In The Meantime…

My avatar is a time traveller. But he still must deal with the problem of not having enough time to do everything he would like to do because his typist has that problem.

I joined Second Life in July 2007 and spent as much time as I could playing it and enjoying it. The more I learned about it, the more fun I had. And the more complaints I had too. That’s a natural thing.

I could have voiced those complaints in the hope that someone, somewhere might listen and fix things but I didn’t. I didn’t have time. I’d rather just log in to SL and play. So I did.

Two or three years into my second life, I made some time to complain. On the SL forums. I had never logged in to the forums before so one day I did just to see what it was all about. I spent a few weeks reading what others were saying and voiced my own opinion here and there. It was interesting for a few weeks.

Then I went back to logging in and playing.

I never went back to the forums but I did take a little time now and then to read the blogs of other SL users to see what the issues of the day were. I didn’t spend much time doing this as I didn’t have much spare time and I still preferred to spend it inworld, playing. But I was interested enough to keep going back to the blogs every once in a while to know what the biggest issues were because I enjoyed SL enough that I wanted to see it survive so I could keep playing.

Then came the RL economic crash and it’s effect on SL and some of my friends were leaving. A few went to other virtual worlds but they were very few. Most just left VW altogether.

That was followed by some of the friends who stayed beginning to talk about whether SL would survive. Some eventually declared it dead and left. Others declared it dead or dying but stayed.

There was a point where the conversations about SL’s death or irrelevancy were almost constant inworld. In my circle of friends, that is. I was living among a group of people who had either been in SL from its earliest days or had come shortly after, so their ties to the early days were strong. But when I would go outside my circle, life went on and no one talked about such things. It was like night and day.

At first, I tended to think the veterans of SL, the oldbies and those who knew them well, must be right, they must know. But as time went on…time went on. And on. Some of these people left and some stayed. And those that stayed continued to say SL’s time was coming to an end. But its time went on. And on.

And I eventually came to the conclusion that these people were wrong.

Second Life might not be what it was “back in the good old days” but people say that about everything. Some times it’s true, sometimes not.

Some things in so-called real life are not as good as they used to be. Some things are better than they used to be. Some things are not worse or better than they used to be, just different. Bottom line: things change.

Second Life may have changed. It probably has. It must have. How could it not? Maybe it’s worse, maybe better, maybe just different. But just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s dying.

And nowadays, by the way, I don’t have those conversations in world about SL being dead or dying anymore. Once in a while, yes. But not constantly like at one time.

Maybe because most of the people inworld are just too busy playing and having fun.

But the blogosphere is another story.

Things changed for me in RL awhile back such that I have more spare time than I used to have. And I have many things to fill that time with. My time inworld is probably a little higher than it was before though it’s too early to say if this is a trend. If you’d asked me five months ago if I was spending more time inworld now that I had the time, my answer would have been: No, I am spending less time inworld. As I say, I have many things to fill my time with and virtual worlds is just a part of that. An important part, for sure. It’s fun. I like fun.

Last fall, since I had the time, I did two things regarding virtual worlds that I had not had enough time to do before: I spent more time reading the blogs of other users and I spent more time exploring worlds other than Second Life.

I should point out that I had visited a bunch of other virtual worlds before. Once or twice a year I’d make the rounds. Now, I had time to do it again. And take my time with it if I wanted to or found it necessary. But, with one exception, it wasn’t necessary.

My conclusion about other worlds? They are SL clones. Nothing wrong with that as far as I’m concerned. I will continue to visit some of them. I will continue to try others. I’m not looking to replace SL. Augment it, add to it? I don’t know. Just interested, curious. Why not? I have time now.

The one other VW that interested me the most is Kitely, so I put down roots there. The others I will still visit but it is unlikely I will buy land or rent it. In Second Life and Kitely now, I have land and I probably don’t have enough time to expand to other worlds as well. And I don’t want to spend a lot of money on VW anymore. Part of it is my total budget is smaller but part of it is out of pure desire not to spend as much. I don’t know what inspires that desire but that’s how I feel. And I am now spending 94% less on my monthly VW bill than I did at its peak. And, thanks to Kitely’s low prices, I own more land now than I ever did! And I’m having a great time with it.

So I am in Kitely and Second Life to stay. Therefore, I would like them to stay! I want them both to survive. I hope others survive too because that would generate competition. And that would be good for all of us. But it seems most people don’t see it that way.

One thing about other worlds that I have visited that is a turn-off… It doesn’t come up every time I visit other worlds because most of the time I don’t run into anyone in these places. But when I make a point to go where people are, like a social event, it seems the conversation always turns to how Second Life is dead or dying or something along those lines. And usually it continues that whatever world I’m in at the moment is going to be the one that will kick SL’s butt into the ground and stomp all over it. And how it’s already happening. These people do truly live in another world…and are out of touch with the real world. The real world of the business of virtual worlds, that is.

As I say, the other thing I’ve had more time to do in the past few months is to read the blogs of other users of SL and other worlds.

At first, I was focusing on the other worlds because I wanted to see if there were any that would be right for me to devote serious time to. I found Kitely and decided just to be a visitor in some others. And I kept coming back to reading about SL.

Of course, I don’t really have any choice. Because Second Life is definitely the number one topic among people who blog about virtual worlds. Even people who are no longer in Second Life because they hate it or they hate Linden Lab are blogging about it incessantly. Even the people who have been saying SL is dead or dying, keep coming back to writing about it and its woes again and again. If it really were dead they wouldn’t be doing that.

The reality is, SL is not dead. It’s not dying. It’s not even seriously ill. It’s not as healthy as it was in its younger days and it probably never will be again. But reports of its demise have been grossly exaggerated. Which, as many people seem to have forgotten, is a funny line because it is an understatement. A gross understatement, if you will. SL is not close to being dead.

SL has a cold.

That’s all.

I know this will enrage those who think the sky is falling and the virtual world is ending but you folks need to get some perspective. Otherwise you are right there with those who believed RL would end last month at the end of the Mayan calendar. It didn’t. And most of us laughed at the very few who believed it.

It’s just a cold.

And to further enrage you, I will remind you…

There is no cure for a cold.

So, what should LL do about this cold? Do what most of us do when we have a cold. Treat the symptoms and take it easy for a while. Don’t try to do too much because if you do, you will just make it worse.

Eventually, it will go away.

In fact, you might be able to get away with ignoring it. You might. Might not. That’s why most of us try to treat the symptoms. Even if the cold doesn’t go away any quicker with our treatment, it makes it a little easier to take because we are trying to do something about it.

And that, unfortunately my friends, is the bad news.

There is really nothing LL can do right now about the big picture of it all – they can’t cure the cold. They can’t fix the biggest long-term problems now. They have to eventually but they can’t right now. It’s just not possible. They’re stuck with the business model they have – and it is raking in the bucks, by the way. They can’t – and shouldn’t – overhaul it.

But they should try to treat the symptoms. It won’t solve the really big problems but it will make the state of things a little easier to take for most of their customers because at least we will see they are trying to do something.

And they might be doing this. But since they no longer tell us what they’re doing, we have no way of knowing. Ciaran Laval writes regularly about the lack of communication from LL these days and rightly so. That is actually their number one problem at the moment. It’s bigger than all of the other problems their customers complain about.

Just as LL is stuck with the financial part of the business model they have now – and just as it works pretty well for them as it brings in the bucks – the current management there is also stuck with the fact that the original management was very good at communicating with its customers. Very good. And that part of the business model worked pretty well too. If it didn’t, the new guys wouldn’t be here now because SL and LL would have already gone away. So, while they shouldn’t change the financial aspect of their business model drastically right now, they shouldn’t change the communication aspect either. Too late on that one because they already did. And that has made things seem worse. But that’s an easy fix if they put their mind to it. Much easier than the long-term fixes.

People point to the smaller number of users SL has today than it did six years ago or so as proof that the whole thing is over. That LL has screwed up too many times and has driven or is driving SL out of business and that it is inevitable that those user numbers continue to shrink.

Well, they’re right about LL screwing up too many times. Way too many. But as hard as they’ve tried, Linden Lab just can’t kill Second Life. It should be obvious by now.

People are griping about the same type of things – in some cases, the EXACT same things – they were griping about five years ago. And SL is still here and it is still doing well for LL’s piggy bank. In spite of it all.

(Just as in RL, we complain about the same thing forever and ever and ever. And nothing is solved, often nothing is even addressed, we just keep complaining. I could draw up a list of issues where that is so. And yet, life goes on. It ain’t perfect but it’s what we have.)

There is nothing inevitable about SL’s numbers continuing to shrink. I doubt that they will continue to drop (at least not much more) just as I doubt they will turn around and head back up. The reason SL doesn’t grow anymore is that it is in a niche market. There are only so many people who are going to play in virtual worlds. And SL has the market cornered.

Yes, they had better active user numbers at one time. In the days when it was new and foreign to the masses and the media, SL got a lot of attention and a lot of people came in for a look. But virtual worlds are not for everybody. They are not a mainstream product. And now they don’t get the attention from the media because they are no longer new, just foreign.

So this is it. This is the size of the virtual world audience. This is the size of the pie. And LL has – by far – the biggest slice. And it is so big that it is probably always going to be that way.

Is this a given? No. But the following is a given: if there is going to be a dramatic change in the size of LL’s slice of the pie, it is not going to happen overnight. There will be plenty of warning and plenty of time – YEARS! – for LL to take action in response to changes in the marketplace.

Now, there are those who say SL is so funked up and LL is so inept that there is no fixing it and it is going out of business and will do so soon. And these people know better and they are leaving – or left SL long ago – and now they are in Suchandsuch World and that is where the future is.

Well, good for you. Enjoy!

Oh, but you are not the only one? All your friends are saying and doing the same thing?

Well, good for them too. I’ll come over and visit some time. When I’m not with everybody else in SL.

Because ‘everybody’ is not leaving SL. Not even close. ‘Everybody’ is not even thinking about leaving.

What did I do before I had the time to look around other virtual worlds? I did what ‘everybody’ does. Well, not you and your friends but almost everybody else…

I just logged in to SL and played.

And that is what most of those 35,000 to 65,000 people who are inworld at a given moment do. They just go in and play.

Most of them have no idea that a few of us are even having this conversation about the future of SL or whether it even has a future. A very, very small percentage of them are aware of it and the vast majority of that very, very small percentage doesn’t give a ____. They just go in and play. So, it’s a very small percentage of a very, very small percentage that even bothers to read an article like this. And most of them will not read one again. They don’t have time. They’d rather be playing in SL than reading about all this.

And that’s why SL is not going away. Because a lot of people like to go in and play. Even if they have complaints about it, they still use it and have fun doing so.

SL is not going away.

Never? I hesitate to make a prediction like that about anything – never say never – but I think this is one of those times that I will stick my neck out and say it: Never!

If I’m wrong? Well, it’ll be a damned long time before anybody can call me on it. A damned long time.

What would cause it to happen?

If more than one competitor becomes so much better at it that SL’s share of the market shrinks to the point where it cannot compete anymore. Yeah, that would do it. However, I think that is the least likely way for it to happen to SL. I can see one other competitor getting popular enough to take away a large chunk of the market but I can’t see more than one doing it. Two others? I really don’t think so. Multiple others? No way. And that’s what it would take. But I don’t think one or more will ever become overly popular to the point where they are a real threat to SL or we’d see some sign of it already. And I maintain there is no such sign.

People look at the numbers of concurrent users and see how they have fallen off since SL’s hey day and assume that will continue. Maybe there will be a little more drop off but not much. I think things have either stabilized or are close to it. There is only so much market for virtual worlds in the first place. And SL owns an incredibly large piece of it. Almost all of it.

I hear people say, “SL is dead” or “there’s no one there.” And then I see the graphs that show 35,000 to 65,000 people there at one time. Then I see the numbers of concurrent users in other virtual worlds: 218 or 174 or 53. And these other worlds are a threat to SL? Are you kidding me?

These other worlds that are out there now – and any that come along in the future – are not going to put SL out of business.

Even if another world does become a serious competitor it’s not going to be anytime soon. It’ll be a damned long time.

I just don’t see it happening that way at all. The only way I can see SL going is if all –  or nearly all – interest in virtual worlds as we know it goes away.

Make sure you understand that last sentence. It’s not about “virtual worlds as we know them.” Yes, someone could think up some new hook, new feature, new angle that makes them the hot new thing in virtual worlds and they start to grow quickly. And this new company could zoom right past the other little guys, to the top of the little guy heap, and be the one that people say, is the biggest threat to SL that LL has ever had to deal with. But they still won’t overtake SL because, again, they won’t have time. LL will have plenty of time to respond to whatever the new guy comes along with. Nobody can take over the market of virtual worlds overnight, not when SL is as far out in front as it is.

No, it’s not about “virtual worlds as we know them.” It’s about “INTEREST in virtual worlds as we know it.”

If something comes along that causes the people who play in virtual worlds to say, “Oh, I don’t have time for virtual worlds anymore. I don’t do anything like that anymore. Now I spend my free time on ____.” That’s the only thing that could blow SL away. A lack of interest in virtual worlds overall. Maybe that will happen someday. IF that happens – and it’s a big IF – once again, that someday will not happen over night. It will be – say it with me – a damned long time.

It’s not about building a better mousetrap, it’s about building something that completely replaces the mousetrap. Which, by the way, still hasn’t even happened in the mouse-catching business. And it’s bigger than that anyway. It’s about something so big that people don’t care about catching the mice anymore. Which seems unlikely to happen. I think mouse-catching – more importantly, the desire to catch mice – is not going away. I feel safe on this one, I’ll say: Never! And I don’t think interest in virtual worlds is going away either. At least not for a damned long time.

So, while yes, it’s true, LL has to figure out a new business model at some point, that point in time is not tomorrow. Or the day after. Or next week. Or next year. Or the year after. They literally have years to do this because they have virtually (sorry!) no competition.

Yes, they have to start thinking about it now and they obviously are. I say ‘obviously’ because even putting out other products is the result of thinking about it. But, as for addressing the specific future of SL itself, they don’t need to have the answer today. In fact, they can’t. If they thought they did, they’d be wrong. Because by the time it was appropriate to either do something drastic to change the business model of SL or to phase in ideas that will change it completely eventually, the playing field will have changed and the answers they could come up with today would no longer apply.

They do need an answer for continued success in the long run but they don’t need to have that answer until the long run shows up.

To me, the real question, is not: how do they solve these really big problems that must be addressed in the long-term, instead it’s: what do they do in the meantime?

What do they do in the meantime?

That might even be the trickier part.

How do they get from right now to the point where they actually have to do something really big? As others have pointed out, doing something really big right now would do more harm than good to LL and it’s overall success and therefore to the continued success of SL as well. There may be a small fire in the engine room at the moment but it’s not yet time to man the lifeboats and abandon ship. It is time to try and put out the fire, however.

I wish I had the answers here but I don’t. Well, I got one little idea regarding land but it’s such a drop in the bucket that I’ll save it for a separate (and shorter!) article. I don’t want to give the impression that one little idea is going to make a big difference.

It looks like the only thing they can do right now is address the comparatively little problems of the moment. The everyday things people complain about. Try to keep the customer satisfied. You can’t please everybody but you have to try to please your core users.

Once again, that might actually be what they are doing. But if they don’t tell us then it isn’t happening. The one big thing I know is that communication should be LL’s priority in this new year and forevermore.

Sorry Rod, that’s all I got.

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About Danko Whitfield

writer, explorer of virtual worlds. semi-retired time traveler.
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3 Responses to In The Meantime…

  1. Inara Pey says:

    Nice piece, and largely well said.

    My only potential point of contention is that while SL doesn’t yet have any serious competition in the form of another grid-based world (or even the collective mass of OpenSim) and it will take several more years for a genuine competitor to emerge, LL still don’t have years and years to correct all of their woes.

    Competition isn’t the threat to SL per se. The threat is the current revenue model. Tateru Nino crunched some numbers on this back in April last year, and drew the conclusion that at that time, the Lab would need to lose some 6,000 “more” regions than had already been lost at that point before they started feeling it in the pocket. Between then and the end of 2012 they lost around a further 1,800 from the grid – that’s approaching 1/3 the figure which would see LL start redlining on revenue. Thus, if the pace of decline continues at the same rate through 2013/14, there is a risk that the Lab could start feeling a serious pinch by around mid-2014.

    This doesn’t mean they should cut tier – they can’t, for reasons I’ve explored at length (http://modemworld.wordpress.com/2013/01/15/tier-cuts-looking-from-the-labs-perspective/), but it does mean the Lab needs to be working towards rotating revenue away from land tier sooner rather than later – and to do so effectively. Either that or look to scale-back the grid themselves (not an easy prospect) or use the current decline and the decline in overall user numbers deliberately to “evolve” SL into a smaller, more manageable grid which is more effectively sized to the median number of concurrent users.

    Nevertheless, I tend to agree with your broader analysis. SL is ill – but it is not yet on its deathbed, and there is no reason why, given the right will and directly from LL’s management (would, indeed, that they would communicate more openly with us!), it should not avoid ever needing to enter the ICU.

    One other point I would perhaps mention is that while concurrency has dropped over the last several years, it is not necessarily indicative of a major (or “massive”) decline in overall users (although there has undoubtedly been a decline). Over the last 18-24 months we’ve actually seen a number of changes to user demographics and dynamics which could actually contribute to a decline in concurrency without actually pointing to “masses” of users leaving. A point many critiques of SL again overlook.

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    • Hi Inara,
      I’m not much for replying to Comments on my blogs. I’m a writer in RL and I see other writers regularly replying on their blogs and I salute them. I don’t know how they find the time. I have several blogs, two as Danko and others under other names. I handle Comments differently on each but in general I just don’t reply. Certainly not very often. And after writing 3000 words or so for this piece, all I could do here would be to reiterate or defend. That’s why a month has gone by without me replying to your thoughtful comment which you were kind enough to give…not to mention that you were kind enough to read my lengthy piece in the first place. But it has been bugging me that someone of your stature has taken this time to visit my blog and take part in it and I haven’t even said thank you until now. So, my apologies to you. And thank you very much. Believe me, I was tickled pink when I saw you had replied last month. I do read your blog religiously and appreciate your insight. The piece that you linked to above I had read originally and I agree with your thoughts on LL’s tier policies. Keep up the great work you do with your blog and thank you very much for reading mine.
      – Danko

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      • Inara Pey says:

        Danko, my pleasure. Your blog is a refreshing read. I enjoy it – and I keep meaning to add it to my blogroll…which I am now going to do, before I go and get sidetracked again…!

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