Monday, December 14, 2009

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How To Make Second Life Truly Mass Market, Part 4: Become Cheap, Easy, and Always Available

New York Times Years in Ideas

The New York Times magazine's annual must-read "Year in Ideas" issue published yesterday includes an entry which quickly distilled to its essence what I've been trying to express in my "How to Make Second Life Mass Market" series of posts. Put much more succinctly:

"Good Enough is the New Great"

This adage summarizes a recent Wired magazine article by Robert Capps, "The Good Enough Revolution: When Cheap and Simple Is Just Fine", which I recommend highly. In it, Capps identifies a pervasive market trend that encompasses everything from consumer technology to military hardware: when given the option, the market overwhelmingly favors the lower quality option that's cheap and available, over the product that's expensive but much higher quality and feature-robust. It's why consumers generally prefer the Flip camera over high definition video cameras, Google Docs over Microsoft Office, and so on. (I'm sure you can quickly think of other examples; I'm hard pressed to come up with even one where the rule clearly doesn't apply.)

The same phenomenon is observable with virtual worlds:

by far the most popular are web-based with relatively rudimentary graphics, a point-and-click interface, and freemium. As crufty and "dumbed down" as these options may seem to some, they apparently provide an avatar-driven virtual world experience that's "good enough" for everyone else. Second Life as it currently exists runs counter to each of these principles. (Yes, while creating an SL account is free, using the software at all often requires a costly hardware upgrade, and more key, a significant up-front investment of time to learn.) This challenge, I should say, isn't confined just to Second Life -- while social games and web-based virtual worlds grow rapidly, even World of Warcraft finally seems to have hit a growth plateau. Now the Lindens are already attacking this problem on a number of fronts -- indeed, one of Mark Kingdon's first decisions as a CEO was to simplify the account registration process -- but much remains to be done. Ironically, if mass market adoption is the aim, their task is not to make Second Life great, but just good enough.

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Ignatius Onomatopoeia

You write, "As crufty and "dumbed down" as these options may seem to some, they apparently provide an avatar-driven virtual world experience that's "good enough" for everyone else."

Agreed, yet it can work against "Immersion," all the rage in edu circles.

I've personally called for an SL that is 'dumbed down' to run on the machines typical on college campuses, yet some colleagues in SL disagree, on the basis that immersion in SL gets lessened with low-end graphics.

I'm not sure. One student reminded me that she likes YoVille because one quickly gets to the social game at the heart of the experience.

The trick for LL would be to find the balance that permits immersive experiences while not overwhelming new users or tick off older ones.

I'd prefer"good enough" system requirements and a UI easier for newcomers to master. Hide the building tools and other advanced features until new social users are ready for their next steps.

Annyka Bekkers

If we follow all your suggestions, why not just scrap Secondlife altogether and make a Facebook app and be done with it?

Hitomi Tiponi

Three examples that don't show that Hamlet:
- Windows vs Linux (the winner is more expensive, complicated, needs more memory but has more features and is more user-friendly)
- iPhone vs Other phones (the winner is more expensive, innovative, but has good marketing)
- LCD & Plasma TVs versus CRTs (until the last year the CRTs had the better picture but despite being more expensive the others were the only ones being sold)

Success in the home market has more to do with marketing, fashion and ease and convenience of use rather than being 'good enough' hence the surge in sales of do-everything mobile phones. Sadly Secondlife doesn't look very good against those criteria either.

Jovin

It's not even an accurate depiction of this moment. We're also in a period where Apple, for whom 'good enough' is an absolute anathema, are dominating pockets and minds like never before and there are more consumers willing to pay the Apple premium to get those products than ever before.

It's not news that people like the cheap and available options, it's news that more and more people are learning to expect better and are willing to pay for it. If you're running a business, and LL are, then those are the people you go after and not the take-anything-free contingent.

Hamlet Au

"yet it can work against 'Immersion,' all the rage in edu circles."

I wonder about that, Iggy, why is it all the rage, when their students' overwhelmingly opt for light immersion? If they're in any kind of virtual world, folks in the 18-22 demographic are almost all playing web-based MMOs and social games.

"Windows vs Linux... iPhone vs Other phones... LCD & Plasma TVs versus CRTs"

Those are very good counter-examples, Hitomi! Though ultimately I think they don't necessarily apply. Linux was never really introduced as a consumer alternative to Windows, until the software compatibility issues made it difficult to switch; the iPhone is definitely simple and easy, and while it was expensive at launch, quickly became price competitive within a year; with LCDs, I think the real option was not versus CRT, but plasma. Plasma is much better, but more expensive, so consumers migrated to LCDs, and plasma is now pretty much dead.

Ignatius Onomatopoeia

"I wonder about that, Iggy, why is it all the rage, when their students' overwhelmingly opt for light immersion?"

@Hamlet, If I had an answer, I could wring an academic publication out of that. I can only offer a question posed recently on a list. A colleague asked "are we building virtual worlds for us or our students?" No one had a good answer.

But then we've always designed curricula around what faculty want to teach, not what students would have us do. That's not always a bad thing, given that first-years, in particular, are loathe to challenge themselves.

Arcadia Codesmith

Let me toss out a buzzword here: scalability.

Way back in the olden days, before scalability was a major buzzword, we had similar discussions about Ultima Online. Some wanted to keep it simple 2D, some wanted to have a first-person 3D game like the newly-launched Everquest.

I advocated the "have your cake and eat it too" approach -- produce different clients for different platforms with different computing requirements. I envisioned a range from a completely text-based solution for users with the most primitive legacy computers out there, up to a full-blown state-of-the-art 3D interface for the bleeding edge.

Well, UO fumbled with the awkward and ugly hybrid Third Dawn client, but the basic premise is sound. Don't throw away the eye candy (eye candy sells the kids with the big toys), but scale it down for people who aren't building supercomputers for the military.

"Good Enough" isn't good enough. "Totally Awesome" that's still capable of running on your duct-tape-and-chicken-wire homebuild from 1981? That should be the goal.

Vax Sirnah

I think the 'good enough' isn't what it's about. it's really the 'simple' thing. In the Windows vs. Linux debate, what makes Windows simple is that it's already there in most cases. While iPods aren't cheaper than knock-offs, they do fall into 'they just work' category. Simple, in a lot of cases, means plug-and-play.

As for SL and the younger generation, I think it deals with the fact that what SL is good at is immersion. But that's not what the younger generation is looking for. Rather, they are looking for augmentation. Younger people are used to texting while talking to people, being on IM while they are playing video games or doing their email, etc.

If SL can be slanted toward being a part of the information ecosystem, that is be a productive consumer and producer of social media, then we're onto something.

Ignatius Onomatopoeia

Vax, you are in good company: Sherry Turkle noted how "Gen Y," Millennials, or what you choose to call them, are into “always-on/always-on-you technology” that projects a RL identity.

When I talk about how some SLers create "a different identity" online, the most common reaction is "That's creepy. That is what my parents and the school safety officer warned us about."

Welcome to the world of the hyperprotected youth, born since 1982, reaching adulthood post 9/11...

See Turkle's "“Always-on/Always-on-you: The Tethered Self.” at her site: http://www.mit.edu/~sturkle/publications.html

Vax Sirnah

I understand the usefulness of utiltizing a different identity - there are a lot of things that can be worked out using a different identity. I'd always want that to be an option, for various reasons.

But besides overprotection, I think it has more to do about a different aethestic and conception of what virtuosity means and provides. For the younger generation, communications technology and the virtual space isn't another world, it's a part of their every day life. And I think that it's at odds with what a lot of us find so attractive about Second Life.

Thanks for the link. I'm looking forward to reading her work.

AnnOtooleInSL

Great. Chasing facebook and twitter vans like barking dogs... woof woof woof

How original.

Thank god for export.

Arcadia Codesmith

Twitbook is NOT an end-game. It's transitional formats hammering against the limitations of the hardware and bandwidth. If Facebook could gateway into full-blown MMO games, it most assuredly would.

Cheap and portable is a moving target; it gets more complex and powerful as time goes by. Mobile apps are evolving much as desktops did, and I don't think we're anywhere near an endpoint.

Granted, a large number of people are perfectly happy checking email and playing solitaire -- Facebook represents a giant leap forward for that crowd. But I think overtargeting the lowest common denominator is a short-sighted strategy.

Yes, make SL accessible through social media and portable devices. No, don't compromise the full feature set to do it. You can provide accessibility for dumb devices without sacrificing brilliant features for brilliant clients.

Doreen Garrigus

Vax and Ignatius, I think you're both getting at Second Life's PR problem from different directions. It *is* generational. Most of the people in SL are Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers, although there are a smattering from Gen Y.

I'm going to make some generational generalizations. They won't be true for every individual, so please nobody attack me with specifics.

Baby Boomers (born 1946-60) were well into adulthood before the internet came and changed everything. They developed their identities in the physical world. The virtual world is an addendum, separate from their reality. That's who I see playing the social game of Second Life--being someone really different than they are in RL, having relationships that are avatar-only, insisting that SL and RL shouldn't bleed over into one another.

For Gen-Y/Millenials, (born 1982-2001) the internet has always been there. It is a part of their lives, not something separate. It's not a game: It's a place. For them, being someone different in SL is no different than being someone different in RL. You know, inventing a new name, buying a totally different wardrobe, dying your hair, going to a place where nobody knows you, and creating a fictitious back story. Ooh, creepy. Someone doing that almost certainly has something to hide.

My generation, Gen-X/13th Gen (born 1961-81), is transitional between the two mind-sets. We are one-offs. It depends on where we were born in relation to online environments, how techie we were, how much access we had and how early it was in our development. Even though I was born in 1970, smack in the middle of Gen-X, I am a geek and had early access. My attitudes are more Gen-Y augmentationist than Baby Boomer immersionist.

Now, another thing to consider is that Gen-Y is, by and large, poor. They're young, many of them are students, half of them are still children. I think they would jump on glorious SL Shadowdraft graphics if they could afford a machine that would handle them. They play games like YoVille by default. Their netbooks don't choke. Does SL need to downgrade its requirements? Not exactly. It just needs a way for an individual to select a downgrade. They still need to know what awaits them when they can save up for a cool machine. Arcadia has it, here.

Ignatius, your URL to the article Always-On/Always-On-You: The Tethered Self took me to a broken link, but I found it. It is well worth reading. I liked the phrase, "the habit of co-presence", which gets to the heart of the way these three different generations use connecting technologies. Gen-Y maintains their co-presence effortlessly. The Baby Boom does so creakily, with difficulty. Gen-X is all over the map. Given that, we do need a way for Gen-Y to maintain their co-presence in SL. That iPhone app for SL that Hamlet wrote about recently is a good start, but we're back to Arcadia's point about multiple levels of engagement---different interfaces for different purposes. They need to be able to get to SL from *all* their devices. That said, I carry more processing power around in my cell phone than we once used to put a man on the moon, so I can see earlier SL clients running on hand held devices in the near future. Those reduced requirements are a moving target and should not be used to dumb down the potential of the platform.

I have rambled enough. Hamlet, SL is cheap and always available (more available than Twitter or Facebook). All we're working on now is easy.

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