Yesterday I spent some time reading the latest round of pre-obituaries for Second Life. Isn’t anyone tired of writing that year after year? When I talk about SL to academic audiences, however, I always hear that people are surprised that it is still around. So what the heck: I’ll throw in my two cents.
Second Life is the best of its class…
…but there’s not really any competition. I’ve spent some time in OpenSim worlds and I’ll admit: I don’t get it. Why would I want to spend time on empty grids that look like SL in 2008 and have terrible la……….g? One evening recently when SL had over 50,000 accounts signed on, OSGrid had 93. I spoke with someone there who raved about the lower costs and being able to build anything he wants, and I understand organizations that want private space away from potential problems in SL. I’ve heard praises sung by OpenSim evangelists and I’m putting in hours trying to understand the appeal, but it doesn’t resonate with me yet.
I don’t think there’s really anything else to fairly compare Second Life to now. It’s not a 3D chat system or an MMORPG or The Sims Online. But, that means that there is room for a competitor to arise, and there are many things that the competition could to do better.
A lot of people have left SL… but many remain.
Every “SL is dead” post brings out comments from the “I’m smarter than you because I left long ago” crowd. Yawn. People join, stay, and leave for a range of reasons and I don’t find anything innately superior about stayers or leavers. Critics rage that the continuing high number of new SL registrations is due to automated forum spammers and bots, and I’m certain that those provide a lot of inflation, but people are still joining, too. If they can make it through the new member experience and find a community to call home, maybe they’ll stay for a while. Though my (almost) 9 year old avatar is often the oldest in a region, I see many that were created 5-7 years ago and are still very active.
The price of land is too high for the space and prim count allowed, which limits creativity.
Sure, I’d love to have the money for more land so I could build something public to contribute to the community, which was one of my dreams way back when I first joined SL. I can’t imagine buying a region, which currently costs US$1000 for setup and $295/month maintenance, for an endeavor that wouldn’t make a profit. Speaking as someone who pays for two premium accounts and land for my home though, tier takes the biggest bite. (Tier is payment to Linden Lab that allows an account to own up to a certain amount of space on LL-owned mainland, as opposed to privately-owned islands where I would pay rent to a landlord, who then would pay LL). If I look at tier as paying for server space, it’s painfully high and doesn’t make sense; I could buy my own server and have vast OpenSim land for much, much less. Part of the problem is that tier pricing is structured in chunks — pay for up to 1/8 region, up to 1/4 region, etc — so I can end up paying for more than I actually use. Another is simply that prices for server space should have gone down over time, but for the same tier costs, I’m not getting higher prim allotment or more space than before. I’ve rented from a private estate, been homeless, and tried using one of the premium homes in the past, but I prefer to be in the sometimes crazy surroundings of the mainland. My partner helps with the tier payments and I consider the amount that I pay LL each year to be fair for the amount of entertainment I receive, but I’m figuring the entire experience into that equation. Most of the things that contribute positively to the experience of SL are made by other residents, not created or subsidized by Linden Lab. So, LL overcharges for space and gets the benefit of goodwill created by the works of other residents. [For the record, I keep two premium accounts because with a higher stipend on one account grandfathered in from 2005, it makes sense financially if I’m going to spend a few thousand L$ each month anyway. I use the land bonus, but even without it, I end up paying $144/year for $L that would cost $169 at today’s exchange rate. So, I pay yearly fees to LL, LL gives me weekly stipends, I pay other residents for goods and services using those stipends. Premium benefits like the tract housing, gifts, and private areas are useless and make me wonder why LL thinks those are desirable.] Update: Mona Eberhardt picked up this topic again on May 19th and her excellent post is worth a read for another opinion. I’m not a region owner and never expect to be, so my complaint is more on behalf of “casual” users: those who don’t run an inworld business and might have a budget of $10-50 for SL each month, what they’d pay for an MMORPG. Establishing a home, furnishing it to your taste, tipping and donating when you visit other places, and having the avatar appearance you desire can add up. Tier costs still seem disproportionate to me. (BTW, none of those costs are essential and you can use SL without them.)
Creators, community builders, and consumers all have frustrations.
A lot of the griping that I read is from creators who want to use more sophisticated tools or have more advanced results than SL allows. SL isn’t Minecraft, but the graphics aren’t state-of-the-art, either. My husband is a programmer and I hear him growling about antiquated and poorly structured SL code. Community builders complain about shoddy group management tools, griefers, and the need for event management systems. On Thursday I tried to attend an event in SL where high turnout crashed the sim, forcing us to continue the discussion in a Google Hangout. High attendance should be a desired result, not a disaster! And, the people who make up the majority of users, those who appreciate the creations and community but aren’t leaders in either, are annoyed with lag, inconsistent voice chat, pricing, blocky avatar shapes, high computer requirements, and endless other things depending on how they spend their time. The improvements that are made are too little, strangely prioritized (pathfinding??), and feel years out of date by the time they launch. Being grateful for Project Interesting feels like being grateful for innovations from the late ’90s, when most people had dial-up modems and we would code websites to load text and images above the fold before the content lower on the page, to make the apparent speed seem better.
Yet, there are many concerned, experienced SL residents who work hard to keep the world alive.
Beyond those who work for profit, these are the people who organize huge events, build and maintain creative sims, work as mentors and guides, produce SL-themed blogs and videos, advocate for open water/skies/roads, mindfully submit bugs to the SL Jira, report griefers, participate helpfully in the forums, and more. These are volunteers, people who give their time and/or money to make SL more vibrant, accessible, orderly, and simply better. If it wasn’t for them, SL would not exist. These are the highly engaged residents that remember — as I do — the days when you might spot a Linden at an inworld event, and not just as a scheduled speaker. If these folks leave, it will really be time to start tolling the funeral bell. They haven’t given up yet.
Sometimes, SL is still awesome.
Awesome as in the true sense of the word: it takes my breath away. Maybe it’s wandering a sim and turning a corner to find a gorgeous landscape. Maybe it’s having a conversation with someone from another continent that gives me new insight into the human experience. Maybe it’s seeing artistic expression that exploits the advantages of a 3D world and couldn’t be done the same anywhere else, whether it’s a rich construction like something by Bryn Oh or a performance like Paradise Lost. Maybe it’s a clever item that makes me break into surprised laughter at my desk. Maybe it’s seeing the way people rally around those in need, whether providing support for a sick friend, raising money for a charity, or building an area to help or draw attention to an under-served group.
I’m hoping that events like Facebook buying Oculus and High Fidelity entering alpha testing are signs that we are on the cusp of a Big Bang for the virtual universe. There’s a good chance that Second Life will fall behind in the next few years as viable competitors enter the marketplace. But, that’s not now. Personally, I don’t have any interest in a chat-focused world and I don’t have time for an MMORPG, so SL is the best fit for me. I like the variety of experiences and I’m rather passionate about the place, flaws and all. When there are other options, my decision will be shaped by curiosity, pricing, features, and technical requirements, but it will also be a social decision. Where are the people with whom I want to spend time online? Right now, they’re in SL.