Clickable Culture   Official Research Blog of Phantom Compass
  ‘Second Life’ Inhospitable For Some  
Posted 2006-04-18 by Tony Walsh
While the virtual world of Second Life has grown rapidly since 2005, the number of residents logged in at any given time hovers around 6,000--about 3% of the total number of accounts created--and is usually scattered across Second Life's massive, contiguous 3D spaces. It sometimes becomes difficult to find more than a handful of gathered avatars in a single spot. Combine this with frequent, required software patches for the client "viewer" that connects to the virtual world, resident-initiated attacks on the "grid" of servers that binds Second Life together, crotchety performance on either or both of the server and client end of things, an overabundance of information, sub-par search tools, and an overall lack of creative cohesion. What you end up with is a harsh environment for some newcomers to adjust to, despite the world's boom in population.

Metroblogging co-founder Sean Bonner isn't sure what to make of "Sucknd Life." Although his localblog network added the game world of Azeroth to its stable of real locales, Bonner isn't adding Second Life any time soon. On his personal blog, Bonner wrote: "Here's my usual Second Life experience - Log in. wait for everything around me to load. Keep waiting. Finally loads, Try to move, no luck. Keep trying. Keep having no luck... check the map to try and find some people. Ok, there's some. Teleport there. Oh, that's a private zone that I can't get to, so instead I've been teleported off to this other place where no one is....Finally get some place where there are other people. They are all Away or talking about scripts. I try to talk to several of them. No one ever responds."

Play Girlz gamesblogger Ingrid was underwhelmed and confused upon arriving in Second Life--after coming from games such as World of Warcraft she seemed to find this new social world devoid of purpose. On her second day trying out Second Life, she wrote "I flew, and flew and saw a bunch of empty houses and buildings. There wasn’t a soul anywhere... Finally, I decided to click on the button that said 'find' and asked for the most popular places. It told me there was free money at so and so. I tried teleporting there but it told me the space was full so I couldn’t. I figured if it was that full it must be a really happenin' spot. So I flew there. Over. Five. Thousand. Meters. It. Took. For. Ever. During my overly long flight there, I saw absolutely nothing of interest except a bunch of billboards and more buildings. Seriously, there wasn’t a soul in sight. This game is popular, right?" Linden Lab, Second Life's maker and maintainer, has been pushing hard over the last year to attract media interest towards its virtual world, but doesn't do much in the way of formal advertising. In the past, Linden Lab had presented Second Life as an action-packed environment on par with most video games, but the company has since toned down this presentation in favour of emphasizing the business and educational applications. The media has latched on, and real-world corporations such as MTV and Coca-Cola are starting to take interest. It's probably too early to say at this time whether Second Life is truly popular or has just enjoyed an influx of avatars based on media hype. "I thought this game was going to be lively and full of people and full of interesting things to check out," wrote Ingrid, "But there’s just a bunch of empty buildings for lease."

Anthropologist-with-business-sense Grant McCracken was similarly struck by the vacancies in Second Life. He wrote on his personal blog: "The marketer in me is horrified. Much of Second Life is like a ghost ship. There is plenty of evidence of intelligent life and activity but not many signs of life. All I see are beautiful houses, interesting shops, and little else. What I need here is a guide, someone who can give me an illuminating tour. I am told there are such creatures on Second Life, but I can't find one to save my life. Here too I am prepared to pay handsomely for the insider's guide. We have seen every kind of commerce spring up in Second Life. We have seen the in-world economy draw in real world wealth. So where the hell are the guides? They surround every real world hotel. Why are they so scarce in Second Life?"

Robyn Miller of Myst fame isn't impressed with Second Life's chaotic, resident-constructed 3D landscape. In a post on his personal blog about pattern languages in cyberspace, Miller wrote "[A]s a newcomer to Second Life, one is lost against the endless flat megapolis, cramped with flashing buildings and more flashing buildings. There's barely space to move: one must fly to get away. Perhaps that's because there are no paths or greenways in the city (do I dare call it a city?). Trees are instantly mowed down to make way for more flashing buildings. Not once did I ever encounter a city park or city forest, though I always enjoyed resting on random spots of unsold land (which would quickly be bought – the trees soon mowed down)." It's worth noting that there actually are a number of parks and green spaces in Second Life, but the interesting fact is that Miller didn't know where or how to find them. Similarly, he wasn't willing or able to find official monuments, a Town Hall or city square. Again, there are such spaces, but in a sea of clutter and with inadequate search tools, and without (as McCracken points out) a guide, these spaces might as well not exist. Miller further commented that "There are not housing hills or house clusters or seperate shopping promanades and markets," and while there are such clusters of homogeneity to find, it is probably Second Life's plentiful, enormous shopping malls and casinos that overshadow them. "[E]verything is thrown together in one endless chaotic clutter," wrote Miller. "Second Life is not even a visual circus: it is an endless trash heap of a city. It will never achieve true cyberverse status because it can't really compete with the real universe for our attention."

In my opinion, the new-user experience hasn't changed much in Second Life since I logged in for the first time two years ago this month. I wrote on my second visit that "The Creative Director side of me wants to go over Second Life with a magnifying glass and reorganize dwellings into more complimentary arrangements where each region of the world paints a picture, tells a story, or conveys a mood. The Anarchist side applauds SL's citizens for their reckless abandon." On reviewing 12 months of immersion in the virtual world last year, I wrote "Second Life is both ahead of its time and behind the times. It is ahead of its time because the computers and networks required to experience Second Life optimally are out of reach of most consumers... Second Life is behind the times, because even though its engine has extreme hardware requirements, it isn't the best engine available..." And last month, I wrote "At 160k users, Second Life is becoming too big to easily enjoy the best of its user-created content." While there seem to be a number of performance, usability, and content issues increasing in severity proprotionately to the population increase, would 180k accounts have been created if Second Life was really so underwhelming? Well, actually, yes. A better questions might be: How many active accounts will there be at this time next year? Linden Lab thinks there will be over a million. I think that's only possible with a complete rebuild of the service before the end of this year, something that may finally be possible, thanks to an $11M round of financing last month.

Looking forward to filing next year's report, I remain the tragically-nicknamed Zero Grace in Second Life.
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Comment posted by Torley
April 19, 2006 @ 6:12 am
The first time I met you, I didn't get the pun in your name. I read it over and over and think I finally comprehended, some months later.

BTW, did you mean "about 30%" or "about 3%"?

The whole search thing frustrates me greatly--as what I've come to term as an "enduser Linden", even at this stage of development, I find myself getting lost a lot. I fondly remember when the Events calendar wasn't so clogged with detritus, and I used to page through it to find trivia events. I willingly flew to them too, in the days before direct teleportation.

I know there's lots of specific things I'm looking for out there, I just can't find them YET, so instead of searching, I wait for them to come to me. I realize not everyone has such a bizarre degree of synchronicity attached like a tail, tho.

YES, there is a dearth of tour guides in SL. I realized this the day someone told me, "You should be a tour guide!" and I asked "Why?" and then this person went on to talk about my personal qualities, I then proceeded to blush, then I got a good earful of the holes in SL... and I've been conscious of them ever since. There aren't even more automated vehicle tours.

I wonder what Robyn Miller would have thunk of the Korean region city made primarily by Brian Linden, tho, or even some of the Resident-created estates. Or, the Myst-inspired builds. Hmmm... I wonder if aDen Ennui knows Robyn was in. ;)

Are you thinking of getting a namechange? I hope not, I've come to like your name so much.
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
April 19, 2006 @ 7:56 am
re: the nickname -- I thought my consistently-bad manners would have been a clue :) I will definitely change my name when/if we can do so, sorry Torley. It's kind of fun having a nickname, but persona-management gets so hard sometimes. Since I don't roleplay in SL, it seems better to use my real name.

re: 3 / 30 -- LOL!! Yeah, 3%, I had a brain-fart. Corrected the article, thanks for noticing that hugemongous error. Sheesh...

On the search-tool issue, it's one of those things that's really become glaring with the population and land expansion. There are so many more things--and more types of thing--to be found. If we could only search more than one field... then there's also a need for vendors and content creators to properly write descriptions. I wish we could tag objects...

McCracken points out a really interesting niche with the tour guide stuff. Some enterprising resident could probably make this their full time job. It'd be super cool to have an airship full of tourists flying around.

The thing with Robyn Miller is that this is someone who didn't get the complete picture of SL because of being turned away too quickly. This user-retention thing is a big challenge. If I had just joined SL now, I probably would have had the same opinion as Miller. There are some gems in SL, but if you can't see them in your first 15 minutes, that's a problem. And I'm not sure the Welcome Area counts as a gem :) It is nice-looking, but not everyone wants to hang out with other n00bs.
Comment posted by gatmog
April 19, 2006 @ 3:18 pm
Great follow up article. I think it captures the general feeling towards Second Life that is currently making the rounds amongst the newcomers drawn in by media attention.

I think the article by Ingrid of "Play Girlz" is probably the best example. What comes across as a cursory glance at Second Life by a "newb" says a lot about the current definition of "massively multiplayer", and indicative of peopleís expectations when they play one. For a person that came from playing World of Warcraft, of course it would seem like a huge change. A lot of the negative opinion surrounding World of Warcraft is that it is too simple. It changed no conventions of the genre that was laid out by Ultima Online and Everquest, and yet everyone and their mother is playing it. Why? Thatís easy: instant gratification. Rules. Direction. Second Life may be unplayable for technical reasons, but what if there were people around, and there wasnít any lag? Would there magically appear a bunch of things to do? Perhaps, from a social perspective. But I think it becomes clear extremely fast that Second Life is a world that depends on its users to provide content, activities, etc. It demands effort. This happened with Star Wars Galaxies, a game that received similar disdain from its players (and this was before the incredibly moronic move to change the mechanics behind the entire game). SWG required an investment to build communities within the context of Star Wars. Sure the quest terminals were a dumb idea, but people still found other stuff to do. Build and sell vehicles, trade items, hang out at the cantina and roleplay Ė there was nothing technical that held this game back, only a dearth of dedicated users. From a lot of the comments on Second Life Iíve seen here at Clickable Culture, commerce is similarly one of the driving forces behind Second Life.

As you have said, Linden Labís marketing is all wrong. Is it a game or is it a simulation? Is it a business or is it simply a receptacle for advertisements? There are obviously a lot of creative people at work within this game world, but I get the impression that experiencing it is a very passive process unless you want to contribute. This is definitely not something that would appeal to the current massively-multiplayer marketplace dominated by World of Warcraft.

I remember commenting on one of your Second Life articles here probably a year ago (maybe more Ė I have no idea what post it was) and was unsure of what SL was really all about. While the tone of the articles you cite here are mostly negative, they do little to change my initial opinion of the game. It seems to me there is a real need for some creative direction to this project, because it could be something that everyone would want to experience, instead of the side show/science project it has unfortunately become.
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