Tuesday, February 19, 2013

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Story-Building Platforms Like Linden Lab's Versu and dio Are Already Succeeding -- Which is Why Versu and dio May Not

Interactive fiction versus versu
Iris Ophelia's ongoing review of gaming and virtual world style

The more I think about Versu, Linden Lab's latest storytelling platform (which I covered late last week), the more it bothers me. Why? Maybe I'm cynical, but it feels like one more clever and creative little thing that just isn't going to go anywhere--even though it absolutely could and should. Interest in interactive stories like these is probably higher now than it's been a decade and a half at least, and lots of other little engines to create and support such stories have been springing up and developing devoted followships. So where does that leave Versu, and its older sibling, dio? Hint: Not in a very good position...

Yes, There is a Market

Last week Christine Love, the visual novelist and game designer behind some of the best things I played in 2012, spent a day playing around with a certain interactive storytelling development engine, which outputs your work as a page that others can visit and play. Does that sound familiar?

Well, that engine wasn't dio; it was Twine.

Even cowgirls bleed

When I first saw Twine itself I was unimpressed, and I immediately compared it to dio (which you can read about here) minus a lot of the things that actually make dio pretty neat. I even went so far as to recommend it to Christine over Twitter (since she's a pretty friendly and engaging person to follow there), but her response was an unenthused "Hmm. Interesting." as she carried on with Twine. By the end of the day she had published Even Cowgirls Bleed, a short web-based interactive experience that blew away my preconceptions about what Twine was actually capable of producing, which in turn made me seriously reconsider what kind of niche-within-a-niche Linden Lab needed to carve out to make either dio or Versu resonate for people like Christine.

In the past decade it seems that there's been a sort of mini-renaissance of player choice and storytelling in games, and that's lead to a revival of game types and storytelling mechanics that were dismissed as obsolete in favor of the latest and greatest 3D game tech. Defining the story of a pre-existing game is only a few steps away from defining the story of your own game, and if you add the more recent indie gaming boom into the equation it should be no surprise that a lot of tools have been springing up to help facilitate amateur storytellers and gamemakers.

Linden Lab's Tools Don't Stand Out, Because They Aren't Ready to Stand Out

The point is, these products aren't unique even withing Linden Lab's portfolio, nevermind in the market.

As I mentioned last week in my slightly harsh review of Versu, it feels like Linden Lab has been throwing things out to see what sticks, but not necessarily giving those things the time or the care they need to flourish before throwing the next thing out. Quick question: When was the last Patterns patch? What changed? Did you know that Minecraft has giant robots?

They're Community-Driven Tools Without Communities

What the competition has that dio and Versu both lack are communities. Of course it's incredibly early yet so this could absolutely change, but it's a significant factor that puts Versu and dio at a disadvantage right out of the gate.

Check out the mega-active forums for Ren'Py (a python-based visual novel/dating sim engine) where creators and players share stories, art, ideas, progress, code, and help test and troubleshoot each others' work. Ren'Py has spawned a respectable number of successful indie games that in turn developed their own community followings, like cult favorite Hatoful Boyfriend for example. That's what success in this niche looks like.

It's not like Linden Lab has never had to foster a community for a zany little passion project before, that is literally how they got where they are today (for better and for worse). Second Life took years to really take off, but they stuck with it, nurtured it, and helped it grow with a lot of hands on community involvement. It's completely within their ability, but I'm still waiting for signs that that's what they intend to do.  

What Second Life set out to do isn't even wildly different from dio and Versu. Their wheelhouse is empowering the users to be the creators, and both projects are squarely inside of it. However that also community isn't necessarily going to fall into their lap--or flow over from SL--no matter how long they wait.

They're Dividing Potential Users by Competing Against Themselves

Here's the conversation I had with Hamlet within my first five minutes of knowing what Versu was:

Hamlet: Tell me what you think
Iris: Ugh another thing?
Iris: Seriously
Iris: This may the the one that interests me the most of the lot
Iris: but this is getting to be a bit much, isn't it?

It sounds jaded, but I haven't been able to shake that feeling since. Versu was released a mere two weeks after dio, and both offer a very similar set of features to a very similar audience--or they will, once Versu's creation tools are in place. The rush to get Versu out the door hot on the heels of dio without properly finishing it or adding key tools baffles me, given that both platforms are appealing to similar audiences and will eventually be offering similar products. dio's even supposed to be iPad compatible in the future, so where does that leave Versu? What are the odds that someone in this limited market will actively use both, instead of choosing one over the other?

Obviously, it would be much easier to build one big healthy snowballing community rather than building two fractured and sickly ones.

Unless dio and Versu are integrated and can work together I suspect that one (or both) of them will fade into obsolescence in record time. I'd absolutely prefer a world where there's a wider variety of creative tools available to suit each creator's specific needs. In that way I can appreciate that Linden Lab would try to bring two somewhat similar projects to term, but the fact remains that if they're going to compete with other available tools, they both need to become a lot stronger as quickly as possible. Both platforms do offer some things that distinguish them from the competition, but with a little restructuring to make them work with and compliment each other (something I discussed in some detail last week) they could have a tremendous advantage.

And again, who's going to want to type out a whole interactive novel on an iPad keyboard?

If they're going to keep launching these indie-esque projects and just leaving them to rot without fostering any of the functionality or community endearment that makes all the other projects like these that came before actually work, they are probably wasting their time. At that point they would be much better served focusing on the stream of revenue that they already have.

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Mixed reality iris 2013Iris Ophelia (@bleatingheart, Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.


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Iris, you're good.

Linden Lab doesn't seem to want to "care" about anything except their own greedy interests.

That's fine, but why build your work around community-driven projects?

Linden Lab doesn't seem to understand who and what they are... or have the slightest curiosity about it.

Stephen Venkman

The biggest flag that your article raised for me was this: "it feels like Linden Lab has been throwing things out to see what sticks, but not necessarily giving those things the time or the care they need to flourish before throwing the next thing out."

Sounds pretty much like Second Life, why would it changed for a different platform?

Metacam Oh

Great read Iris. I would like to point out though that the Linden Lab that fostered the Community that built Second Life is no longer the same Linden Lab that is in place now. Those folks are long gone.

Shockwave Yareach

I second Metacam. Those people present at the founding of SL who had a vision of it as a revolutionary product that could eliminate distance as an impediment are long gone. Those left have no idea how to work with any users, never mind a community of them.

Take their special event for Valentines day. After waiting and waiting, the lab graciously gave all of us who logged in a certain day the enormous sum of 10L as a thank you. I would have liked being told the island of IluvU was back. I'd have even loved a special event Linden Bear. But 10L? 0.4 of a penny? Wow, they paid a whole 6 minutes of my tier! I'll remember that for the rest of this minute; maybe less.

The lab wants to operate like Ford and give their dealers the job of interacting with the customers. Trouble is, the dealers don't have the powers they need to be able to do that. And quite frankly, LL sells Yugos instead of Fords.

Ciaran Laval

I think it's a bit too early to say where these products are heading. I'm bitterly disappointed that Versu is a tablet app, although in some ways that's good as it means it doesn't eat into my lack of time I already have.

However I think it will be worth seeing where they are in twelve months with these products, communities will evolve, whether they will be strong enough to maintain these products remains to be seen but it's not unusual for a new player to enter an existing market and prosper.

Graham Mills

Haven't tried Versu but actually thought of Twine when I tried dio. As it outputs a modified TiddlyWiki, there's a lot of customization possible. There's a hosted version too called TiddlySpace.


I think the idea is to get as many new game titles on the map as possible that resembled other popular game formats with a twist. Motivation? SELL OUT ... that's my thoughts at least. LL needs to show that SL isn't all they have up their sleeve and that they aren't just the "tainted" company that the rest of the business world sees them as, due to the natural of the beast virtual worlds tend to be, i.e., Second Life's Hard Ally and Zindra, IMVU's equally populated and unmoderated BSDM/slave community, Red Light and sadly even the kids vw, Habbo.

One wonders how Facebooks Cloud Party has managed in this dilemma. I heard from one business person trying out Cloud Party that his neighbors, that could be clearly see in the distance and tped to hung out their kink flag for all to see, so I suspect they are becoming aware of the double edge sword of this as well.

The reality is that once your community is associated as a virtual world that is somewhat hidden from the world, the community gets the idea to dip into the dark side of the pool. Until someone figures out a way to meditate this progression or at least handle it responsibly, I personally don't see VW's being taken seriously or going viral in a big way again. They just smell bad or feel weird to the other 99% of the internet users. Not saying that's how I feel personally, but that's the reality we all have to face as to the WHY this stuff is not taking off the way it should have - lack of vision, lack of moderation, lack of real customer service ... its the wild west still.

Shockwave Yareach

Dipping into the dark side of the pool is not a problem. You people are fooling yourselves if you think the REAL world doesn't have the same twisted things in it -- yet I don't see most people screaming to "clean up" what other people are doing in their own homes or what not. That's because freedom for you means freedom for everyone else, even if $kink isn't your bag. You leave others to their fun and you enjoy your own.

What's different in VR is that people in it don't bother with discretion. They wave their "kink flag" for all to see, as you put it. And that's the problem that needs to be addressed rather than trying to Disneyfy the grid again (which failed miserably, as so many of us warned it would). What should be put in the TOS is that you are subject to the laws of your country, and whatever you are (legally) doing in your land is your business PROVIDED your neighbors or passersby in public areas do... not... have... to... see... it.

If you have a capture rape maze in your land (my personal dislike, but I won't tell people what they can and can't do for their own fun on their land) then fine; just keep the frivolity out of view unless someone is on your land or cams in. And anyone camming in has made the deliberate choice to a) see, b) break the TOS by camming through walls to peek. Keep your >R rated stuff out of public view and what you do is your business. But when everyone can see, it's everyone's business.

The best sign I've seen anywhere in a club states that any sex acts by guests will not result in banning -- they will be publicly graded. Never had any problems since :)

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