In this guest post, Desmond Shang, owner of Second Life's steampunk-themed State of Caledon sims, offers his perspective as one of the "land barons" who own most of SL's private land, and provide Linden Lab with most of its revenue.
Recently, Hamlet asked me, "Can Linden Lab lower tier without hurting land barons -- and do land barons matter, anyway?" I had to smile a bit to myself... my first thought was that as a class, many people would happily run all the land barons like me right off the grid if they could, with prejudice! But to answer his query, I'd say something like this:
Land barons themselves don't matter as much as they once did, but if most closed down it would be disastrous for the entire Second Life userbase, because a lot of estate residents simply wouldn’t bother to resettle elsewhere.
Let me explain what I mean:
First off, the reality of the situation is a bit more nuanced than “exploitative land baron versus poor users”. When face to face with Alliez of d’Alliez estates, you’d be hard pressed to find any evil whatsoever there. She cares passionately about residents and their concerns. Same with the owners of Skybeam, Solace Beach, Winterfell... I’m embarrassed that I can’t mention them all. Well, what about the big barons? Eh, it’s about the same; I know a few. Step way back, and see them for what they really are: small, often ‘mom and pop’, often scared businesses. One haphazard policy change from on high could crush years of work.
So, do land barons (still) matter?
I’d say we matter far less than we used to, certainly; some of us that were in business before the big ‘boom’ pioneered what most people take for granted today. About fifty thousand new residents a year go through my University of Caledon Oxbridge orientation area in their first week. That never would have existed in the first place, if it wasn’t for the success of the land business model. If you enjoyed Second Life’s ninth birthday, or participated in Relay for Life, the evil old land barons have had their hand in that. Some estates have raised tens of thousands of dollars for charity. It’s Carnegie and libraries, all over again.
But that’s hardly justification for us any more. It’s very easy to envision a grid that didn’t have a single one of us, flat pricing, and just a giant checkerboard of private light use islands. You know, the typical SL dream: castle, trees around it, boat, skybox above. But there's a big problem with that:
The Rip Van Winkle problem
As mentioned above, societally, land barons don’t matter that much. You could get rid of the lot of us, and life would carry on. Financially, it’s a different story. Why? Special secret programs, or backroom deals with Linden Lab? Nonsense! It’s because of the Rip Van Winkles, of course! This is where insight fails most people, unless you are in the business and quietly see it firsthand.
What’s a Rip Van Winkle? I’ll get to that...
There are a lot of misconceptions about the advantages that the hoary old capitalist land barons have. There are only two that really matter, to my mind: old tier regions we’ve had for many years, and the Rip Van Winkles: residents who steadily pay rent, but only pop onto the grid a few times a year. The Linden mainland has lots of them as well: people who still have mainland on their credit card, but haven’t logged in for years, in some cases.
Why are these people significant? Because they are completely inaccessible to today’s land market, and if our regions go, they go too. There are huge numbers of these.
I’ve had to close a few regions over the years, and I can think of only two cases where a “Rip Van Winkle” made time to pull up stakes and move to another location. The rest simply quit. Usually well off working people, they just don’t have time to engage the grid on anyone’s schedule but their own.
I was talking to one the other day; an old friend. “Are you still getting enjoyment from this? It’s a lot of money.” Oh yes, in fact, they rather enjoyed just knowing their tranquil spot on the grid was still there. Their “happy place.” That was enough. Considering the stressful jobs that some people do… I actually understood.
When it comes to replacing high tier, there’s no easy fix
It’s a bit pointless to go over apocalyptic scenarios in depth. Suffice it to say that making tier the same for everyone, no matter what the price point, as many smaller landowners have suggested, would cause a lot of land barons to lose margin and close regions. Many would simply move on entirely; most of us have irons in other fires anyway. And if we moved on, tens of thousands of Rip Van Winkle residents would be forced to a decision point: find another home on the grid, or just quit for now. From a business perspective, forcing decision points on residents is… bad. Lowering tier to match demand might bring back growth, but it would take a lot of lowering before growth came back. And it may not return. But while I agree with Hamlet that lowering tier would be quite risky, I'm still largely in the "risky but someday ultimately necessary" camp.
Is there a magical fix that holds up tier, brings people back in droves, and cures all ills? Well sure, there are several, but few are legal. Gambling had to go; bank scams, Ponzi schemes and their ilk, other worse things I won’t speak of. Ultimately it’s a question of "bolting on" more value to the existing product that is the grid. Selfishly speaking, I’m not sure we should encourage this. The dreamers among us may rue the day that more “financially viable” features take over. My hope is for a cheaper, but still dreamy grid.
This may not have been quite the response Hamlet expected, or that anyone would have imagined, but I hope it’s been at least something fresh to think about.Tweet