad range of under-the-hood tweaks, updates and change through Sansar to better support avatar counts within experiences, to reduce experience load times, to improve overall performance and stability, etc. And, of course, creator capabilities have continued to be expanded.

So Sansar has hardly stood still over the course of the year, and is something of a decent beast to how it looked just a year ago.

Click gallery images for views of the Sansar Home Space

That said, there are some capabilities within the platform that are still lacking, or which have stirred a degree of controversy, together with decisions by the lab that have perhaps resulted in raised eyebrows.

An example of the first of these is the fact that there is still no easy way for content creators to offer updates to their products on the Sansar Store (outside of scripts) – a pretty fundamental capability if you want commerce to thrive on the platform.

The upcoming release of Sansar’s Avatar 2.0 has also caused some upset in that it will effectively put an end to the current avatar form, and “break” things like rigged hair and clothing (at least until the creator re-rigs it to the new avatar). However, this is countered by comments from within Second Life that once deployed, it may well encourage more avatar-related creators to give Sansar a go, given the enhancements it will bring to the Sansar avatar.

In terms of raised eyebrows, the decision to launch on Steam at the end of 2018 was perhaps the biggest. Again, given the overall state of Sansar’s development at the time, it appeared to be premature. Yes, Steam is considered the biggest platform for VR games, but Sansar’s lack of capabilities meant it might not gain traction among the more “consumer” type of Steam users – those who like to play fully-rounded games.

However, the decision can perhaps be made more understandable if referenced in terms of economics: provisioning the platform on Steam comes at a cost (30% of sales). This required an adjustment to the fees charged by the Lab – a bridge perhaps best crossed sooner rather than hit a much larger audience of creators with the increase further down the road.

The subject of Steam, however, perhaps brings us to the elephant in the room: user numbers.

Steam stats reveal that, by-and-large, Sansar usage has been low, but they don’t necessarily reflect overall usage

Much has been made of this – particularly by pointing to the Steam stats. However, it’s important to remember that the Steam stats only represent one portion of those coming into Sansar: those accessing the platform through Steam’s own gateway (or who have maybe tied their Sansar account to Steam). As Linden Lab has noted, they don’t include people coming into the platform either directly through Sansar’s front door on the web, or by their local (non-Steam) installation of the client, or through specifically publicised events. Thus, when looking purely at the Steam stats, it is possible the entire picture isn’t being seen.

Nevertheless, and with the exception of recent events, it is not unfair to say that user numbers for Sansar have been disappointingly low. This has even been remarked upon by Landon McDowell, the Lab’s Chief Product Officer, and the person most directly in charge of Sansar’s development.

More recently, there have been some significant upticks in Sansar’s user counts – notably due to Linden Lab’s partnership with Monstercat, the Canadian independent electronic dance music record label. But again these tend to be spikes, rather than signs of a growing upward curve – which remains something Sansar has yet to really achieve. But this doesn’t mean Sansar has in any way “failed”.

The fact is, the virtual entertainment market is a highly competitive space; as such building an audience will take time (as the old adage goes, “it took my X years to become an overnight success”). With Sansar, this ability to to grow an audience has undoubtedly been hampered by the lack of broader capabilities.

The Monstercat launch event saw record currency for Sansar – although “record” is a relative term

However, there are signs that Sansar is now approaching a point in its development where it can start to appear to be far more sophisticated to incoming users, be they creators or “consumers”. Game play mechanisms are now appearing, opportunities for more direct immersion and  engagement (regardless of whether or not a user has a VR HMD system) are growing, and even the avatars themselves are about to become a lot more engaging. Thus, the potential for Sansar to grow its user base over the next 12 months is potentially there.

There are still significant questions around Sansar and its future, not just in terms of raising its user count, but in terms of keeping pace with developing technology around VR (it doesn’t, for example support the Oculus Quest or similar  Snapdragon based hardware). But again, it’s still too early to write-off Sansar on the basis of what it currently lacks, simply because it is still in development.

At the end of my look at Sansar’s first “public” 12 months back in July 2018, I noted that Sansar was not a place where I’d want to spend all my virtual time – and that is still the case today. But, having observed the development of the platform through the past year (and reporting on them), I confess to being somewhat optimistic that Sansar could well be in a stronger position in a year’s time.