More Steam, Cap’n!
Filed under: Internet Life and Humanity, Linden Lab and Second Life, The Project to Save Second Life
It’s been just under a week since my first post on the news that Second Life was listing itself in the Steam catalog of titles. (If you haven’t already, it might help some to go read that post first. Steam Powered Second Life) Since that post, I have been reading many comments and blog posts from others regarding the subject. As usually happens in a diverse community such as that inhabiting Second Life, opinions and predictions wander from one pole to the other. But there are some points that seem to be pushing their way to the forefront that I think bear some review … and possibly a bit of rebuttal/clarification.
How Will Second Life Be Listed?
This is most probably the biggest point of concern and confusion among all contributors in the ongoing discussions. The general consensus is that Second Life will most likely be listed in Steam’s new “Creativity Tools” section, but so far there has been nothing concrete posted by Linden Lab as to their intention. Nevertheless, it is widely agreed upon that should Linden Lab actually list SL as a “Game” then that will be in keeping with their tendency to turn small mistakes into major fiascoes. It also happens to be my opinion that listing Second Life in the Gaming category would not only be a disaster in the making, but a gross mis-categorization of the platform and its primary attraction to the dedicated members of the SL Community.
What IS the Appeal of Second Life?
I believe this is one of those foundation questions that .. to date .. has not been answered with any depth or detail. I’m not even sure that Linden Lab has accepted the fact that understanding why people stay in Second Life is important. From everything they’ve been doing, in the changes they’re making to the capabilities and features of the platform as well as their overall way of dealing with Intellectual Property, support and marketing issues, the general direction of Linden Lab and Second Life seem to be more and more toward attracting and satisfying the “Gamer” type of customer. Of course everyone (myself included) points out that Rod Humble’s background in the gaming industry is at the core of this corporate direction, but I believe he’s also had to put some numbers and reason behind his pitch to the Board of Directors in order to get this change to fly.
The Two Faces of the Internet
In today’s Internet Industry, there seems to be two general classifications of platforms; it is either a Community/Social platform or it’s a Gaming platform. The previous management team headed by Mark Kingdon was totally focused on wedding Second Life to social interactivity such as that embodied in the Facebook family. Social Media was the darling of the moment and its perception as a money pump certainly attracted a lot of attention for a company suffering from a severe lack of growing income. Thus with dollar signs in his eyes, Mr. Kingdon started shoving the platform in that direction .. eventually shoving it off the rails, resulting in his own departure under less than pleasing circumstances.
No doubt stinging from the total calamity of the “Let’s be a social media platform” approach, the next hapless soul tagged to lead the company came from a purely game-oriented background. Rod Humble (AKA Rodvik Linden) not only had good rep as someone capable of piloting big projects toward success, but he had the look of someone that knows how to capitalize on the “Gamer” mentality. Oh, and he understood virtual worlds because of his involvement in the Sims title. So as the BoD’s pendulum swung to the opposite extreme in the “there are only two lights” characterization of the internet money game, Mr. Humble was a good fit and a good choice.
What Do You Mean I Can Only Have Two?
Any time you restrict a dynamic environment to only two choices, you also immediately discount the possibility of serving the vast middle ground that does not fit neatly into either of the two options. Not to crack open the hornet’s nest of politics too widely, but each camp in the “Two Party” approach to things struggles daily to find ways to lay claim to that most valuable middle ground … and also struggles daily to hold onto what little they’ve managed to gain. The same generalization applies to the incredibly dynamic and varied population of the Internet.
Thinking, and even worse, acting as if there are only two choices when setting the agenda and direction of an Internet company such as Linden Lab is perhaps the most dangerous and potentially disastrous path to take. There are clearly way more than just two choices open to Linden Lab when it comes to who they should target and court, but perhaps the fear of imminent failure (or the nearness of the deadly pendulum over Rodvik’s neck) has resulted in them focusing on the “other option” … the Gaming Community.
But this is the problem … challenge? … that has befuddled Linden Lab and its management since the day they opened the doors on Second Life. It is a platform, a concept and a property that doesn’t neatly fit into either of the two perceived choices. Second Life does clearly have its feet planted in both Social and Gaming environments, but it also serves a consumer that isn’t anywhere close to those two … the Creativity crowd.
I’m Gonna Make …
No matter which of the two “Primary” camps that various people claim for themselves, most also readily admit that they’ve dabbled in or primarily live in the Creativity camp. Personally it’s the camp I live in as well. Even though I do sometimes have “Social Interactions”, and even though I will from time to time engage in a bit of game play (although never in Second Life, but I love kicking my kids’ butts in DOA .. and Wii Bowling fascinates me no end), the act of creating new stuff is what really holds my fascination AND keeps me in Second Life despite all the frustrations I find from all points of the compass.
Yet here is the real bugaboo of the “Creativity Camp” … there’s just no end to what you can create. I mean, seriously, what CAN’T you make in Second Life? From creating entire Sims with incredible levels of detail and imagination to turning out realistic looking feet and nipples, there just doesn’t seem to be a thing that you can imagine that you cannot also create. The vastness of creative ventures is also the biggest liability for Second Life. Trying to find a way to tell people that you can do anything you want is not such an easy thing. I know from too many years of personal experience that selling a “Do Anything” product is more often than not headed for disaster. Linden Lab may not have actually come to that same conclusion, but instead seems to have chosen to ignore it in lieu of targeting one or the other of the “Big Two”.
Pouring On The Steam
Let’s get back now to the core issue … the inclusion of Second Life in the Steam Catalog. As mentioned above, the general consensus seems to be that the best option available to Linden Lab is to list SL in the “Creativity Tools” section. Although I gave voice to the fear that we will be overrun with “Gamer Kiddies” as a result of the partnership with Steam, I’ve since mellowed that opinion and now believe it will be less of a problem than I first surmised. In fact, if anything I think that the venture will result in … not much at all.
Why is that? Why would I now believe that being listed on Steam will somehow not have much affect at all? Well, it’s a bit complicated, but far be it from me to withdraw from taking a complicated issue and making it even more confusing. So here goes.
Second Life Is A … A … Creativity Tool?!?
If you ask any non-SL’er about Second Life, if they’ve ever heard of it, their perception generally falls into the “SL is a has-been” category, although there’s also a sizable number of folks that will recite such things as it being a haven for “Pixelated Perverts” or “Gender Bending Creepazoids”. Seldom if ever will you hear people that comment on the lack of creativity tools or that even breeze by that feature of the platform. And yet it is by far (IMHO anyway) the one common thread that weaves most dedicated SL’ers into the tapestry. This indicates a big failure to sell the primary draw of the platform. But is Linden Lab trying to sell it that way?
The original motto of Second Life was “Your Imagination, Your World” (or something to that effect .. it’s honestly been so long that I’ve forgotten if that’s 100% accurate or not). But in the intervening years the Lab has done more and more things, decisive painful things, that put the lie to that motto. When the issues surrounding protection of Intellectual Property rights was the hot topic (not that long ago), Linden Lab came down squarely on the side of .. ummm .. do we care? Their responses were tepid, scattered around and basically left most people with a legit gripe confused. They do seem able to do just enough to maintain their Safe Harbor status under the DMCA regulations, but beyond that, being anything close to proactive … that just isn’t in their scope or interest. So if you are concerned that your creations, the things you’ve poured many hours and perhaps money into creating, aren’t being properly protected by the Lab, by Second Life and by their actions on their own policies … then you’re no doubt less than thrilled with the lingering fear that your entire stock of work could vanish or be co-opted by some scammer in an instant. Even worse, Linden Lab seems to have no interest or plans to beef up their protection or policing of the issues either. So if you want to INVEST in your creations, the risks normally associated with any venture are redoubled and, in the opinion of many, too high to be worthwhile.
Bear Skins and Stone Knives
A topic that has long lingered in the various forums and blogs about the creativity tools available in the SL Viewer is their absolute stone age “feel”. Even some of the very wonderful tools and enhancements created by residents and recently-departed-Lindens have been tanked unceremoniously and without cogent reason. Some of the more useful tools, tools that allow you to easily align prims or similar basic chores, while present in the Viewer are buried so completely that all but a very tiny few know about them. About a year ago I was taught a neat way to duplicate and align prims using a neat feature of the Phoenix viewer. However even with their hard work to make things as simple as possible, I’ve long since forgotten the trick. But it’s a capability I’d love to use many times .. I just can’t remember the arcane steps needed to pull it off.
There are a number of JIRA Issues, suggestions and even entire blog posts from the resident community that deal with improvements in the tools available for creating within Second Life. Yet those seem to be even less important than the numerous JIRA Issues for bonafide bugs. We’ve all, at one time or another, heard about or read about something that we personally would love to see included. But will it ever be included? Most likely not. The direction that Linden Lab takes in their development of the Viewer and its attendant tools has no room for improving the creation process.
Even their most recent new feature … Mesh … has been so completely convoluted that being able to understand what it will “cost” to include Mesh in a build is a total crap-shoot. How can you decide to use Mesh in a project when linking it with a single normal prim could change the Land Cost by a factor of 100 or more? It’s also very complex to learn and requires the use of external tools that are “dense” on their own. (Although very powerful, Blender is not exactly MS Paint.)
Play … or Make?
One feature that I’ve taken to task quite often is the new Pathfinding functionality. There is nothing about Pathfinding that improves or eases the process of creation. It actually adds more complexity to the creation process by setting the “bar” higher when creating a new game or similar product. It’s no longer good enough to use the same techniques and workarounds that have proven workable in the past, one must now plan on and build using NPC’s and Pathfinding. Of course there still is no guarantee that a game of that complexity will have any market or income, but nevertheless a creator must step up to the new minimums simply because to do less would be seen as being old technology and thus unworthy.
In essence then, the Lab’s direction is more and more to thin out the ranks of creators and increase the number of people that simply “Play” with the things available. The effect is to shift the majority from those creating toward those using .. or playing. This is a hallmark of a platform aimed at becoming a game and less a creativity platform.
Amping Up The Complexity
Some time ago, while attending an Office Hour for the Scripting Group, one of the main complaints from those in attendance was that the scripting language used in Second Life (called LSL) is too darn simple and does not possess enough high-powered features. The goal was to convince Linden Lab that everything be converted to use C# (pronounced “C-Sharp”). C# is a programming language that embodies all the latest paradigms in structured software development, has an extensive library of powerful functions and above all else is complicated as hell to learn. If adopted as the only (or even primary) programming language available to people, it would have pared down the number of people able to write their own scripts to a bare bones community of very dedicated programmers … those with complete and in-depth understanding of Object Oriented programming concepts and practices. In short, it would have once again made it nearly impossible to create anything that required a bit of scripting unless the creator was also a highly skilled professional programmer. Needless to say … again … the wrong direction to take Second Life.
Back To Steam
Okay, I’ve wandered off the central topic enough, so it’s time to get back on track. It’s pretty well determined that Second Life should not list itself as an actual Game in Steam’s catalog; that instead it should list as a Creativity Tool. But if they do follow that advice and attract potential customers to come check it out, what will those new people find when they land here? Will it matter that they don’t meet nice people right away or that they’ve confused as to how to move around? Most likely not.
But what WILL matter to those new sources of money … err I mean residents … is that the one attribute that was used to catch their attention, the fact that Second Life is a creativity platform, turns out to be hostile to the act of creation. Even worse, it seems as if at every opportunity to improve creativity within Second Life, Linden Lab goes completely the other way and works to make it harder and more impossible.
Linden Lab needs to come to grips with the fact that they will never compete in the Gaming category, and that they will never compete in the Social Media community. They need to realize that their biggest claim to fame is that the platform is uniquely capable of acting as a blank canvas upon which anyone can create anything their heart desires. Until such time as LL gives in and admits that they allow people to render into “reality” anything they desire, the Second Life platform will continue to stagnate, decrease in population size and income … eventually leading to the inevitable death of the property altogether.
It really is frustrating to watch people being forced to use a vast and beautiful set of oil paints and brushes … to fend off the attacks of MOBs and screaming Ork invaders.