Rod Humble in his office where Linden Lab's Secret Plans are hatched
I spoke with freshly-appointed Linden Lab CEO Rod Humble yesterday in a wide-ranging conversation on Second Life, the world whose fate now largely depends on him. Where Linden’s first CEO, company founder Philip Rosedale, aimed to make SL an important part of the future Internet, and where his replacement, Mark Kingdon, aimed to make SL an important part of future work online, Humble joins the company at a time when such goals seem years away if at all.
By contrast, Rod Humble’s immediate goals for Second Life are much more, well, humble: Improving the user experience for new users, and addressing problems with lag and customer service, for established Residents. If you believed that an iPad version of Second Life might arrive soon, Humble suggested that may need to wait awhile; if you believed Linden Lab’s revenue model of virtual land must change, because it’s unsustainable and unable to scale, Humble gave no indication it was about to be altered any time soon. In fact, as we ended our phonecall, Mr. Humble asked me what I thought the best first fix to Second Life should be.
After the break, Mr. Humble and I air these subjects and more: Why he left an executive job at videogame dreadnaught Electronic Arts to helm Linden’s listing frigate; his chief role in renewing Second Life, Facebook integration, Second Life's branding problem, why longtime landowners should stay, and much more:
How Rod Humble first became interested and aware of Second Life, and why he decided to become its CEO:
“I’d always known about it... it’s one of those things that sort of percolates through the general consciousness of people that are into any kind of interactive entertainment and virtual worlds.”
Then Linden executive recruiters contacted him late last year. “As I was approached to come here... I didn’t realize just how much of a creativity tool [SL] was.” That realization helped firm up his decision. As for leaving Electronic Arts, he says there was “[r]eally a need for a change. Electronic Arts is a great company, but I’d worked there the longest of any company. When I saw the opportunity [to take over Linden]... it felt right.”
What Rod Humble can best bring to Second Life
“Biggest value I can bring, having worked on the entertainment side [of tech]... ease of use and accessibility are obviously extremely important.” At EA, a chief challenge of his was asking, “‘How can we make interacting with a game enjoyable?’ We spent a lot of effort just making sure people can be pulled through the game. I think Second Life is almost the reverse... people who are quite comfortable with computers get totally frustrated [trying to use it.]” His goal with Second Life, then, is wondering, “‘How can we make sure the front door is open and people can come in and enjoy it?’”
Rod Humble’s overall strategy for growing Second Life in the next year
“Our current customers need to be sure they have the customer service they deserve... [also], lag is a problem.” For new users, “We’re looking at various ways to make SL easier to get into, and that’s good for everybody.” He and his team are “looking at all sorts of plans and solutions” to reach that goal, but haven’t yet decided on a particular strategy.
On what Rod Humble-driven changes we will see this year
For longtime Residents, he says Linden Lab will immediately address lag and customer service. With customer service, “I get a daily report on how that queue is coming down. When it comes to lag, there’s a test on the beta server” which should bring some improvements soon.
Rod Humble in Second Life where his avatar is a Roman Senator
On whether the name “Second Life” is a branding problem that is now hurting growth.
“If I was to tell you there’s this product [where] you can be whoever you want to be, and you can play games, listen to music, watch videos, attend roleplaying games, run a business and fashion shows, you’d probably think I’m crazy...
"I don’t think the offering itself is unappealing... over time, the perception of Second Life has changed and it’s kinda been yanked around by us.” He noted the company variously offered up Second Life as a business platform, a virtual platform for adults, or a game, “and we’ve kinda mushed it up... It’s foremost a tool where you can make and do whatever you want. Over time, that [negative] brand perception will change as we do the right thing...”
“When it comes to names and perceptions like that, I think those things can always change over time... I still remember [the mockery] when the Wii was announced... then it blew everyone away.” With The Sims, he noted, “For awhile there, people were saying ‘Why do I want to go into a game and pee?’” Then the game franchise became a monster hit. So with the name Second Life, “I don’t think it’s going to be an anchor.”
Why Rod Humble thinks people will sign up for SL in a year’s time:
“I think people in a year’s time will want to come to Second Life because they know they can be who they want to be... and when they join, they’ll be able to meet interesting people, and they can have a home... that’s more than enough.”
Whether Rod Humble thinks SL’s land revenue model is sustainable.
“I think so. I think it’s a very innovative business model, and I think the idea of customers being able to develop profitable businesses with each other is really the secret sauce... When it comes to the land model itself, I think our job is to develop features which people use to develop. I wouldn’t want to radically change the model, because I understand the costs involved. I’d like to increase the value for people who use SL, land owners and everybody.”
Rod Humble on integrating Second Life with Facebook:
“I think it’s interesting [as an idea but]... I think you have to be very careful. You always have to put the privacy controls in the hands of our customers. Beyond that, I think it’s pretty powerful... but number one priority is customers can control their privacy.”
How important is deploying SL on iOS, and when will we see it?
“I want to figure out how to interact in Second Life first before going to other platforms... Before then, it’s the cart before the horse.” However, he added, making an SL for the iPad is still a long term goal.
Isn’t Second Life a legacy system that’s moving away from all the major tech trends: Mobile, real life social media, and motion control (i.e. Kinect)?
“I think the company and the world is going to grow... those things you mentioned are fairly interesting to integrate [with Second Life.] I think the hard bit is getting the ability to interact intuitively with the world. A lot of big social media successes are largely based on ease of use...
“I certainly don’t think SL is going to be flat... I think we’re in for some pretty good times actually.”
I asked Rod Humble to comment on a statement from an NWN reader and land owner Judi Newall: "We get to pay full price for a sim, provide free entertainment and be teachers for your customers as well. Where's the incentive to stay?"
“I would say, I would hope the improved customer service and improved basis of our overall service [usability, technical] would encourage our customers to stay.” Rod Humble went on to emphasize the magic of Second Life as a powerful retention force.
Can you grow Second Life’s userbase this year? By how much?
"Yes, and I’m not sure by how much. My aim is for millions and millions of users, while at the same time [making sure] our current customers are well-served. There are several things to [first] address with our customers."
At the end of our conversation, Rod Humble asked me what I thought the best first fix to Second Life should be. I said: Facebook integration with a cloud-deployed version of SL with single point-and-click avatar movement.
“I was right there with you with the point and click interface... we’ll get that in pretty rapidly.”
Thanks to Loki, Judi Newall, and Aquarius Paravane for inspiring many of the questions asked above. Photo of Mr. Humble by Peter Linden.
Update, 2/10: Bumped for continued interest!