Second Life 2.0 Analysis: Epic Win for Userbase, Competition Killer... But Not Mass Market Game Changer (Yet)

The view from Second Life 2

When Linden Lab CEO Mark Kingdon first shared with me his vision for what would ultimately become the Second Life 2.0 viewer nearly two years later, he said he wanted it to be "delightfully usable". For established Second Life users, it is definitely that -- sleek, intuitive, and glistening with widgets that make the user experience more inherently enjoyable. (One personal favorite shown above: your friends and groups are now displayed with their profile picture.) From my perspective, here's how it will shift the market over the year:

Winners: The existing and casual userbase of Second Life

For the 800K or so active Second Life users, 2.0 is a giant win, sure to re-energize and extend their in-world activity, while drawing in light users who log-in only occasionally. As word of the revamp spreads, a significant percent of the 12 million or so people who've tried Second Life before but left for one reason or another will return -- and a fraction of them will stay. All told, this probably means peak concurrency growing from 80,000 to 150,000 over the next twelve months, and an active user base swelling toward 1.5 million.

Losers: OpenSim, Blue Mars, other 3D virtual worlds

With new features such as interactive web on a prim and Flash support, developers are sure to pile into SL, and innovate like mad. Hardest hit by this emigration of coders will be OpenSim, the open source spinoff of Second Life, which largely remains a hacker's passion project in alpha stage with an extremely small user base. Going forward, OpenSim projects will probably be broadly appealing only inasmuch as they are architected to interoperate with Second Life. Other virtual worlds will also feel the blow: still in Beta, it's difficult to see how Blue Mars can gain momentum, and even the casual 3D chat world IMVU is likely to lose users lured into Second Life. (The same can be said of other enterprise-level virtual worlds.)

Remains to be seen: Mass market adoption

Here I must disagree with Robert Scoble and others who suggest 2.0 will help drive mass adoption of Second Life. Beta is beta, and many additions and fixes are surely coming, but the viewer as it is now, while much more intuitive than what's come before, will probably not foster viral growth anytime soon. In essence, the viewer is much more user friendly for existing users who've already adopted Second Life on one level or another. For new users who don't create content or plan to be part of the virtual economy, who aren't excited by the idea of Second Life, or who aren't creating an SL account for a specific purpose -- and that covers pretty much 99% of the world -- 2.0 still provides little.

For them, a Second Life experience must always provide immediate and obvious answers to the big six questions:

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THE YEAR IN NWN: PERSONAL SELECTION

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From "Guarding Darfur"

Finally, a selection of ten personal favorites from 2006, entries I think are most emblematic of what New World Notes at its best strives to be.

THE YEAR IN NWN: THE PEOPLE'S CHOICE

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A tesseract.  For all the talk of real world businesses and celebrities and gray goo attacks and assorted griefers and conflicts of all variety, by far the most popular New World Notes entry of the year was about Seifert Surface, a graduate student who-- not for fame or profit, but the sheer intellectual and creative challenge, and the pleasure of dazzling his visitors--  created a Second Life home that seemed to exist in four dimensions.  "-- And He Rezzed A Crooked House" easily generated over 50,000 page views shortly after publication, and by the close of the year, perhaps nearly twice that.  (Someone added it to Wikipedia's Tesseract entry, where it produces regular traffic to this day.)  The next two hit entries are also instructive: a report on a self-contained, artificial life ecosystem, and a report on, well, an artificial life pot plant.  The fundamental story of Second Life, in other words, remains a tale of creation.

Other hits after the break.

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THE YEAR IN NWN: THE BUSINESS OF SECOND LIFE

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Highlights in SL-based business for the year, as featured here:

"Yes Logo" - April 2006: the logo of a major corporate brand appears in Second Life with the company's explicit approval.

"Going Pro in SL" - May 2006: Aimee Weber offers insights into the efforts which brought her numerous real world clients.

"Avatars on Avatar-Based Marketing" - June 2006:  Stemming from a groundbreaking Harvard Business Review article, marketers and entrepeneurs sit down and discuss the future of sell in SL.

"The Mixed Success of Mixed Reality" - October 2006: After numerous corporate-sponsored sites and projects are launched in Second Life, a question emerges:  Why are Residents mostly ignoring them?

"Need 4 Nissan?" - How a kid in the midwest managed to create a more popular car site in Second Life than the SL island sponsored by a major international car conglomerate.

"Not the First Time" - Moral:  Corporations which come into Second Life don't offend Residents; corporations which come into Second Life claiming to be great innovators (but aren't) do.

"Mixed Reality Mondays" - A compendium of news on real companies and organizations putting down pegs in the Metaverse.

THE YEAR IN NWN: TRACKING NUMBERS

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From Tateru's "Hacking Up a Storm"

Second Life saw an explosion in new Residents through 2006-- or to be more exact in retrospect, an explosion in people who created new Residents accounts, even though nearly all bid adieu to the world after their first and only visit-- and it was hard not to be caught up in the giddiness of such geometric growth.  It was only when NWN demographitrix Tateru Nino wrote a blockbuster November story which revealed the modest retention numbers, did the sobering reality fully set in.  My own response reflecting that, and the excessive backlash, is here at GigaGamez.  Other highlights in demographic coverage, many of them from the indispensable Tateru:

"The City of Second Life" - The cities where Second Life is most popular.  (With results likely to surprise.)

"200K" -  April 2006:  The world goes from 100K to 200,000 registered accounts in under 4 months.

"Quarter Million, Plus Change" - 250,000 accounts by June 2006-- and some of the first signs of skepticism arrive in the Comments section.

"Finding Fur" - Finally, a metric for a furry census.

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"The Meaning of a Million" - Tateru Nino's thoughtful paen to a small world and a culture swallowed by waves of immigrants.

"Hacking up a Storm" - A cracker attempts to breach SL security-- and Tateru notices a strange phenomenon, as a result.

"The Trouble with Two Million" - Tateru's classic expose on how much was lost in the rush to gain so few.

THE YEAR IN NWN: MARVELS, WONDERS, AND FANTASTIC DEVICES

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Strolling the universe of user-created coolness: a year of inspiring builds, innovative hacks, and playthings of all kinds.  A personal selection from many more.

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"The Lost Gardens of Apollo" - Creating the ultimate romantic isle (with three ministers on retainer to perform virtual weddings.)

"Growing Your Own" - Or, Artificial Life meets Cheech and Chong.

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"The Art of Tech War" - Creating a first-person real-time strategy game from the ground up.

"God Game" - Creating a self-contained artificial ecosystem from the top down.

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THE YEAR IN NWN: CREATING CONFLICT

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From "The Skin You're In"

The fights we bring with us, the conflicts we build here: select stories of social strife from New World Notes in 2006:

"The Skin You're In" - One day, a white woman transforms her avatar into a beautiful African-American-- and begins to see the world (both of them) differently. 

"Unimpeachable Offense" -  What happened when a man tried to rattle Second Life with a political protest and/or griefer scheme.  (This entry could almost fit in the "Epochal Shifts" category, because it inadvertantly demonstrated how large the world has grown-- and how much a sense of Second Life being a single community had been attenuated, in the intervening months.)

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"Guarding Darfur" - Superheroes and griefers battle over the information site of a real genocide.

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Update, 12/28:  Nearly forgot another milestone in social conflict:  "Trademarking Utopia", the story of an experiment in metaverse democracy which ended in a DMCA suit.

THE YEAR IN NWN: SECOND LIFE MACHINIMA

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Here's my personal selection of SL machinima covered in New World Notes over the year past-- and not, I'd hasten to add, a "Best of SL Machinima 2006", because there were numerous standout videos that I wasn't able to mention.  I'd love to see an annual Oscars of Second Life machinima, but until then, here's my own nominations-- all of them in their own way using the medium to create new, groundbreaking, perfectly-executed mini-masterpieces.

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THE YEAR IN NWN: CELEBRITY AND THE METAVERSE

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Judge Posner of the Seventh Circuit befriends the natives

What does it mean for a famous real world figure to enter Second Life as an avatar, and what value does it bring to either world?  Those are still contentious questions, and after covering several such appearances this year, along with helping host several others, I have to say it varies from person to person.  The logistics of making the event happen at all are nightmarish, especially if it requires step-by-step, in-person handholding for someone who has little prior experience with computer games.  (And how many major personalities in arts and letters, let alone academia, politics, or business, will cop to being a gamer?)

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At its most ideal, you have someone like Lawrence Lessig, who was instrumental in the development of Second Life itself, and whose appearance led to a lasting presence in the community-- in his case, through the creation of a Creative Commons headquarters in Second Life, with regular events and even more in-world appearances.  (Which, full disclosure, I subsequently became a regular consultant to.) 

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Things don't usually work out that way, however.  When the staff of Governor Mark Warner first contacted me last summer, their intent was to make his first appearance in Second Life a warm-up for a series of regular events, both by him and his political action committee, creating a kind of virtual world meet-up which could potentially become a small but passionate base of supporters throughout the country.  The appearance itself provoked a slew of outside media coverage, and for a few surreal weeks, it seemed like the press was more interested in talking about the Governor's avatar, then his, you know, potential bid for the US Presidency. 

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THE YEAR IN NWN: EPOCHAL SHIFTS

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Crossing MTV's G-Hole logo-- and into an era of corporate promotion in Second Life

When New World Notes began 2006, I was still Linden Lab's embedded journalist, and the world had just over 100,000 registered accounts.  (And that was back when counting the total number of accounts meant something, because until late 2005, Basic accounts still cost $9.95 and required a credit card for registration.)  By conscious choice, I made my very first post of the year about an MTV producer shooting a fashion video in-world.  It was one of the first real world companies to enter Second Life (and certainly the most recognizable one), so I thought it might represent a major shift in the culture, for better or worse (or better and worse.)  Would the community assail the producer with protest signs, as they did with the first real world brand agency?  Would they embrace it wholeheartedly in droves? 

The answer, I concluded in a story cheekily called "And Your Chicks for Free", was a bit of both:  some were interested, a few were annoyed, but most were just indifferent or unimpressed (or at least, pretended to be.)  And the world kept growing more or less unchanged by the arrival of corporate interests.  Since then, however, that interest has continued to grow, fueled in part by a Harvard Business Review article which had an in-world forum, other articles and pioneering projects, and the arrival of numerous "metaverse developers" who create Second Life sites for real world companies and organizations.   (The big five currently being Aimee Weber Studios, The Electric Sheep Company, Infinite Visions Media, NWN sponsor Millions of Us, and Rivers Run Red.)  But though they've been working at it throughout the year, it's still unclear how much impact they're having on the community at large, most of whom seem unimpressed by or indifferent to all these big money bids for their attention.  (Then again, if you had read "Chicks for Free", that wouldn't be surprising.)

That was one epochal shift New World Notes reported on in 2006.  A few more, after the break.

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