IMPROVISE, ADAPT, OVERSIT
Parting words on (yet another) failed attempt at social engineering from the man who made $3000 per month getting people to pull up a chair
So about three years ago, the Resident known as Games Prototype took down an Iraqi suicide commando with his own bayonet. You wouldn't quite know it to look at him, a red demon wandering his many casinos, checking up on his clientele and franchise owners. And though it may seem strange, what he's doing now as the owner of the Virtual Games Incorporated casino empire is really just a less violent application of the "Improvise, Adapt, Overcome" rule that United States Marines and vets like himself practice as their life credo. One day, a rage-crazed member of Saddam fedayeen comes rushing at you, and because quarters are too close for you to get off a shot, you find a workaround-- in that case, grab the bayonet off the guy's AK-47, and turn it against him. Another day, you log into a virtual world and learn that the company which owns it is paying landowners a bonus of virtual currency based on the amount of foot traffic you bring to your property, and you improvise-- in this case, pay people to sit on your land.
Same principle, same positive results. Depending, of course, which side of the dagger you're on.
The theory behind "Traffic Incentives", a monthly kickback of L$ for landowners who hosted large numbers of guests, was pretty simple, and in keeping with Linden Lab's policy of fostering user-created content. Without imposing any expectations on how they brought in foot traffic, Incentives rewarded property holders for whatever creative means they used to get them there. In practice, of course, this means the big Traffic Incentive winners are often nightclubs, casinos, or sex clubs-- or even more often, clubs with a dance floor, casino games nearby, and downstairs in a secluded basement or maybe in a cloud-shrouded skybox you could teleport to, sex with willing partners or the kind who were willing with enough money down. And if that seemed like a crude result to some, who was Linden to judge what people wanted with their world? They were coming into SL to enjoy content, and it was up to them to decide what sort of content they were looking to enjoy. As long as the traffic kept rolling, Linden kept paying. It was an elegant bit of social engineering that unleashed Resident creativity with little oversight by the company.
Thing was, around last Fall or so, people started coming into Second Life to sit. Just sit.
The "camping chairs", as they were called, offered a unique value proposition for the cash-poor Resident: sit down on one, and the landowner paid Linden Dollars in proportion to the amount of time your rear end stayed seated in their chairs. Payouts were low. Like L$2 per 5 minutes low, like 10 cents an hour (which is about what that comes out to, on the open market) low. But then, you were just sitting. On the SL Forums, someone waggishly pointed out how at that rate, you were probably paying more for your electric bill to be in SL, than you made from the camping chair. But hey, free money.
And every month, the lure of free money was enough to connect thousands of Resident asses to hundreds of chairs. You'd visit a crowded club with music blaring, but instead of a dancing throng, you'd find a dozen Residents in the hunched over "puppet without a master" pantomime of someone who's away from their keyboard, eyes rolled up in the back of their head. They were wives who sat in-world while they did house chores, they were high-powered executives who were trying SL to see what the fuss was about, and with a single button's click, they all could have bought thousands of Linden Dollars for a few real dollars. But hey, free money.
In some of the most popular places, Second Life started seeming like a Potemkin Village, a virtual world where participation was also virtual. Not to say the world as a whole had been zombified, for all the same crazy freeform creativity and deep social connecting was going on everywhere. But when it came to the spots that were supposed to be the most popular, the camping chairs gave a uniquely metaphysical meaning to Yogi Berra's immortal observation, "No one goes there anymore, it's too crowded."
Which is where Games Prototype comes in. In his first stint in SL he was called "Jason Foo", and he was still recovering from the shrapnel an Afghan mine tore into
his kneecap. While he recovered, he built a real estate casino empire, and out of desperation, he eventually used his SL earnings
to supplement his VA benefits-- a kind of virtual post-war
reconstruction, which I wrote about back in 2004. Pressure from his real life girlfriend led to an 8 month departure. A plea from an SL friend brought him back in. Even with camping chairs, his pal exifyde Bacon was losing L$16,000 a day (over $60) from his casino, and Prototype's solution was to invent a new kind of chair.
"[I]t's a different kind of camping," he explained in one of his VGI casinos. "Here, you sit at a basic rate of pay. You then play the games here to win what we call multipliers. Each multiplier you win from a game increases the amount of money you earn every 10 minutes." So now campers who actually did something while they camped made more. But it wasn't just camping chairs connected to games, because Games Prototype also incorporated camping chair scripts into the kind of activity Residents already did for fun. In a VGI nightclub, you can get paid for dancing, too, or sitting in a hot tub. Where once they wanted their avatar to look good on the dance floor or in a steamy jacuzzi because they enjoyed the roleplaying effect, now they could just pretend to be roleplaying for a cash reward.
It's worked well for Games Prototype. Very well. Every week, three to five of his VGI casinos are in the top twenty Popular Places list, and by his estimate, he makes the L$ equivalent of $2000-3000 a month for 10 hours of weekly work. The camping chairs were an exploit to Traffic Incentives, and Prototype's multipliers became an exploit to the popularity of camping chairs.
All that threatens to end soon, however. When I asked Second Life CEO Philip Linden about these chairs a couple weeks ago, his reply was suitably terse. "Clearly the system isn't working to reward good content anymore," he e-mailed back. "We are reviewing what to do with Dwell [Linden's visitor metric] going forward." (This, it's worth pointing out, nearly five months after camping chairs first emerged in-world.)
The solution was announced a couple days ago: By mid-June, Traffic Incentives will be phased out entirely.
Games Prototype isn't worried. "Linden Lab has been doing away with a lot of stuff to discourage camping chairs in SL. Truth is, that VGI [version] isn't the normal camping chairs, and we don't rely on Dwell or Developers Incentive."
And when those Incentives end, landowners and businesspeople like him will need to redesign and reorganize, and think up new ways for bringing people in.
For him, in all this, there's the sense of a frontier lost.
"I really think Second Life has lost the charm it once had when I first started here in Feb. 2004," he tells me. "I still remember my first day in SL. I met Loki Pico, and he took me on a boat ride through the rivers and lakes... I was amazed at the detail and beauty."
Now, he says, "It has become more money-oriented. Everyone asking how they can make US$ now, instead of asking, 'Where can I learn to build or script?'"
"Don't you think a lot of charm is lost with so many people in camping chairs sort of pretending to play SL for tiny amounts of Linden Dollars?"
"Well, I see it as this. People want money, and they will do anything to get it. So they come and sit, and maybe play some," he reasons. "People who sit in the chairs aren't the type that will build Second Life. The people who really make SL what it is won't be found in a chair, because they are building and creating."
So he'll look for a way to make do, like Marines always do. In real life, he's pretty much recovered from the Afghan mine injury, he tells me, and now runs IT for a small company, while he completes his college degree. And many of his buddies still stationed in Iraq will make the trip home in October, to be there in full dress when he marries his longtime girlfriend.
"The one I left Second Life for," Games Prototype admits to me, chuckling. "And she doesn't know I'm back on. But SL bought her a new car."