Why I’m waiting for Second Life’s 3rd life

The virtual world known as ‘Second Life’ was created in 2003 by Linden Research inc (commonly known as Linden Labs), It’s basically an open 3D world with a real-world economy selling virtual cash for real cash in exchange for buying and selling virtual items (once you’ve earned the virtual equivalent of $150 U.S you can get it turned into real cash into a bank account) It also has a fairly extensive scripting language to enable users to build pretty much anything they want. They can then use or trade the items they make. Second life has always had a lot of hype around it – they’ve made a lot of news about how big their real-world economy is. Recently however they’ve been overshadowed by larger online communities, web 2.0 style social networking sites that include video and audio in closed communities. Second life has taken a back seat to Facebook, and YouTube with tens of millions of users and been left playing catch-up.

Linden Labs haven’t taken this lying down – traditionally they’re pretty good at the hype machine, the ‘we’ve got a bigger economy than a small country’ worked for a bit, as did the frequent press releases on the latest virtual island selling for xx thousand dollars. They’ve now managed to get the business community interested through several high profile virtual stores, virtual Nike store, BMW showroom, , Sony, Apple store, Toyota. The stores are generally built by in-game contractors – it’s rather specialist when building to such a high level of detail, and there are plenty of virtual building contractors. Some stores in second life have taken the final step and are now shipping the real items when bought virtually through second life. But lets get back to what the marketing guys are doing – Is BMW’s world a success? It’s an obvious publicity gimmick – alright – but I took a visit to their virtual space to check it out.
The BMW space – was one of the dullest, most empty places I’ve ever seen in Second Life (although there’s plenty of empty spaces), they had single 3D model of a car which was duplicated twice, each side of a cinema style screen playing back a short movie. The space was stark, and empty – completely without anything inspiring or even the faintest glimpse of a sales person (virtual or otherwise) – there wasn’t even a proper information area. This is just one of so many badly created corporate spaces that do more damage once their implemented than their initial publicity may provide. The only brand message they were giving was that they don’t understand the Second Life population. Despite all the hype there’s an internal backlash to the corporate involvement with the second lifers – they resent the infringement that the corporate world is having on their once free space, and the speed that pointless virtual spaces are popping up within the world diluting a space that was once their exclusive playground.
There’s another huge problem with the Second Life system. It’s creaking 3D engine is incredibly ropey, a BMW doesn’t seem so cool when it looks like it has hexagonal wheels. Each virtual space is limited to a few hundred people and the whole system is artificially split into zones – There are massive ghost town areas with empty buildings and no activity. It should never have got this bad – it’s connectivity should mean the system is continually revised – following the model that other massive online spaces take. To some extent it is – the recent inclusion of voice chat is a testament to that – but it’s a new and sparkling Second Life version 2.0 that’s really needed.
It’s a huge disappointment Linden Labs are not fully taking advantage of it’s recent gains in publicity by bringing online a new virtual system. Instead the whole of Second Life is plagued by slow loading times and graphics that haven’t been ‘state of the art’ since 1999. That’s not to say there isn’t real craftsmanship within second life, there are some seriously well crafted costumes, buildings and environments that have clearly taken many hours of work. A mixture of a download model taken from the gaming community would be far more favorable – A large cross-platform download like Blizzard use with World of Warcraft , followed by small online updates, instead of Second Life’s system of continuously downloading content and creating a horrible pop-up effect whenever a new area is encountered.
One-off publicity events work a lot better – Hire out a virtual space do the publicity, hold the event, record it and announce it a success, or never talk about it again. That’s the model that many radio and TV events have used. The BBC own part of a virtual island that they can use for hosting radio and other events (2006 radio1 roadshow). Earlier than they they conducted a virtual interview in 2005. For the most part Second Life is generally used as a 3D chat room, although it’s ‘adult areas’ still appear to be its biggest draw – an image that they’re trying to lose as they develop their teen equivalent of Second Life (called Teen Second Life).So what’s happening to Second life? well it’s now far from the only choice as far as marketing goes. In an early blog post i commented on H&M’s fashion pack for ‘The Sims’, a game franchise with a user base of tens of millions, and due next year the SIMS 3 is destined to be online. But what about the ability to create your virtual space? It’s not known if ‘The Sims 3’ will let you do that, but Maxis would be missing a trick if they weren’t paying an extremely close eye on the way that second life has been going with its increased corporate presence. There’s others of course – Sony HOME will definitely be big in Europe – with the ability to purchase virtual branded goods via micro payments through their Sony online Network. Perhaps the biggest unknown on the Horizon comes from the best known real-life building block companies in the entire world. Lego Universe was announced in July – Lego’s a world wide known brand, with a history of great LEGO branded computer games that have been hugely successful, and Lego is a building material that everyone can relate to, without trying to create some sort of hyper-real environment like Second Life. It’s going to be massive.With the quality of websites around, and the depth of data mining that social networks are giving the marketing companies more people are less likely to check out a space in second life than simply load up their web browser, and check out their site. There’s simply no need, unless the user is going to be given a level of interaction that they cannot get through a 2D interface – something that second life has always promised.To close – there are plenty of alternatives out there. Techcrunch has a great comparison chat that i’m going to link to herenote:- The Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra is going to play to a select 100 ticket winners in a virtual Second life Concert on the 14th September. Not surprisingly a high profile, singular publicity generating event.

Posted in Media, Social