An experiment by financial giant Wells Fargo
in the virtual world of Second Life
has come to an unfortunate end. The company's "Stagecoach Island" advergame project launched last September
, but never moved beyond its testing stage in Second Life
. Instead, as discovered this month, Wells Fargo's island was transplanted to a competing virtual environment known as Active Worlds
. While the original island was built by contractors and volunteers from Second Life
's resident community, the relocation in Active Worlds
was a shock to the residents involved. While the core contractors have been paid for their work on the Second Life
version of Stagecoach Island, at least one contributor is still awaiting payment and another seems to have had their original work copied over to Active Worlds
The project's history is relatively brief. Wells Fargo worked with San Francisco-based Swivel Media
in planning an advergame targeting young people. Somewhere along the line, San Francisco-based Linden Lab
--the makers of Second Life
--got involved, successfully positioning their virtual world as an ideal game platform. Linden Lab then referred Swivel to a game development team known as Bedazzle
, which comprised of Second Life
residents. Swivel subsequently contracted Bedazzle to develop Stagecoach Island for a purse rumoured to be worth around $17,000 USD. Other deals (mostly verbal, it seems) were made with a handful of Second Life
's resident content-creators and vendors to flesh out the island's features.
Resident Eggy Lippmann played a major role in the development Stagecoach Island's foundation development, working closely with Bedazzle principle Jimmy Thompson, programmers Christopher Omega and Jeffrey Gomez. "I developed the core banking system together with a shopping-cart-based e-commerce solution that was supposed to mimic RL shopping," Lippmann told me. He earned $1000 USD for his efforts, and although he enjoyed working on Stagecoach Island, he understands not everyone benefited from participating. "The people who were invited to sell stuff in the island were never really hired or told anything about the project," he wrote on the official Second Life
discussion forum. "They gained nothing from it and devoted a significant amount of their time to our project."
Fashion designer Beryl Greenacre alleges she was promised payment of $100 USD by Swivel Media. "I haven't seen a penny of that $100 I was promised," she told me. "Judging by my experience," she reflected, "I'm not sure I'd agree to participate in another project like this unless it was something I really, really believed in or wanted to do." As the dust settles from Stagecoach Island's departure, those involved don't seem to agree on the exact details of the original agreements. Content creator Torrid Midnight explained via the Second Life
forum that vendors were offered a small amount of money in exchange for control of their items by Linden Lab, adding "this was all handled poorly from the beginning." Only Foxy Xevious, the leader of Bedazzle, seems to know exactly what was signed away, and to whom. "Bedazzle was only hired to design and build the layout of the island," she wrote on the Second Life
discussion forum. "It was nowhere in our contract to hire vendors. All vendors and game creators [were] to be [handled] by Linden Lab. Our contract only gave [Swivel Media] rights to the building and layout of what we created... Anything that you now see in Active Worlds
was recreated without our knowledge until yesterday."
It appears that the confusion experienced by the Second Life
residents involved with Stagecoach Island extended all the way to Active Worlds
. Second Life
content-creator Cubey Terra discovered his work was apparently copied in the move to Active Worlds
. Terra shared his concern via the Second Life
community discussion forums. "It looks to me like [Swivel Media] duplicated the designs of my [skydiving] pods, the launch pads, the parachutes, and even the shelves and signage. Textures that I created myself in Paint Shop Pro now appear in Active Worlds
somehow. At no point did I make any agreement to give away the rights to my designs and textures to anyone."
After learning about Terra's dilemma, Second Life
residents raised questions about the reasons for the apparent infringements. Some viewed Swivel Media and Wells Fargo with distrust, while others hoped the transgression was all just an innocent mistake. Still others cast a wary eye towards Linden Lab. Not only did the company's exact role in the entire affair come into question, but some residents pointed out that a clause in Second Life
's Terms of Service allows Linden Lab to exploit user-created content in the promotion of Second Life
--perhaps Terra's content was exploited in this way. At the time of this writing, Linden Lab had not responded to direct questions about the apparent infringement, but did offer an explanation for Wells Fargo's departure from Second Life
A Linden Lab representative said that Wells Fargo cited several reasons for leaving, "including cost, system requirements and the [in]ability to separate the Stagecoach experience from the main grid." Linden Lab's rep said the company is disappointed at seeing Stagecoach Island move to Active Worlds
, but considers the experience an exercise in learning.
Eggy Lippmann, the creator of Stagecoach Island's overarching technical structure, thinks the lessons to be learned here are clear. "Second Life
is a bit ahead of its time, but is overly ambitious for a simple social environment. Non-technical users do not care about the technical underpinnings that limit their experience, they know only how limited their experience is. Whereas Active Worlds
supports a whole country on a single server, Second Life
simulators are too small and can't handle enough people or objects." Each platform may have its perks and limitations, but Lippmann thinks Stagecoach Island's move to Active Worlds
was "an act of insanity" and will result in a lack of rich, complex, interactive content compared to Second Life
. But there are still a number of major hurdles for Linden Lab to clear in terms of making Second Life
a viable platform for big business. "The company needs a fundamental change of attitude regarding enabling versus controlling," Lippmann told me. "They should allow serious projects full control over the simulators. It's not really up to them to tell a Fortune 100 corporation how many [building blocks] they can have, or how big their objects can be, or how fast they can send email out."
"We are moving towards having a much better idea of what works and what does not in this type of project," stated a representative for Linden Lab, "and also towards understanding how to handle such projects better in the future." Linden Lab's ultimate challenge in becoming a serious platform is in finding the resources for a major upgrade to the Second Life
virtual-reality engine, something that doesn't seem to be planned for 2006--instead, the company aims to support more users before working on new features. Based on community reaction to Stagecoach Island's unannounced departure, Linden Lab's upcoming challenges aren't just technical, but social as well. The company's success relies in large part on content created by its resident community. It is the content of residents, not Linden Lab, which comprises nearly all that is experienced in Second Life
. A disgruntled Wells Fargo may be a business setback, but a disgruntled community of creators is perhaps even more significant.